Saturday, June 21, 2008

Neuro-Liberalism and the Political Brain

Seems as though politics has become enamored with neuroscience as a way to explain and hopefully manipulate voters. George Lakoff offers one such view in his new book, The Political Mind, reviewed in the New York Times.
George Lakoff wants to save his country. In a series of books, Lakoff, a linguist and cognitive scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, has explained how the right wins and keeps power: by framing issues and controlling minds. His latest book, “The Political Mind,” grounds his critique and his agenda in neuroscience. Lakoff proposes to beat conservatives at their own game. “Democracy is too important to leave the shaping of the brains of Americans to authoritarians,” he argues. But shaping brains is a treacherous business. It’s hard to manipulate voters and still be a democrat.

Lakoff blames “neoliberals” and their “Old Enlightenment” mentality for the Democratic Party’s weakness. They think they can win elections by citing facts and offering programs that serve voters’ interests. When they lose, they conclude that they need to move farther to the right, where the voters are.

This is all wrong, Lakoff explains. Neuroscience shows that pure facts are a myth and that self-interest is a conservative idea. In a “New Enlightenment,” progressives will exploit these discoveries. They’ll present frames instead of raw facts. They’ll train the public to think less about self-interest and more about serving others. It’s not the platform that needs to be changed. It’s the voters.

The basis of Lakoff’s theory is simple: the mind is the brain. Any connection that forms between your thoughts also forms between your neurons. As you internalize a metaphor, a circuit in your brain “physically constitutes the metaphor.” This parallel development continues as mental complexity increases. “Narratives are brain structures,” he proposes.

The general idea makes sense: brain and mind are dual aspects of the same thing. But Lakoff seems to forget that the language of mental construction is itself a metaphor. He describes how synapses are strengthened, neurons “wire together,” “neural binding” fuses “permanent circuits” and a worldview solidifies through “long-term bindings to the core.” With these elaborations, he mechanizes the brain-mind relationship. The brain’s structure and dynamics don’t just embody thought, he says; they physically constrain it.

To Lakoff, this explains why conservatives win elections. They manipulate us more effectively. They’ve been “preparing the seedbed of our brains with their high-level general principles so that when ‘tax relief’ was planted, their framing could take root and sprout.” And “as a result, progressive messages don’t take root.”

Worse, conservatives planted their war-on-terror metaphor in our brains during a moment of “national trauma,” when our synapses were vulnerable. The fear they’ve cultivated has combined with widespread overwork and health care anxiety to “activate the norepinephrine system,” causing a “reduced capacity to notice” President Bush’s misdeeds. We keep voting the wrong way because our brains are “physically affected by stress” and “neurally shaped by past conservative framing.”

Read the whole review.

I tend to agree with Lakoff's assessment, to a degree. In a society where (in general) facts = science = secularism, people will not respond well to the traditional Democratic approach of citing facts and figures to make their case. But they do respond to powerful narratives, since that is where their faith is based.

As an example, Al Gore got nowhere as a Senator and Vice President talking about climate change in facts, statistics, and so on. But when we started showing slides and framing the issue as a moral cause, people got on board.

Where I disagree with Lakoff is in his view that since voters are irrational and unpredictable, we should “not follow polls but use them to see how they can change public opinion to their moral worldview.” OK, this sounds more than a little unethical, and raises some serious issues.

Who is to say that -- assuming this were possible -- that politicians would use it to create a fascist society, just as Hitler used the same techniques to create a Nazi Germany. With so many Americans uneasy about the current state of the world and what lies ahead, a savvy politician -- or political party -- could use these techniques (just as George Bush and Karl Rove have) to build a fear-based coalition of the ignorant.

Food for thought.

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