How Enlightenment Reason Keeps Failing the Left


By now, most of us have seen the social media discussions of people who voted for Trump but don’t want to lose the health care they’ve obtained through the Affordable Care Act (ACA).  One of the funnier ones involved some guy who was delighted to see “Obamacare” get repealed and wasn’t worried because his health insurance was through the ACA.  And, sure, hahaha, the joke’s on him (and the rest of us, since his vote impacts our lives), but there’s also an important lesson here about framing.

“Obamacare” is the way that Republicans framed the ACA.  And after a while, even Obama and other Democrats adopted the framing.  They may have believed that people would be so happy to have health care that some of that good will would carry over to Obama.  They were wrong.  In fact, people who hate the program when it’s called Obamacare are fine with it when it’s called ACA or by the name of their state’s ACA  exchange.  Ask people if they think insurance companies should be able to go back to refusing care to people with pre-existing conditions and they say no.  Ask if they want Obamacare repealed and they say yes.  As I’ve said before, some of this is just Red State Stupid; Red State Mean — a willingness to vote against your own interests as long as you can ensure that someone else, especially an African American or woman, won’t receive any benefit.  But some of it is also just Democrats’ continued refusal to understand framing.  You don’t adopt your opponents’ framing.  You just don’t.

George Lakoff recently explained some of the reasons why the Right is so much better than the Left at framing:

If you’re a conservative going into politics, there’s a good chance you’ll study cognitive science, that is, how people really think and how to market things by advertising. So they know people think using frames and metaphors and narratives and images and emotions and so on. That’s second nature to anybody who’s taken a marketing course. Many of the people who have gone into conservative communications have done that, and know very well how to market their ideas.

Now, if instead you are a progressive, and you go to college and you’re interested in politics, what are you going to study? Well, you’ll study political science, law, public policy, economic theory and so on, but you’re not going to wind up studying marketing, most likely, and you’re not going to study either cognitive science or neuroscience.

What you’ll learn in those courses is what is called Enlightenment reason, from 1650, from Descartes. And here’s what that reasoning says: What makes us human beings is that we are rational animals and rationality is defined in terms of logic. Recall that Descartes was a mathematician and logician. He argued that reasoning is like seeing a logical proof. Secondly, he argued that our ideas can fit the world because, as he said, “God would not lie to us.” The assumption is that ideas directly fit the world.

They’re also, Descartes argued, disembodied. He said that if ideas were embodied, were part of the body, then physical laws would apply to them, and we would not have free will. And in fact, they are embodied, physical laws do apply to them, and we do not have absolute free will. We’re trapped by what the neural systems of our brains  have accumulated. We can only see what our brains allow us to understand, and that’s an important thing.

So what he said, basically, was that there are no frames, no embodiment, no metaphor — none of the things people really use to reason. Moreover if we think logically and we all have the same reasoning, if you just tell people the facts, they should reason to the same correct conclusion. And that just isn’t true. And that keeps not being true, and liberals keep making the same mistake year after year after year. So that’s a very important thing.

Lakoff noted that:

During the Bush administration, I talked to the Democratic caucus. I was invited by Nancy Pelosi, and I talked to them about “Don’t Think of an Elephant,” and the strict father/nurturant parent distinction, and I pointed out that one thing strict fathers can’t do is betray trust. It turned out that the Southerners in the caucus agreed strongly, and they wanted to have me work with them on talking about Bush betraying trust. But Nancy said, “Well, we should check with the polls first,” and she checked with one of the major pollsters who said, “Oh no, my polls show that people trust Bush, therefore we can’t use it.” And the idea is to follow the polls, rather than change them. And this is a big difference between Democrats and Republicans. Republicans try to change the polls, whereas Democrats try to follow the polls.

I think if there is one thing that frustrates most people I know on the Left, that last sentence captures it:  Republicans try to change the polls [and succeed], while Democrats try to follow the polls.  We saw it after George W. Bush stole the 2000 election:  Democrats decided they needed to “run to the right” and try to attract white Evangelicals (who will never vote for Democrats), even though the majority of the country had not voted for Bush.  We saw it again when President Obama lost control of the House following the midterm elections and said that his mistake had been going too far to the left.  And we see it again in the continual assertions that Democrats, who just won by nearly three million votes, should “reach out” to white, working class voters (which is our new name for white Evangelicals).  Democrats chase the polls and, as a result, look weak.  Which, as Lakoff explains, is a problem in a culture based on Patriarchy (his term for Patriarchy is “strict father”).  Since Democrats keep losing because of the Electoral College, voter suppression, and gerrymandering, instead of because they don’t win a majority of votes, maybe they need to figure out how to frame and fix those issues instead of chasing voters who will never vote for them.

Lakoff describes another way in which the Left fails to communicate effectively:

The next problem has to do with going issue by issue. This is happening right now. Bernie Sanders and Chuck Schumer went onto the Rachel Maddow show on the same day, and they said, “The American people agree with us, issue by issue, each case and we’re going to press Trump issue by issue, and we’re going to start with health care and go on to other things.” What they’re missing is values.

They’re missing the idea that many Americans who depend on health care, affordable health care, for example, have strict-father positions and voted for Trump against their interests. And this is something has been known for ages, that a lot of poor conservatives vote against their material interests, because they’re voting for their worldview. And the reason for it is that their moral worldview defines who they are. They are not going to vote against their own definition of who they are.

Yes, issue by issue, the vast majority of people agree with things like clean water, not being kicked off your insurance plan as soon as you’re sick, maintaining bridges, not letting Wall Street billionaires crash the markets, letting old people retire in dignity, etc.  And, yet, because the Left fails to effectively frame the issues, Republicans are able to get people to vote against their own interests, over and over.  To be fair, I think Lakoff fails to really understand how racism, sexism, homophobia, and other facets of Patriarchy interfere with getting the Left’s message across to a certain Red State Stupid; Red State Mean percentage of the population.  Clinton’s “Stronger Together” framing did appeal to American values and framed the issue in a way that appealed to a majority of Americans.  It didn’t appeal to those whose worldview and definition of who they are is based on making sure that no “undeserving” (aka African American, female, gay, etc.) person ever gets any benefit.  While effective framing almost certainly will help bring more voters to the polls and will get more of them to support good candidates, some percentage of the population is likely unreachable.  But art may change the world of the future.

Theodora Goss recently made some deeper points about framing (which she refers to as “narrative patterns”) and  how difficult it can be for women, for example, to break through decades of prescriptive framing.

Why am I linking the idea of narrative pattern to politics? Because, while there are many reasons the election went the way it did, one reason, I believe, has to do with narrative patterns. People did not get so excited by Barack Obama, when he first ran, because of his policies. No, he was the young hero who had overcome adversity and triumphed. This was his quest, and when he won, it was his Cinderella moment. He fit the patterns, and voters invested energy and belief in him because of that. Of course they were disappointed — how could they not be, to realize he was a human being after all, one who had to do the complicated work of actually governing, of compromising to get anything done? When Donald Trump came along, he fit another narrative pattern: the stranger who rides into town and imposes order, bringing justice to the frontier. That’s a pattern embedded deep in American culture — you can see it in Clint Eastwood movies. It did not hurt him that he was not morally pure, because we do not expect the gunslinger to be morally pure — no, that’s reserved for heroes. And for women. So what pattern did Hillary Clinton fit? That’s the problem right there. We only have two patterns for older women who want political power. One is the Virgin Queen, like Elizabeth I: a woman is fit to wield power if she is willing to give up other aspects of being a woman, such as marital relationships or children. Her sacrifice makes her worthy. Notice how often Clinton was criticized for not having gotten a divorce, usually by women voters. While that criticism may have reflected a number of things, in part it reflected our underlying expectations about women and power — Clinton’s marriage and motherhood took her out of this particular pattern. What was left? The Wicked Queen. We know what she does — she seizes power (illegitimately) for her own gain, to satisfy her own ambition. She kills people or has them killed (this too was a criticism lodged against Clinton). And the Wicked Queen cannot be allowed to gain power — she must be defeated. All of our stories have told us that, from childhood on.

Did these patterns result in election victories or defeats? Who knows. But I think we can see them in the discourse around the election, in the ways candidates were talked about and thought of. There is a sense in which we live out the patterns, we live by the patterns — sometimes we die by the patterns. The patterns give us meaning. But . . . the patterns can change.

As Dr. Goss notes, art is one of the most important ways that we can  change narrative patterns.  What art has helped you to see the world through a different frame?

Picture found here.



4 responses to “How Enlightenment Reason Keeps Failing the Left

  1. Did you alternate between “Layoff” and “Lakoff” for a reason or was it just an error?

  2. *&^#@^% Autocorrect. Thanks for proofing; I’ve (hopefully) fixed it.

  3. Fascinating post!

    Framing and marketing should be important part of training and discussions in so many campaigns — including ones throughout the Pagan communities.

    As for narrative patterns – I wonder where/when/if the “wise old woman/crone” narrative pattern happens?

  4. I think it’s true that people respond to stories. Stories are simple, black and white. All the stories we believe in are myths, and I’m going to go further and say they’re lies. They’ve been created by men in service of their egos, in service of their need to find meaning for their lives. Men need heroes like they need water. Why is that? I think it’s because they feel useless. And they need women to look up to them — for exactly the same reasons. And we won’t have any wise old crones as long as women keep giving men what they need.

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