www.ambiente.us  SEPTEMBER / SEPTIEMBRE 2008

OPEd: Palin Appeals to Voter Emotions - Dems Beware
by George Lakoff

                                                 This election matters because of realities -- the realities of global
                                                 warming, the economy, the Middle East, nuclear proliferation, civil
                                                 liberties, species extinction, poverty here and around the world,
                                                 and on and on. Such realities are what make this election so very
                                                 crucial, and how to deal with them is the substance of the
                                                 Democratic platform.

                                                 Election campaigns matter because who gets elected can
                                                 change reality. But election campaigns are primarily about the
                                                 realities of voters' minds, which depend on how the candidates
                                                and the external realities are cognitively framed. They can be
                                                 framed honestly or deceptively, effectively or clumsily. And they
                                                 are always framed from the perspective of a worldview.

                                                The Obama campaign has learned this. The Republicans have long known it, and
the choice of Sarah Palin as their Vice-Presidential candidate reflects their expert understanding of the
political mind and political marketing. Democrats who simply belittle the Palin choice are courting disaster. It
must be taken with the utmost seriousness.

The Democratic responses so far reflect external realities: she is inexperienced, knowing little or nothing
about foreign policy or national issues; she is really an anti-feminist, wanting the government to enter
women's lives to block abortion, but not wanting the government to guarantee equal pay for equal work, or
provide adequate child health coverage, or child care, or early childhood education; she shills for the oil and
gas industry on drilling; she denies the scientific truths of global warming and evolution; she misuses her
political authority; she opposes sex education and her daughter is pregnant; and, rather than being a
maverick, she is on the whole a radical right-wing ideologue.

All true, so far as we can tell.
But such truths may nonetheless be largely irrelevant to this campaign. That is the lesson Democrats must
learn. They must learn the reality of the political mind.

The Obama campaign has done this very well so far. The convention events and speeches were
orchestrated both to cast light on external realities, traditional political themes, and to focus on values at once
classically American and progressive: empathy, responsibility both for oneself and others, and aspiration to
make things better both for oneself and the world. Obama did all this masterfully in his nomination speech,
while replying to, and undercutting, the main Republican attacks.

But the Palin nomination changes the game. The initial response has been to try to keep the focus on
external realities, the "issues," and differences on the issues. But the Palin nomination is not basically about
external realities and what Democrats call "issues," but about the symbolic mechanisms of the political mind
-- the worldviews, frames, metaphors, cultural narratives, and stereotypes. The Republicans can't win on
realities. Her job is to speak the language of conservatism, activate the conservative view of the world, and
use the advantages that conservatives have in dominating political discourse.

Our national political dialogue is fundamentally metaphorical, with family values at the center of our
discourse. There is a reason why Obama and Biden spoke so much about the family, the nurturant family,
with caring fathers and the family values that Obama put front and center in his Father's day speech: empathy,
responsibility and aspiration. Obama's reference in the nomination speech to "The American Family" was
hardly accidental, nor were the references to the Obama and Biden families as living and fulfilling the
American Dream. Real nurturance requires strength and toughness, which Obama displayed in body
language and voice in his responses to McCain. The strength of the Obama campaign has been the
seamless marriage of reality and symbolic thought.

The Republican strength has been mostly symbolic. The McCain campaign is well aware of how Reagan and
W won -- running on character: values, communication, (apparent) authenticity, trust, and identity -- not issues
and policies. That is how campaigns work, and symbolism is central.
Conservative family values are strict and apply via metaphorical thought to the nation: good vs. evil, authority,
the use of force, toughness and discipline, individual (versus social) responsibility, and tough love. Hence,
social programs are immoral because they violate discipline and individual responsibility. Guns and the
military show force and discipline. Man is above nature; hence no serious environmentalism. The market is
the ultimate financial authority, requiring market discipline. In foreign policy, strength is use of the force. In
fundamentalist religion, the Bible is the ultimate authority; hence no gay marriage. Such values are at the
heart of radical conservatism. This is how John McCain was raised and how he plans to govern. And it is
what he shares with Sarah Palin.
Palin is the mom in the strict father family, upholding conservative values. Palin is tough: she shoots, skins,
and eats caribou. She is disciplined: raising five kids with a major career. She lives her values: she has a
Downs-syndrome baby that she refused to abort. She has the image of the ideal conservative mom: pretty,
perky, feminine, Bible-toting, and fitting into the ideal conservative family. And she fits the stereotype of
America as small-town America. It is Reagan's morning-in-America image. Where Obama thought of
capturing the West, she is running for Sweetheart of the West.

And Palin, a member of Feminism For Life, is at the heart of the conservative feminist movement, which
Ronee Schreiber has written about in her recent book, Righting Feminism. It is a powerful and growing
movement that Democrats have barely paid attention to.

At the same time, Palin is masterful at the Republican game of taking the Democrats' language and
reframing it-putting conservative frames to progressive words: Reform, prosperity, peace. She is also
masterful at using the progressive narratives: she's from the working class, working her way up from hockey
mom and the PTA to Mayor, Governor, and VP candidate. Her husband is a union member. She can say to the
conservative populists that she is one of them -- all the things that Obama and Biden have been saying.
Bottom-up, not top-down.

Yes, the McCain-Palin ticket is weak on the major realities. But it is strong on the symbolic dimension of
politics that Republicans are so good at marketing. Just arguing the realities, the issues, the hard truths
should be enough in times this bad, but the political mind and its response to symbolism cannot be ignored.
The initial Democratic response to Palin -- the response based on realities alone -- indicates that many
Democrats have not learned the lessons of the Reagan and Bush years.
They have not learned the nature of conservative populism. A great many working-class folks are what I call
"bi-conceptual," that is, they are split between conservative and progressive modes of thought. Conservative
on patriotism and certain social and family issues, which they have been led to see as "moral", progressive
in loving the land, living in communities of care, and practical kitchen table issues like mortgages, health
care, wages, retirement, and so on.
Conservative theorists won them over in two ways: Inventing and promulgating the idea of "liberal elite" and
focusing campaigns on social and family issues. They have been doing this for many years and have
changed a lot of brains through repetition. Palin will appeal strongly to conservative populists, attacking
Obama and Biden as pointy-headed, tax-and-spend, latte liberals. The tactic is to divert attention from difficult
realities to powerful symbolism.

What Democrats have shied away from is a frontal attack on radical conservatism itself as an un-American
and harmful ideology. I think Obama is right when he says that America is based on people caring about
each other and working together for a better future-empathy, responsibility (both personal and social), and
aspiration. These lead to a concept of government based on protection (environmental, consumer, worker,
health care, and retirement protection) and empowerment (through infrastructure, public education, the
banking system, the stock market, and the courts). Nobody can achieve the American Dream or live an
American lifestyle without protection and empowerment by the government. The alternative, as Obama said in
his nomination speech, is being on your own, with no one caring for anybody else, with force as a first resort
in foreign affairs, with threatened civil liberties and a right-wing government making your most important
decisions for you. That is not what American democracy has ever been about.

What is at stake in this election are our ideals and our view of the future, as well as current realities. The Palin
choice brings both front and center. Democrats, being Democrats, will mostly talk about the realities nonstop
without paying attention to the dimensions of values and symbolism. Democrats, in addition, need to call an
extremist an extremist: to shine a light on the shared anti-democratic ideology of McCain and Palin, the same
ideology shared by Bush and Cheney. They share values antithetical to our democracy. That needs to be said
loud and clear, if not by the Obama campaign itself, then by the rest of us who share democratic American

Our job is to bring external realities together with the reality of the political mind. Don't ignore the cognitive
dimension. It is through cultural narratives, metaphors, and frames that we understand and express our

George Lakoff is the author of The Political Mind: Why You Can't Understand 20th Century Politics With an
18th Century Brain.

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