George Lakoff: Obama in a Bind

A “metaphorical body” helped build Barack Obama’s triumph so far, in George Lakoff’s scientific reading. That tall, supple, smiling Obama figure, standing tall, fires up good feelings through the “mirror neurons” in our brains. “Up and forward” is the effect we feel, as Lakoff puts it in conversation. So what is the effect on our political minds of what feels now like an uncertain Obama shuffle to the center or the right? “Bad things” are transmitted by the same mirror neurons to our embodied brains, Lakoff says, when the gifted candidate’s “metaphorical body” seems to waffle — on phone-company immunity for illegal wiretapping, for example, or even on the use of churches as public social agencies.

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with

George Lakoff (50 minutes, 23 mb mp3)

george lakoff

George Lakoff: this is your mind on politics

Far the toughest, most consequential test will be Barack Obama’s response to the AIPAC pressures in both branches of Congress to blockade, or swat, or whack Iran in the last days of the Bush-Cheney administration. Obama’s mission, Lakoff says, must be to set a unmistakably different direction and tone from the hawkish resolutions now gathering sponsors in the House and Senate — to reframe the conversation in his own terms of America’s interest not only in a just world but in recovering moral force misspent in Iraq. “He has to decide how the resolution is framed, and make sure that Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi carry it out — and that everybody in the party knows what’s at stake. This is where leadership starts, right now.”

George Lakoff is the most astutely political of the best-selling brain scientists — like the “predictably irrational” Dan Ariely — now sharing the fruits of 30 years of revolutionary research on how our minds actually work. On one rapt reading of Lakoff’s latest, The Political Mind: Why You Can’t Understand 21st Century American Politics with an 18th Century Brain, I had three main questions in this long conversation: how does cognitive science explain (1) the rise of Obama; (2) the mid-summer rattling of Obama and (3) the stakes for Obama and the rest of us in the multiple pressures to “get tough” with Iran.

You have to understand what Obama is up against. First, he’s up against a mode of thought that is very common, what’s called “optimism bias” in behavioral economics. That is, when you make a plan, you are more likely to think that it will work than that it won’t… There’s a set of biases that give hawks a better chance in debate, with lines like, “the surge is going to work.” Or “it will be a cakewalk,” you know, “they’ll be throwing roses in front of us,” and so on…

You also have a cultural narrative — basically on the hero-villain structure. The villain in this is Ahmadinejad who is inherently evil… It’s a dangerous world out there, so the conservatives will say. So the question is, ‘What do you do?’ and the answer, in the hero/villain plot structure, is the hero has to fight the villain… The assumption is that we’re moral and anything we do to fight this villain is going to be moral, and that could be utterly ridiculous. We could create utter catastrophe over there, but the story is what matters in the public mind… and if we stick to it, and we’re virtuous, and we’re strong, we’ll win.

That narrative shows up all the time on TV shows, in movies and in political campaigns, and it showed up in the first Gulf War and the Iraq War, and it is being played again. So you’ve got to undercut it. That is a very tricky thing to do. If you try to undercut it simply with military facts, you’ve got a problem. That is, you say, ‘We can’t fight wars on three fronts, we can’t even do it on two fronts. We’re losing in Afghanistan.’ That doesn’t make us look very heroic. That doesn’t fit with the U.S. as the strong super power, so you’ve got to fight that idea. What you need is a different idea, and what Obama has done has been very interesting so far… In discussing foreign policy — for example, in the American Prospect article called the “The Obama Doctrine” — Obama’s idea is not just based on the national interest and being the strongest super power, etc., but also on the idea that we want a just world, that the most difficult problems in the world are not at the level of the state, but at the level of the person: that poverty, hunger, disease, women’s rights and so on, are major issues in the world, as well as global warming, and that we have to take a different view of the world, we have to be the world’s greatest moral force. I think that’s the story that you’re going to get from Obama: We have to be the world’s greatest moral force again, and we’ve lost it. We’ve lost it because we’ve used our military badly and we’ve had bad judgment. That’s the story and the question is, ‘Will it go?’ ‘Will it fly?’

George Lakoff of Berkeley and The Political Mind in conversation with Chris Lydon, July 10, 2008.

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  • archylgp


    The link to the audio component of the conversation is not working; here is the error message:

    Not Found

    The requested URL / was not found on this server.

    Apache Server at Port 80

  • RaggedRobin

    @archylgp – It looks like there’s a bit of extraneous text in the link, which stops it from working, but the correct URL is buried in there. You can find the mp3 here:

  • Tangle untangled. Thanks all around from Chris Lydon

  • Potter

    George Lakoff clears up so much for me, or confirms what I instinctively feel. First off that yes we do need our emotions to be rational!

    We have been as disillusioned by Obama recently as Bob Herbert ( NYTimes) recently expressed so well in his column. This is because we have been through 8 years of feeling not too good. We have allowed our expectations,our hopes to prevail and are bound to be disappointed sooner or later but I wanted Obama to stand up for certain important things, regardless of the fact that he has to win an election. But he is who he is. And we are finding out… a change still, if not very radical. ( Is this Ariely’s lesson?)

    That smile will carry him a long way- ear to ear as in the way he smiled and shrugged his shoulders when asked about the recent cover of the New Yorker Magazine. It’s that “je ne sais quoi”

    Lakoff seems to recommend Obama’s book…

    Thank you Chris for another keeper, wonderful interview.

  • Potter

    I forgot to mention the “aha” reaction I had about people holding constellations of frames.

  • darwhin

    rationalizing your own political beliefs through soft science is a dangerous game. should we really go down this path. imagine if a lackoff on the other side spewing selective science in the aid of politics like lackoff is doing. he seems to be playing the same games he accuses his opponents of doing most if you think about it.

    • I have hope for the movement. Yes, it is intahoce and messy right now. But it’s also exciting and truly, I believe, grassroots. There are those outliers who will take advantage of any situation someone sent me a video of someone demanding free college tuition, for instance which even I think is too out there (though they have it places in Europe, though the cherished welfare states of those nations lookin kinda shaky). I predict the OWS will die down a bit in the worst of the winter and come back strong in the Spring, hopefully with a clearer focus. And I agree, the fringe element helps no one but you also have to ask the question about the MSM coverage of those parts of it, and the masters they are required to serve. Not to be paranoid, but it’s there.

  • darwhin

    more on his problematic use of “science” to push political views.

  • Eenusch

    My goodness, George, please take a breath and let the host interact with you.

    I’m 15 minutes into this show and I had to turn it off.

    George goes on and on and on and on!!!


  • huff

    Yeah….like George very much….but he’s windy:):):)

  • ghostofdali

    I think darwhin is right on, George seems to glide right by the basic fallacy of “what we now know to be true.” Enlightenment thinkers were saying the same thing centuries ago, and the only thing wrong with their thinking was that they refused to acknowledge the limitations of their own logic and the viability of multiple conclusions. The field of neuroscience seems to be saturated with a hubris that is based on the torrent of new discoveries and the public’s inability to keep up with the revolving paradigm. I don’t think any of this “new” knowledge can be trusted, but it does provide a framework for some interesting theories, some of which may pan out over time, once the thinkers open their minds a bit.

  • thoolihan

    I thought this was mostly a good talk. Lakoff has some interesting ideas about the way parties are using their understanding of the mind. I felt he got off track though about foreign policy. For the record, I’m a habitually 3rd party voter who is disillusioned enough with the war that I may vote for Obama.

    Anyway, here is why Lakoff lost me. He gave a great explanation of the real definition of empathy. But his “progressive” view of foreign policy is that we become a moral force in the world again. Every country believes it knows how the world should work. Drastic action, either fascist or not, is always under the guise of what is best for the people. In other words, anyone who claims to be the one moral force in the world is showing that they do not understand empathy.

    He further showed this lack of understanding when he discussed the tactical nuclear options with Iran. He wasn’t advocating that method. But to even discuss it without raising the irony of eliminating nuclear ambition with nuclear weapons again shows a US-centric view of the world. It was as if he thought it was a good idea if the contaminates did not go into the air.

    Finally, his petty shots at conservatives destroyed any credibility he had with me. I don’t like them either, but claiming that they have think-tanks that the democrats don’t have is just plain naive.

    His parting shot that it’s easy to think conservatives have no brains is a demonstration of why the US is where it is (politically). Obama is talking about uniting. And Lakoff can only come up with elitist insults. It’s as petty as if Hannity was on calling liberals hippies.

  • Sargent6

    I don’t like the comparison of Lakoff to Ariely or similar academics, because they seem to start with some objective facts, then expand from there. Lakoff used little data, and relied mostly on anecdotes, cute little frameworks for thinking and speculation.

    So, lots of cheap shots against conservatives, some damning with faint praise (conservatives are better manipulators) and lots and lots of words.

    There are light weights on both sides, but it’s just sad they get such attention.

  • johnself

    Seems to me that the true theme of this segment is the differences between academic knowledge and real world experience. Lakoff’s studies are fascinating and valuable, but is it really what Democrats are missing? Aren’t the lessons here ingrained in any good communicator already? I doubt the conservatives ever set out to study and implement the findings of modern neurosicence – as I understand it they felt they were losing ground in mainstream media (and certainly in academia) and went about building other communications channels and organizations.

    The other, more striking example is the discussion on Obama’s Iran & Iraq approach. Regardless of how you feel these should be handled, it’s hard to believe anyone who ever conducted any kind of negotiation would seriously suggest the US should state at this point what it’s going or not going to do. This is basic common sense. You speak softly and carry a big stick, not because you want to use that stick, but because without it you are merely speaking softly – which might have effect in Brown, but not in the Middle East.

  • Agroblogger

    All this talk about empathy. A few points. First, what Obama is not talking about. He’s not talking about the refugee crisis that the American invasion of Iraq helped to created. If we want to be a more empathic and mature country, then we should try and come to terms with what is really happening on the ground in Iraq. David Enders and Nur Rosen are a good place to start. Have a look at this:

    And this:

    Empathy is a nice word, it is warm and fuzzy, but seems to go against the grain of the imperial mind.

    And then there is the “Obama Doctrine” espoused in the article that this post links to. More nice words, with “dignity” coming to the forefront of the Doctrine.

    This too is a nice, gentle concept, but again it goes against the grain of the imperial mind. This is hauntingly similar to the neo-conservative idealists. Yes, neo-conservatism is a muscular, imperialist philosophy, but it is couched in ideological language of democracy building and spreading Western liberalism through military might.

    So, are we now discussing spreading an even more nebulous concept of “dignity” through military might? Why is this not made clear to us.

    This is just more of the patronizing garbage that has made a mess of the Third World over the past several decades. Those countries that fail, almost seem to refuse, to develop have done so in so many cases on their own accord. Political infighting, corruption, dishonesty, and self-interest will continue to be the rule in those countries that cannot get their act together. Our “altruistic” intentions seem only to have the effect of further tearing these countries apart. Iraq is a case in point.

    And those countries that do develop, like Brazil or Turkey or Taiwan, have done so on their own accord. And that will continue to be the case now and into the future. So be wary of those who ideologically drive our foreign policy further into the endless spiral of imperalism. Perhaps the best medicine for the Third World is to leave people their to work out their own problems.

  • The spots you played were tremendous. I wish there had been time for more discussion of the implications of Schwartz’s ideas for the internet.

  • Andy Draudt

    Good stuff! It would be good if the Dems listened to him.