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Education Politics, George Lakoff and the June 7 2018 Ontario Election

George Lakoff is a distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at UC Berkeley. He is the author of many books most famously Don’t Think of an Elephant.

As a progressive activist, he has a great deal to tell us about effective communications and how the political brain works.

Dealing with the conservative first, Lakoff maintains that the nation is seen by conservatives, using metaphor, as a family and the leader is a stern dominant father. The combination of brain preconditioning and early experience in childhood creates the conservative. The progressive, to the contrary, uses the metaphor of a nurturing loving mother who may powerfully influence the child’s life but the brain functions like a well worn path to move politically in one direction.


Conservatives, as a result, believe primarily in authority and as a result, hierarchy -

Father over mother, parent over child, God over man and eventually this leads to a predisposition to man over woman, white over black, straight over gay, nativist over immigrant, employer over employee.


The justification for hierarchy is discipline and by discipline, the idea that you have earned your higher position in the pecking order. The poor are poor because they are undisciplined, lazy, and inferior. As such they deserve their poverty and lower status.  Conservatives are convinced that they are very moral. Historically they have supported kings and emperors but today they serve God and The Market. Conservatives actually believe it is immoral to help the poor too much.


The progressive, on the other hand, is the product of a brain preconditioning and a nurturant family, particularly by the mother (or maybe two mommies). The prime directive of the nurturant  family is empathy..


Lakoff considers the classic left-right spectrum we inherited from the French Revolutionary period to be a bad metaphor. Cognitive brain science shows that the classic bell curve of political opinion like a camel’s back really does not work. The real model is the two hump camel or Bactrian camel of central Asia.


To Lakoff, the majority of tested people are conservative or  progressive. There is a significant  group he calls, as above, bi-conceptuals. He says they are not moderates. They simply draw half of their positions from the conservative list and half from the progressive list.

Bi- conceptuals can be seen as a la carte diners choosing some issues from the progressive menu and some from the conservative menu as opposed to table d’hote conservatives and progressives who agree with all or almost all of the positions on their own side. We call them moderates but they to not split their issues in half. They are either all in on medicare or not, all in on military funding or not. In Michigan they are often called ‘the Deerhunter vote’ after the famous movie. They may be UAW union guys, even activists, but they also like to hunt, love their guns and many may be ex-military so they support military funding. They may well be vote switchers based on what issue bothers them the most. They voted for Obama but now vote for Trump. Macomb County Michigan is the famous home of the Deerhunter vote but think entire rust belt, - in Canada think northern Ontario, rural BC. Easy female equivalents can be found - small biz shop owners who hate taxes but love their public schools. Even the small numbers of blacks or Latinos  that vote GOP may be biz people who resent taxation or religious fundamentalists who believe in the strict father metaphor for God.


Lakoff was struck by a list of conservative commitments made by House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich called the Contract With America for the 1994 congressional elections. The CWA had eight rock rib conservative commitments from balanced budgets, more prisons and longer sentences, welfare cuts, tax “incentives’, attacks on social security, the US version of CPP-OAS, cuts to capital gains tax, tort reform, and term limits. Lakoff noticed that this was a very good conservative statement based on the authority of a stern father metaphor. He thought, I am a progressive and don't agree with a single item  of Gingrich’s  list.  By examination Lakoff concluded that the majority agree with either Gingrich’s conservative list or the opposite in every case. A  smaller number agree with half the list but not the other half.


A good overview from Lakoff himself:


American progressives  are frustrated by poor and working class conservatives who “keep voting for the boss” and perpetuate their poor situation, but the poor conservative is conservative for many reasons, morality, religion, gender, race, and so on, hence the appeal of a Trump type leader - a stern father and an authority figure. Lakoff maintains that an ‘all in’ conservative is very unlikely to switch opinions even if they are poor. Bi-conceptuals, on the other hand,  will switch.


An example of this frustration is “ The Trouble with Kansas”, by Thomas Frank.

Lakoff maintains it is a very bad idea for progressives to move to the center since, as he explains, there really is no center there. There is no consistent set of moderate beliefs.  This was Hillary Clinton’s problem and the strength of Bernie Sanders. Why is the move to the center a strategic error of profound consequences?


Moving to the center:

  • Alienates your own base, demoralizing them, causing them to work less hard, give less money and possibly not vote.

  • It makes your own people more conservative

  • It makes you look immoral and thus inauthentic


Progressives must learn to argue from a moral basis. Bernie Sanders people loved him as “authentic”. He spoke from a position of  progressive morality. The unexpected popularity of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK is similarly built of authenticity where Tony Blair fades into history as ineffectual. Blair is inauthentic.

David Coletto of Abacus Polling supplied a recent list of the top 10 Ontario issues in descending order

His core thesis, if we can do it justice, runs like this. Conservatives and progressives are, to a very large extent, hard wired in their brains to follow a conservative or progressive path. He believes that detailed factual political reasoning is, for all intents and purposes, useless in political campaigns, either issue campaigns or elections, because conservatives and progressives as well as the few moderates (he calls bi-conceptuals) think in terms of metaphor. Details wash over the voters, leaving no impact. Values and metaphors matter.

You could construct a similar table in any province, state or country. The basics would remain the same.


A solid progressive would generally support the whole progressive column or 9/10 issues. A solid conservative would support the whole conservative column but a bi-conceptual might chose 5 answers from the progressive column and 5 from the conservative column. Bi-conceptual conservatives would answer 6-7 from conservative list and a bi-conceptual progressive the opposite.


Experienced pols know the progressives usually dominate health, education and the environment while conservatives dominate the economy, taxes, debt-deficit issues. The reason is that bi-conceptials support progressives on health, education and environment but conservatives on debt/deficit, economy and so on.


To Lakoff, progressives must activate empathy in the public for their positions. Obama knew hope was the key communication position, the progressive nerve, Conservatives will counter with fear.


For a direct pitch on how to campaign for progressives see this link below.


Having digested four of Lakoff’s books and numerous articles we believe he is onto something. He sees Elizabeth Warren as one of the best communicators of progressive values. Obama certainly campaigned on hope over fear but, his own pragmatic instincts took over in government and various conventional PR flacks from the Democratic machine and Wall St persuaded him to govern as a neoliberal centrist.


So where are we in the Ontario election? One game changer is the change in campaign finance laws that has allowed all of the parties to reposition themselves to some extent. Tories and Liberals are less beholden to corporations although their ideological  instincts remain at both the leadership and base levels. Lakoff would say the brain patterns and early childhood experiences keep Tories close to the stern father model. The Pat Brown sexual misconduct fiasco scrambled the board  for the Ontario election but the party has consulted the membership and the election program is printed albeit with Brown’s face on the cover. Vic Fedeli, the new interim leader at this point, is sticking with the “People’s Guarantee” and by the time their leadership convention chooses  a candidate they will have little choice but to stay with the same policy. Emphasis is another matter. A carbon tax for example is a bridge too far for many.


The Tories seem to have learned that the Mike Harris, super strict father- “slash welfare rates

and make them work for benefits” program might work once in a while but conservative dynasties will be built on the bi-conceptual conservative ‘Bill Davis’ model. Lots of money for education, public corporations if practical and necessary, TVO, Suncore...understanding public spending is a direct service to business, build the 400 series highways,. Minimum wage yes ...but delayed. Still the Tories are cutting taxes weighted to the high end, as expected. Naturally they believe that higher incomes ‘deserve’ it more. Need is not in their vocabulary.


The Liberals under Kathleen Wynne, freed from corporate funding, but still bound by old brain patterns and biz instincts and some strict father catholics for example, have shifted left on some policies in a deliberate attempt to jam the NDP and free up with the required votes to fight off the poll-leading Conservatives. This characterization will infuriate some NDP activists but it is nevertheless factual. I know Kathleen Wynne well, from old anti-Harris school fights and her comparison to Obama comes easily to mind. She starts with progressive instincts of hope and change and actually delivers on some. Sometimes it comes late, (minimum wage)  sometimes it is half hearted (pharmacare, but only under 25) public transpo yes but at the foolish and reactionary cost of the public ownership of hydro and other foolish P3 wastes of public money. Free tuition turns out to be not much for not very many, another half measure. Ordering striking teachers from the federations and profs from OPSEU back to work clearly shows the bi-conceptual nature of the Liberals. Seeking labour support while bashing labour seems an odd formula for success. Notwithstanding the obvious shortcomings, the Ontario Liberals may be in the process of attempting to reposition themselves to a  position comparable to the  center-left,  moderate ‘Blairist’ social democratic governments of Europe. The real Labour progressives of the UK now consider  ‘Blairist’ as a term of contempt. Electorally successful but a neo-liberal sellout regime at the end of the day.


So what of the NDP being jammed on the soft democratic left? Once again, Lakoff reminds us, for progressives, at the cost of repetition,  moving to the center is a major strategic political error. The NDP has been agonizing about political positioning since the 1950s so this is nothing new but understanding Lakoff gives us an answer.


Hillary Clinton complained in her post election biography, What Happened? that Bernie  Sanders repeatedly made life awkward for her during the primary. In a  humorous metaphor Clinton complained “every time I said the American people deserve a pony, Bernie Sanders popped up and said - the American people deserve two ponies and Hillary Clinton does not think you deserve a second pony”. I have to hand it to Clinton, that is funny but more importantly, it  describes the relative positions of the bi-conceptual Liberal vs the down-the-line democratic socialist or the ‘all in’ progressive in Lakoff terms. Picture Kathleen Wynne as Hillary and Andrea Horwath as Bernie.


So how should the NDP counter the somewhat leftward shift of the Liberals into traditional soft left territory? Lakoff would say by being authentic. By being the Real McCoy of progressivism. In short, by being Bernie. The job of the NDP is to fight for the real progressives. Lakoff would also say that they must appeal to morality as understood by progressives. As a result, some progressive bi-conceptuals will vote for the authentic NDP.


NDP communications must be structured around equality, fairness, opportunity, and ecology,


Andrea Horwath and local candidates should not structure a stump speech around healthcare today, education, tomorrow, hydro the day after that.


The speeches,  brochures, TV and radio ads social media strategy, should have themes of morality - Equality on Monday, Fairness on Tuesday, Ecology on Wednesday, privatization as morality on Thursday, Freedom as understood by progressives on Friday. Health Care and educations and housing are the subset subjects as examples where morality must be applied.


Morality means pharmacare for all, equality and opportunity  means an education system that worries about the bottom 25% of kids, public hydro because winter shutoffs are immoral, ecology because despoiling the environment is immoral, public transpo because a car for all is both impossible and  immoral, minimum wage and labour rights based on fairness for all. Daycare is way way too expensive. The Quebec plan is moral. The Ontario plan is immoral and unfair.This also pushes back the Liberals, They are, implicitly or explicitly, not moral enough, not fair enough, not green enough….


The Tories lead most polls now but the run up matters, campaigns matter, experienced leadership matters, issues matter. We may very well end up in a position similar to the minority parliament of  1985 when Frank Miller had the most seats but was outnumbered by Peterson’s Liberals  and  Rae’s NDP. A 2-3 year government under a new accord, might well move hydro back to the public domain, complete pharmacare, bring in a new funding formula to education, improve the environment in many ways, extend public transpo, fund childcare at modern rates, create jobs by infrastructure investment… lots to do. We will wait a very long time for Liberals to do this on their own.


This report strongly recommends coalition government under this scenario. This means cabinet positions for both parties, who knows, it might be the NDP in second place if you believe some polls.


In conclusion, this report strongly recommends all progressive activists in education or other fields, familiarize themselves with George Lakoff and his approach to progressive advancement.  It will reorganize your thinking.

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