Thursday, June 26, 2008

Corruption: A Natural Outgrowth of the Unitary Executive Theory

With each and every week bringing to light new disclosures of apparent corruption and cronyism within the George W. Bush administration, I am reminded of the last president we had who brought into his administration individuals who put ideology above the common interest and were amply rewarded for doing so--Ronald Reagan. Both presidents were champions of a new elite--an elite comprising not those persons of superior intellect or ability but rather those of unquestioned loyalty to a particular point of view.

When coupled with the particular point of view of this administration--that is, belief in the almost unlimited power of the commander-in-chief in times of war (the Unitary Executive Theory) and the accumulation of vast personal wealth and power over all other considerations--our nation is confronted, as it is today, with a grave threat to its reputation around the world, its self-confidence at home, and its rule of law.

Corruption flows from such an environment as naturally as mountain streams from a glacier. When loyalty is the most important character trait from the top of an administration down to the lowly paper shufflers, unquestioning obedience trumps altruism every time. If you do what you are told, you know that you will be protected--from having to testify before Congress or appear before a grand jury to having a lucrative job when you leave. If you leak information or squeal on a fellow, you lose your entire social network overnight. No administration I can think of has mastered this system better than the present one.

Given this environment, it is only natural for people to think they can get away with anything. Just think of the stuff that this administration has done with complete impunity compared to the problems that the previous administration had over a perjury related to a purely private matter.

All this is made worse by the attitude of the neo-conservatives that they are on a mission to democratize the world and thus immortalize themselves as champions of all that is noble and good. In their minds, the ends justify the means, no matter who or what they have to stomp on to get there, including the US Constitution.

My hope is that the American people have learned a lesson from the past seven years. I hope that they recognize that the Republican Party of the past 30 years is not the Party they thought they knew (if they've been around that long). The Republican Party of today is not a "party" at all. A "party" is a gathering of disparate people under one banner for a particular purpose, whether that be having fun or running a country. The Republican Party, in its current manifestation, is more like a club--perhaps the world's largest country club. You must pay your dues to enter the Republican Party today; those dues include promising to vote with your peers on every issue, memorizing the Party talking points, and keeping your mouth shut about what goes on behind closed doors.

My Notes on a George Lakoff Lecture on His Latest Book


[George Lakoff teaches at the University of California at Berkeley in the field of Cognitive Science and Linguistics. His new book is titled, The Political Mind: Why You Can't Understand 21st-Century Politics with an 18th-Century Brain.]

Why do people vote against their self-interest? Why do Democrats cower before attacks from the other side?

Democrats operate from a philosophy that might be called the “Theory of Mind”, which says that all thought is reasoned, rational, and conscious. This philosophy contends that politics is disembodied and abstract, the purpose of which is to pursue self-interest.


Now we know from recent research on the mind that ALL OF THESE BELIEFS ARE FALSE. We now know, for example, that 85% of all reasoning is UNCONSCIOUS. It is a PHYSICAL process over which we have little conscious control. The brain is structured to run a body via trillions of neurons. The brain can’t think just any way at all; it doesn’t always fit the world as it is. Furthermore, it can’t be rational without being emotional.

Stroke or injury can destroy our ability to feel emotion. How, then, would we know what to want? We wouldn’t. We MUST HAVE EMOTION IN ORDER TO REASON.

Cultural Narratives

[Ed.: Please excuse me if I take some undue liberty here in explaining complex processes in the brain about which I know very little. I’m interpreting my somewhat cryptic notes here and may not have this technically accurate, despite my attempts to sort some of it out using Wikipedia.]

There are two chemicals in the brain that regulate our emotions: dopamine and epinephrine (adrenaline). Dopamine is associated with reward-seeking behavior, such as the desire for food or other pleasant stimulation—what Lakoff calls “good emotions”. Epinephrine is associated with “fight or flight” responses and stress—what Lakoff calls “bad emotions”. When politicians’ words trigger the dopamine response, they are thought of as “good guys or gals” and they tend to win; when they trigger the epinephrine response, they are thought of as “bad guys or gals” and they tend to lose.


Shortly after beginning his lecture, a young man brought Dr. Lakoff a paper cup filled with what appeared to be a hot liquid. Upon receiving it, Dr. Lakoff quipped that, just as conservatives suspect of all liberals, he likes his latte. Later, he used the cup to illustrate what he means by “framing”. When a person hears the word “cup”, he or she makes an unconscious association through neurons in his or her brain. He or she forms a mental picture of what a cup looks like and its function—the very definition of a “cup”.

Sometimes, these neural pathways form associations that have moral connotations (metaphors). For example, the word “more” is associated with “up”, as in “fill it up”. The “less” is associated with “down”, as in “the stock market is down”. Affectionate people are thought of as “warm”; indifferent people are thought of as “cold”. These associations are physically activated in the brain instantaneously, without conscious thought. Each time the associations are made, the synapses—the physical connections between nerve endings in the brain—are strengthened (they spread and grow). Over time, they become very strong—second nature, so to speak.

In terms of politics, we as individuals are first “governed” by our nuclear families. In Lakoff’s view, there are TWO IDEALS OF THE FAMILY. If you’ve read either of Lakoff’s books on framing, Moral Politics or Don’t Think of an Elephant, you’re familiar with these.

The first he calls the “strict father” model. In this model, children are raised by a mother and father with clearly defined roles, with the father being dominant. Misbehavior must be punished, often physically, even at times painfully. The values behind this model are self-sufficiency, competency, and ambition. It is felt that these qualities will lead to success in life and, therefore, productive contribution to society. Possession of these qualities is deemed to be moral. Therefore, wealth is an indication that the person possesses these qualities in abundance and should be left alone by government. (Lakoff points out—notably--that many persons with this outlook on life had happy childhoods, despite having to submit to corporal punishment.) In these families, the parents believe that when the child reaches the age of 25 or so, they should be able to survive entirely on their own. Likewise, government should leave people alone to make their own decisions in most areas of life, including how they spend their money.

The second family model is what he calls “nurturing parent”. This value seeks to impart in its offspring the values of empathy, responsibility for others, and self-fulfillment. The duty of the family is to protect the child while she or he is vulnerable and empower the child to pursue happiness as s/he sees fit. Out of this view of the family grows the idea that government, too, should protect and empower the people. Empowerment is achieved via the courts and a regulated stock market and banking system.

Lakoff talked about “mirror neurons”. When you see or hear someone laugh, we tend to laugh with them. (Think of the laugh track on sitcoms.) The same neurons in our brains are activated when seeing someone else laugh as are activated when someone tells us a joke. This is the source of empathy.

Voting against self-interest


Conservatives have for forty years understood the connection between winning elections and framing. (Liberals have yet to get it.) If you can create in the minds of your listeners or seers a connection between an neutral political device, say, taxes, and “bad emotions”, you can change the way they think about your candidate. One way to do that is to ALWAYS associate two concepts together in a frame that gets the epinephrine flowing. (Remember that epinephrine is the chemical in the brain associated with “fight or flight”.) So, if we talk about “tax relief”, the brain AUTOMATICALLY AND UNCONSCIOUSLY associates “taxes” with “pain”. Combine that with the “strict father” notion of government as a body that neither empowers nor protects but merely gets in the way of “the market” and you have built a strong case for voting for the anti-tax candidate WITHOUT BOTHERING WITH A SINGLE FACT.

This is why it is so difficult to win political arguments. You cannot change someone’s mind without changing their brain. [This is why I have so little faith in bipartisanship in Congress. The only way to pass progressive legislation is to numerically overwhelm the opposition.—Ed.]

Democrats used to be champions of the working class (remember the New Deal?). Because of the Republicans’ effective use of frames, Dems are now looked upon by many as “liberal elitists”.

We all have BOTH parent models in our brains. A moderate has both models on political issues. But there is no such thing as a “moderate parenting model”. On some issues, one neuron pair can neutralize another neuron pair, making the individual “liberal” on some issues and “conservative” on others. Joe Lieberman is a “hawk” on the war and a “liberal” socially. Chuck Hagel is for peace in Iraq but conservative on other issues.

People vote against their own economic interests because of what Lakoff calls “conservative populism”. (Lakoff pointed out that neither Thomas Frank, author of What’s the Matter with Kansas, nor Al Gore, author of The Assault on Reason, seems to grasp this concept.) Conservatives who love the outdoors, while they might oppose smart growth legislation, may team up with environmentalists to stop development that would diminish fishing or hunting opportunities. Some self-described “conservative” entrepreneurs are quite liberal in their business practices. Pro-labor “liberals” may be rabidly anti-immigrant.

There is hope for dialogue between liberals and conservatives. But, first, we must get past the argument over specific policies and “the facts” and get to the question, “What do you care about?”. Get your “opponent” to talk about what’s in their hearts. Perhaps you’ll find something in common that you both value—caring, empathy, freedom, or fairness.


There are two means of achieving bipartisanship. For Sen. Clinton, bipartisanship means that the progressives move to the right, meeting the opposition half-way. For Sen. Obama, bipartisanship means finding the conservatives who have liberal values on a particular issue, such as John McCain on campaign finance reform or Church Hagel on setting a timetable to withdraw from Iraq.

[This was the end of his talk. He then took Q&A from the audience. Most of the questions were about how to frame the case for selling ballot initiatives or legislation. The following are my notes from that back-and-forth…]

On the Peter Barnes’ Carbon-Cap-and-Dividend bill before Congress:

Speaker on the philosophy behind the bill: We all own the air. Polluters should pay for polluting. If you want to impose a fee for the extraction of polluting fuels, do so at the source. Ratchet down the cap on CO2 emissions by 2% per year, meaning that the cost of polluting will go up. Make the oil and gas companies bid against each other for the right to pollute by auctioning off pollution credits. The money raised—estimated to be about $1000 per person for 150 million taxpayers—would be distributed equally to each citizen.

Lakoff on oil and gas severance taxes: Don’t call anything a “severance tax”. This is bad framing. “Oil depletion fee” would be good.

Lakoff on other questions: Liberals must take back the good words that we have forfeited: freedom and liberty (others?). “Single-payer health care”—bad framing. “Doctor-patient-run health care” is better. (HB676—good). Say what you really mean. Say what values are behind your idea. Then, say why it isn’t crazy. [Show how your values are served by your policy proposal.—Ed.]

Monday, June 16, 2008

The Case against Moderation, Part I

Everywhere I go for political wisdom these days, I'm hearing stuff like, "The way to victory is for the progressives to move toward the middle, the center of American political thought. That's where the votes are--the independents and the undecideds that can be the key to victory. Change will come but we must be patient, finding middle ground where we can and waiting for calmer waters when we can't."

Well, no doubt, patience is a virtue--when virtue is plentiful. The problem is that that's no longer the case. Ultra-rightist thinking has dominated our national policy for the past seven years now--soon to be eight. As a result, we are in such a pickle that, in order to restore balance, the pendulum will have to swing just as far to the left, though without the name-calling and obstreperousness.

[Queer question (question you are not likely to hear while listening to NPR or PBS): Why is it that it is the liberals who are always advocating for caution, measured steps, moderation, and compromise? Hasn't it been the liberals who have been the ones to move the country forward toward real progress (as opposed to conquest)? Haven't we been the ones who have woven the safety net, balanced the budget, created sustained stock market growth, and brought justice and freedom to more people? Why should we feel that it is US who must compromise our principles in order to achieve anything?]

I'll tell you why. It's because we know that the other side is fundamentally incapable of moderation. This didn't used to be true of Republicans but it certainly is now. These ideologues, with few exceptions, only understand one thing and that is power. We on the left must realize that we will only save the planet and nation by going over them, not around or alongside them. They are only concerned about preserving their power. We are the only ones concerned about the common good, solving more problems than we create, and passing on to future generations an American Dream worthy of the name. Centrism, as George Lakoff claims, is not a political philosophy at all but rather a strategy. Unfortunately, it is too little, too late to make a real difference. This I firmly believe. It is why I believe that, ultimately, the Clinton administration was a failed one. He sold the heart of the Democratic Party for political expediency. He, more than any other man, made the word "liberal" anathema.

I still say that we need another FDR. Sure, he campaigned as a centrist. But when he was in office, he governed as a liberal and he saved the nation from its greatest crises of the 20th Century (and I'm not forgetting the Cold War here). He was not afraid of the backlash. In fact, he said that he "welcomed" the hatred of the elite who called him a traitor to his class. His courage and wisdom won him reelection twice. THAT is the lesson that I hope Barack Obama learns when he is in office.