There was a terrible accident on a bridge where an elderly retired steelworker was driving home. An overloaded truck jackknifed in front of him and there was no place else for him to go. On the way back from the morgue, the son stopped at the scene of the accident but there were no obvious clues of what had happened- it had been cleaned up. How could his father die here and leave no trace? The place looked no different than it always had until the son glanced down and saw the red on the asphalt. He realizes this is his father’s blood. The big trucks are still driving- they don’t know- it’s just another mile of pavement to them but the son is taking off his coat and waving at the traffic and yelling, “Stop. You are driving over the blood of my father.”
Images of his father’s life fill his head- The steelworker was a proud to built bridges like this, but he had modest expectations- he was just trying to protect his family and do what’s best for them. He was just another guy whose generation fought for workers rights, supported programs like social security and medicare because they were structures spanning to future generations. A lot of blood and sweat went into those bridges. Although the drivers angrily honk at him, the son is not angry back. He knows that truckers and commuters driving by aren’t mean people. They are listening to their talk radio and like him they are trying to get by in life without shoving anyone. It’s just that they don’t see it like the son sees it.
Barack Obama has stated he wants his presidency to be transformational. He has called in historians to ask what it was that Reagan did to shift the nation into a new way of thinking about their government. They have failed to illuminate the President about why Reagan’s stories were more than anecdotes, more than slogans.
Conventional wisdom among democratic candidates for president is that decisions are best made independent of the disruptive interference of emotions. The science tells us something completely different. Research in neuroscience confirmed over a decade ago that decisions cannot be made without emotions.* The perfect presentation of this counter argument is difficult to find, but one that comes close is “Political Mind: Why you can’t understand 21st century politics with an 18th century brain”. It is by cognitive scientist George Lakoff. The trouble is that media strategists like Axelrod read such books as providing the scientific basis for the kind of political PR that they are experts at. There job is to market ideas by decorating them with messages producing deep emotional resonance. Ideas are the drivers at the center of the campaign and emotions are outside decorations. What the research says is that Emotion is the driver and the ideas are derivative from those emotions. It’s no good attempting to discover emotional associations of terms as Frank Luntz does with his focus group understanding of word choice. That sort of treatment of “language” expresses the childlike errors of the 18th century model of mind that resembles children wearing their clothes inside out. The narrative is not the window dressing on the outside to sell policy, it is what is at the core- on the inside of all the policies.
If Axelrod and Obama have finally learned this, it is not clear from recent speeches. They are laden with PolicySpeak, and this will lead to the same disasters as before. Policyspeak assumes that if you just tell people the policy facts, they will reason to the correct conclusion and support the policy wholeheartedly. This sounds like the high road, but it sounds delusional to a neurologist or cognitive scientist because reasoning is more complex than providing facts and coherent logical arguments. Reason cannot be divorced from literature, because literature is at the heart of the mind’s capacity to comprehend the world.
The fundamental literature of Politics is not a proxy for thought that the clever politician wraps around sound policy as if it were gift wrap. Rather it is the allegorical fabric of thought itself that forms the very structure from which those policies and political thoughts flow from.
Telling such binding allegories expresses not the triumph of policy by anecdote, it expresses the triumph of art written large on the canvas of a nation. It is the binding national story that only a charismatic President can tell.
*For a summary of the current neuroscience findings, see the “Decision Making” article in the Dana Guide to Brain Health. The claim is not restricted to social and moral decisions. Research by Bechara, Damasio, Damasio & Anderson was published in 1994 and formed the basis of this thinking. The material is presented by the authors in this article appearing in the 10/2000 issue of Cerebral Cortex.
Posted on 2012-01-15, in 2012 Elections, Barack Obama, class warfare, collective consciousness, identity, logos, narratives, Reagan, reality bending and tagged George Lakoff. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.