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George Lakoff: How Right-Wingers Scam People Into Buying Their Toxic Philosophy

Here is what progressives can learn from right-wing messaging.

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Those are truths that are deeply embedded in the point of view of a progressive morality. There are other truths that are from conservative morality. They’re opposites, and because they’re opposites you’re going to get conflict. One thing that’s important to understand is that most people have a little of both. Most people are conservative about some things and progressive about others. Some people are almost all progressive and some are almost all conservative.

But there are a lot of people who are mixed and they’re called moderates or centrists, though there is no explicit ideology of the moderation. There’s no ideology of the independent or the swing voter. What you have are two different moral systems in the same brain which inhibit each other. One is active and the other is inactive. Activity in one turns off the other. The more one is active the stronger it gets and the weaker the other one gets.

What’s happened in this country is that language activates that moral system. The moral system is realized in frames. Frames are conceptual structures that we use to think in context. Language is defined in terms of those frames. When you use language that is conservative it’ll activate conservative frames which in turn activates conservative moral systems and strengthens those systems in people’s brains. That’s been happening for the past three decades. Conservatives have a remarkable communication system and a language system that they’ve constructed. They get out there and use their language and frames and repeat them over and over. The more they repeat it the greater their effect on people’s brains. Democrats don’t do that and as a result the conservatives have framed almost every issue.

What T he Little Blue Book does is show how to deal with that. How to understand your own moral frames and how to see deep truths that conservative frames hide. For example: that the private depends on the public.

JH: I think this is a really important point that you get at in the book – that people don’t evaluate issues in isolation. Sometimes you’ll see the polling on something --  one example is that overwhelming majorities of people, even those who identify as conservative, say the government should do more to alleviate poverty. But when you get into specific policies that would achieve that end, you find very different results.

You write, “when you mention a specific issue all of the frames and values higher up in the hierarchy are also activated. They define the moral context of the issue.”

So, are we all just fooling ourselves when we cite public opinion on some issue or another, and assuming that people will rationally support politicians who agree with us on those issues?

GL: Yes, you’re fooling yourself. Let me give you some striking examples of that. A lot of it depends on how the questions in the poll will be framed. When Obama was elected, before he took office, he had his pollster go out and check to see what possible provisions of a healthcare plan people would like. It turned out the provisions like capping expenses, or covering people with preconditions, or allowing your children to be on your healthcare plan when you go to college -- everybody liked those, like 60 to 80 percent of people, and they still do.

What was interesting is that conservatives never attacked them. Conservatives never came out and said we shouldn't cover preconditions or you shouldn’t have your children on your healthcare plan. They didn’t attack any of those provisions. What they did is they went to morality, as it is from their perspective. They said we’re going to have two moral principles here, freedom and life. From their perspective this was a government takeover and there were death panels. And they repeated government takeover and death panels over and over until a lot of the public – people who liked all of the provisions of the plan -- were now against the plan. The plan got minority support.

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