Sarah Palin and the Political Mind

McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin has certainly stirred up the Democrat-leaning blogosphere and now even the mass-media are moving to question her suitability as VP.

But, as George Lakoff (of Rockridge Institute fame) warns in a fine piece of analysis, elections turn not so much on policy specifics as on how the candidates and their policies are cognitively framed in voters’ minds.

The Democratic responses so far reflect external realities: she is inexperienced, knowing little or nothing about foreign policy or national issues; she is really an anti-feminist, wanting the government to enter women’s lives to block abortion, but not wanting the government to guarantee equal pay for equal work, or provide adequate child health coverage, or child care, or early childhood education; she shills for the oil and gas industry on drilling; she denies the scientific truths of global warming and evolution; she misuses her political authority; she opposes sex education and her daughter is pregnant; and, rather than being a maverick, she is on the whole a radical right-wing ideologue.

All true, so far as we can tell.

But such truths may nonetheless be largely irrelevant to this campaign. That is the lesson Democrats must learn. They must learn the reality of the political mind.

And in understanding this reality Conservative Republicans have a long lead.  Since Reagan they have been framing issues in Conservative ways so that from long repetition these have become familiar, safe and, well, right in the eyes of many voters.  As Lakoff puts it:

She has the image of the ideal conservative mom: pretty, perky, feminine, Bible-toting, and fitting into the ideal conservative family. And she fits the stereotype of America as small-town America. It is Reagan’s morning-in-America image. Where Obama thought of capturing the West, she is running for Sweetheart of the West.

And again:

Yes, the McCain-Palin ticket is weak on the major realities. But it is strong on the symbolic dimension of politics that Republicans are so good at marketing. Just arguing the realities, the issues, the hard truths should be enough in times this bad, but the political mind and its response to symbolism cannot be ignored. The initial Democratic response to Palin — the response based on realities alone — indicates that many Democrats have not learned the lessons of the Reagan and Bush years.

Obama is at long last moving Democrat tanks onto Republican turf by addressing the cognitive dimension of policy. 

Obama is right when he says that America is based on people caring about each other and working together for a better future-empathy, responsibility (both personal and social), and aspiration. These lead to a concept of government based on protection (environmental, consumer, worker, health care, and retirement protection) and empowerment (through infrastructure, public education, the banking system, the stock market, and the courts). Nobody can achieve the American Dream or live an American lifestyle without protection and empowerment by the government.

As a UK-based Lib Dem, this is a framing that very much appeals to me. So what lesson should we draw from this?

Surely, it is that evolving a coherent overarching narrative that operates on voters’ minds at the cognitive level is the beginning of political wisdom.  Yet this is something the Lib Dem establishment has never managed to do; they remain wedded to a policy shopping list approach which supposes that merely having the ‘best’ policies on each and every topic is enough (although the reality is that Lib Dem policies are often far from the ‘best’).  Two or three years ago I heard Chris Rennard espouse precisely this view – identify voters top concerns (typically a very short list including health, education, economy etc) then devise and push policies that focus on these, nothing else really matters. 

Obviously specific policies are needed, but they must fit comfortably into a cognitive framework and must be credible in their own right as each will in turn come under scrutiny from subject specialists.   And, if policies fit into an overarching framework then, almost by definition, they will be ‘joined up’ – justified by their contribution to the whole rather then simply because they look good in isolation.   This would revolutionize Lib Dem thinking. 

This is, of course, not as easy as it sounds.  On the other hand, it is a lot easier if you’re actually trying.


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