The Political Mind: Why You Can't Understand 21st-century Politics with an 18th-century Brain

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Viking, 2008 - Political Science - 292 pages
4 Reviews
In What┬'s the Matter with Kansas?, Thomas Frank pointed out that a great number of Americans actually vote against their own interests. In The Political Mind, George Lakoff explains why.

As it turns out, human beings are not the rational creatures we┬'ve so long imagined ourselves to be. Ideas, morals, and values do not exist somewhere outside the body, ready to be examined and put to use. Instead, they exist quite literally inside the brain┬—and they take physical shape there. For example, we form particular kinds of narratives in our minds just like we form specific muscle memories such as typing or dancing, and then we fit new information into those narratives. Getting that information out of one narrative type and into another┬—or building a whole new narrative altogether┬—can be as hard as learning to play the banjo. Changing your mind isn┬'t like changing your body┬—it┬'s the same thing.

But as long as progressive politicians and activists persist in believing that people use an objective system of reasoning to decide on their politics, the Democrats will continue to lose elections. They must wrest control of the terms of the debate from their opponents rather than accepting their frame and trying to argue within it.

This passionate, erudite, and groundbreaking book will appeal to readers of Steven Pinker and Thomas Frank. It is a fascinating read for anyone interested in how the mind works, how society works, and how they work together.

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The first few chapters are a bit dry and technical as the author sets up his premises and explains his terminology. I feel like he has a strong point, but on occasion his hard-left personal leanings seem to overpower his objectivity. He constantly makes positive references towards progressivism (which he defines as being based on the idea of empathy for, and "protection"/"empowerment" of individuals) and negative ones towards conservatism (which he defines as being unempathetic, structure based, and authoritarian).
One example of where his bias shows up is when he uses the issue of abortion to demonstrate progressive vs conservative thinking. In a nutshell:
Progressives, he contends, view the issue as one of empathy for the woman with an unplanned pregnancy, protection of her right to "control her own body", and empowerment of the rights of the woman.
On the other hand, conservatives treat the unplanned pregnancy as an issue of "punishment" for immoral behavior on the part of the woman. (He refers to this as the "strict father" school of morality.)
His tone and language make it clear that he feels the progressive "framing" of the issue is correct and to be embraced while the "conservative" framing is to be ridiculed and rejected as an evil thing.
However, he completely misses the idea that a conservative on the issue of abortion could be framing his pro-life position in the SAME WAY as the progressive: empathy (for the pre-born baby), and protection/empowerment of ITS rights (primarily that to not be summarily killed by its own mother).
Furthermore, is blanket dismissal of any idea of responsibility on the mother's part as "strict father" thinking plays right into the charge of the "irresponsible left".
There are other examples in the book of that sort of barely beneath the surface bias.
Nevertheless, Lakoff's book is well written and makes a clear case in general. I enjoyed it and I think the Left would do well to embrace his thoughts on how to more effectively frame it's arguments in a persuasive manner.

Review: The Political Mind: Why You Can't Understand 21st-Century American Politics with an 18th-Century Brain

User Review  - Matt - Goodreads

Aside from the definition of metaphor and the useless neuroscientific information, I'm pretty sure I knew everything in this book before I read it. Read full review

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About the author (2008)

George Lakoff is Richard and Rhoda Goldman Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley and Senior Fellow at the Rockridge Institute, a think tank in Berkeley. He is author of Don┬'t Think of an Elephant!, Moral Politics, Whose Freedom?, and coauthor of Thinking Points: A Progressive┬'s Handbook, as well as many books and articles on cognitive science and linguistics.

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