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George Lakoff: Low Information or High Morality?

The job of progressives is to speak morally to morally complex voters to activate the progressive moral system already there in their brains.

With Mitt Romney’s choice of Paul Ryan as his running mate, the Obama and Romney bases are coming together, and both candidates are going after the few million voters in battleground states that matter most in elections: the “swing voters,” “independents” and others whose minds can be changed. These include what pundits have been calling “low-information voters,” a term used mainly by liberals to refer to those who vote conservative against their own interests, presumably because they get their information from Fox News, talk shows and equally uninformed family members. The assumption is, of course, that if only they had the real facts, they would vote Democratic.

These liberals have reacted with glee to the Ryan choice. They have launched a barrage of facts about the Ryan budget. It would gut Medicare and threaten other programs that the middle class depends on economically. Again, the assumption here is that even “low-information voters” will vote their economic interest if they get enough true economic facts and figures about their self-interest thrown at them.

There is reason to doubt this.

I recall a conversation I had with Richard Wirthlin, Ronald Reagan’s chief strategist. In Wirthlin’s first poll for Reagan, he found that most voters disliked Reagan’s policies, but wanted to vote for him. There was, he discovered, a set of related reasons: Reagan spoke about values and used issues only to illuminate values. Values trump policies.

Reagan communicated well, and connected with voters. He appeared authentic, saying what he believed. As a result, voters could trust what he would do, even if they disagreed. And so, they could identify with him as morally strong, authentic, trustworthy and even personable – a man of character. Wirthlin ran Reagan’s campaign on that basis. While Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale were arguing issues with facts and figures, Reagan won.

Now we have Paul Ryan: He is sincere, personable, has clear values, connects, communicates. You can trust him to do what he says – even though you might disagree with him.

What Reagan understood, and many Republicans have learned well, is that politics is about morality. Political leaders present their policies on the grounds that they are right. It’s just that they have different ideas of what is right. That is to say, they have different moral systems.

Democrats tend to see democracy as having this moral basis: Citizens care about one another and act on that care through their government, creating a “public” – a system of public provisions to protect and empower everybody equally. From the beginning, Americans have provided public roads and bridges, public schools, public hospitals, municipal sewers, public records, a judiciary, police, a patent office.

And since then, Americans have come to need and have provided much more – agencies to protect public health, public safety, advance scientific research for the public good, public parks and beaches, public art and so on.

These public provisions free us – it is a freedom issue – to have decent lives and start businesses that use what the Public provides. All of this is what President Obama was referring to, when he said, “If you built a business, you didn’t build that” – “that” being, namely, the roads, the schools, the Internet, GPS, and so on. The role of the Public is a moral issue and a freedom issue. Individualism can flourish only with the prior practical freedoms provided by the Public.

Conservatives see democracy through a different moral lens. They see democracy as providing the liberty to pursue your own self-interest and well-being without responsibility for the interests or well-being of others. This is the Romney-Ryan view. They don’t believe there should be a robust Public. They want to dismantle and destroy it, step by step, and the mechanism is the Ryan budget. They want to change the moral basis of American life by budgetary force.

Over the past 40 years, the conservative communications system has framed all issues in terms of conservative morality. Framing is much more than words. We think in terms of “frames,” that is, humans understand words by defining them relative to a mental structure or “frame.” Frames are neural circuits in the brain.

All of your thoughts use frame-circuits. Everything you understand makes use of frame-circuits. If the frame-circuits for progressive moral ideas are absent, then progressive policies will either make no sense and seem ridiculous, and will be ignored or rejected out of hand.

In politics, frames form political systems rooted in morality. When you hear conservative language, conservative frame-circuits are activated. The more they are activated, the stronger they get. Over four decades of repetition, they have gotten very strong in the brains of many Americans.

The scary thing about frame-circuits is that you can only understand what your frame-circuits allow you to. This answers Thomas Frank’s question, which became the title of his popular book: “What’s the matter with Kansas?” A lot of folks in Kansas have only conservative frames. They are high-morality voters with a conservative morality. Calling them “low-information voters” is pejorative – just the kind of thing that they would expect from the “liberal elite,” which is an idea invented by conservative strategists 40 years ago, and one repeated often enough to have stuck with conservative populists.

To speak of “low-information voters” will offend voters whom Democrats need to win over. What may save this situation is that many voters are morally complex. They are conservative on some issues and progressive on other, with both moral systems. The more one system is turned on in the brain, the stronger it gets and the weaker the other gets.

For example, Reagan Democrats were morally complex, often in the working class – conservative in family values and support for the military, liberal otherwise. By speaking about conservative moral values, Reagan activated those values already there in the brains of those Democrats and thereby strengthened them. Carter and Mondale, talking policy, not values, did not strengthen their liberal values. That made those voters susceptible to Reagan’s other appeals.

The job of progressives is to speak morally to morally complex voters to activate the progressive moral system already there in their brains. That is, use your language, not conservative language. Repeat it. Brains don’t change without repetition. As with muscles, the more a neural circuit fires, the stronger its synapses get.

My advice to Democrats: Say what you believe. And tell deep truths, like the truth that the Private Depends on the Public. It is not just an economic truth; it is a truth on which the moral basis of democracy depends. It is truth that transcends individual issues, even crucial ones like Medicare, education, abortion, the environment.

A budget that systematically defunds public institutions soon destroys them forever. Public institutions take a long time and a lot of citizen effort, dedication and funding to build and maintain. When the Public itself is defunded and its institutions destroyed, the moral basis of American life – the ties that bind us together as a nation – will be gone. Unregulated corporations with a dedication to maximizing short-term profit and not public benefit will not, and cannot, replace what public institutions do to serve our freedom.

How to talk Republican, how to talk Democratic

A brief, oversimplified guide to the differences in language between the Republican and Democratic conventions:


— We do it together and government helps us all.


— We do it alone and government gets in the way.

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