Why You Can’t Understand 21st-Century Politics with an 18th-Century Brain


Of neural modeling, X-schemas, neurotransmitters and Dubya—signposts on the culture war whose “main battlefield is the brain.”

Reality, Stephen Colbert famously remarked, has a liberal bias. Yet liberal think-tanker Lakoff (Cognitive Science and Linguistics/Univ. of California, Berkeley; Whose Freedom?: The Battle Over America’s Most Important Idea, 2006, etc.) sets out to prove that we are a great deal less rational than we believe ourselves to be. Sure, reality has a liberal bias, and “American values are fundamentally progressive,” but the radical right has been winning that culture war at least in part because its tacticians have had a better grasp of our reptilian, fear-driven, emotional inner demons and played to them. “Cut and run,” the author notes by way of example. “Can you not think cowardice?” Borrowing a page from the late sociologist Erving Goffman, Lakoff examines a series of “framing issues,” the ways in which stories are told and political objectives laid out such that the outcome cannot help but favor the framer. Consider Iraq, for instance: All it would take would be for a skillful narrator to rejigger the frame, and suddenly our occupying army has need to stay for decades, the measure of victory being the guarantee of the safe flow of oil to America. “If the country broke up into three distinct states or autonomous governments,” Lakoff adds, “that too might be ‘victory’ as long as oil profits were guaranteed and Americans in the oil industry protected.” The frame is everything: By one frame Anna Nicole Smith is a gold-digger, by another a rags-to-riches success story; by one frame George Bush is a white-knuckle alcoholic, by another a redeemed sinner. The task for progressives, Lakoff asserts, is to start framing the stories better, outside of the narrative confines of the “Old Enlightenment,” lest the right continue its work of dismantling democracy without the left making a peep. The task is also to find an identity—as, Lakoff notes, Barry Goldwater so successfully did as a “biconceptual” conservative—and live up to it.

Smart and provocative—essential reading for political activists and policy wonks of any stripe.

Pub Date: June 2nd, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-670-01927-4
Page count: 288pp
Publisher: Viking
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15th, 2008


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