Recently I picked up a book called The Political Mind by George Lackoff at the local dollar store. It was written before the election of Obama, but it makes sense out of something I had a great deal of trouble understanding: Why would people vote against their own best interests? To rephrase that – why are people irrational. Why would a person of moderate means be against government programs to most likely benefit him or her the most?  Why do the governors of states such as S.D. and Nebraska(red states) who receive much more federal aid than the tax revenue they return seem to  be opposed to federal aid in their support of budget cuts on the federal level?

Lackoff, using scientific knowledge of how people think and their subconsious thought as well as the influence of cultural myth or story, has an interesting explanation. We tend to buy into certain patterns of thought: one ingrained in much of our society is the patriarchal one — the strong father image. Perhaps that explains why this country has had no female Presidents even though countries we consider far less advanced have. I’ve often wondered why the a number of the conservatives  esp. the southern “tea party”  seem to reject the idea of evolution, yet seem to love the idea of “survival of the fittest”, an element of evolutionary thought that frightened its Christian opponents such as Bryan in the famous Scopes trial. Perhaps this view is also a response to the “rags to riches” stories– that success is somehow equated with one’s hard work and character when reality will show that no one is a self-made “man”. Warren Buffett himself said he was lucky to be born with a gift for numbers in a time and culture that rewarded that talent.
Lackoff  describes an essential difference in the philosophy of our current political parties.  He sees Democratic philosophy as tending toward the empathetic – more concerned with the welfare of all. Current Republican philosophy tends more toward the legalistic (reward and punishment): rewards to those who deserve it and punishment to the others…the deserving supposedly being the talented and hard working. (Perhaps that is why there is a resurgence in Ayn Rand  among some conservative youth. It is understandable that a young, talented, ambitious,and self-centered youth might want to believe that..but no one is young forever..and no one can predict what life may bring. Experience teaches the wise the truth of reality). Furthermore, the public is subject to the subconscious emotional conditioning aroused by certain words (why did Republicans compare the budget of a government to a family….because family resonates with the ordinary person when a government is much more complex and far reaching).

Lackoff also points out that no matter what (except at the very extremes of party)people often hold opinions inconsistent with the party’s usual view or even their own.  And so Democrats want Obama to be a STRONG leader (patriarchal) in the “showdown” with the Republicans rather than a compromiser.  There is that famous Tea Party sign shown on the internet – Don’t mess with my social security .   A staunch believer in government staying out of people’s lives is against the legalization of abortion (gov’t staying out of personal lives).   A staunch believer in legal abortion opposes the death penalty.  Citizen would never think only the wealthy should have access to police or fire protectiong — that is a public service we want our taxes to support — but yet so many abhor the idea of a national health system…even though that may be even more important in protecting the lives of citizens that a police force.  We are more likely to need health care to survive than to die from violence.  A citizen opposed to government welfare is the first one to apply for disaster funds when his house is destroyed in a tornado or flood.  Some of my friends who applaud the idea of cutting social programs to balance the budget and lower taxes would most likely be the first to seek aid for an elderly or disabled family member or a friend in that position.  Underlying these inconsistencies may be both the rational and the empathetic as well as the self-seeking.  We are a bundle of contradictions and it is important that we see this in ourselves.

Lackoff notes that Democrats are too focused on appealing to the public’s rationality– reflecting the ideas – the focus on reason of the Great Enlightenment that began this country.   Republicans have been much more effective in getting at the subconscious and playing on the treasured mythical stories of our culture.

He believes a true democracy must be concerned for the welfare of all of its people if it is to survive as a democracy.  He fears the current trend – he calls it immoral – toward a society with a vast divide between the ultra-wealthy and the middle and lower classes, for vast wealth transmits into vast power, which in itself threatens democracy and the very potention for opportunity for all.