What's the Frequency Lakoff?

It’s religious emotion, not language, that dooms Democrats.

Will Wilkinson

[Read the explanation of this post.]

The Berkeley linguist George Lakoff was a semi-famous academic when he walked into a retreat of Democratic senators in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in May 2003. He walked out as one of the most popular gurus in politics. Hillary Clinton wanted to do lunch. Tom Daschle invited Lakoff to come to D.C. for further schooling. By 2004 he had Howard Dean, noted screamer and future head of the Democratic Party, penning an enthusiastic forward to his pre-election manifesto, Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate. Lakoff’s claim? Reagan-loving pols win because of their masterful manipulation of language, not their substantive appeal; with supercharged “framing” Democrats can win, too.

Despite Lakoff’s sage instruction, Bush won a second term, and the GOP picked up seats in the House and Senate. The post-mortem to the 2004 presidential election showed that “moral values” were the “most important issue” for a plurality of voters, and that of those most moved by moral values, a whopping 80 percent punched their ticket for George W. Bush. That would seem to be more a matter of substance than style and a point against the idea that Republicans are winning simply because the mind of the hoi polloi has become a plaything of spellbinding word wizards like the Lakoffians’ demon of choice, the Republican pollster Frank Luntz. A small but vehement anti-Lakoff movement has arisen among Democratic commentators, with scathing critiques last year by Kenneth Baer in The Washington Monthly, Marc Cooper and Joshua Green (separately) in The Atlantic, and Matt Bai’s damning New York Times Magazine profile, which noted that Don’t Think of an Elephant had become “as ubiquitous among Democrats in the Capitol as Mao’s Little Red Book once was in the Forbidden City.” But despite the licking, Lakoff’s linguistic false consciousness doctrine keeps on ticking.

However, as Harvard psychologist Stephen Pinker argues in another Lakoff takedown in that appeared in the New Republic, Lakoff’s theories are both bad psychology and bad politics, and the one plays into the other. A better diagnosis of the Dem’s trouble with “moral values” voters might help them claim future victories based on more than Bush fatigue and scandalous instant messages to teenage pages. And better ideas are out there: if liberals take a good hard look at what separates them emotionally from most flag-waving, churchgoing Americans, they can better address their weaknesses.

In his new book, Whose Freedom: The Battle over America’s Most Important Idea, Lakoff dusts off his greatest hits and argues that “The conservative dominance of political discourse has been changing what Americans mean by common sense.” According to Lakoff, the post–Great Society welfare state embodies to near-perfection the “traditional” American conception of freedom. Right-wing newspeak threatens to destroy the real freedom we proud Americans cherish, or would cherish, if only our minds had not been colonized by right-wing newspeak.

Lakoff gets reinforcement from fellow Berkeley linguist Geoffrey Nunberg, author of the maximally subtitled Talking Right: How Conservatives Turned Liberalism into a Tax-Raising, Latte-Drinking, Sushi-Eating, Volvo-Driving, New York Times-Reading, Body-Piercing, Hollywood-Loving, Left-Wing Freakshow. Though Nunberg, to his credit, rejects Lakoff’s poorly supported theory that all thinking is based in metaphor, they agree on the root cause of the Democrats’ slump. “[T]he left has lost the battle for language itself,” Nunberg writes. “When we talk about politics nowadays…we can’t help using language that embodies the worldview of the right.” If “values voters” tilt right, that’s just because the word “values” has itself become loaded with conservative connotations.

Disappointed Marxists used the idea of “false consciousness” to explain why the oppressed workingman failed to rise in revolt with outrage at his exploitation; his mind had been hijacked by enemy propaganda. False consciousness explanations are powerful—so powerful that anyone can trot one out in a pinch to explain why people who don’t seem hypnotized would nevertheless affirm what the sane and upright despise. Fox News and conservative talk radio would go dead if they couldn’t wheel out the alleged leftist death-grip on academia, Hollywood, and the mainstream media to explain the otherwise inconceivable existence of anti-war protesters, practicing homosexuals, and legal fetus-killing. Nunberg and Lakoff’s tricked-out linguistic versions of false consciousness are barely better. Democrats interested in winning must surrender this disreputable redoubt of desperation and aim at an account of their woes that is more “reality-based.”

Even doggedly ill-informed voters sometimes notice bad results, and the Democrats may be able ride Republican incompetence and corruption to power. But in case the entire GOP doesn’t pull a Ralph Reed, Democrats should face up to the likely possibility that voters are rejecting the content of their message, not just the style. Maybe heavy unionization, comprehensive regulation, high taxes, free-flowing welfare, lax policing, and a passive military posture would have been unpopular in Topeka with or without linguistic shenanigans.

More than just helping Democrats escape the hard truth about unpopular positions, the linguistic mindwarp thesis also blinds the Democrats to their problem relating to voters on crucial non-linguistic frequencies. If they’ve got to have a guru, Democrats should enlist Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at the University of Virginia who specializes in the moral emotions, and whose innovative research offers liberals—and libertarians, too—a better picture of their problems.

Working in the emotion-centered tradition of David Hume and Adam Smith’s moral philosophy, Haidt’s research leads him to posit five psychological foundations of human moral sentiment, each with a distinct evolutionary history and function, which he labels harm, reciprocity, ingroup, hierarchy, and purity. While the five foundations are universal, cultures build upon each to varying degrees. Imagine five adjustable slides on a stereo equalizer that can be turned up or down to produce different balances of sound. An equalizer preset like “Show Tunes” will turn down the bass and “Hip Hop” will turn it up, but neither turn it off. Similarly, societies modulate the dimension of moral emotions differently, creating a distinctive cultural profile of moral feeling, judgment, and justification. If you’re a sharia devotee ready to stone adulterers and slaughter infidels, you have purity and ingroup pushed up to eleven. PETA members, who vibrate to the pain of other species, have turned ingroup way down and harm way up.

Denizens of liberal democracies tend to be relatively tuned in to harm and reciprocity—concerned with suffering, violations of autonomy, fairness, and justice—while less sensitive to the tribalism and xenophobia of ingroup, the class-bound inequality of hierarchy, and the sense of the sacred and profane wrapped up in purity. That this pattern of sentiment is broadly shared is largely what it means for a society to be liberal.

Haidt’s studies, which involve confronting subjects with often bizarre moral scenarios (there is plenty of material about incest and dead animals) and evaluating their responses, suggest that while Democrat-leaning liberals draw almost exclusively from harm and reciprocity, Republican-leaning conservatives draw more from the whole range of moral emotion. “Conservatives have many moral concerns that liberals simply do not recognize as moral concerns,” Haidt and collaborator Jesse Graham write in a forthcoming paper for Social Justice Research. “When conservatives talk about virtues and policies based on the ingroup, hierarchy, and purity foundations, liberals hear talk about theta waves,” Haidt and Graham’s term for imaginary transmissions from space.

Most intriguing is the possibility of systematic left-right differences on the purity dimension, which Haidt pegs as the source of religious emotion. In a fascinating chapter in his illuminating recent book, The Happiness Hypothesis, Haidt explains how a primal biological system—the disgust system—designed to keep us clear of rotten meat, expanded over our evolutionary history to encompass sexual norms, physical deformations, and much more. Haidt asks us to “Imagine visiting a town where people wear no clothes, never bathe, have sex ‘doggy-style’ in public, and eat raw meat by biting off pieces directly from the carcass.” Disgusting? No doubt. Immoral? If your thought is, “Well, they’re not violating anyone’s rights,” then, Haidt predicts, you probably didn’t vote for Bush.

The flipside of disgust is the emotion Haidt calls “elevation,” based in a sense of purification and transcendence of our animal incarnation. Cultures the world over picture humanity as midway on a ladder of being between the demonically disgusting and the divinely pure. Most world religions express it through taboos of food, body, and sex, and in rituals of de-animalizing purification and sacralization. The warm, open sense of elevation and the shivering nausea of disgust are high and low notes in the same emotional key.

Haidt’s suggestion is partly that morally broad-band conservatives are better able to exploit the emotional logic of religiosity by deploying rhetoric and imagery that calls on powerful sentiments of elevation and disgust. A bit deaf to the divine, narrow-band liberals are at a disadvantage to stir religious Americans. And there are a lot of religious Americans out there.

According to the University of Michigan political scientist Ronald Inglehart and Harvard political scientist Pippa Norris, Americans are more religious than citizens of every liberal democracy except Ireland. A recent study by three University of Minnesota sociologists, Penny Edgell, Joseph Gerteis, and Douglas Hartmann, found that Americans trust spiritually insensate atheists less than Muslims, immigrants, lesbians, and probably even the French when it comes to “sharing their vision of American society.” Pew Research Center surveys show that church attendance now predicts Republican and Democratic voting patterns better than income or education. And some of us, like presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, the miraculous Mormon Republican former governor of Massachusetts, grew up believing that Zion is just east of Kansas City. Legions of Americans have the sense that Jesus smiles upon the Constitution, that tiny unborn babies breathe the breath of God, and that the body is a temple drugs defile. Few religious Americans hesitate to speak of America as God’s own land, even if they don’t think the New Jerusalem is in Missouri.

The much-vaunted “values-voters” were casting their ballot for a man with a broad-band religious morality, like theirs. When George Bush says “Our nation is chosen by God and commissioned by history to be a model to the world,” people who feel this to be true know he’s tuned in, too. But when Al Gore says, “I believe that God’s hand has touched the United States of America,” they hear Al Gore expediently aiming to prove his spiritual qualifications for the presidency. That’s a real, deep problem that has nothing much to do with language. The liberal pundit Matthew Yglesias gets to the heart of the matter when he advises that “Democrats who don’t believe marriage is between a man and a woman but who feel they ought to pretend to believe this in order to win elections…need to do a better job of pretending.” But they’d be better off if they didn’t need to fake it in the first place. When it comes to the emotional politics of divinity, narrow-band Democrats are outgunned. Opportunistic fag-bashing and strategic God-talk won’t cut it.

Is the narrower morality of liberalism a form of moral retardation or enlightenment? That’s a question that also breaks along ideological lines. “Shallow are the souls that have forgotten how to shudder,” says the conservative Leon Kass, former head of President Bush’s Council on Bioethics, in defense of what he calls “the wisdom of repugnance”—the moral authority of the digust-purity dimension of feeling. But the liberal philosopher Martha Nussbaum, in her book Hiding from Humanity, argues that though emotions such as anger or fear sometimes embody reasons we can offer to others as legitimate justification for action, disgust is uniquely inarticulate, implying no real reason beyond itself, and so is unfit as a basis for persuasion and policy in an open, pluralistic society.

Tens of millions of Americans are viscerally disgusted by gay sex and therefore see the marriage of Adam and Steve as the debasement of a sacred rite. Nussbaum, and others who share her characteristically liberal style of feeling and justification, wouldn’t count that reaction as an argument at all. But that doesn’t stop tens of millions who dwell within the emotional reality of the sacred and profane from being completely persuaded by it. As Nussbaum notes, there is little hope of reasoning them out of it. An America less fueled by religious feeling—one that tuned down the purity dimension to Danish levels—might be a more just America. But you don’t start with the voters you’d like to have.

What, then, are Democrats to do? (And what about libertarians, who tend to have even more tolerance than the average Democrat for godless debasement?) Democrats can try to appeal to religious American voters by giving some ground in the culture wars. But it seems unlikely they will find an effective balance. There is no point conceding stuff too trivial to really matter, such as school prayer, and comically pretending to be moved by the pure and the foul. And there is even less point in nominating religiously convincing candidates who really do believe embryos have the spark of divinity, that gay is gross, etc. Socialized health care isn’t worth it.

Democrats should play to their own moral-emotional strengths, not apologize for not having different ones. Haidt’s early research on moralized disgust shows that its cultural manifestations vary. The Japanese apparently find it disgusting to fail their station and its duties. And here at home, formerly “repulsive” practices, such as interracial marriage, have become mere curiosities.

Despite its political salience, American religiosity is eroding. Inglehart’s and Norris’ research indicates that America, like Europe, is becoming more secular over time, “although this trend has been partly masked by massive immigration of people with relatively traditional worldviews, and high fertility rates, from Hispanic countries.” We may be stuck with our voters, but not with the configuration of their moral sensibilities. And despite all those Republican majorities, the margins are thin; if swing voters were that keenly attuned to their religious sentiments, they’d be Mel Gibson fans, not swing voters.

Democrats shouldn’t cater to and reinforce sensibilities that both hurt people and hurt the Democrats’ prospects. Religious doctrine and religious feeling can and have been trimmed and shaped over time to accommodate the full plurality of liberal society. Illiberal patterns of feeling bolstered by religious sentiments, like disgust for homosexuality, can be broken through slow desensitization, or a shift in the way the culture recruits that dimension of the moral sense. In dynamic commercial societies, this happens whether we want it to or not. But we have something to say about how it happens. The culture war is worth fighting, one episode of Will & Grace at a time, if that’s what it takes.

Liberals must understand the profundity to others of feelings that are weak in them, but shouldn’t pretend to feel what they don’t. They can lead as well as follow. And it remains true that all Americans, conservative and liberal alike, are wide awake to the liberal emotional dimensions of harm and reciprocity. The American culture war is about how thoroughly the liberal sentiments will be allowed to dominate. If a thoroughly liberal society is worth having, liberals will have to spot the points of conflict between the liberal and illiberal dimensions of the moral sense, drive in the wedge, and pull out all the rhetorical stops—including playing on feelings of quasi-religious elevation and indignant moral disgust—to make Americans feel the moral primacy of harm, autonomy, and rights. When the pattern of feeling is in place, the argument is easy to accept.

Haidt can’t help Democrats with their lousy economic policy, but he can at least help them see where much of their problem lies. Democrats’ problem isn’t the Republican lock on semantics; it’s the Republican lock on illiberal sentiment. But Democrats simply will not win a contest of religious emotion, no matter how dazzling the “framing.” Their best long-term hopes rest in moving the fight to a battlefield with more favorable terrain.

Perhaps Haidt’s most significant contribution is helping liberals of all stripes see that liberalism is not a mere intellectual commitment, but a condition of the soul, a condition to be proud of—one that puts us at a far remove from tribalism, caste, and theocracy. The culture war is real. It’s a war over the calibration of our moral sentiments, and mere “messaging” won’t win it. Democrats ought to buy George Lakoff a gold watch, send him off to the home for superannuated gurus, and start boning up on the new science of moral emotion.

Will Wilkinson is a policy analyst at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C.