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The Mind and the Obama Magic

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Barack Obama should not move, or even appear to be moving, toward right-wing views on issues -- even with nuanced escape clauses. Arianna Huffington, Paul Krugman, and the NY Times Editorial Page all agree, for various reasons. I agree as well, for many of the same reasons, as well as important reasons that go beyond even excellent political commentary. My reasons have to do with results in the cognitive and brain sciences, as discussed in my recent book, The Political Mind: Why You Can't Understand 21st Century Politics with an 18th Century Brain.

But before I get into the details, it is important to get a sense of why Obama might be "moving to the Right." There are at least three possibilities. The first is for political expediency. The second is to reassure voters that he is a responsible leader, not a crazy radical. The third is that he thinks that nuanced positions don't have the effect of the moving to the right.

Let's start with the first possibility -- expediency, the one assumed by most observers.

The Political Expediency Argument

The usual political wisdom is (1) voters vote on the basis of positions on issues, (2) there is a left-to-right spectrum of voters defined by positions on issues, (3) most voters are in the "center." Polls are constructed to appear consistent with this tri-partite hypothesis. The Dick Morris strategy, based on this hypothesis, says: if a Democrat moves the Right, he will get more votes because he will "take away" the other side's issues. If Obama and his advisors believe this, then the more they more to the Right, the bigger their win should be. But all three hypotheses are false, and so is the conclusion based on it.

First, voters mostly vote not on the details of positions on issues, but on five aspects of what might be called "character," as Richard Wirthlin discovered in the 1980 Reagan campaign. They are Values (What are the ethical principles that form the basis of your politics?); Authenticity (Do you say what you believe?); Communication (Do you connect with voters and inspire them?); Judgment; Trust; and Identity (If you share voters' values, connect with them, tell them the truth effectively while inspiring trust, then they will identify with you -- and they will voter for you. Positions on issues matter when they come to stand symbolically for values. Reagan and George W. Bush understood this. Carter, Mondale, Gore, and Kerry did not. And in the primaries. Hillary Clinton did not get it (she focused on policy, while Obama and McCain focused more on character, on who he was).

Values, authenticity, communication, judgment, and trust are not irrational reasons for voting for a president, even over positions on specific issues. The reason is that situations change, and what you rationally wind up depending on are just those virtues.

Obama introduced himself to the primary voters not as a policy wonk, but as a person of character, who announced his values, said what he believed (no pussyfooting), communicated beautifully and powerfully, and gave examples of his good judgment -- he was someone you could trust and identify with. That was a major part of the Obama magic. If Obama even appears to adopt Right-wing views for the sake of getting more votes, he will appear to be giving up on his values, renouncing his authenticity and believability, clouding his judgment, and raising questions about whether he can be trusted. The Obama magic will be in danger of fading.

Let us now turn to the second reason. There are two major modes of thought in American politics -- conservative and progressive, what I've called "strict" and "nurturant." We all grow up with brains exposed to both and capable of using both, but usually in different areas of life. Some people are conservative on foreign policy and progressive on domestic policy, or conservative on economic issues and progressive on social issues -- or the reverse. There is no left-to-right linear spectrum; all kinds of combinations occur. I've called such folks "biconceptuals." Brainwise, they show a common situation called "mutual inhibition," where two modes of thought are possible but the activation of one inhibits the other. The more you activate a conservative mode of thought, the more you inhibit the progressive mode of thought -- and the more likely it is that the conservative mode of thought will spread to other issues.

Interestingly, many people who call themselves "conservatives" actually think like progressives on a range of issue areas. For example, many "conservatives" love the land as much as any environmentalist; want to live in communities where people care about each other, that is, have social not just individual responsibility; live progressive business principles of honestly, care for their employees, and care for the public; and have progressive religious values: helping the poor, caring for the sick, being good stewards of the God's creation, turning the other cheek. One view of "bipartisanship" for progressives is finding self-described conservatives and independents who have such progressive values and working with them on that basis. That's what Obama did when he went to Rick Warren's megachurch and it is his strategy in Project Joshua. Note that this is the opposite of the form of bipartisanship that involves really adopting right-wing values, or even appearing to. What this bipartisan strategy does, from the brain's viewpoint, is to activate the progressive mode of thought in the brains of conservatives, and thus tends to inhibit conservative thought.

But the form of bipartisanship that involves adopting, or appearing to adopt, right-wing views has the opposite effect. It strengthens conservative thought in the brains on those biconceptuals and weakens progressive thought. In short, it actually helps conservatives. Rather than "taking arguments away from them" it strengthens their basic values and hence all their arguments. It give conservatives more reason, not less, for voting for conservatives.

If Obama adopts, or appears to adopt, right-wing positions, he may still win, since McCain is such a weak candidate. But it will hurt Democrats running for office all up and down the ticket, since it will strengthen general conservative positions on all issues and hence work in the favor of conservative candidates.

As has often been said, if you are a conservative, why vote for the progressive spouting conservative views when you can vote for a real conservative?

In short, if Obama adopts, or appears to adopt, rightwing views, he will not only hurt himself, but also hurt other Democrats.

The Responsibility Position

Suppose that Obama's motivation is not political expediency, but rather an attempt to counter both rightwing and centrist stereotypes of progressives as being irresponsible.

Adopting, or appearing to adopt, rightwing positions is not going to work, and will only hurt, for reasons given above. What is the alternative?

In The Audacity of Hope, Obama portrays what I would call progressive ideals as simply American ideals, and he continued that account throughout the primary campaign. I think it is a correct account. And I think it is the key to uniting the country without adopting rightwing views. From this perspective, responsibility and the strength and judgment to act responsibly works with empathy (caring about other people) to define the basic American ideals: freedom, fairness, equality, opportunity, and so on. One can speak from this perspective of "full responsibility" both social and individual as central to the American vision, and they say what it means to be both responsible and committed to American ideals in each issue area. Moving to rightwing views, and abandoning American ideals, is never necessary to win.

The Nuanced Policy Position

It is possible to add nuance to a policy to make it look like you are moving to the right without actually doing so in policy terms. This can seem to do double duty, avoiding criticisms without making really substantive changes. It is an illusion.

When Obama ran for Senator in Illinois he had to at least appear to support Illinois industries -- coal, ethanol, and nuclear energy. He has used nuanced escape clauses, such as if it turns out to be economically feasible, while aware that sequestered coal, corn ethanol, and nuclear could not be economically feasible. Is this good politics? It may have been for a new senator, but it is not for a president. The reason again is that doing so activates a conservative mode of thought and inhibits a progressive mode of thought, making the move to real alternative energy that much harder.

Positions like this depend on a deep mistake about policy. There are two aspects to policy: cognitive and material. Material policy is about the nuts and bolts, how things are to work in the world. Cognitive policy is about what the public has to have in its brain/mind in order to fully support the right material policies. Coal, nuclear energy, and ethanol are policy disasters, and even giving them support with nuanced escape clauses hurts the possibility of real energy reform, but it activates, and hence strengthens, the conservative modes of thought that lie behind those proposals.

The bottom line: A nuanced policy that looks like a rightward move has the cognitive effect of a rightward move. Cognitive effects matter awfully in presidential campaigns.

Can You Avoid Attacks?

No. No matter how many rightwing views you move toward, you will be viciously attacked as too liberal, as influenced by radicals, as inexperienced, as unpatriotic, as all words and no content. Stick to your core values. Be yourself. Voters will respect you.

Why Understanding the Political Mind Matters

Politics looks different from the perspective of the cognitive and brain sciences. That is why I have written The Political Mind. Your arguments change when you start with how the brain and mind really work.

From the brain's perspective, the pragmatic arguments and moral arguments converge: Don't adopt rightwing positions for the sake of political expediency (that will backfire) or to demonstrate responsibility (that too will backfire). The best way to be expedient is to be authentic, stick to your core values, show and discuss responsibility, and thus garner trust. That is how to lead our nation, and to do so responsibly and toward fulfillment of its ideals.

George Lakoff is the author of The Political Mind: Why You Can't Understand 20th Century American Politics with an 18th Century Brain. He is Goldman Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley.