7 Days in America: Lakoff on Voters' Brains and Obama's Brain, with Huffington, vanden Heuvel & Green

11/26/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

So why is Obama in such a strong position in the final stretch? George Lakoff has a brainy explanation. Is Obama the Dems' Reagan?

7 Days in America, Interview with George Lakoff, October 23, 2008

GREEN: Explain to our listeners your analysis of how the brain's functions affects the way people vote.

LAKOFF: Well, it's straight out of neuroscience and cognitive science.... We all grew up with a view of reason that goes like this: that reason is conscious, that it is dispassionate (that emotion gets in the way of it), that it is literal (it can fit the world exactly as it is), that it is logical, that it is universal (we all have the same reason), that it is abstract, and that it is based on self-interest.... [But] it turns out every single part of that is empirically false, and disproved in neuroscience and cognitive science. First of all, 98 percent of our reason is unconscious; it's what our brain is doing when we're busy being conscious. Second, it turns out that you can't be rational without being emotional; emotional is necessary for rationality.

GREEN: How do Republicans use this insight to their political advantage?

LAKOFF: They come out of marketing, and since the early 70s they've been marketing their product very well -- and they've built the institutions to do so. They've spent over four billion dollars so far on think tanks, they have training institutes, they have bought media, and they come out every day with language that they've developed for their ideas, which they've repeated over and over. And the more you repeat the language for a frame or a metaphor, every time that happens, that frame or metaphor is activated in the brain, the synapses of the brain get stronger, and that becomes part of your brain.

GREEN: Can your analysis explain how Obama beat Clinton in the primaries?

LAKOFF: Well, first of all, Ronald Reagan learned from all of this that people vote not on the basis of positions on issues and on programs but on five things. Namely, values, communication and connection, trust, authenticity (do you tell the truth), and identity (do you identify with the candidate). Obama understood that, and ran his campaign that way. Clinton ran on the basis of positions on issues, and bored people, basically. She didn't run on those five things. Now, Obama had the positions on issues and all the experts, but that's not how he ran his operation against Clinton.

GREEN: OK, but now in the general election, is Obama's lead based on his positions on the issues -- the 2% of conscious decision-making according to you -- or on the other 98% based on images, stories, style and "authenticity"?

LAKOFF: Both. First, there's a very important fact, which is we have what are called "mirror neurons," that is, when the same neurons are firing when we perform an action as when we see someone else perform them, and that means that we react to people's bodies. When we see Obama, our bodies are loose because his body is loose: we feel comfortable in our skins. McCain is never comfortable in his skin: you feel tense when you see McCain. So body language is one important part of this. In addition, the most important concepts in the campaign that Obama is running is not "change," because "change" doesn't tell you anything. The most important concepts are the unconscious ones that he occasionally consciously talks about: empathy (caring about other people, having a government that cares about other people), responsibility (not just for yourself, but also social responsibility and community responsibility), and aspiration (for yourself, for your children, for your community and your country).

GREEN: Can the Republican ticket overcome his natural skills here by relentless personal attacks that appeal to the 98% of our brains that are not conscious?

LAKOFF: Well, this goes back to the late 60's. One of the things that Lee Atwater and his friends figured out in the Nixon campaign was to create the idea of the liberal elite: the tax-and-spend liberals, the Hollywood liberals, the limousine liberals who looked down on working people, the liberal media who made fun of working people. And they repeated that over and over for 40 years through their institutions that repeat this day after day. As a result, they created a bunch of folks through brain change: namely, the conservative populists. And that's who they were appealing to; they were trying to get the conservative populists in Ohio, Pennsylvania, many of the Democratic states to vote Republican, because these were among the Reagan Democrats

GREEN: Might Obama's intellectual style -- the way he's so linear, logcial, legal -- be a liability by only appealing to 2%?

LAKOFF: If you read his books, he is great at the other 98%. He's a grand storyteller, the stories are about metaphor. He's a master at those things, and he's thinking about the economy and foreign policy in a very imaginative way.

GREEN: Beyond ideology then, is Obama the Democratic Reagan?

LAKOFF: He may very well be, because he can bring people together, he can communicate amazingly, he has a charisma beyond anything that we've seen since Bobby Kennedy, and because he's really deep. He's not just smart, not just intellectual, not just rational -- this is a person who is really deep.

Listen to the entire show at

7 Days in America, Panel with Huffington, vanden Heuvel and Green, October 24, 2008

GREEN: Why are all these GOPers -- like Powell, Adelman, Weld, the Chicago Tribune, Chris Buckley, Susan Eisenhower, Goldwater's grandkids -- abandoning ship?

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: I think actually, from my conversations with my Republican friends who are voting for Obama, including my ex-husband, the main reason has been Sarah Palin. I think it has made them sit up and look at McCain again and say "you're putting your country first and you're choosing Sarah Palin as your VP nominee?" It has been like the clock that strikes 13. I think [that choice] was very consequential, but not for all the reasons that Palin was being attacked in the beginning, like that she was the mayor of a small town, and that she didn't have the experience...none of those reasons mattered. What mattered is that Sarah Palin turned out to be a complete know-nothing, who was arrogant enough not to know that she knew nothing! And that was just about as dangerous as anything, and the country knew that, because we have just been through eight years with a president like that.

GREEN: What do you think about McCain in the past day so harshly and comprehensively attacking W's economic and international policies?

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: He's flailing about. You know, as Arianna said so well, the selection of Sarah Palin has raised so many doubts about this maverick, non-maverick...who is he? The word du jour is 'erratic.' But he doesn't know who he is, and I think it's that sense of a man flailing about which has made people at this moment of extreme economic pain and anxiety turn away. His unfavorables are at extraordinarily high levels, and the whole 'experience' card has gone nowhere. You know, at a moment when economic anxiety is kind of the new terrorism, and a man who doesn't seem to have his hand on the tiller is trying to find a new campaign at the very last moment, and people don't like it.

GREEN: Will Biden's "gaffe" about Obama being "tested" have any traction in these last 9 days -- since McCain is certainly trying to exploit it?

HUFFINGTON: His gaffe was unbelieveable -- there's no real explanation for it. But I think what is despicable is the way McCain is using it. And then he uses it to go back to the Cuban Missile Crisis when he was 26 years old and in the Navy, and he considers that part of his experience? So they're going to try to do anything they can to play the national security/fear card, but you know, it's not working this time! GREEN: But isn't this the least despicable thing McCain has done in the campaign since Biden actually said it! HUFFINGTON: Yes, but what [McCain] did is to take it to the level to which he's taking everything, which is 'Obama is dangerous, Obama is terrible for your safety, your security, your very life.' That's really what is really the despicable jump.

GREEN: Katrina, will Greenspan's admission to Waxman's Committee that he was "mistaken" in his view about market fundamentalism explaining rank up there in the world of ideological admissions with Bill Clinton saying "the era of big government is over"?

VANDEN HEUVEL: Well, he didn't sound "irrationally exuberant" yesterday. I think, as Bill Greider has written in our Nation pages in the past weeks and for years, this moment was bound to come, and the old order is dying. What the new order will be, built on the rubble of market fundamentalism, I think, is one for all of us to fight for, because it's up for grabs. If the pain in this country goes deep, it could go in an ugly direction. I think and believe that it could go in a way that generates political openings like the ones we are seeing now. And I think the media is turning in an important way. I mean, Mr. Greenspan was "the oracle who could do no wrong," and I think the coverage is beginning to expose how we were misled in this economic area, as we were previously with the weapons of mass distraction.