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September 12, 2016


George Lakoff, author of The Political Mind, a cognitive brain scientist specializing in linguistics, professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and I have not much in common. We both attended Indiana University, he for his doctorate and I for a law degree, but the resemblance stops there. I know little if anything about brain science with no formal training in the area other than a 5-semester hour course I took in Human Anatomy and Physiology as an elective in college, which hardly qualifies me to discuss the brain (political or otherwise) with any authority. I will therefore in this essay rely heavily on quotes and other discussions of the topic as Lakoff set forth in his book, The Political Mind.

After reading Lakoff’s “The Political Mind,” I feel constrained to discuss some of his conclusions about the interaction of politics with the brain as I find new brain research does in fact definitively tie political choice with that organ. It is a fascinating read. Lakoff first published this book in 2008 but re-published it with a new preface in 2009 after Obama was elected. Lakoff is a progressive but his research results are applicable to all irrespective of party or bias. All of us have brains.

Lakoff points out that empathy is far more than just a convenient metaphor; it starts with parents’ responsibility to protect and empower his or her children. There is an identifiable link between the family’s moral mission and government. Government has the same mission to protect and empower its citizens as parents in family settings. Thus, as translated politically, the role of government is far more than mere police and military protection; it is also protection for consumers, workers, the environment, pensioners, investors and those in need of medical care. Likewise, government empowerment comes through the building and maintenance of infrastructure (roads, bridges, public buildings, schools, the energy grid), the educational system, the banking system and stock market, the court system.

Contrary to propaganda from the private sector, no one makes any money anywhere (especially in the private sector) without government protection and empowerment. Who issues patents? Copyrights? Who provides AND PAYS FOR a court system to settle and mediate contract rights of corporations who worship free market principles while taking a free ride at taxpayers’ expense in the event of dispute? Who in these and myriad other situations provides and pays for such protection and empowerment of all Americans? Government. In such connection, Lakoff labels government in a democracy as being in pursuit of a “moral mission,” and he is right. Politics in democracies is or should always be moral if we are to preserve our common values and aspirations for the future. Are our politics today moral, or do they serve the greedy?

We are our brother’s (and sister’s) keeper, as proven by brain research which shows that we are born with empathy embedded in our brains, but it is something that can evaporate with disuse. Thus if we don’t teach our children empathy such fundamental human capacity that we are born with will decay. There is already substantial proof of such decay in our political system since we seem now to have a generation of people in politics who don’t care about each other – and a government that doesn’t care about its citizens – and all of us are paying and will be paying a price for such loss of empathy.

As a practical matter and a fact in dispute by those who have lost their empathy to the forces of greed and a pretense of meritocracy, Lakoff correctly notes that our economy improves when our people are better educated and healthier, when our environment is greener, when people are paid what their work is worth to us all, and above all, when there is trust. Do we trust government today, and if not, why not?

Those who want weakened or no regulations and “free market” principles for themselves prefer a weakened government in the pursuit of profit, of course, and they spend a lot of time and money for lawyers and lobbyists and propaganda in such pursuit. Government, from their stance, should give their activities priority in terms of both taxation and regulation (read little of either) and to the devil with everyone else.

That is not what made the country great nor has it (historically) made for economic growth. There needs to be a brain-supported recognition that we as a nation have social and not just individual responsibility, that generosity and not just greed or self-interest motivates us, and that unity rather than interest groups should be our focus if we are to support and extend American values both now and in the future.

Bush’s Great Recession of 2008 should have put an end to the principle of “Let the market decide” for all of us, the idea that the market is the ultimate arbiter of what is economically right and wrong. The “market” brought us bailouts, unemployment and a recession from which we have still not recovered, and this is not the first time the “market” has failed to deliver. Time and space do not allow me to cite all of the instances in which the “market economy” has failed America and its people.

Is human worth merely a matter of discipline and self-control? Are failures to gain wealth always individual and never systemic (born black and autistic to a single mother in Harlem, for instance)? Should everyone have to suffer the consequences of their failures to gain wealth without protection, guarantees, or entitlements from a government (other than those of the rich and corporate class who demand protection of their property both intellectual and physical)?

These ideas are in vogue today largely through political machinations and are clearly a product of radical conservative thought. They are wrong, immoral and even disgraceful as they fly in the face of American values and the empathy with which we are all equipped at birth per Lakoff.  We should reject such cancers on democracy and American values and somehow fashion our politics to meet 21st century issues. We can have a politics grounded in empathy or in one of greed; one that works or one that doesn’t. It’s our choice and I have made mine. What’s yours?

I will discuss with more specificity some of Lakoff’s brain findings at their intersection with political models in Part II. Stay tuned.    GERALD      E






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