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September 14, 2016


A year after George Lakoff re-published his book, The Political Mind, in 2009, Shankar Vedantam published his book, The Hidden Brain, which treats some of the topics found in Lakoff’s book but from a different angle. Lakoff is a cognitive brain scientist and Vedantam was a science writer for the Washington Post when he authored his book. Both treat brain functions, emotional responses and cognitive processes that happen outside our conscious awareness but have a decisive effect on how we behave, and both have exhaustive treatment of the results of this phenomenon.

Obviously this essay cannot be similarly exhaustive. Though influenced by both books in crafting this essay, I am chiefly interested for my purposes here in discussing how this little known but now scientifically verifiable fact that unconscious brain function affects American political choices as set forth in Lakoff’s book. For instance, why do we vote against our own interests? Why would people who work for a living vote for a billionaire narcissist who, in spite of his utterances to the contrary, is not and could not be in the least concerned with the plight of the poor and middle class?

By what twisted logic (either with a rational or a hidden brain) can a voter who works for a living vote for a billionaire who has publicly stated that he is against a minimum wage increase or a general increase in wages because “they’re too high already,” that “women are pigs,” and that Mexicans are “rapists and murderers?” What is going on in the brains of such people who choose to ignore reality and vote against their own interests, who, in effect, are thereby cheering and voting for their oppressors?

Many new billionaires added annually to the list are billionaires because they have made the political arrangements to take virtually all of the income and increased worker productivity in the economy for the last 40 years from working people as return on capital. Trump is one who has helped rig the system in favor of the rich but when on the political stump talks vaguely but without details of “bringing good-paying jobs back to America,” “making America great again,” and other such meaningless chatter. He is a rank amateur with no political history to evaluate in how he might govern, but with over 3,000 lawsuits to his credit, one can fairly conclude that he is antagonistic by nature, which is not a good thing to have in a president. We are not talking about his “art of the deal” credentials; he will as president if elected have to deal not only with money and profit but with abstractions such as human rights, gerrymandering etc., for which he is grossly inexperienced and unqualified.

We read and hear that these misinformed and misled voters are projecting their own private worlds of hurt into political choice and (other than haters of women and minorities who have their own prejudices to sate) want change of the existing system which they have come to believe is responsible for their stagnant wages, our crooked politicians, outsourced jobs, and in general, their complaint that no one is listening to them and their troubles. They will therefore vote for a Republican president who will assuredly make their situation worse, beholden as that party is to the continuing enrichment of the already rich with the plunder of wages that should have been paid to such voters.

Aside from “framing” and propaganda and other deft uses of setting the table for political debate used to poison the well in a Q and A encounter in order to obtain political advantage, what could possibly be the answer as to why voters vote against their own interests? Bear with me as I summarize Lakoff’s take.

New and continuing brain research shows that most reason is unconscious! An estimated 98 percent of our thought is not conscious – it is below the level of consciousness! This is called the cognitive unconsciousness. Unconscious thought is reflexive; it is what our brain is doing that we cannot see or hear, automatic and uncontrolled (think of the knee reflex, what your knee does when the doctor taps your knee or when you breathe or your heart beats, all involuntary). Conscious thought, on the other hand, is reflective, like looking at yourself in the mirror.

Thus if all thought were conscious and reflective, you would know your own mind and be in control of the decisions you make. Politics would be universally rational and if voters are made aware of the facts and figures, they would vote their own interests; they would calculate which policies and programs are in their best interests and vote for candidates who advocate such policies and programs. However, voters don’t behave that way. They vote against their obvious self-interests; they allow bias, prejudice and emotion to guide their decisions; they argue madly about values, priorities and goals; or they quietly reach conclusions independent of their interests without knowing why.

Lakoff notes the obvious; that you think with your brain since you have no other choice, and he posits that politics is an embodied and not an abstract idea and mostly functions in the cognitive unconscious, i.e., what your brain is doing that you cannot see. Wow! It is not the framing information fed to us by politicians but rather how we process such information in order to conform to structures already in place in our brains that moves us to vote as we do?

What in the world does such a brainfest have to do with the real issues of this day in desperate need of solution? Why can’t such voters use their conscious brains to reason differently from what their unconscious brains dictate? Are our Stone Age brains still in charge of our 21st century thinking?

All such questions I have to leave to the experts because I don’t know the answers. Here we progressives have thought that if voters are told the facts they will vote accordingly. Apparently that is not the case, and why is still an issue pending further research by cognitive brain scientists into the realms of conscious and unconscious thought. As of the present, and from a rational perspective, voting against one’s own interests seems irrational, but it may come down to not fact but how we process what we are told is fact.

Lakoff, of course, has much more to say about brain circuitry and how it affects politics in America in his book and my effort here is relegated only to the topic of why voters vote against their own interests. For those readers who want to know more about brains and politics, I recommend reading his fascinating book for a new look at an old problem. Meanwhile, it is important that we unmask Trump’s propaganda and appeal to the unconscious thought he is spewing out in the hope that somehow those who plan to vote for him will vote instead in their own interests.      GERALD       E








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