Liberal and Conservative messaging – The limits of Reason

Riffing off’ve this post, Lets go over this quote again:

We can no longer conduct 21st century politics with a 17th century understanding of the mind…. In thinking, the old view comes originally from Descartes’ 17th Century rationalism. A view of thought as symbolic logic was formalized by Bertrand Russell and Gottlob Frege around the turn of the 20th Century, and a rationalist interpretation was revived by Chomsky in the 1950’s. In that view, thought is a matter of (as Pinker puts it) “old-fashioned … universal disembodied reason.” Here reason is seen as the manipulation of meaningless symbols, as in symbolic logic.

The new view is that reason is embodied in a nontrivial way. The brain gives rise to thought in the form of conceptual frames, image-schemas, prototypes, conceptual metaphors, and conceptual blends. The process of thinking is not algorithmic symbol manipulation, but rather neural computation, using brain mechanisms…

These questions matter in progressive politics, because many progressives were brought up with the old 17th Century rationalist view of reason that implies that, if you just tell people the facts, they will reason to the right conclusion–since reason is universal. We know from recent elections that this is just false. “Old-fashioned … universal disembodied reason” also claims that everyone reasons the same way, that differences in world-view don’t matter. But anybody tuning in to contemporary talk shows will notice that not everybody reasons the same way and that world-view does matter.

AFAIK, cognitive scientists, psychologists, and others have known this for a long time: In fact, I think part of the point of those fields is exploring the extent in which people do not reason and are irrational.

So the basis of our political thought: competing on issues, a focus on facts, and the assumption that the checks and balances work, rely on people being reasonable and acting rationally.

That’s the mistake.

I remember a post on The Albany Project that, to summarize, agrued that the Bruno-Spitzer spat showed how checks and balances aught to work. Though Cuomo is a Democrat, he rationally seeks his own best interests and doesn’t pull the punches on Spitzer, shoring up his credentials and boosting his political standing. The problem with Congress these days, furthermore, is that Republicans in Congress aren’t acting rationally. They’re ceding their own power to the Executive, though they would rationally try to keep it for themselves.

So – we assume people act rationally and through reason. That model isn’t right, and our understanding of the mind has advanced. What model do we use now?

I’m no cognitive scientist, but the model I tend to favor is the Triune Brain model

Basically, we have three brains in one, the outer/neocortex, middle/limbric, and inside/reptilian brains. The Reptilian brain controls basic functions and instincts. It is

rigid, obsessive, compulsive, ritualistic and paranoid, it is “filled with ancestral memories”. It keeps repeating the same behaviours over and over again, never learning from past mistakes

This is your “fight or flight” brain, the instinctive, reflexive one.

The limbric (middle) brain is the one that concerns emotions and instincts, and deals with finding pleasure or avoiding pain.

The outer brain, or neocortex, is the “reasoning brain”. The brain that makes you human. The one that thinks in the abstract, has higher-order thinking, etc.

The battle between Limbric and Neocortex messaging

The neocortex, or our conscious brain, is really weaker/subservient to the lower two.

Therefore pure Reason is vulnerable: it has a positional disadvantage to flights of passion or the madness of fear.

Why do you think the Republicans foster a culture of fear? They want to influence voters by stimulating their powerful “reptile” brains.

We all know that charisma has a large role in the process of people choosing candidates. There’s a study (or more) out there that shows that voters generally pick a candidate using ephermeal “gut feelings”, and then justify it to themselves by trying to agree with said candidate on the issues.

The story-arc and the power of narrative use both the limbric brain and neocortex. Reason is all neo-cortex.

What Lakoff is saying is that framing uses the limbric brain, and if you frame an issue in a reasonable, truthful way, you’d use the limbric brain and neocortex against the fear-addled reptilian brain. Do it right, and the forces of “good” (those one Lakoff’s side) will prevail in the war of persuasion.

It’s interesting that the progressive online community has a similar idea, which they’ve been re-iterating for a while since the whole DLC/YearlyKos battle started heating up. These guys want proud Democrats to expound on their values, stick to their guns, and speak from the heart. The DLC, on the other hand, uses polling and focus groups and so on to find out how much candidates need to move to the right in order to appeal on the issues to the most people.

That’s why Democrats following the DLC advice (such as Harold Ford Jr) lose elections, and Democrats following the netroots’ model (such as Tester, Webb) win.

The DLC tries to find the perfect blend of issues to win. While this might work for the neocortex, the limbric brain sees things differently. If a candidate moves to the right, the limbric brain understands that the candidate is acknowledging that the conservative position is superior to the liberal position. Otherwise, why would the candidate back down?

The Progressive model, while still keeping a sound rational policy that pleases the neocortexes of voters, keeps the candidate in the ideological territory he/she is comfortable in, rather than an “alien” one that focus groups impose. A candidate comfortable in arguing and expanding on his/her beliefs sends a message of strength and resoluteness to the limbric brain.

It’s true that voters seek strength in their elected officials. But the strength they want is the strength of character that the limbric/reptilian brain picks up on, not the “strength” of caving in to political pressure and warping FISA, for example.

The progressive hope: Limbric vs Reptilian
There was a great post on RT by J a while ago, called “The Republican Culture of Fear”, or something or another. I think we can agree, however, that there is a modern Republican Fear Agenda

Fear of Gays, fear of Blacks, fear of Browns, fear of Athiests, fear of Arabs, fear of terrorists, fear of Muslims, fear of inner cities, fear of the future, fear of “the other”

As you read the obituaries of Rove floating around, you’ll find some writing about how he exploited fear. Some people say that Rove isn’t a political genius as much as unscrupulously underhanded: he’s not afraid to push those fear buttons as often as he wants.

Fear is great for Republicans. It unifies the party. It allows them to get away with quite a load of really bad stuff. Fear also is a great way to manipulate the powerful reptilian brain.

Aside: It’s telling that the Bene Gesserit in Frank Herberts Dune, a group that strove to elevate their reasoning over their “baser” brains and so forth, had this to say about fear:

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.

So, Republicans: Great with the fear. Watch Fox News sometimes. You’ll see what I mean.
Hate is another good reptilian trigger. Same deal. Especially regarding Fox News & Falafel Boy.

Democrats shouldn’t use the politics of fear. I don’t think it’s ethical.
However, they should be aware and utilize the limbric brain. Stuff like body language and charisma count. They should be aware of framing and so forth. But most importantly, they have to remember that communication goes much farther than the words they say. Show the Limbric brain that you’re the strong, honest communicator by being comfortable with your positions. Argue for them. Defend yourself and be aware of the Republican “bitch-slap” theory of politics.

I’m tired now. That’s enough thinking for today. Goodnight!

By Tommy Belknap

Owner, developer, editor of DragonFlyEye.Net, Tom Belknap is also a freelance journalist for The 585 lifestyle magazine. He lives in the Rochester area with his wife and son.

3 replies on “Liberal and Conservative messaging – The limits of Reason”

I’m new at this computer stuff, but I think I have the answer to “ALL” the political problems we have , but nobody (politicians) want to do anything about it……..A constitutional amendment requireing TERM LIMITS. Two terms with a max of 12 years , just like happened with F.D.R. back in the ’40s

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