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The Sovereign Lawmaker Metaphor

The poetry of politics in service to the nation

Above the fold

Metaphors steer voter behavior. They shape our values and beliefs. We don’t notice their influence because metaphors hide in plain sight, threading through everyday language and thought.

Philosopher George Lakoff recently suggested that progressive voters “reframe” the current political narrative. [1] He suggests we expose flawed metaphors that

  • underlie Presidential policy, and
  • undermine the nation’s interests.

I agree, but…

Lakoff underestimates the the strength of conservative metaphors. I question whether exposing the metaphors will change many voters’ minds. This is especially true of Christian voters, who are raised from birth to embrace literal thinking.

Two avenues might reduce conservative voter resistance:

1. Fashion new metaphors that appeal to conservative values, and (like it or not)

2. Reference God and Christian principles (many of which align with progressive policies) without endorsing any faith, or questioning the value of science.

I don’t advocate a shift toward the Right. I’m suggesting that progressives identify overlap between conservative and progressive values and fashion new metaphors to forge an alliance with voters who currently identify with conservative ideals.

Most of all, I wish to reframe the question: “Whose interest best serves the nation?”

Below the fold

In a letter to Medium readers, George Lakoff suggests the metaphor “the President is the nation” drives Presidential decision making.[2] He also believes the metaphor creates a wedge between the White House and GOP leadership.

“The Republican Party does not believe in the President-as-the-Nation metaphor, since it elects legislators and the Legislative branch is a check within the nation on the authority of the President.”

He urges progressives to resist the “President is nation” metaphor by

  • revealing its role in the President’s motivations, and
  • reframing the debate around progressive issues.

Lakoff’s suggestion that a metaphor controls Presidential policy is easy to dismiss. The President may be driven by greed and self-interest. He may act spontaneously and with poor judgment. He may even be a Manchurian Candidate. But controlled by a metaphor? That sounds too much like a poet’s plot for a science fiction movie.

As bizarre as it may sound, Lakoff is right. His assessment is based in science, not fiction.

Love is a rose is a metaphor

Recent research in neuroscience and cognition has upended traditional views of the mind and brain. Lakoff’s research demonstrates the ways in which our brains use metaphors to learn, think, and plan. Metaphors pollenate our brains with new ideas. Those ideas spread roots that dig deep within our memories.

Think of metaphors as seeds that contain highly-compressed stories. The roots are the threads of the narrative that dig into memory with more detail and information.

An example might be the sentence, “I’m sorry, but metaphors fly over my head.” As soon as we hear it we know what the speaker means. We’ve heard it so often we don’t stop to think that his sentence hides a metaphor about metaphors: metaphor = over my head.

“The metaphor flew over my head. Because it flew over my head I couldn’t reach it. Because I couldn’t reach it, I couldn’t catch it, so it is not in my possession. Therefore it is lost to me.”

The metaphor reduces a complex story to an evocative phrase:

Why not say, “I’m sorry, I didn’t understand?” Because, quite simply, “I didn’t understand” implies the fault lies (at least in part) with me. “Over my head” implies the fault in my understanding lies with the speaker, or the idea. Not with me. The final thread of the story is revealed. But our minds process the complete narrative, and its implications, in an instant.

Metaphors convery a complex idea in a brief phrase.
Metaphors convery a complex idea in a brief phrase.

In addition, the phrase, “I don’t understand” is a metaphor too. I don’t stand under (support, hold to) this idea. As in I don’t “comprehend,” which literally means I don’t “grasp,” which, as you may recognize now, is also a metaphor. We don’t realize it but we can’t escape metaphors. Almost every complex idea is woven from metaphors that we no longer recognize.

When Lakoff suggests the President bases his policies on the metaphor, “I am the nation,” my observations of the President’s behavior confirm his conclusion.

However, when Lakoff suggests that exposing the metaphor will break the spell, he underestimates its hold on the President’s supporters. Media interviews, social media posts, and face-to-face conversation are suffused with the conviction “the President is the nation.”

If my suspicions are correct, it doesn’t matter how many lists demonstrating that the President has failed the nation we present. Or how many failures they detail. As long as the President’s supporters see him as the nation, his loss of power is the nation’s loss. Anyone who threatens his power betrays the nation.

The GOP may not equate the President with the nation, but they embrace a similar metaphor, a metaphor that protects his claims to the Oval Office.

When Lakoff suggests that exposing the metaphor will break the spell, he underestimates its hold on the President’s supporters. Media interviews, social media posts, and face-to-face conversation are suffused with the conviction “the President is the nation.”

The Republican Party is The Nation ⊃ The President is The Nation

According to Lakoff, Republicans believe Congress checks Presidential authority and power. Their behavior toward the President suggests that the GOP promotes checks on Presidential powers only when a Democrat holds the office. The GOP and President both embrace the “sovereign lawmaker” metaphor, but with different frames. The President believes “the President is the nation,” and the GOP “the Republican Party is the nation.”

Events since February (when Lakoff published the letter) confirm this observation. Republicans have excluded Democrats from key elements of the investigation into criminal behavior by the President and campaign advisors. One House committee absolved him with no Democratic input. Lawmakers have encouraged the President to question the rule of law and the integrity of Federal law enforcement. They refuse to investigate possible conflicts of interest by his Cabinet. Many demanded a criminal investigation into the Special Counsel’s criminal investigation. Some even started impeachment proceedings against the Assistant Attorney General (a fellow Republican).

A recent resolution in Congress challenging the President’s claim that a free press is the enemy of the state doesn’t change this equation. The resolution doesn’t restrain his power.

Nor will the GOP Congress move on legislation the President opposes. Speaker Paul Ryan, (using his own metaphor) refuses to bring ”show ponies” to a vote. Majority Leader McConnell has repeatedly stifled legislation the President opposes (including immigration bills), or that he believes will limit the President’s authority to impose tariffs, or interfere with the Special Counsel’s investigation.

This behavior suggests Republican’s place limits on checks and balances. Their policies operate from an unspoken belief that Congress should check Presidential power only when his power threatens Republican control of government.

Republican’s continued support for the President indicates they share the sovereign lawmaker metaphor. The metaphor “the GOP is the nation” shorthands the following narrative:

“If investigators expose criminal conduct by the President, we might lose control of the Congress. We might lose state governments too. Untrustworthy lawmakers will seize the nation’s reins. We can protect the party, and the nation, only if we rally around the Office of the President — even if the office holder proves unfit to serve.”[3]

Conservative metaphors carry more weight than those of liberals

Lakoff underestimates the power of conservative metaphors to steer voters. His call to action ignores a harsh political reality. Americans no longer respond to Democratic tropes. Why? Because we abandoned the ideal underlying those metaphors, an ideal of civic responsibility . The belief that citizens govern for the welfare for all.

Civic responsibility framed our national narrative from the country’s inception. Individual and collective interest overlap. We aren’t connected to other Americans by race, religious belief or economic status, but by shared values of liberty and equality. Consumer culture fractures civic responsibility. Society’s current storyline suggests government should respond to my needs and my tribe’s. Anyone else’s claims to government benefits is illegitimate, if not outlaw.

Image by Thunder Puff.
Image by Thunder Puff.

Conservative metaphors such as “Job Creators,” “Tax Relief,” “Take Back Our Streets,” “Career Politicians,” “Elitists,” “Personal Responsibility,” and “Right to Life” find more fertile ground in modern voters’ minds than tropes (such as “solidarity forever”)[4] that guided voter decisions during the first half of the century.

America’s prosperity after World War II eroded the cement between liberals, working families and the Left. A growing economy, strong unions, and access to higher education paved a path to prosperity for most working Americans. Medicare and Social Security offered a safety net to senior citizens, Medicaid to the poor. Unemployment compensation assisted laid-off workers. Even blacks and Hispanics trickled into the Middle Class.

Consumer culture fractures civic responsibility. Society’s current storyline suggests government should respond to my needs and my tribe’s.

The metaphor “responsible citizen” crumbled under a mudslide of conservative counterspeak. Voter values shifted from “solidarity” to “what’s in it for me?” Americans forgot hard-won battles by labor and farm alliances. New generations experienced “economic depression” only through movies and books.

Lyndon Johnson fractured Democratic alliances with the Voting Rights Act. Civil Rights chased the Southern Wing into the Republican arms. Decades later, a mutated strain of Southern Democrats seized control of the GOP.

In the seventies America’s economic machine stalled. Children of the war generations slipped backward. Food stamps, Aid to Families with Dependent Children and Medicaid kept low-wage working families afloat, but white families resented government assistance. Entitlements to guarantee workplace safety, and shield women and minorities from discrimination further agitated the new GOP. The metaphor “entitlement” defined the generations to follow.

Even though Reagan targeted welfare as a social evil, Americans, including white Americans, had become used to “entitlements” our grandparents fought to secure. We no longer asked what we could do for our country.

Voters who demanded their share of entitlements refused to pay for others’. Minorities and the poor didn’t deserve American charity because they showed “no work ethic,” and were content to “push out babies.” The expanding consumer/media empire broadcast a narrative of self-gratification in advertisements, motivational seminars, and political campaigns. Children’s television relied on relentless product placement to hammer the message: “Demand gain without pain.”[5]

That conservative metaphors carry more weight and privilege than the fading themes of nostalgic progressives should surprise no one.

Neuroscience suggests a #MeFirst society predisposes minds to metaphors of self-interest. Our brains favor ideas compatible with established values, and build neurons to reinforce ideas they favor.[6]

The process works like this:

  • The brain builds neurons to store information and ideas.
  • Additional exposure to an idea strengthens neurons, whereas neurons shrink in the absence of reinforcing messages.
  • Stronger neurons direct our attention to supportive messages and resist contrary information. This further diminishes the neurons with contradictory ideas.

Our brains use this process to promote quicker decisions by short-circuiting the flow of information to our brains. In life and death situations, quick decisions are critical. In complex social situations, however, they interfere with reflective decision making.

Our brains use this process to promote quicker decisions by short-circuiting the flow of information to our brains. In life and death situations, quick decisions are critical. In complex social situations, however, they interfere with reflective decision making.

Our self-interest culture, with its non-stop message of self-gratification, rewires our brains to tune out dissonant messages, reducing them to background noise.

Progressive thinkers are also invested in the #MeFirst culture, but tolerate dissonant beliefs. Because they accept a broader spectrum of ideas, they’re more likely to form values based on social as well as personal concerns.[7] Their conditioning also makes them less responsible to politically-charged metaphors.

Conditioning also makes them complacent about a metaphor’s power. If it doesn’t influence me, the problem isn’t the “slogan” but the listener.

How should we answer Lakoff’s call to action?

Lakoff wants readers to “shift the frame to undermine the metaphor.” He encourages liberals to “reveal the existence of the metaphor,” and to passing his paper to “the mainstream media outlets and to your friends on social media.”

He further suggests “each message must point out to the White House staff and members of the administration that they serve the nation, not the president” by listing the needs of the American people that the President has ignored, including health care, the environment, gender equality, gun violence, and the looming threat of Russian influence.

I would add income inequality, in which the United States now leads the world.[8]

Concerned citizens should hold the White House accountable to its policies, but Lakoff begs a crucial question. How can we fight metaphors with yet one more list of social concerns? Shouldn’t we fight metaphor with metaphor?[9]

If you need new metaphors, call poets

Metaphors bewitch poets who polish them until they shine like gemstones, craft for each the spell best suited to bewitch their audience as well. Two muses, Calliope and Euterpe, whisper new metaphors to poets.

None visit the philosopher who is cursed to observe and describe.

Philosophers parse metaphors. Whether or not a given metaphor brings readers to rapture eludes their enterprise. They can teach the mechanisms of metaphor, but not how to capture the muse.

So we must leave philosophy behind, and seek the poetry within politics.

Can we cultivate fresh metaphors? Uproot the weeds that choke the garden of public discourse? Might fresh metaphors nudge conservatives to balance their interest with the nation’s welfare?[10] It won’t be enough to sit on the shore and call individual metaphors into question as they float past. We must leap into the stream and follow their flow.

Metaphors paint an incomplete picture

Metaphors pollinate the brain. They infiltrate the domains of older ideas[11], germinate and flower into new beliefs. Every word to express a value, belief or concept originated as metaphor. When ancient speakers embraced new metaphors, they absorbed them into everyday language. For instance, an early Greek use of the word “grasp” was to convey “thought.” This metaphor (grasp = thought or idea) is now embedded in our language. When we say “I grasped an idea,” we no longer recognize (at least consciously) the metaphor.[12]

Metaphors build bridges to comprehension. They create memory hooks or rapid retrieval and add new connections. They aren’t thorough, or even accurate depictions of the concepts they convey. For all their power, metaphors are sketches of difficult and complex ideas.

Metaphors pollinate the brain. They infiltrate the domains of older ideas[11], germinate and flower into new beliefs. Every word to express a value, belief or concept originated as metaphor.

Gestalt psychologist Rudolph Arnheim discovered our brains rely on sketches to create visual memory too. We don’t store complete pictures, but brief impressions to signify the whole.[13] Yeats carried the explanation further, and described metaphor with a metaphor:[14]

One had a lovely face,
And two or three had charm,
But charm and face were in vain
Because the mountain grass
Cannot but keep the form
Where the mountain hare has lain.
[15]

Metaphors are not only incomplete, some turn malignant. Political parties weaponize them to dissemble, misdirect and mislead. The Conservative Right tipped theirs with nuclear warheads, and deployed them en masse.[16] Metaphors become weapons when

  • listeners believe they paint a true and complete picture, and
  • speakers encourage them to do so.

People don’t know they’re using metaphors

Few of us distinguish metaphors from literal statements. We may remember the word “metaphor” from high school English classes, but too many ideas compete for our attention. Thinking about metaphors feels as pointless as polynomial factoring.

Consider the following sentences:

  • “Harry dropped in.” (We recognize the metaphor “to drop” when called to our attention.)
  • “Harry joined us.” (We are less likely to recognize the metaphor “to attach.”)
  • “Harry arrived” (we don’t recognize the embedded metaphor — original meaning = “to shore.”)
  • “Harry is here.” (Buried deep. Here entered German language as “hier” or “upon” — “to be here is to be upon.”)

All four sentences convey the same message. Separating the metaphors might engage our curiosity, but offers little of practical value to working Americans. How many of us have the luxury to diagram “a dime a dozen” into ”dime a dozen” <= “little value?” Especially since we understood the message? Like 2 x 2 = 4, we process the expression “dime a dozen” by rote. Only when the metaphor is strange or compelling do we pause to ask, “what did the speaker mean?”

Sorting metaphors from ordinary language would overwhelm us when new messages arrive in our mental mailboxes within a fractions of a minute.

Televised and social media escalate the competition for the brain’s attention. They increase the information flow knowing we can’t sort through all those words, charts, pictures and jingles. The strategy is no different than adding 300 clauses to a credit card contract and printing them in six-point type. Too much information creates less knowledge, not more.

Too much information creates less knowledge, not more.

Consumers remember the loudest and most frequent message. Nor do schools prepare future citizens to think about these messages critically. When a politician says, “We must eliminate the death tax,” our minds marry taxes to death.

Let’s examine the death tax metaphor. “Death tax” is a cypher for “inheritance tax.” The metaphor is “inheritance tax = tax on death.” The metaphor is powerful; The message not only flawed, but poisonous.

Inheritance (or estate) taxes collect the back taxes wealthy families delayed paying. (The tax code doesn’t allow working families this luxury.) The family patriarch delayed tax payments, but still owes them even when they die. Their contract with the government calls for unpaid taxes to be paid upon death. The tax debt can’t be passed to their children, so the government collects the taxes from their estate.

Their children inherit less because the estate must settle. But had the taxes been paid on time, the estate would have been smaller anyway. The estate tax is not a tax on death, but a deferred tax. Without an estate tax, the wealthy avoid even more of their tax responsibilities and pass the burden to us.

In addition, many wealthy families bypass the tax with loopholes such as annuity trusts, and the tax imposed is far lower than the effective rate for working families. [17]

Associating “death” with “tax” adds a negative charge to the word. Our brains leap to “tax on dying,” and infer that families face a penalty tax when a member passes.

We fail to realize our minds concocted this narrative by using long-practiced and unconscious language habits. We develop those unconscious habits the same way swimmers swim without conscious awareness, or typists use QWERTY. The more we practice, the less we notice the mechanics.

If we had the luxury of reflection, most of us would realize such a “tax on death” is ridiculous. No family has ever been presented with a tax bill following the funeral of a loved one. GOP strategists invoke the death tax metaphor to mislead voters into believing the government taxes us to die.

If anything, the inheritance tax should be labelled the “crooked gamblers’ tax.” It is a no-win situation for the government. If the taxes are paid, they are worth less because of inflation, and because the gambler was able to spend additional money that belonged to taxpayers in the meantime. The gambler wins. However, should the government abolish or reduce the tax before they die, the gambler wins.

Media consumers equate metaphors with literal statements

Because we process metaphors unconsciously, we don’t recognize the phrases “welfare queens,” “peace through strength,” and “tax and spend liberals” as figures of speech. Savvy politicians recognize the breech with fact, but fail to understand why others can’t. We aren’t dealing with questions of fact. We’re dealing with misdirection by metaphor.

When the President calls immigrants “murderers,” “rapists,” and “gang members,” his audience misses the metaphoric element. Supporters respond with, “true,” critics with “false.” He masks the metaphor by folding it into a second.

((immigrants = murders and rapists (domain 1)) = threat to society (domain 2))

We unwrap the power of his metaphor when we map it to a parent-child syllogism:

Child

  • Some immigrants have been accused of murder and rape.
  • If some immigrants commit murder and rape, all immigrants are capable of murder and rape.
  • All immigrants are murderers and rapists.

Parent

  • All immigrants are murderers and rapists.
  • Murderers and rapists are threats to society
  • ∴ Immigrants are threats to society.

Ignore, for a moment, the gaps of fact and logic in the construction of the syllogism. Delivering the package as a metaphor renders the President immune to fact checking. The metaphor, not the facts, gains traction with security-conscious conservative voters.

Modern evangelical churches baptize believers into a realm of literal thinking. While members of the Christian Right would acknowledge the phrase “Make America Great Again” is a campaign slogan, they embrace it as literal truth. In the process, the symbols become reality. Our flag is the nation. It flies higher and looms larger over the world for the first time since World War II.

Modern evangelical churches baptize believers into a realm of literal thinking. While members of the Christian Right would acknowledge the phrase “Make America Great Again” is a campaign slogan, they embrace it as literal truth.

Their Bible (Christian Right Standard Version or CRSV) claims America fell from God’s grace and lost international prestige. Presidents Carter, Clinton, and (most of all) Obama were weak men (both morally and militarily). They hand-delivered America’s power and prestige to our enemies. Our current President restored the nation and the flag. He restored America’s prestige and world leadership. Other nations no longer take advantage.

The Christian Right narrative is riddled with metaphors.

  • Flag = nation.
  • Flag height = world dominance.
  • Religious tolerance and diplomacy = weakness.
  • A weak nation = a fallen nation
  • Moral and military strength = prestige = power.

Were we to treat those metaphors as factual statements, pundits and politicians could argue for years (and in some cases have), and never resolve them.

In the same manner, the President’s rhetoric produces hollow debate. He doesn’t care if anyone believes his accounts are factual, hence the injunction for voters to “take him seriously, not literally.”[18]

Metaphors aren’t facts,. When we treat them as facts we lose not only the debate, but the ability to debate. You can’t prove or disprove a metaphor. My undergraduate philosophy professors refused to recognize metaphors’ meaning. They spoke of metaphors as “poetry and nonsense.”

Concern about metaphors diminishes with a voter’s education

The President’s constituents would scoff at the suggestion ideas and values aren’t concrete and tangible. Don’t mistake this as criticism. Many of them, including those who once voted Democrat, are more worried about paying their bills than about esoteric topics such as “metaphors and cognition.” Those are questions for “the educated.”

But America refuses to offer quality public education. The conservative and religious right mounted a full-on offensive to devalue education and the life of the mind. To a large extent they won.[19]

To suggest that voters look for metaphors in campaign rhetoric would be no different than recommending they diagram political memes for structural comparison. They would mumble, “boring,” and skip to the next Facebook post.

To compound the problem, the New Right trashes the life of the mind with the metaphor “elitist.” Real Americans, they insist, don’t need or want higher education for any reason beyond getting a job. Universities crank out “ivory tower experts” with no understanding of the real world.[20]

The New Right trashes the life of the mind with the metaphor “elitist.” Real Americans, they insist, don’t need or want higher education. Universities crank out “ivory tower experts” with no understanding of the real world.

The “elitist education” metaphor masks an insidious intent. The New Right wants to dismantle America’s educational system. Their political machine benefits from citizens who don’t want to be better informed. They validate conservative voters’ suspicion of higher education with the suggestion that more educated voters hold them in contempt.

The suggestion “liberals think they’re better than us” fuels conservative rage. The metaphor “liberal elite” evokes an image of bearded, pipe smoking professors lazing about faculty lounges, listening to classical music, quoting Shakespeare and philosophizing on issues of no consequence. By contrast, real Americans work overtime at real jobs, hard jobs, to earn a few dollars to feed their families.

The educated elite narrative leads toward the following assumptions:

  • Why should we want more education if we become snobs like them?
  • Why should we support policies that benefit elitists at our expense?
  • The educated liberal elite are our natural enemies and we should oppose them.
  • The best way to oppose our enemies is to elect warriors who will strike down their policies.

The “liberal elite” metaphor invokes an deeper metaphor, a metaphor Americans associate with our declaration of independence from England: David versus Goliath. Conservative voters are David. Liberal elites speak for Goliath — a deep and powerful state determined to suppress them.

Metaphor and audience

Progressive thinkers will never engage the public debate with new metaphors until they embrace a broader audience. On this front, we’ve failed. When I listen to progressive rhetoric, I walk away asking, “Why are you trying to convince me?” During the 2016 campaign, neither Clinton nor Sanders added anything to the discussion I haven’t heard since we wore black arm bands to protest the Vietnam war. The 2018 rhetoric is equally stale.

Lakoff is correct to suggest the President ignores a long list of social ills. That list will never disappear, only the items will change. But lists are far from persuasive to voters.

Progressives will fail as long as we rely on tropes from our past. New metaphors will fail unless they connect with conservative values. Nor should we fear being coopted by conservative values when we engage them. Progressive metaphors must guide conservative voters to the metaphor that defines American citizenship: civic interest is self interest.

Conservative voters crave security. Their security is satisfied by financial certainty and physical safety. They want their representatives to satisfy concerns that:

  • They will make enough money to survive.
  • They will earn enough to live in comfort.
  • They will attain a basic level of social status.
  • Their representatives will protect their safety, property and lifestyle.
  • Their representatives will protect them from criminals and terrorists.
  • They will sustain their current lifestyles.
  • They will attain the better lives they yearn for.

Progressive metaphors must guide conservative voters to the metaphor that defines American citizenship: civic interest is self interest.

Conservative voters also claim to value a strong nation. So why did I leave this off the list?

I didn’t. Conservatives value a strong nation because a strong nation serves the values I outlined. A strong nation will protect their property, safety and lifestyle from foreign invaders. Most of all, it elevates their social status. If America is the strongest nation in the world, foreigners must look up to them.

That doesn’t mean that every American is included in the conservative vision of a strong nation. Conservatives envision “nation” through a bubble of self-interest. That bubble extends to their families and from their families to their social and religious circles and from their personal circles to like-minded Americans. In short, their nation is their tribe.

The liberal left, and the minorities liberals help to steal conservative power and privilege, are enemies of the nation. Were the President not so enamored with Vladimir Putin, they might suggest we go back to Russia where we came from.

Progressives shouldn’t picture the President’s supporters as overweight, beer-swilling Bubbas who fry hamburgers for a living and prefer NASCAR to Mozart. These voters aren’t stupid. Most work hard to earn low wages and lack the skills to seek employment outside their industries. Many lack access to a good education.

Blacks, Hispanics, Moslems, and immigrants don’t threaten working white voters. White voters depend on the New Americans for their future, and their children’s. Their enemies sit behind desks, often overseas, in offices with windows far above the polluted clouds. Their enemies pore through spreadsheets listing white workers’ jobs, and delete them with a single key stroke.

The President’s base doesn’t ask what motivates the Left, doesn’t ponder political strategy, and doesn’t strategize social and political change. Speak to them of “framing political discussion” and you might as well flash your “Proud Liberal Elitist” badge. Many no longer care what they can do for their country.[21] Their country sold them out. America delivered their wealth and tax dollars to people who would rather speak Spanish or Ebonics than American.

Progressive metaphors should target the political interests who do threaten voters’ lifestyles and livelihoods. blacks, Hispanics, Moslems, and immigrants don’t threaten working white voters. White voters depend on the New Americans for their future, and their children’s.

Their enemies sit behind desks, often overseas, in offices with windows far above the polluted clouds. Their enemies pore through spreadsheets listing white workers’ jobs, and delete them with a single key stroke. Often by the thousands.

Is it possible to change the minds of the President’s supporters? Consider this. Many were blue collar Democrats until the 2016 election. Even so, we must draw them back before the 2024 elections. If not, the neural fortifications will become impossible to scale. We need to find fresh metaphors, and soon. Not metaphors that appease Democratic strategists, but metaphors that capture voters’ values.

Marrying metaphor and value

Metaphors aren’t miraculous. They don’t pop into a discussion and yank people from darkness into the light.

Our minds are attracted to metaphors that flow with the current of their thinking. They resist metaphors that cause friction, or challenge long-held beliefs. This explains why metaphors such as “Tax and Spend,” “Death Tax,” and “Flip Flopper” connect with conservative voters and not liberals.

Good metaphors capture the imagination without triggering the brain’s neural defenses. They don’t change belief. They nudge our minds to reflect on our beliefs and decide whether to accept the new perspective. The best metaphors make us care. T.S. Eliot labels this an objective correlative, a metaphor or image that creates a corresponding emotional response. [22]

Metaphors target intellect and emotion. They aim to provoke a micro-epiphany: “I never thought of it that way.” The moment of epiphany will pass. The mind’s habitual thinking will generate antibodies to repel the intruder. Metaphors that sink deep hooks into emotional receptors are more likely to resist those anti-bodies.

Even the deepest hooks, however, won’t make a permanent impression. The metaphor must be so compelling the mind continues to engage it, or the mind must be re-exposed frequently to the metaphor. We might call this re-exposure a metaphoric booster shot.

With political messaging, metaphors are most effective if they don’t threaten the mind’s gatekeepers. The New Right understands this and disguised their message within populist rhetoric. If we don’t capture conservative values and turn them to our advantage, we will abandon the objective before the campaign begins.

Hierarchy of values

If, as I suggest, self-interest defines conservative values, why would they spend so much energy opposing women’s right to choose? How is the birth of another family’s child in their self-interest? The answer lies within their hierarchy of values. “Right to Life” is a powerful metaphor, but the value of life is seen in the context by which it serves their self-interest.

If self-interest defines conservative values, why would they spend so much energy opposing women’s right to choose?

Stopping a woman from ending her pregnancy serves conservative voters’, to be more specific, conservative male voters’ self-interest. The movement to preserve life lies within the intersection of two higher values: the need for order and the right to protect property.

  • Order ⊂ Self interest:

Preserving (fetal) life preserves order. If the civil order can’t protect an innocent child from an irresponsible mother’s capricious decisions, how can it protect the family from other social ills? These ills may be criminal threats to safety, or the overreaching of government into matters of faith (which provides another source of security to the family). Once we identify order as a subset of self-interest, we find it easier to explain why “right-to-life” voters are so eager to execute convicts, but usher poor family’s children into a world of poverty and neglect.[23]

  • Protecting Property ⊂ Self-Interest:

Conservatives believe an unborn child belongs to the father as well as the mother. At first look, I wouldn’t disagree, but mothers might. Fathers don’t carry babies for nine months. Fathers don’t sacrifice their health and looks. Pregnancy doesn’t jeopardize a father’s life. Fathers’ career choices aren’t dictated by the helpless infant at their breasts.

Look at the assertion once more: “An unborn child belongs to the father as well as the mother.” Notice the verb “belong.” “Belong” signifies property, and the father’s implicit property rights include not only the baby but her mother.

Conservatives value traditional families. The father heads the household. The father oversees the family’s well-being. He’s responsible for decisions. The difference between authority and ownership is slim. Viewed through the property metaphor, abortion rights threaten a man’s household. If the law permits a woman to murder another man’s child, his wife can legally murder his. It matters little that he’d surrender the child to another’s care so he can work. His reaction is visceral, similar to some men’s aversion to neutering male dogs.

Choice will never outweigh life on the scale of conservative values.[24]

What if we introduced a new metaphor, self-defense, expressed in the phrase “a couples’s right to defend a woman’s body?” The right to self-defense crosses into the conservative domains of security and safety.

The self-defense metaphor flips the security metaphor. When governments outlaw abortion they threaten a families’ security with unwarranted government intrusion, and threaten the wife’s safety by mandating life-threatening medical intervention.

What if we introduced a new metaphor, self-defense, expressed in the phrase “a couples’s right to defend a woman’s body”? The right to self-defense crosses into the conservative domains of security and safety.

Adding the word “couples” flips the “women are property” metaphor. Conservative narratives imply that women seek abortions against their partner’s wishes. “Joint defense” suggests a picture closer to reality. In many cases both partners are involved in the decision to end the pregnancy. Some men want the pregnancy to end. Some women act against their partner’s wishes. Often, both partners agree. A metaphor that restores a more balanced picture helps to crack the property rights metaphor’s shell.

Viewed through the property metaphor, abortion rights threaten a man’s household. If the law permits a woman to murder another man’s child, his wife can legally murder his.

Let’s take the defense metaphor one step further and repurpose two more conservative tropes, virtue and sacred. Conservatives tie a woman’s virtue to her body, which they often depict as a sacred vessel. The defense metaphor builds on that perception to upend the anti-abortion narrative. Women’s bodies are sacrosanct, and conservatives defile them with unwarranted government regulations.

The new story portrays expectant mothers as victims of callous politicians and hypocritical Pharisees. The unholy alliance sacrifices their virtue (bodies) to a self-serving political agenda.

One last thought: The Left should stop debating fetal viability. To conservatives, the life of an unborn child is an emotional construct erected from the metaphors innocence and purity. Science and fact offer nothing to disarm that construct. Quite the opposite, any one who questions the life of the unborn becomes a villain, a complicit conspirator in the government’s campaign against the family. Under the conspiracy narrative:

1. You don’t value life.

2. You only value the lives of criminals that you shield from capital punishment.

3. Not only do you shield criminals, you’ve surrendered the right to decide whose lives have value to a godless and uncaring government.

4. Your surrender makes you a threat to conservative families and their values.

“Jim Crow Economics”

and other repurposed metaphors

The issue of slavery continues to divide Americans 230 years after it’s founding. The debate reflects a wide and expanding racial divide. Many suggest the U.S, abolished slavery in name only. America’s new generation of slaves includes the poor and poorly educated who are forced to compete in a fluid job market that demands different skills every few years.

The New Right claims the Constitution promises equal opportunity, not equality. The opportunities they offer are far from equal.

America’s privileged elite drive working Americans into slave quarters of economic stagnation. Corporate profits trump wages and jobs. Opportunities, at least opportunities for good careers, require education and connections to influential people. Without cash and connections, the next Netflix founder will dine on dreams only.

“Jim Crow economics” delivers this narrative with dynamic emotional hooks.

A wall of privilege systematically segregates working families[25] into slums of desperation. The Jim Crow Economy condemns farm families, suburban families and inner city families to lifetimes of working slavery.

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The Wall of Privilege segregates working families into slums of desparation.

(We could push the metaphor of modern slavery to its extremes by suggesting Jim Crow economics pits white families, immigrant and minority families against each other in high stakes gladiatorial games which the privileged elite enjoy from the luxury of their sky boxes.)

I wove the Jim Crow metaphor into a narrative to illustrate. Think of the paragraphs as micro-stories to use for talking points. Or plug and play different elements depending on the audience and available time (or word count).

The New Right’s New Jim Crow

The first Jim Crow segregated black families into substandard neighborhoods, schools, and stores. Even fountains and rest rooms. The (New Right’s, New GOP’s, or a specific candidate’s) Jim Crow doesn’t discriminate by race or color. Jim Crow is their answer to the new economy they created. In the Jim Crow economy their needs for labor shift with the wind, whether the wind blows from Wall Street, Washington, or capricious executives looking for another dime of profit to squeeze from their employees’ paychecks.

American politics are dictated by international corporations with no home of their own. They hop from country to country at the pleasure of their boards. They need a work force driven by desparation, families who will thank them for the scraps on the floor. Families to whom they owe no loyalty when they move jobs to another state, across the border or across the world.

Jim Crow economics segregates working families into

  • Separate communities : The privileged flourish in gated neighborhoods. They enjoy paid police forces, private pools, well-manicured lawns and well kept roads. Working families struggle to pay the mortgage on small houses six feet away from their neighbor’s bedroom window. If they can’t qualify for a mortgage, they struggle to pay rent for run-down town houses and cookie-cutter apartments.

The city ignores their roads. Police respond after they finish with the families who called first. Cases further move closer to the back of the filing drawer at the end of every shift.

-Separate career paths: The privileged work in cushy offices with freedom to wander the halls and joke with their colleagues about who to lay off next. In another building, their slaves toil twelve hours a day at the same station with few breaks, poor conditions and little hope of advancement.

At this point the narrative should shift focus from working families to “we.” The privileged elite segregate us to keep you from getting ahead.

  • Separate lifestyles : The privileged enjoy a lifestyle of leisure, luxury and travel. Those of us the other side of the wall struggle to buy food for the week. If we find a few dollars to spare for beer or a ball game, the rich criticize our money management.
  • Separate tax rules: The rich shelter their income on islands with luxury resorts. The few taxes they pay finance lucrative government contracts for their peers. Their acts of civic avoidance force working families into a narrow tax corner. We pay a larger share of our incomes and get little in return.

The privileged elite use the economy like a rigged monopoly game. The New Right’s new rules make it harder to earn money, impossible to win and pretty damn difficult to pass go. Nor do they want us to see the rules. That would give us an unfair advantage.

The privileged elite use the economy like a rigged monopoly game. The New Right’s new rules make it harder to earn money, impossible to win and pretty damn difficult to pass go.

This Video “Lock Them Out” weaves the Jim Crow economics metaphor through the narrative.

Even so, voters can learn the rules by watching the game progress.

Section I: Subvert and destroy public education

1. Segregate the children of working families into Jim Crow schools.

2. Cut taxes to embezzle money from public schools. Use those savings to pay back privileged patrons.

3. Spare no expense on your children’s lavish private educations.

4. Pass legal mandates that require segregated students to pass difficult standardized tests.

5. Exempt private and home schools from testing so their children face less rigorous standards.

6. Use religious purity as a ploy to lure working families into home schooling. Their children will find it doubly difficult to compete the job market.[26]

Note: The left should brand standardized tests a poll tax on graduation.

The segregation of wealthy children into good schools and working children into underfunded schools furthers the economic divide.
The segregation of wealthy children into good schools and working children into underfunded schools furthers the economic divide.

Section II: Segregate and Isolate

1. Hide behind high-security gated communities.

2. Subdivide majestic landscapes everyone once enjoyed for recreation and viewing.

3. Welcome poor white people only as guests or employees and security guards.

4. Saturate the media with images of their good life and tell us to dream it can be ours.

4. Conduct media campaigns asking working families to support tax cuts that will benefit their families more.

5. Spend tax savings to upgrade the landscape, infrastructure and security of their exclusive neighborhoods.

6. Cut government spending to create a Reverse Robin Hood drain on local resources. Specifically:

  • reduce bus and subway services,
  • undercut road and utility maintenance,
  • raise utility fees to cut into paychecks even more,
  • close fire stations and police stations.

Section III: Divide and conquer

Note: This strategy drives a wedge between working white, Hispanic and black families to create tribal warfare. It is accomplished by forcing them into one labor pool to compete for the same poor paying jobs, the same state-funded Jim Crow colleges and the same Jim Crow public schools.

1. Increase employment requirements by asking for more education and specialized, non-transferable job skills.

2. Ship jobs (especially low-skill and low-level white collar jobs) to India and China to force white workers into a lower-skilled job pool.

3. Distract them with their own prejudice. Tell white workers who didn’t meet the job requirements that your hands were tied by “government hiring guidelines.”

The net effect of Jim Crow Economics is to depress the once proud working class.
The net effect of Jim Crow Economics is to depress the once proud working class.

As our narrative draws to a close, we might ask: Why are the privileged elite so stingy with our benefits the Founders intended for all Americans? Perhaps because, as rich as they are, it’s never enough. America’s New Right believes every extra dollar your family earns belongs to them.

In summary, the Jim Crow metaphor delivers to progressives a platform built from hot-button metaphors to brand the narrative and sink shorthand hooks into voter memories:

Jim Crow Economics:

1. segregates schools by providing fewer resources and a poll tax on graduation

2. segregates and impoverishes working family neighborhoods with a Robin Hood reversal of funding.

3. reduces working families to slavery by

  • dividing and conquering working families
  • forcing them to compete for less desirable jobs and training
  • segregating them into poorer school districts that undermine their children’s chances of upward mobility.
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It’s time to kill “Job Creators”

New Right politicians plug the Corporate Brand with the metaphor (misnomer), “job creators.” The Job Creator metaphor projects an image of corporations who bless Americans with jobs, and thereby prosperity. The metaphor buries the counter-narrative that Corporations cut labor costs at every opportunity.

Corporations will create jobs, but only when jobs serve their bottom line. Those jobs will vanish when management or stockholder spreadsheets suggest they cost too much. Candidates should remind voters of the President’s Carrier campaign.

Corporations will create jobs, but only when jobs serve their bottom line. Those jobs will vanish when management or stockholder spreadsheets suggest they cost too much.

The President browbeat the Carrier corporation in the national press to force them to the negotiating table and keep their workforce in Indianapolis. As long as the spotlight shined on Carrier those jobs were safe, but as soon as the President’s attention faded they laid off more than 1300 workers.[27]

The Job Creator metaphor projects an image of corporations who bless Americans with jobs, and thereby prosperity. The metaphor buries the counter-narrative that Corporations cut labor costs at every opportunity.

The Job Creators metaphor presents progressive candidates with a second opportunity to repurpose conservative tropes. The following suggestions are starting points, with more time I believe we can hone them further:

  • Job Killers: Consumers create jobs, not corporations. Corporations merely regulate the job flow. Consumers create jobs by creating demand. Demand forces corporations to hire more workers to answer the demand. Even if demand continues, however, the Job Killers choke the flow of jobs to boost profits. They ship production overseas, automate or squeeze jobs.
  • Reckless Job Gamblers: Corporate executives gamble jobs when they bet on risky ventures. If the gamble doesn’t pay off, Job Gamblers sacrifice jobs to raise the capital they need to repay the debt and keep the corporation running.
  • Job Thieves: Job Thieves drive wages below the threshold that allows working families to survive. When American workers refuse to risk their lives and health for pennies, Job Thieves lure immigrants across the borders to replace them. When working families complain, Job Thieves make immigrants the patsies.
Corporations don't create jobs, they regulate their availability.
Corporations don’t create jobs, they regulate their availability.

If Job Thieves offered good working conditions and a livable wage, America could control the flow of immigration. Immigrants want to be Americans, and well they should. If Americans insisted that the Job Thieves offer real wages and competitive working conditions, immigrants would lose their advantage. A father in El Salvador would be forced to choose. Will he abandon his family and compete against Americans, who have a natural advantage? Or will he stay home and compete in a market where he has a more equal advantage?

Should that father choose, for the love of his family, to cross our border, he will no longer be welcomed with the Job Thieves’ special favors.

However, should he earn a green card, he’ll have the American opportunity to prove his value. If he fails, he’ll return home. If he succeeds, wouldn’t he deserve an invitation to citizenship?

If we can flip the “Job Creator” metaphor successfully, we might also shift negative weight to the metaphor Corporate America. The narratives encoded in these metaphors reinforce an older metaphor that has long fallen flat with voters. Corporations will finally be re-acknowledged as Corporate Welfare Cheats, who take our tax dollars with lucrative contracts, and sell our jobs to Asia or machines.

The Left should market the new corporate brand in every speech and press release, and paint corporations with a meme such as: Corporate Job Frauds. We make jobs, just not for you.

Counterterrorism: “Global Corporate Terrorism”

Consider an even more radical alternative, one that will meet a lot of resistance and denouncement as uncivil and pejorative, but rooted in fact. It also could create enough buzz to knock free a few particularly sticky neural links.

Global Corporate Terrorism suits the facts well. Corporations spend billions to undermine environmental, financial and consumer safety regulations. Their success has resulted in millions of American deaths and created a sinkhole of debt.

GOP candidates and spin doctors embrace metaphors of fear as a tactic to garner support. Crime and terrorism stir up that fear, and to push those metaphors they direct them at their political enemies. The President’s most effective political tool is to accuse his opponents as criminals, immigrants as terrorists and detractors as the Inquisition.

The metaphor ”Global Corporate Terrorism” flips the terrorism metaphor back onto the shoulders of the corporate interests that push GOP policies. The metaphor supports the same narrative as Wall of Privilege but extends it into the domains of security and safety. Not only do corporate interests threaten our family’s financial future, but our safety as well.

Global Corporate Terrorism suits the facts well. Corporations spend billions to undermine environmental, financial and consumer safety regulations. Their success has resulted in millions of American deaths and created a sinkhole of debt. By contrast, the Government Accounting Office reports that the 119 deaths by Islamic terrorists after 2001 is roughly the same as deaths by domestic right-wing terrorists (106).[28] In contrast to deaths related to corporate decision-making, the threat to voters is minuscule.

This video “Global Corporate Terrorism” extends the “Wall of Priviledge” metaphor further.

Political Metaphors

The New Right is far from conservative. It’s leaders believe they are the avante garde of a new corporate America, where profits flourish while working families wither on the vine. They are the architects of malignant campaigns that pit Americans against Americans. True conservatives, like true liberals, want working families to prosper. The New Right freely and openly diverts our prosperity to faceless corporations who show no shame when they call on their cronies in government to seize our homes, our neighborhoods and our futures.

The metaphors I include in the last paragraph deliver progressive ideals, but frame them as American values, family values threatened by a faceless enemy. They pit Corporate America against the Political Mainstream, Freedom Fighters for Working Families, and Social Warriors for Every American. It doesn’t matter whether members sip wine between acts on Broadway or chug beer on the fifty yard line. We’re united in the revolution to reclaim American values.

Working Families and Everyday Americans serve as uniting metaphors. Our families share the same enterprise (work) and identity (Americans). It doesn’t matter our family is white or black, blue collar or white, native born or descendants of immigrants, traditional or transgender, or whether we place our faith in Christ or the Constitution.

Which leads me to one last strategy.

We Should Restore God to the Discussion

Many progressive politicians tiptoe around the subject of God. Who can blame them? Conservative leaders piggyback on religious faith in their quest for power.

Christian Right leaders disparage Americans who exercise their constitutional rights. Many of them claim America persecutes Christians while openly defying the Constitutional mandate to separate church and state.

No candidates need to endorse Christianity, or even believe in God to answer the question, “Do you believe?” Instead they might answer, “My reverence for this country and its guiding hands knows no bounds. But I won’t force Americans to believe like me.”

The Religious Right, assisted by a complicit GOP, rewrote the history of American intellectual freedom. In their history, freedom of religion means the freedom for Christians to worship. By contrast, candidates who revere the founders’ intent try to avoid muddying questions of governance with questions about voters’ personal beliefs.

For years I agreed with them. I’ve changed my mind.

As long as the political left ignores the role religion plays in public thinking (which includes the conservative beliefs of many working families), they will isolate themselves from voters who might otherwise embrace their platform.

Historically, evangelicals propelled the progressive agenda.[29] Northern evangelicals spearheaded the anti-slavery movement. Sunday schools created the demand for public education. Evangelicals filled the ranks of the southern farmers’ alliances who helped to end the crop-lien systems, exploitative credit and trade practices by banks, shippers and merchants, and even increase the currency supply with a new silver standard.

The farmer’s alliances represent one of the first wide-spread populist movements, and eventually evolved into the People’s party.[30]

As long as the political left ignores the role religion plays in public thinking (which includes the conservative beliefs of many working families), they will isolate themselves from voters who might otherwise embrace their platform.

Evangelical populists secured a Presidential nomination for William Jennings Bryan. His 1896 nomination speech invoked the metaphor “crucifixion” to describe corporate control over labor. He wove a number of metaphors into his speech that captured the popular imagination: “idle holders of idle capital” “commercial interests,” “the struggling masses” and “producing class.”

Jennings also repurposed a Republican metaphor, “businessman.” Republicans contended, and still contend, that businessmen are the backbone of the American economy. Jennings claimed that anyone who works for a living is a businessman, including “the man who is employed for wages.”

The repurposed metaphor flips conservative doctrine that employment is a contract between two free agents. If an employee is a free agent engaging in a contract with an employer, then he is a businessman too. Had it gained traction, the metaphor would have changed the political landscape.

After the first World War, extreme fundamentalists split evangelicals from populist politics with the wedge of evolution. Ironically, fundamentalists didn’t encourage evangelicals to shift to the right, they encouraged them to stay away from politics. [31]

Why not engage conservative voters about the historical, Gospel-based values we share? Jesus expects his followers to welcome the poor and dispossessed. Adapt the parable of the Good Samaritan to the present day:

An American is mugged while visiting Washington D.C. A preacher and politician see him lying in a pool of his own blood but hurry past. The only person to help is an undocumented Mexican immigrant. He drives the American to the hospital, even though the blood covers his car. Upon the American’s release, him drives him to a hotel, buys him dinner and pays his bills until he’s recovered.

Address the debate over social welfare with Jesus’ verses about the poor and needy. Remind militant and belligerent voters that Jesus commanded his followers to love one another.[32] Point out that New Testament authors wrote far more about cultivating and nurturing members of their community than warring against the powers of evil.

Learn and cite the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus devoted his first public speech to the welfare of others, not Israel’s prestige and power.[33]

Would it hurt to open assemblies by requesting a moment of silence to express our gratitude for the freedoms we enjoy? We should express gratitude for our freedoms. Why not in public? A silent moment permits participants to engage in reverence and prayer without endorsing one faith over another. If asked to bow our heads in prayer to the Christian God, what does it hurt to go with it? Then, politely, suggest that good manners requires us to let Muslims and Hindus lead us in their prayers too.

If asked to bow our heads in prayer to the Christian God, what does it hurt to go with it? Then, politely, suggest good manners requires us to let Muslims and Hindus lead us in their prayers too.

No candidates need to endorse Christianity, or even believe in God to answer the question, “Do you believe?” Instead they might answer, “My reverence for this country and its guiding hands knows no bounds. But I won’t force Americans to believe like me.”

Atheists and agnostics can speak of “God” as a metaphor. The metaphor “God” works with any narrative that suggests guidance or design in human affairs. We don’t need to muddy the debate by specifying whether “God” is the Christian God, Hegel and Marx’s historic dialectic, Aristotle’s prime mover, evolving human consciousness, or a trope for progress.

It’s about our language, stupid

Soon after Reagan thrashed Mondale in the 1984 election, I spent a weekend in Chicago with other ACORN staff members. Organizers with the SDS, PIRG and NORML joined us to develop strategies for the 86 and 88 elections. The meetings ended without consensus, which is where I suspect the political Left remains thirty years after.

During a heated exchange, I asked the women, “If there’s one issue you agree on, what would it be?” I hoped to illustrate the difficulty of identifying a single core issue and then to suggest we identify two or three campaign priorities every organization could back.

To my surprise, every woman agreed: our language belittles and marginalizes them. The men shouted them down, suggested the women lived in a bubble and proceeded to argue which issue should top the women’s list — abortion rights, health care, home care, poverty….

To me, the women’s unanimous agreement was a message to pay attention. Since that meeting I’ve realized their diagnosis was correct too. Language is a tool used to empower and disenfranchise. After thirty years, however, women still lack a vocabulary of empowerment. They failed to understand the complex threads that entangle language and thinking.

Men will never embrace a language of equality unless the new vocabulary reflects how women and men think.

The Left (which men continue to dominate) remains blind to what women have known for decades. It’s not about the economy, stupid, it’s about language.

Changing the minds of a generation will be difficult. No two minds think alike. Not male or female, white or black, native American or immigrant, conservative or liberal. Not Christian, Jewish, Moslem, Buddhist, Zoroastrian, Hindu or skeptic. At best we can navigate the points of intersection.

As to the power of the Conservative and Christian Right, the Left (which men continue to dominate) remains blind to what women have known for decades. It’s not about the economy, stupid, it’s about language. The Right controls America’s language and stories. We can remove their power only by reinventing the words we speak.

Awake once more.

Write poets into
American dreams to
enchant our verse,
inspire new epics,
sow new songs to
stir the hearts of
working families

who

tilled the fields,
seeded the factories,
and grew the wealth,

who

surrendered their wealth
surrendered their souls
seduced by the
siren songs of
silver-tongued snakes

who

named themselves
Right.

Essential Lakoff Bibliography

The Political Mind : Why You Can’t Understand 21st-Century American Politics with an 18th-Century Brain. (New York: Viking, 2008).

Thinking Points: Communicating Our American Values and Vision. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006).

Whose Freedom?: The Battle over America’s Most Important Idea. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006).

Moral politics : What Conservatives Know that Liberals Don’t. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).

with Mark Johnson:

Metaphors We Live By. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980, 2003).

Philosophy In The Flesh: the Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought. New York: Basic Books, 1999).

The images of the Selma march and police response used to create the header image are in the public domain.

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Wry noir author Phillip T. Stephens wrote Cigerets, Guns & Beer, Raising Hell, and the Indie Book Award winning Seeing Jesus. Follow him @stephens_pt.

Footnotes

[1]: George Lakoff, “The President Is The Nation: The Central Metaphor Trump Lives By,” Medium, February 2, 2018.

I use the term “progressive” and “Left” as shorthand for left of center, progressive, and moderate candidates. Even though moderate candidates most likely don’t consider themselves “Left,” the New Right assigns the label.

[2]: I avoid using the President’s name because to do so fuels his ego. Favorable mention confirms his political prowess and leadership skills. Criticism boosts his ego too because enemy outrage proves his savvy. I prefer to refer to the man as the current occupant of the office “President.”

[3]: The “President = Nation” metaphor influences Democratic thinking too. However, their record suggests they’re less likely to close ranks around incompetence, declare they’re the nation’s unequivocal standard bearers, or promote the narrative “Democratic Presidents are divinely appointed.”

[4]: Other metaphors include “Square Deal,” women’s “Launching Pad,” “Direct Action,” and “Organize.”

[5]: Peter Boyer, “Toy-Based TV: Effects on Children Debated,” New York Times, Feb. 3, 1986. See also: Gerald Gilbert, “How toys took over children’s TV,” The Independent, Dec. 4, 2010; Sandra L. Calvert, “Children as Consumers: Advertising and Marketing,” The Future of Children, Spring, 2008, 18:1.

[6]: Armin Lak and others, “Midbrain Dopamine Neurons Signal Belief in Choice Accuracy during a Perceptual Decision,” Current Biology, March 20, 2017, (v27).

Anthony Damasio explains that “the process by which newly learned facts are consolidated in long-term memory…takes place at the level of neurons and molecules, so that the neural circuits are etched, so to speak, with the impressions of a newly learned fact. This etching depends on strengthening or weakening the contacts between neurons, known as synapses.” ”How the Brain Creates the Mind”, Scientific American E-Paper, 2002.

See also Richard Restak, The New Brain (New York: Rodale, 2003).

[7]: Evidence suggests progressive tolerance may be eroding. Many of the posts I receive from colleagues are less willing to engage POTUS’s supporters than they did Bush’s.

The Right, of course, has always accused the Left of intolerance and “political correctness”.

Fareed Zakaria claims, “American universities seem committed to every kind of diversity except intellectual diversity. Conservative voices and views are being silenced entirely.” That being said, we shouldn’t label students who walk out on a conservative speaker “intolerant” at the same time we embrace the rights of the Klan to counter protest. Both activities have long been tools of free speech rights.

Kim R. Holmes, “How the Left Became So Intolerant,” The Heritage Foundation, Dec. 12, 2017.

Alexandria King, “Fareed Zakaria: Liberals think they’re tolerant, but they’re not,” CNN, May 29, 2017.

[8]: Ryan Vlastelica, “Why income inequality is holding back economic growth, in one chart,” Market Watch, April 6, 2018.

[9]: A strategy Lakoff has suggested in many of his writings.

[10]: I use the word “welfare” to illustrate the difficulties of communicating across the new tribal borders. The metaphor “welfare” (wellness of the whole person ⊇ wellness of the body) became a policy metaphor after the mid-20th century (welfare of society ⊇ welfare of the poor and less privileged). Beginning with the Reagan administration, Conservatives shifted the metaphor’s polarity. “Welfare” became negatively charged, a shorthand hook for the narrative:

  • Welfare for the poor and less privileged → dependence on government
  • Dependence → laziness, sloth and grift → dependence on hard working taxpayers
  • ∴ government compels responsible members of society to subsidize slackers who took advantage of the system. [working ⊆ responsibility]

In this narrative, “welfare” no longer means “social health,” but “leeching from society.”

Campaigns should replace “welfare” with a metaphor to convey “neighbor helping neighbor to strengthen the nation.” This can include the nation’s “health” or “well being,” its “success” or “progress.” Another possibility would be “until every American enjoys the American dream.”

[11]: Lakoff calls this process “cross-mapping domains.” “Mapping the brain’s metaphor circuitry: metaphorical thought in everyday reason,” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, Dec. 16, 2014.

[12]: Most readers were taught to recognize metaphors in the format “subject[topic] is modifier[metaphor].” (e.g., “thinking is grasping,” or “love is a rose.”) In everyday language, we convert metaphors to shorthand and bury them so deep within unconscious thought that we no longer recognize them as figures of speech.

Many think of such expressions, incorrectly, as dead metaphors when in fact they still act metaphorically. We simply truncate the thought process involved.

The following sentences contain embedded metaphors that invoke orientation to convey their meaning:

  • he’s at the top/bottom of his class
  • she’s moving forward with her career
  • higher education
  • upper/middle management
  • this task is beneath you.

[13]: Visual Thinking (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1969).

[14]: William Butler Yeats, “Memory,” The Wild Swans at Coole, and other poems (New York: MacMillan, 1919).

[15]: Memory’s central metaphor is “memory ⇔ rabbit.” To express Yeat’s poem prosaically: “Joanne was pretty. Nancy and Margaret charmed me. But that’s all I remember. Memory is a rabbit. After she leaves, we’ll only see her impression (outline) in the grass.”

[16]: I’m tempted to adopt the President’s hyperbolic style and write, “unprecedented in the history of political persuasion.”

[17]: Chye-Ching Huang and Chloe Cho provide an incisive summary of estate taxes and their role in government finance in “Ten Facts You Should Know About the Federal Estate Tax,” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Oct. 30, 2017,

[18]: Jay Yarow, “Peter Thiel perfectly summed up Donald Trump in a few sentences,” CNBC, Nov. 9, 2016,.

[19]: They won with unwitting help from progressive thinkers who assume people who work fifty hours a week for slave wages should attempt to raise their awareness to the level of nuanced discourse. Confronted with complex and dense sentences such as the one I just typed, however, many voters tune out. Justifiably. When the landlord threatens eviction, your child is about to fail school and your brother-in-law needs money for bail, nuance is the least of your priorities.

Even worse, too many pundits present expert findings as definitive, although their conclusions depend on a complex web of causality. When later developments diverge even slightly from their predictions or explanations, the Right points to their conclusions and shouts, “Why should you listen to experts when they’re always wrong?”

A classic example is the predictions of the Congressional Budget Office on the level of coverage that would be provided by the Affordable Care Act. The CBO could not have predicted Justice Roberts would strike down state-mandated Medicaid. As a result, their projections were off the mark by a third (but well within the ball park). During the debate to dismantle the ACA, the CBO issued new projections unfavorable to the Right. GOP legislators belittled the CBO’s expertise and used the error in the previous forecast to discredit the current numbers.

Time after time, pundits couch their conclusions as “certain.” This is why, when the President’s “tax relief” didn’t produce the dire results predicted (before the plan even took effect), he was considered to be vindicated and his popularity rose (if only slightly).

[20]: My first father-in-law was self-educated, but worked his way to a position as division director of Michigan’s Parks and Wildlife service. One of his favorite anecdotes involved a Parks Manager with a Masters Degree who couldn’t tell which direction a river was flowing when he looked at a map.

Conservative pundits use similar anecdotes to reinforce the “clueless expert” metaphor. The anecdotes validate conservative voters’ “street smarts” and “common sense” wisdom. Validating their esteem increases their sense of personal security and status (an issue I discuss elsewhere in the paper).

While the anecdotal evidence demonstrates that experts make mistakes, none indicates that they are “clueless,” or “more often wrong than right.” But the stories provide a direct hook to the brain that facts and analysis lack.

A frequently cited study compared an anecdotal appeal for donations to the same appeal that cited information only. The anecdote generated twice the donations. Another frequent assertion is that stories are “22 times more likely to be remembered” than facts. (The assertion can be traced to Jerome Bruner’s book Actual Minds, Possible Worlds. I haven’t had the luxury of reading the book to track down the basis for his claim.)

Deborah Small, George Loewenstein, and Paul Slovic, “Sympathy and callousness: The impact of deliberative thought on donations to identifiable and statistical victims,” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Elsevier, vol. 102(2), March, 2007.)

Bruner, (Cambridge, MA, USA: Harvard University Press, 1986).

[21]: Or, perhaps, they believe they’ve done their duty by opposing the liberal elite, if only with their votes and Facebook posts.

[22]: ”Hamlet”, The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1920).

[23]: Conversely, conservatives could ask why liberals are so willing to protect the lives of convicted criminals but not innocent babies? It’s easy for abortion supporters to say a fetus isn’t a life, but that answer isn’t compelling emotionally. My wife and I both agree a fetus isn’t alive until it can survive outside the womb, but we also recognize this is an intellectual distinction. While we support a woman’s right to defend her body, neither of us would have chosen abortion personally.

To demonstrate the difficulty of resolving the abortion question, someone who is even more pro-life than me (perhaps someone who is “pro-life+” or “purist pro-life?”) could still pose counter examples to challenge my definition of “fetal life.” What about a premature birth? How is she different from a fetus awaiting full-term? Don’t premature babies often require life support?

No doubt there are others who would want to move the line even earlier, embracing the “life” of unfertilized eggs, and sperm still waiting for release from the vesicles.

[24]: The narrative that women who seek abortions deny choice/parenthood to their partners operates on the assumption that the male is the important partner and therefore should control family decisions.

Wagatwe Wanjuki suggested that the impulse to deny women the right to defend their bodies stems from racial motivations. Originally Protestant white men feared that women who chose abortions would diminish their numbers while the numbers of Catholics, immigrants, and other “savages” would rise. “The racist origins of ’pro-life’ abortion movement they never talk about,” Daily Kos, July 10, 2018.

I would make the same claim about the places of life and choice on liberals’ value scales. If forced to exchange the lives of gun violence victims for gun owners’ “right to choose” to arm their households, most progressives would sacrifice choice in an instant.

[25]: The phrase “working families” targets the President’s supporters because this is how they see themselves. Whether or not they umbrella “white” into the phrase is irrelevant.

[26]: Raising the subject of home schooling, I’ll admit, leads us back into dangerous territory. Members of the Christian Right associate home schooling with religious freedom. The problem is that home schooling forces children onto a curriculum dictated by the New Right’s agenda. If they want access to higher education, they’re forced into colleges that will accept the lower educational standards associated with home schooling. Jobs tend to be offered exclusively within the Christian Right community. Should they choose to compete in the broader job market, many discover their skills don’t transfer.

I believe it’s worth noting in this article, but only with the caveat that a home schooling bullet point could undo all the good will established by other elements of the Jim Crow metaphor.

[27]: Quinton Franklin, ”I lost my job at Carrier after President Trump promised to save it”,Vox, Feb. 6, 2018.

[28]: Miriam Valverde, “A look at the data on domestic terrorism and who’s behind it,” Politifact, August 16, 2017.

[29]: Paul Harvey, Freedom’s Coming: Religious Culture and the Shaping of the South from the Civil War through the Civil Rights Era (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2005).

[30]: Donna Barnes, Texas State Historical Association, ”People’s Party,” Handbook of Texas Online.

[31]: The Scopes trial (which Bryan prosecuted and won) shifted evolution from a scientific to a political debate. Even though we recognize this historical turning point, the spread of fundamentalism’s doctrine of Dispensationalism (a doctrine promulgated through the popular Thompson Chain Reference Bible) — deserves more credit for opening the fissure between Northern and Southern evangelicals. The Thompson Bible, marketed as a study Bible, integrated conservative dispensational commentary into the verses, leading many readers to believe the commentary and scripture held equal weight. (I used the Thompson Bible as did members of my family and church. Many quoted the commentary as though it were scripture.)

Dispensationalists believe the world is devolving and will end in holocaust with Jesus’ return. After purging the world of evil-doers, he will usher in a thousand year reign of justice. By this thinking, political involvement is meaningless, since Jesus’ return will solve all problems. (Think of former Secretary of Interior Ed Meese, who believed the Rapture made saving the environment moot.)

Northern liberal Protestants believed the world was moving toward a time of Christian enlightenment. The progressive political agenda was part of Christ’s call to ushering forth a millennium of peace, equality and justice. (This belief seems to have fallen by the wayside after a century of war, rampant poverty and environmental degradation. It was replaced mid-century by the theology of Reinhold Niebuhr and his contemporaries).

Essays written by the founders of fundamentalism reveal that some weren’t opposed to evolution, but interpreted evolution as evidence of God’s hand in nature. Their argument was with Darwin’s notion of “natural selection,” which they claimed didn’t explain human development and diversity.

See James Orr, The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth, (A. C. Dixon and R. A. Torrey, ed.) (Chicago, Testimony Publishing Company of Chicago: 1910)

[32]: John 15:12. Depending on the audience, candidates could remind voters that Dao, Moslem, Buddhist, Hindu and Zoroastrian texts mirror many Gospel passages. Audience is the key, however. The Right and Christian Right would respond with open hostility to politicians who invoke those sources instead of Christian scripture.

[33]: Numbers don’t lie. I conducted two textual analyses of the New Testament to demonstrate that early writers were more aligned (metaphorically and literarily) with modern progressive thinking than they were with the Christian Right (often by scale of 10).

Phillip T. Stephens, “The Poetry That Drives and Divides Faith,” International Journal of Religion and Spirituality in Society, 1:3, 2011.

Phillip T. Stephens, “Running the Numbers on the Gospels: Statistical Analysis of the Gospel of Matthew,” International Journal of Religion and Spirituality in Society, 8:1, 2018.

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Living metaphor. Follow me @stephens_pt.

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