By George…He’s Right

George Lakoff is probably best known for his book, Don’t Think of An Elephant, but he has produced a steady stream of significant articles and books throughout his academic career. ( He was the   Richard and Rhoda Goldman Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley from 1972 until he retired a few years ago. He currently serves as Director of the Center for the Neural Mind and Society.)

Lakoff’s abiding interest has been identification of the cognitive differences between Progressives and Conservatives, and his blog frequently applies the results of his research to contemporary political puzzles. A recent post considered two questions about Donald Trump and Republicans that Lakoff says tend to stump Progressives.

1) Why don’t Trump supporters turn against Trump even though he is doing things that hurt them? (like taking away their healthcare)

2) Why do Republicans hate the Affordable Care Act, and why are they so transparently acting to give wealthy people a tax break funded by making healthcare unaffordable?

The short answer? Voters don’t vote their interests. They vote their values.

The longer answer? According to Lakoff,

Most thought (as much as 98% by some accounts) is unconscious. It is carried out by neural circuitry in our brains. We have no conscious access to this circuitry, but it’s there. This is basic neuroscience.

When it comes to politics, progressives and conservatives essentially have different brains. The unconscious beliefs conditioned in their brains are nearly exact opposites.

Lakoff describes conservative morality as a “Strict Father” worldview, and progressive morality as a “nurturant parent” paradigm.

Conservative moral values arise from what I call the Strict Father Family.

In this family model, father knows best. He decides right and wrong. He has the ultimate authority to make sure his children and his spouse do what he says, because what he says is right. Many conservative spouses accept this worldview, uphold the father’s authority, and are strict in those realms of family life that they control.

In this moral worldview, it is his moral duty to punish his children painfully when they disobey. Harsh punishment is necessary to ensure that they will obey him (do what is right) and not just do what feels good. Through physical discipline they are supposed to become disciplined, internally strong, and able to prosper in the external world.

What if they don’t prosper? That means they are not disciplined, and therefore cannot be moral, and so deserve their poverty. In this conservative view, the poor are seen as lazy and undeserving while the rich deserve their wealth. Responsibility is thus taken to be personal responsibility, not social responsibility. What you become is only up to you, not society. You are responsible for yourself, not for others.

Lakoff then outlines the conservative “moral hierarchy.”

• God above Man
• Man above Nature
• The Disciplined (Strong) above the Undisciplined (Weak)
• The Rich above the Poor
• Employers above Employees
• Adults above Children
• Western culture above other cultures
• America above other countries
• Men above Women
• Whites above Nonwhites
• Christians above non-Christians
• Straights above Gays

You can almost hear Mike Pence talking about how he is a Christian first….

Lakoff wants us to understand the differences in worldviews, so that we can better understand the genesis of conservative Republican policy prescriptions.

Understanding is well and good, but what Lakoff doesn’t tell us is whether it is possible to reason with–or failing that, neuter– Dear Old Strict Dad.

It Isn’t Race

Tomorrow’s post, accidentally published today. Sorry for cluttering your in-boxes, subscribers…

The Brookings Institution recently published a very interesting study about the persistence of an achievement gap between white and minority students in the nation’s classrooms. The research looked at multi-racial student performance–a population that was rarely studied before increasing rates of intermarriage produced enough children to allow for reliable conclusions.

The study is explained more fully by the linked article, but here are the findings:

  1. Students of multi-racial identity are from families with lower socioeconomic status than whites;
  2. They attend schools that are far more integrated with whites and Asians compared to blacks, Hispanics, American Indians, and Pacific Islanders;
  3. Multi-racial students have the same average test scores as whites on math, science, and writing;
  4. For reading tests, multi-racial students outperform other groups, including Asians; and
  5. These results contradict the controversial hypothesis that between group differences in IQ result from genetic differences between races.

These findings suggest that the race gaps in academic achievement in the United States are the result of inequality, especially in terms of access to educational opportunities, and therefore could be closed under fairer political, social, and economic arrangements.

Reading this research took me back many years, to my undergraduate education classes and the work of a sociologist named William Coleman. In 1966, he published a paper titled Equality of Educational Opportunity (usually referred to as “The Coleman Report”). The study surveyed 600,000 children in 4,000 schools, and its conclusions were unexpected: family income and peer influence were more predictive of children’s school achievement than school funding levels.

Although Coleman discovered that expenditures were not closely related to achievement, the report found that a student’s achievement appears to be “strongly related to the educational backgrounds and aspirations of the other students in the school …. Children from a given family background, when put in schools of different social compositions, will achieve at quite different levels.” Writing in The Public Interest, Coleman was even more forceful: “The educational resources provided by a child’s fellow students are more important for his achievement than are the resources provided by the school board.” The Coleman Report concluded that “the social composition of the student body is more highly related to achievement, independent of the student’s own social background, than is any school factor.”

The conclusions of the Brookings study are consistent with Coleman’s emphasis on the importance of socio-economic integration. And therein lies the problem.

So  many of the issues we expect our public schools to solve are really broader social issues–social disparities that pose barriers to learning. Poverty is obviously the most significant of those barriers, but its effects are multiplied by residential patterns that separate middle and upper-middle class children from poor ones.

The research continues to show that gaps in achievement are not based upon race, but upon the environment within the classroom–an environment dramatically affected by the experiences, expectations and “aspirations” of the children who inhabit it.

The Atlantic recently reported that Coleman’s work was finally getting the attention it deserved.

James Coleman, who died in 1995, never saw the growth of socioeconomic-integration programs. But a half century after publication of his seminal report, school integration by social class is finally getting its proper due.

As the article noted,

Many of the districts pursuing socioeconomic integration are seeing impressive results. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, for example, a socioeconomic-integration program was adopted in 2001 and by 2014, 86 percent of low-income students graduated, compared to 65 percent of low-income students in Boston, whose schools are not socioeconomically integrated. Coleman would not have been surprised by the 21-point differential…. Moreover, socioeconomic integration often leads to racial integration, which has powerful benefits, such as reducing bigotry and forging social cohesion.

The research confirms that in education, it’s nurture, not nature.

Becoming The Enemy

A recent article in The Atlantic considered a question that many people have asked in the wake of the 2016 Presidential election:

One of the most perplexing features of the 2016 election was the high level of support Donald Trump received from white evangelical Protestants. How did a group that once proudly identified itself as “values voters” come to support a candidate who had been married three times, cursed from the campaign stump, owned casinos, appeared on the cover of Playboy Magazine, and most remarkably, was caught on tape bragging in the most graphic terms about habitually grabbing women’s genitals without their permission?

The author of the article, Robert P. Jones, heads up the Public Religion Research Institute, and the demographic data he shares is important (and to those of us who do not share the preoccupations of white evangelical Christians, comforting). But the article is not simply an analysis of increasing turnout amid declining absolute numbers; it also offers an explanation of white evangelical Christian support for a man who would seem to be an anathema to everything those Christians claim to hold dear.

And that support was critical:

Trump ultimately secured the GOP nomination, not over white evangelical voters’ objections, but because of their support. And on Election Day, white evangelicals set a new high water mark in their support for a Republican presidential candidate, backing Trump at a slightly higher level than even President George W. Bush in 2004 (81 percent vs. 78 percent)….

In a head-spinning reversal, white evangelicals went from being the least likely to the most likely group to agree that a candidate’s personal immorality has no bearing on his performance in public office.

Fears about the present and a desire for a lost past, bound together with partisan attachments, ultimately overwhelmed values voters’ convictions. Rather than standing on principle and letting the chips fall where they may, white evangelicals fully embraced a consequentialist ethics that works backward from predetermined political ends, bending or even discarding core principles as needed to achieve a predetermined outcome. When it came to the 2016 election, the ends were deemed so necessary they justified the means.

The bottom line: members of a dwindling demographic were so desperate to stem what they saw as the demise of their previous dominance that they embraced a candidate who epitomized everything they claimed to oppose. They gambled that, if he won, they would retain political clout.

There are analogies to be drawn. After 9-11, many Americans wanted to respond to terrorism by foregoing constitutional restraints– allowing law enforcement to ignore “niceties” like due process, and engaging in “enhanced interrogation” (aka torture). To the extent that terrorists were attacking our way of life, abandoning of  that way of life and dispensing with democratic norms gave them exactly what they wanted.

White Christian evangelicals claim they want government to protect “godly moral principles,” at least as they define those principles. By endorsing Trump, they abandoned that pretense.

Assuming America does emerge relatively unscathed from Trumpism, those evangelical Christians who were willing to shelve their beliefs in return for a promise of political power will find themselves further marginalized.

In addition to shrinking numbers (see Jones demographic data and projections), they have traded away whatever moral authority they retained.

Reality Bites….

It’s really a shame that American policymakers are so allergic to evidence, because we have recently had a couple of natural experiments testing the GOP’s most fervent economic ideologies, and we could learn a lot from both of them.

Most people who follow the news are aware of Sam Brownback’s effort to make Kansas a shining example of economic growth to be achieved by drastic reductions in state taxes. To say it didn’t go well would be an understatement. Eventually–after brutal cuts to public education, infrastructure and public services and no sign of the promised offsetting economic growth–more rational Republicans in the state legislature forced him to accept tax increases.

Fewer people are aware of an even more dramatic experiment in Colorado.

The story began with the 2008 recession; like many other municipalities, Colorado Springs was experiencing fiscal distress.

To fill a $28 million budget hole, Colorado Springs’ political leaders—who until that point might have been described by most voters as fiscal conservatives—proposed tripling property taxes. Nearly two-thirds of voters said no. In response, city officials (some would say almost petulantly) turned off one out of every three street lights. That’s when people started paying attention to a city that seemed to be conducting a real-time experiment in fiscal self-starvation. But that was just the prelude. The city wasn’t content simply to reject a tax increase. Voters wanted something genuinely different, so a little more than a year later, they elected a real estate entrepreneur as mayor who promised a radical break from politics as usual.

For a city, like the country at large, that was hurting economically, Steve Bach seemed like a man with an answer. What he promised sounded radically simple: Wasteful government is the root of the pain, and if you just run government like the best businesses, the pain will go away. Easy. Because he had never held office and because he actually had been a successful entrepreneur, people were inclined to believe he really could reinvent the way a city was governed.

Bach promised to transform city government, making it work for everyone without tax increases. (Sound familiar?) He promised to do away with the personal property tax for businesses and to reduce the time needed for developers to get permits. He promised that these and his other “businesslike” measures would promote job growth–he promised 6,000 new jobs a year. He sold himself as an outsider fighting the city’s “regulatory agency mind-set.”

“Sixty Minutes” and “This American Life” covered the election and the town’s new “business friendly” governance. We haven’t heard much from the media since then, and it turns out that a lot has changed. As Politico noted, “seven years after the experiment began, the verdict is in—and it’s not at all what its architects planned.”

It turned out that putting people who don’t understand government in charge of government isn’t a formula for success. The new mayor fired people who had institutional memory and governing expertise; deferred critical infrastructure maintenance, and quarreled with the City Council when its members had the nerve to act like a co-equal branch of government rather than as his subordinates. The promised job growth didn’t come. Chaos did.

The next election, Colorado Springs elected as mayor a man who  had spent his entire professional life in government.

It’s still a conservative town. Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton by more than 22 points in Colorado Springs’ El Paso County. But even with that “small-government mind-set,”

[T]hree times in his first two years as mayor, Suthers has gone to voters either proposing a new tax or asking to keep extra tax revenue. By overwhelming margins, he has now persuaded the supposedly anti-tax zealots of Colorado Springs to commit $250 million to new roads, $2 million to new park trails and as much as $12 million for new stormwater projects.

What has all this “wasteful” government spending done to economic growth? Some 16,000 jobs have been created in the past 24 months, and unemployment is at 2.7%.

Amazing as it may seem, running a government requires different skills than running a business–and fiscal prudence is not a synonym for low or no taxes.

Who knew?

Me and Thee…

One of most persistent–and pernicious–beliefs about inequality is the conviction that people “deserve” financial success or failure. If you are poor, the logic goes, that probably reflects some poor choices you made along the way, or your unwillingness to work hard, or perhaps a lack of innate capacity.

America’s approach to poverty owes a lot to the Fifteenth-century English poor laws that made it illegal to “give alms to the sturdy beggar.” Those laws, and subsequent policy approaches, categorized poor folks either as “deserving” (the widow and orphan) and “undeserving” (the sturdy beggar); that framework is ultimately responsible for the establishment and maintenance of a bureaucracy devoted to ferreting out the “undeserving,” and a political reluctance to provide an adequate social safety net since it might inadvertently benefit undeserving folks.

The Guardian recently reported on a group of scholars who are researching the basis of our very human tendency to see our own misfortune as just that–misfortune–while attributing other people’s situations to their character flaws. They are studying how rich and poor people alike justify inequality.

What these academics are finding is that the American dream is being used to rationalize a national nightmare.

It all starts with the psychology concept known as the “fundamental attribution error”. This is a natural tendency to see the behavior of others as being determined by their character – while excusing our own behavior based on circumstances.

For example, if an unexpected medical emergency bankrupts you, you view yourself as a victim of bad fortune – while seeing other bankruptcy court clients as spendthrifts who carelessly had too many lattes. Or, if you’re unemployed, you recognize the hard effort you put into seeking work – but view others in the same situation as useless slackers. Their history and circumstances are invisible from your perspective.

This belief is closely related to the myth that America is a meritocracy, and that with hard work, education and some “moxie,” anyone can get ahead. That perception was never really accurate (ask African-Americans or women), but America did once have much greater social mobility than it does today.

The research notes a widespread suspicion that “they” are abusing/misusing social welfare programs that “my” taxes support, and a corresponding resentment of “them.” (The article notes that this attitude was a prominent characteristic of Trump voters.)

Another aspect of this phenomenon is known as “actor-observer bias”. When we watch others, we tend to see them as being driven by intrinsic personality traits, while in our own case we know that, for example, we acted angrily because we’d just been fired, not because we’re naturally angry people….

In other words, other poor people are poor because they make bad choices – but if I’m poor, it’s because of an unfair system. As a result of this phenomenon, Pimpare says, poor people tend to be hardest on each other. He gives the example of a large literature in anthropology and sociology about women on welfare published since the 1980s. “It finds over and over again that some of nastiest things you ever hear about women on welfare come out of the mouths of women on welfare.”

Wealthier folks, of course, embrace the “deserving/undeserving” dichotomy because it justifies their more comfortable status.

The political consequences of this phenomenon are obvious: if even the people who stand to benefit most from a more equitable and generous safety net are convinced that it mainly rewards the non-deserving, we aren’t likely to see systemic reforms any time soon.

Breaking down these misconceptions won’t be easy, either, because the research underlines the importance of human contact. As we have learned with racial and religious stereotyping, integration and interaction are powerful weapons against demonization.

Intimate contact – such as the experience of teaching in the inner city, mentoring, other types of services that allow people to connect despite class difference – builds empathy. The more you engage with with people unlike you and learn about their lives and stories, the harder it is to see them as stereotypes or to dismiss their challenges as trivial.

In a society characterized by significant inequality, exclusionary zoning, gated communities and our voluntary segregation into enclaves inhabited by the like-minded–what Bill Bishop has dubbed “the Big Sort”–it is going to be very difficult to encourage that “intimate contact.”