Understanding the 2004 Vote

As a non-citizen, I could not vote in the American elections last Tuesday. I watched in bemusement as the polls were split evenly and it went "too close to call" down to the wire. It wasn't until Florida fell that it became obvious who was going to win. I was left trying to figure out why so many people voted against their own interests.

Almost everyone I know voted Democratic and couldn't explain it either, and the few Republicans I know made no sense at all. However, I went to Barnes and Noble yesterday, and picked up a book that explained it all .... Here's a redux for those who still don't know why America voted the way it did.

The long first chapter of George Lakoff's Don't Think of an Elephant lays out his basic thesis. People vote for the story that fits best with their morals. Facts that don't fit the underlying world view get thrown out. There are two predominant world views: the "strict father" model and the "nurturing parent" model. He shows how conservatives and progressives fit into each model, and how the conservatives framed their policies in terms of their world view while progressives failed to realize they even have a world view.

Here's a Salon article on Lakoff and his book, and an excerpt that'll give you an idea of what he's talking about. I strongly recommend buying the book, though. It's available at Borders and Barnes & Noble if you're impatient and really want to understand what went on last Tuesday.

In short, conservatives have a message that resonates with the story of a strict father who operates in a world of divisions: Good and Evil, winners and losers, absolute right and absolute wrong. Children are born bad, wanting to do what feels good instead of what's right, so they must be made good. The child must be obedient, the father must punish if they do wrong. Punishment teaches internal discipline. Discipline is necessary not just to be good, but to prosper (to end up in the right side of the division between winners and losers). Good things come to people with discipline, and pursuing your own self-interest is how you exercise the discipline and get good things. So rich people must have discipline and thus be good people. A do-gooder, someone who ignores their own self-interest to help others, is messing up the system for the rest of us. They're also fostering dependence, whereas the goal of a strict father is to teach the child discipline to prosper on their own without the strict father's help.

You can see how the world view fits with fiscal, social, and environmental conservative politics. Religion fits in, opposition to welfare, opposition to taxes, insistence on smaller government. Lakoff says that the conservatives have figured out their own values and principles and articulated them so well that we recognize them by just ten words: "Strong Defense, Free Markets, Lower Taxes, Smaller Government, Family Values".

The progressives reflect a nurturing parent world view. Both parents are equally responsible for raising the child, who is born good and can be made better. The world can be made a better place and it is our job to work on that. Nurturing means empathy and responsibility: if you have a child, you must know what every cry means, and take responsibility for the child's well-being. You look after yourself so you can look after your child. You have to be strong, work hard at it, be competent, and know a lot to do this. You protect your child because you empathize with them, and you want them to be happy and fulfilled. It's your moral responsibility to be a happy, fulfilled person and teach your child to be happy and fulfilled and want others to be happy and fulfilled. The child needs freedom to be fulfilled, along with opportunity and prosperity. Fairness, open two-way communication, community, and trust are all values that flow from empathy and responsibility, and the parent must have them and teach them to the children.

You can see welfare programs, the role of government, civil liberties, conservation, and other progressive causes in there. But they haven't articulated their principles, or even recognized that environmentalists and the NAACP share values instead of simply a candidate. They certainly haven't got them out there to the point where they're identifiable by ten words. Lakoff gives his own suggestion for the ten words: "Stronger America, Broad Prosperity, Better Future, Effective Government, Mutual Responsibility".

People have both frameworks in their brains, often one is more dominant in a particular area of their life than the other (e.g., you might be nurturing to your children yet strict as with coworkers). So why did so many Americans vote for Bush? Because Bush described his policies in terms of the moral framework. If the morality behind the message resonates, the people vote for that candidate. Issues and facts don't have the same weight--there's a persistent myth that, as rational beings, if you put the facts in front of people then they'll vote according to those facts. Those people are, as Tuesday proved, a minority. The Democrats completely failed to identify a moral framework, let alone describe policies in terms of it. Their laundry list of issues ("social security") and facts ("the President lied!") were a poll-gathered random collection of grievances and proposals instead of the logical expression of core beliefs. It didn't resonate with people who feel it's important to vote morally.

What progressives must do is realize that conservatives don't have exclusive claim to morals. Progressives have morals, too, and they're morals that most of the country share: Emancipation, suffrage, Roe v Wade, and civil rights all embodied traditional progressive values of empathy and responsibility, and these were great milestones forward in the civilization of the United States. Articulate policies and issues in terms of this moral framework and the corresponding principles, and you'll win the hearts (and minds) of voters.

nathan AT torkington.com