The Obama Code

George Lakoff on the the Obama Code is a new post (February 24) on Nate Silver’s fivethirtyeight.com.  As Nate says, it is very long but worth reading and thinking about.  Here is my attempt to excerpt and summarize.  George Lakoff is a professor of professor of linguistics and cognitive science at the University of California at Berkley.

As President Obama prepares to address a joint session of Congress, what can we expect to hear?

The pundits will stress the nuts-and-bolts policy issues: the banking system, education, energy, health care. But beyond policy, there will be a vision of America—a moral vision and a view of unity that the pundits often miss.

What they miss is the Obama Code. For the sake of unity, the President tends to express his moral vision indirectly. Like other self-aware and highly articulate speakers, he connects with his audience using what cognitive scientists call the “cognitive unconscious.” Speaking naturally, he lets his deepest ideas simply structure what he is saying. If you follow him, the deep ideas are communicated unconsciously and automatically. The Code is his most effective way to bring the country together around fundamental American values.

For supporters of the President, it is crucial to understand the Code in order to talk overtly about the old values our new president is communicating. It is necessary because tens of millions of Americans—both conservatives and progressives—don’t yet perceive the vital sea change that Obama is bringing about.

The word “code” can refer to a system of either communication or morality. President Obama has integrated the two. The Obama Code is both moral and linguistic at once. The President is using his enormous skills as a communicator to express a moral system. As he has said, budgets are moral documents. His economic program is tied to his moral system and is discussed in the Code, as are just about all of his other policies.

Lakoff continues

Behind the Obama Code are seven crucial intellectual moves that I believe are historically, practically, and cognitively appropriate, as well as politically astute. They are not all obvious, and jointly they may seem mysterious. That is why it is worth sorting them out one-by-one.

The seven elements are:  values over programs; progressive values are American values; biconceptualism and the new bipartisanship; protection and empowerment; morality and economics; systemic causation and systemic risk; contested concepts and patriotic language.  Lakoff dissects each of these in turn.  A few of his more interesting observations

Every policy has a material aspect—the nuts and bolts of how it works— plus a typically implicit cognitive aspect that represents the values and ideas behind the nuts and bolts. The President knows the difference. He understands that those who see themselves as “progressive” or “conservative” all too often define those words in terms of programs rather than values. Even the programs championed by progressives may not fit what the President sees as the fundamental values of the country. He is seeking to align the programs of his administration with those values.

Progressive thought rests, first, on the value of empathy —- putting oneself in other people’s shoes, seeing the world through their eyes, and therefore caring about them. The second principle is acting on that care, taking responsibility both for oneself and others, social as well as individual responsibility. The third is acting to make oneself, the country, and the world better—what Obama has called an “ethic of excellence” toward creating “a more perfect union” politically.

Biconceptualism lay behind his invitation to Rick Warren to speak at the inaugural. Warren is a biconceptual, like many younger evangelicals. He shares Obama’s views of the environment, poverty, health, and social responsibility, though he is otherwise a conservative. Biconceptualism is behind his “courting” of Republican members of Congress. The idea is not to accept conservative moral views, but to find those issues where individual Republicans already share what he sees as fundamentally American values. He has “reached across the aisle” to Richard Luger on nuclear proliferation, but not on economics.….

Biconceptualism is central to Obama’s attempts to achieve unity —a unity based on his understanding of American values. The current economic failure gives him an opening to speak about the economy in terms of those ideals: caring about all, prosperity for all, responsibility for all by all, and good jobs for all who want to work.

Crises are times of opportunity. Budgets are moral statements. President Obama has put these ideas together. His economic program is a moral program and conversely. Why the quartet of leading economic issues—education, energy, health, banking? Because they are at the heart of government’s moral mission of protection and empowerment, and correspondingly, they are what is needed to act on empathy, social and personal responsibility, and making the future better. The economic crisis is also an opportunity. It requires him to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on the right things to do.

And then the summary

The Obama Code is based on seven deep, insightful, and subtle intellectual moves. What President Obama has been attempting in his speeches is a return to the original frames of the Framers, reconstituting what it means to be an American, to be patriotic, to be a citizen and to share in both the sacrifices and the glories of our country. In seeking “bipartisan” support, he is looking beyond political affiliations to those who share those values on particular issues. In his economic plan, he is attempting to realign our economy with the moral missions of government: protection and empowerment for all.

I don’t really think I’ve done justice to Dr. Lakoff in my summary and editing.  If this is interesting to you go to fivethirtyeight.com (link on my blogroll) and find Nate Silver’s post and spend some time reading it for yourself.

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