Why Voters Aren't Motivated by a Laundry List of Positions on
by Joe Brewer, George Lakoff
February 28, 2008
In this article Joe Brewer and George Lakoff provide an
introduction to cognitive policy - the values, frames, and arguments
that make sense of the political process.
There is a faulty view of voting behavior – widely held
by political strategists on the left – that people already
know what they want. All you have to do is conduct a poll to find
out where they stand on the issues, then build a platform of positions
that accords with the polls, and they will vote for you. Missing
from this view is the importance of cognitive policy – the
ideas necessary to understand what the issues are and how they
should be addressed. It is the ability to understand where a candidate
is coming from that makes public support possible. Endorsement
quickly follows when this understanding combines with a sense
of shared values.
There are two kinds of policy: cognitive and material. Material
policies are familiar: they outline what is to be done in the
world. For example, the details of a health care plan, or a plan
for getting out of Iraq. Material policies each have a cognitive
dimension, often unconscious and implicit. This includes the ideas,
frames, values, and modes of thought that inform the political
understanding of the material policy. For example, consider the
following questions: Do all Americans, just by their very existence,
deserve health care, just as they deserve police protection? How
does health care differ from health insurance? How these questions
are answered plays a crucial role in what the material details
of health care policy should be.
The Rockridge Institute is centrally concerned with the cognitive
dimension of particular material policies and how the cognitive
dimension—the often-unstated ideas behind material policies—shapes
those policies. We are especially concerned with how change in
those ideas point toward material policy changes.
But there is a deeper aspect to cognitive policy—general
cognitive policy: strategies for getting high-level ideas—values,
frames and principles—to dominate public discourse and shape
public understanding so that future material policies will be
natural and win public support with ease.
Conservative think tanks, over the past three decades, have been
extremely successful in pure cognitive policy, that is, in shaping
public discourse to lead the public to accept basic conservative
values and principles. That long-term investment has paid off
in making material conservative policies seem natural, for example,
massive tax cuts for the wealthy, the pre-emptive invasion of
a country that hadn’t threatened us, defunding such federal
agencies as FEMA and the FDA, and government spying on US citizens.
The success of a policy depends on how it meets both cognitive
and material criteria. Concentrating on material criteria alone
can be counterproductive if a policy is either unpopular, or if
it instills in the public’s mind long-term values that contradict
the aims of the policy.
Cognitive policy comes first. It is comprised of ideas, frames,
and arguments. It forms the basis of what the issue is, how it
is understood and what should be done about it. The material criterion
is comprised of mechanisms for achieving the goals that emerge
from the cognitive criteria.
This can be seen in the Endangered Species Act (ESA). It was
based on the fundamental progressive values of empathy and responsibility:
empathy with all forms of life, a sense of their inherent worth,
and a responsibility for maintaining them and the habitats they
depend on. The material policy had specific cognitive dimensions:
(1) an understanding of the human activities that place species
in jeopardy and of the role of habitat protection in species protection,
(2) an understanding of how government agencies could play an
effective role, and (3) a legal strategy based on the Constitution’s
interstate commerce clause to give the federal government not
only the authority, but the responsibility, for protecting endangered
species and their habitats.
Such moral and practical understandings guided the formulation
of material policy—the legal guidelines of the ESA. A material
criterion that emerged through this understanding is that any
land development project that places an endangered species in
jeopardy must halt until the Department of Fish and Wildlife assesses
Over the years, the conservative think tanks working on cognitive
policy have succeeded in getting into public discourse and the
public mind a set of general cognitive policies that conflict
with the Endangered Species Act:
1. The idea that nature is a resource for human use that habitats
and species are such resources, and that human beings have a natural
right to the use of such “natural resources.”
2. The metaphor that markets are both natural and moral, and that
government regulation is an unnatural and immoral interference
with the operation of markets.
3. A special case of (2) is the idea that the potential for development
of real property is a form of “wealth,” that governmental
regulations restricting development is a “taking”
of that “wealth,” and that such “takings”
should be illegal or that property owners should be compensated
for the loss of that “wealth.” This is, of course,
an extended metaphor, but one capable of being made into law.
4. Jobs are at odds with environmental protection. Inevitably,
specific constraints on development can result in the lost of
specific jobs, though overall habitat protection can lead to the
creation of other, often more attractive, jobs. But conservatives
rally political support by pointing to the specific jobs.
5. When habitats are in a single state, endangered species do
not cross state lines, and hence do not fall under protection
of the interstate commerce clause of the Constitution.
Conservative think tanks have patiently spent a vast amount of
money and energy getting these general ideas into the public mind
and public discourse, so that they now seem natural to many people.
Conservative legal theorists and judges have promoted these ideas
as well. And the Bush administration took them as basic governing
principles, for example, refusing to add polar bears to the list
of endangered species so that resources can be developed freely
in the arctic. The result has been a whittling away at the effects
of the Endangered Species act — not through legislation,
but through the workings of cognitive policy.
Progressives have lacked a cognitive policy-making arm. As a
result, they try to sell policies on a case-by-case basis via
“messaging,” last-minute PR for the specific policy
(e.g., listing polar bears as an endangered species), rather than
developing a progressive worldview that automatically makes sense
of the policy and counters conservative ideas.
Without this deeper exploration, progressives often inadvertently
adopt conservative ideas. For example, a significant number of
progressives give preference to immediate existing jobs that are
environmentally destructive over the development of green jobs.
Political Support for All the Right Reasons
To be implemented, worthwhile policies must have political support.
Whether they have such support depends on how the public understands
them. Public understanding, for the sake of political support,
should be an inherent and explicit part of policy-making.
There is a fundamental principle behind robust public policies,
what we might refer to as the Cognitive Criterion for Public Support:
An effective policy must be popular if it is to stand the test
of time and it must be popular for the right reasons, namely because
it promotes the right long-term values in the minds of citizens.
It is not easy to meet this criterion, but we cannot afford to
overlook it in the policy-making process. It is a cognitive criterion
for generating and evaluating policies. That is, it is a criterion
based on how the cognitive dimension of policy affects the minds
— and hence, the brains — of the public.
Creating Policies that Work
The ultimate test of any policy is simple: does it work? We take
a pragmatic approach to policy-making that incorporates insights
from the cognitive sciences – the array of disciplines devoted
to the study of brain, mind, and thought. A major finding of the
cognitive sciences is that roughly 98% of the neural activity
comprising human thought is structured outside conscious awareness.
It is necessary to analyze the mental structures – called
frames – that bring substance to our thoughts, in order
to see the critical role they play in effective policy.
Cognitive analysis reveals how to make the way the world should
be and the way the world could be into a coherent whole. This
synergy of values, meaning, and truth – from commonsense
understanding to inspirational vision – is the essential
feature of successful policy.
An example is Social Security. This popular program has survived
decades of attack by conservatives. It is based on the simple
ideas that (1) we are all in this together; (2) hard-working people
should be taken care of when they retire; and (3) a caring society
takes care of its people. These progressive ideas are easy to
understand, get reinforced each time a senior citizen receives
a social security check and thus does not have depend on children
or grandchildren—if he or she has them—in their old
age. And it is reinforced when the grown children understand that
burden that social security has lifted from them.
Social Security stands not only as a bulwark against material
conservative policy, but as a wedge against conservative cognitive
policy. The ideas behind it are general ideas, and the effectiveness
of social security should be trumpeted regularly as support for
the general values that underlie it. Those are the values needed,
for example, for support for a sensible health care plan. Social
security and health care are different specific policies, but
the general cognitive policies behind them overlap strongly.
Material Failure for Cognitive Success
When conservatives are in power, they can institute policies
that are designed to fail—fail in a way to support conservative
cognitive policies. In short, for conservatives in power, deliberate
material policy failure can lead to cognitive policy success,
and hence many strategic successes in the future.
For example, take No Child Left Behind. Its stated purpose is
to improve public education, but its covert purpose has been to
undermine it so that public schools can be replaced by charter
schools, private schools, and religious schools. This would increase
conservative control over what is taught and further inculcate
conservative ideas. It would institute a two-tier educational
system to maintain and reproduce the two-tier economic system
in the country, so that children of the elite can get an elite
education subsidized by the public through vouchers, while children
of the uneducated poor remain educated just enough to continue
to provide a source of cheap unskilled or low-skilled labor. This
agenda is hidden, but it is justified and advanced via cognitive
Conservative cognitive policy over many years has resulted in
the following ideas being promulgated to the public:
1. Successful wealthy people merit their success. Those who
are not successful and wealthy don’t deserve to be.
2. Success is a matter of individual talent and discipline. Social
factors do not enter in and government is a hindrance, not a help
to this success.
3. Accountability works from the top down; those lower on the
hierarchy are accountable to those on top. Hence, the schools,
the teachers, and the students are accountable to those political
leaders who allot funding to the schools. But political leaders
and taxpayers are not accountable for providing adequate funding
for teacher salaries, school maintenance, and social factors that
4. High standards will separate out those who merit success from
those who don’t, and rewards and punishments should be based
on performance — of the students, the teachers, and the
5. Morality comes from conservative religion, and so conservative
religious education will help instill morality and should be publicly
6. Education is, or should be, a market phenomenon, in which competition
benefits consumers. This involves three metaphors: The students
are consumers of their education, and will benefit from consumer
choice (hence vouchers and charter schools). The public is the
consumer of educated students, and competition will produce better
products (students). Knowledge is something that can be delivered
whole from teacher to student, like FedEx delivers packages.
7. The main purpose of education is financial success in the market.
Thus education should be tailored to the needs of business.
8. Government is wasteful and ineffective, and so cannot produce
quality education. Thus, education should be privatized whenever
All these ideas are part of a conservative worldview. Teaching
to the test is a material policy that helps to inculcate many
of these ideas, as does defunding “failing schools.”
Conservatives have put a tremendous effort and a lot of money
over many years into their cognitive educational policy. Progressives
cannot turn it around overnight. It will take a considerable cognitive
policy effort, along with well-funded and well-designed material
Conservatives have the advantage here. They have a strong cognitive
policy arm, which will be hard to match and overcome.
They argue that government is bad. When they create programs
designed to fail, this idea is reinforced. Progressives, on the
other hand, must argue that government is good AND make their
programs work – as conservatives try to keep them from working
or appearing successful.
The take home message is simple: Progressives need to learn about
cognitive policy and put it to use.