Why do so many bad ideas seem natural to voting Americans?

Joe Brewer and George Lakoff have published a new analysis that looks at the importance of “cognitive policy” – the process of constructing the assumptions that underlie actual material policy decisions.

For instance:

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 affect education.
  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 schools.
  5. Morality comes from conservative religion, and so conservative religious education will help instill morality and should be publicly supported.
  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 possible.

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.”

Any of that sound familiar?

Worth the read, top to bottom….


  • Thanks Sam.

    Personally, I’ve often wondered why progressives don’t do a better job of sloganeering. The author calls this “cognitive policy,” but an anthropologist might call it something like a “mythic paradigm.” And, yes, these paradigms, if used appropriately, are very powerful persuaders.

    BTW, I think the real issue is fear. The average guy on the street can be made to be afraid of the gummint because it’s the gummint that keeps him from being fabulously wealthy.

  • Sam,

    This reminds so much of your post “Reframing the Republican lie about wealth in America.”

    And it serves to remind me to reread it. I printed it out long ago and it sits on the shelf over desk. Time to shake the dust off it.

  • As an individual that doesn’t look at things in terms of Rep or Dem…conservative or progressive….it’s clear that conservatives dominate progressives in terms of the effectiveness of their propaganda machine. Following 9/11 Congress, dems included, gave up any real power they have to the administration. Signing statements and executive orders trump Congress. Since dems took control of Congress….what have they done to combat anything the administration has shoved down our throats? The list of ridiculous policies, war on terror, education, corporatism, and blatant disregard for what is in the best interests of those that aren’t among the “elite” have gone unchallenged. My opinion…..both sides of the aisle are one and the same. Our rights have been consistently eroded by our government….not just by one party. Progressives in general come across as weak and whiny and lacking the cajones to actually stand up and take action…all talk no walk(unless it has to do with performance enhancers in sports). Mr. O’Brien is correct……the average guy can be made and has been made to be afraid of the “gummint”.

  • I was pretty impressed last November by the then newly released book, What Orwell Didn’t Know, which included a major contribution by Lakeoff. I am calling your attention to my review it at the time because it includes a link to an all-day conference held at the New York Public Library, which was very interesting.

  • Dr Slammy, I’m glad you wrote “All of these ideas are part of “A” conservative worldview,” and not “All of these ideas are part of the conservative worldview.”

    While I agree with some of that laundry list, I (and most other conservatives) disagree with many other of the list.

    As for other commenters discussing “fear of the government,” I am all too aware of what the government can do to your pocketbook. I get a knot in my stomach every time I get a letter from the IRS, because it’s never good news.


  • Jeff: Actually, that worldview line was the original authors, not me, but that is how I would have put it, too.

    I don’t fear government more or less than I do corporations anymore. Government has never hurt me as badly as corps have, but these days I’m having a harder and harder time telling them apart.

    It is true that I never got good news from the IRS, though….

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