Moral Politics: Sociological Imagination, Opinions, & Conservatives Stuck on Stupid

¡Hola! Everybody…

When confronted with evidence disproving a cherished belief, most people will throw away the evidence and keep the belief.

Most of my readers know how much I detest overly simplistic explanations. Take these for example:

Idiots are consistently voted into office = Voters/ people are stupid.

The subprime meltdown was the consequence of clueless borrowers.[1]

Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.

I could go on ad nauseum with a list of the foolish and narrow-minded shit people pull out of their arses in their quest to form opinions. I believe that the greatest postmodern challenge facing us is our inability to apply what C. Wright Mills called the sociological imagination (1959). Mills described the sociological imagination as the capacity to shift from one perspective to another: from the political to the psychological; from examination of a single family to evaluation of the national budgets of the world; from considerations of an oil industry to studies of contemporary poetry. Simply put, the sociological imagination is the capacity to view issues from a wider perspective — inclusive of divergent points of view.

This lack of a sociological imagination is killing us – literally speaking.

We blame “a nation of idiots” on the election of an idiot; lazily ignoring the massive propaganda machine that idiot is tied to. We blame borrowers in what is the greatest financial scam in our nation’s history, ignoring the decades of deregulation and dismantling of government insight that paved the way, not just for the subprime meltdown, but also Enron and every other corporate malfeasance, since the Savings & Loan debacle of the 1980s.

In fact, it is a common practice of conservatives to set up government agencies for failure (via taking away funding) and then blame any failure, not on the cause (often lack of oversight—deregulation), but the very agencies they set up to fail. We ignore the fact that a gun gives people — many unstable — the power to inflict destruction like no other instrument. Sure pencils don’t make people misspell words, but let me see how many people you can shred with one pencil as opposed to an automatic rifle.

::blank stare::

The genius of the conservative movement lies in how they have convinced you that a regressive rather than a progressive tax structure is better for you (they call it “tax relief”). It’s how they convinced a number of you to go along with trickle-down economics — an economic theory advocating for upward shifts in wealth and income no credible economist has ever endorsed.

We ignore the fact that a gun gives people -- many unstable -- the power to inflict destruction like no other instrument. Sure pencils don’t make people misspell words, but let me see how many people you can shred with one pencil as opposed to an automatic rifle.

As cognitive linguist, George Lackoff, has shown, our opinions are most often driven by the beliefs, or better put — by the metaphors — we live by (2006). Conservatives have exploited this fact for some time and that is partly the reason why people voted for Bush II or still see Palin as something other than warped. Most importantly, it is why you vote against your own economic interests. Conservative operatives discovered that people vote their values, not on the issues. Therefore, if you can frame, say, “family values” in a conservative way, you have co-opted the most important metaphor we all live by — families.

Progressives have labored under the false notion that reason or issues should come first. Yes, issues are important, but people vote on values (frames) – people make decisions based on emotions  — and if you can’t connect with people on values, you will never get your agenda on board. Let us take the following facts as an example:

During the Iraq War, an overwhelming majority of Americans wanted a timetable for pulling out our troops. On economic policy, most Americans support stronger government regulations to protect citizens. On trade, polls consistently show the public is very suspicious of the free trade agreements that have hurt the middle class[2]. On health care, surveys consistently show that about two-thirds of those asked desire a government-guaranteed universal health-insurance system — even if that means higher taxes.

If, as polling data consistently shows, the mainstream is more left of center, then why aren’t these issues on the table for public discourse? Part of the answer lies in the reality that the issues have not been framed adequately. Part of this lack is the result of a lack of resources and access. Powerful interests invested in undermining progressive policies, have unlimited media access – indeed they often own much of the media. One of the ways issues are framed is through repetition. Jon Stewart from The Daily Show has made a career out of showing hilarious video clip compilations of right-wing pundits and leaders repeating the same emotionally charged words over and over. Far right-wing politicians use this technique consistently. Santorum frames his attack on women’s reproductive rights as a life and death moral struggle. His expressed and constantly repeated belief or frame (echoed 24/7 on mainstream news media cycles) is that as a society we are locked in a crusade against those who wish to persecute Christians. His key words include “reckless,” “immoral,” “dangerous,” and his overriding metaphor is one of war – the war of “good” vs. “evil.”

This is a very effective way to express and embed an idea. The words come with frames of reference attached. Those frames in turn latch on to and activate deeper, subconscious frames. When repeated every day, the words serve to reinforce deep frames by actually strengthening neural connections in the brains of listeners. Even if you are “smart” or consider yourself a latte-drinking, NPR-listening, sophisticated liberal, this onslaught of frames will have an impact on your thinking. At the very least, these frames serve to move the “center” of the political landscape to the far right, in the process relegating progressive ideas tom the margins of the national dialog. In other words, progressive ideas and policies are not even up for discussion and whether you agree with them or not, we are all the poorer because of it.

In that way, I can stand up on a stump and yell out catch phrases such as “family values” or “tough on crime” and immediately in your brain a barrage of conservative-framed issues appear. I can blurt out, “tax and spend” and immediately conservative frames come to your mind. And this is how public consent is manufactured (Herman & Chomsky, 2002) rather than agreed upon in a conscious, democratic manner.

My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…


Herman, E. S., & Chomsky, N. (2002). Manufacturing consent: The political economy of the mass media (reprint ed.). New York: Pantheon Books. (click here)

Lakoff, G. (2006). Thinking points: Communicating our American values and vision: A progressive’s handbook. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. (You can download a PDF version of this book for free by clicking here)

Mills, C. W. (1959). The sociological imagination (reprint, annotated ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.

[1] While the government sponsored mortgage giants were certainly not blameless, Federal Reserve data shows conclusively that it was private mortgage brokers, not Fannie and Freddie, who drove the subprime housing bubble:

  • More than 84 percent of the subprime mortgages in 2006 were issued by private lending institutions.
  • Private firms made nearly 83 percent of the subprime loans to low- and moderate-income borrowers that year.

[2] Public opinion polls suggest that Americans are deeply suspicious of free trade agreements. A September 2010 NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey, for instance, found that 69 percent of respondents believe the deals cost more jobs than they create, compared to only 18 percent who believe the reverse.