Why Voters Aren't Motivated by a Laundry List of Positions on Issues

Brewer, Joe; Lakoff, George
Resource Type:  Article
Cx Number:  CX12662

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.


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.


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.


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 policy.

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