I discovered, however, that in politics things are just not that simple. First, I found that most of these unaffiliated voters self identified as Republicans, or at least saw the Republican “brand” as more appealing. They liked to claim independence of thought, but most were every bit as committed to the Republican Party as the affiliated Republicans. I found that even the registered Republicans liked to think of themselves as fair-minded people who study the issues and vote for the best candidate. But what they think they do and what they actually do is not the same. For example, my wife was helping out with polling one night and she reported speaking to one self-identified Republican voter, reading the prepared questions:
“On what do you base your voting decisions?”
“Issues,” responded the voter.
My wife continued, “If someone shared your views and was running as a member of the opposing party, in your case a Democrat, would you vote for him or her?”
The response, “absolutely.”
“Do you plan to vote for Becky Lockhart, or Boyd Petersen for state legislature?”
“Which one is the Republican?” the voter asked.
Some voters, however, didn’t seem to know they could vote for individuals rather than a straight party ticket. I spoke with one Hispanic gentleman who had very strong feelings about immigration reform but also had very strong conservative moral values. He said he was going to vote a straight Republican ticket. It took twenty to thirty minutes to explain to him that if he did this he would end up voting against his interests about half the time. I finally ended up getting a sign in his yard and probably got his vote, but I realized that every vote above my 5% was going to require a long conversation.
Nevertheless, if some votes came hard, some came surprisingly easy. I found that the people who knew me, people in my neighborhood and ward—most of them strong Republicans, enthusiastically supported me. If they knew me, they tended to support me, and my position on issues didn’t really seem to matter to these people. In fact, my home teacher and I had just engaged in a very lively debate about vouchers a few months before I announced I was running. He was solidly pro-vouchers and I was solidly anti-vouchers. Nevertheless, when I announced my candidacy, he was one of the first people in the neighborhood to request a sign and offer to help with the campaign. But I also found that some votes, even from people who agreed with my platform, were impossible to get. Some people who should have supported me ideologically but didn’t know me often would adamantly not support me. Several public school teachers and officials told me flat out that they could not support a Democrat. On election day, I got a phone call from a sister in my ward who reported “Today, I did something I have never done before: I voted for someone who was not a Republican!” She had voted for me, but still couldn’t say the “D-word.” My positions really didn’t matter to most people. It was about whether I had a relationship of trust with them. Was I one of them? It all came down to tribe.
Now that the election is over, I have been reading up on the subject of how voters make decisions, and I have found that the anomalies I encountered as a candidate can all be explained by current research on the brain. According to that research, positions don’t much matter in politics. It’s all about emotion. Emotions about party, candidates, and, finally, issues.
In study after study, researchers have found that it is not so much what voters think than it is about what voters feel. “In politics,” states Drew Westen, “when reason and emotion collide, emotion invariably wins” (35). Contrary to Enlightenment models of thought, emotion works hand in hand with reason. Summarizing the conclusions of cognitive and brain scientists, George Lakoff notes that idea that reason is “conscious, literal, logical, universal, unemotional, disembodied, and serves self-interest” is completely false (2). In fact, 98% of our thought takes place unconsciously and emotion and reason cannot be separated. It’s not so much that we are duped by emotion, but that emotion guides reason. Westen compares emotion to a “compass” that, in conjunction with reason, helps us to avoid adverse stimuli and seek out rewarding stimuli (88).
In sum, Westen states, “although the marketplace of ideas is a great place to shop for policies, what matters most in American politics is the marketplace of emotions” (35-36). And three sets of emotions, in this order, are primary in determining how people vote: their feelings toward the parties and the party’s principles, their feelings toward the candidates, and, if they haven't decided by then, their feelings toward the candidates’ policy positions. Voters get their feelings toward the parties largely by internalizing the values of their parents. “The single best predictor of party affiliation—and of broader value systems associated with it—is in fact the party affiliation of our parents” (Westen 82). So party loyalty is largely determined before one has really thought about the issues, despite what we might consciously want to believe. Most of us determine what tribe we belong to long before we know what that tribe stands for.
In a study I found particularly interesting, Drew Westen and several of his colleagues at Emory University did brain scans on fifteen committed Republicans and fifteen committed Democrats during the 2004 election. The psychologists discovered that when subjects saw images of their own party’s candidates, a part of the frontal lobe called the “frontal pole” was activated. It is an area that other studies have shown is particularly active when a subject thinks about something related to him- or herself. In short, the very sight of an image of our party’s candidate involuntarily activates brain synapses that foster identification with that candidate; whereas seeing images of the other party’s candidates activated areas of the brain where negative emotional reactions take place (52-53). We perceive candidates from our own party as “like us,” as part of our tribe. These responses are as involuntary as our breathing.
In another part of their study, Westen took brain scans as subjects read a series of statements attributed to the Republican and Democratic candidates, statements that any dispassionate observer would find conflicting. What Westen and his colleagues found is that people had no problem seeing the contradictions in the opposition’s candidate, but found their candidate’s position much less contradictory.
The brain scans showed that when confronted with the initial conflict in the person of their candidate, neural circuits associated with negative emotional states turned on, but as the individuals reasoned, falsely, toward a rationalization for their own candidate, neural circuits associated with positive emotions turned on. The partisan brain actually rewarded the individuals for biased reasoning. The circuits activated overlap significantly with those activated when a drug addict takes a hit, “giving new meaning,” as Westen puts it, “to the term political junkie” (xiv). Again a tribal instinct kicks in: our brains suppress conflicts with those who are part of our tribe.
I discovered when running a campaign that what voters really wanted to know was what tribe I belonged to. Was I one of them? My positions mattered very little. Voters were focused on their emotions about the political party I was affiliated with first and foremost. If they already knew and trusted me, their feelings toward me overshadowed their feelings about my party. But if they didn’t have any feelings for me, they focused on party and often voted, I believe, against their own interests.
So how did Mormon voters as a group come to have such positive feelings for the Republican party? How did Mormons come to see themselves as part of the Republican tribe? (My wife suggests it comes from Joseph’s Inspired Version translation of James 1:5: “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, who giveth to all men conservatively….”)
Thomas Alexander has outlined five distinct periods of Church involvement in Utah politics. During the first period, spanning from 1847-1891, the church “essentially dominated the Utah scene” (36) with its own party, sponsoring candidates and opposing gentile political involvement. As the Church moved into the 20th century, it was forced to confront the dominant American culture head on. We can think of this as a process of assimilation, as Armand Mauss has called it; as a process of reconstructing memory, as Kathleen Flake has called it; or as a process of colonization of the Mormon mind, as Richard Bushman has called it; but we know that this process involved both accommodation of American values and a reinvention of what it means to be Mormon.
In order to achieve statehood, Mormon leaders disbanded the Mormon People’s Party, and urged members to become Republicans in order to achieve the political balance necessary for Utah to be granted statehood. Mormons were asked to switch their tribal loyalty from the Democrats (who had not had a party platform against the “twin evils of slavery and polygamy,” as the Republicans had), to the Republicans, in the name of political expediency. The administration of Heber J. Grant inaugurated a less partisan period of Church influence; however, Grant’s concerns about the New Deal and J. Reuben Clark’s increasing influence in the First Presidency led to a more partisan approach. From the late 1950s to the present, despite many individual Church leaders’ avowing Republican leanings, the Church as an institution has taken a more neutral part in political affairs, only entering the political fray, as Alexander put it, “to support or oppose measures they considered moral issues” (36). Significantly, this is the very period in which Utah Mormons became more closely allied with the Republican Party.
Looking back, it is hard to believe that Utah (and its predominately Mormon electorate) once voted enthusiastically for Democratic presidential candidates. From William Jennings Bryan, and Woodrow Wilson (second term), through all four terms of FDR (despite President Heber J. Grant’s advice to vote against him), to Truman and LBJ, Mormon Utah supported Democrats. Certainly, it also supported Republicans, but it was once considered a swing state, one that both parties courted and wooed. However, since 1964, every Republican presidential candidate has won Utah, and in all but two cases by over 60% of the vote. Utahns have not elected a Democrat to the Senate since Frank Moss left in 1977, nor to the governor’s mansion since Matheson left in 1985. The shift in Utah politics took place over the very period that Alexander says the Church leadership became less overtly and publicly partisan. It is curious that this tribal identification of Mormons with the GOP took place at a time when the Church leaders were less directly involved in politics.
Certainly the issues coming to the fore during the decades of the 50s through the 70s—communism, civil rights, welfare reform, abortion, the ERA—were galvanizing. Furthermore, the impact of Ezra Taft Benson’s outspoken conservatism during these years must also be considered. However, I believe there was another factor, one more subtle but more profound: Republican discourse frames began to overlap with the frames of Mormon discourse in subtle ways that remapped the Mormon mind.
Linguists have known since the mid-70s that the brain organizes words by semantic fields, or what Lakoff calls “conceptual frames” (22). We are mostly familiar with this concept in the idea of professional jargons. For example, for an actor, the words “play,” “direction,” “score,” and “run” have specific meanings in the semantic field of her profession. The exact same words used by an athlete, in the semantic field of sports competition, mean something else entirely, and the framing is what makes the difference.
Such frames, in turn, create conceptual metaphors that organize our thinking. We think metaphorically and, at the same time, metaphors shape how we think. Political issues, like everything else, are always framed, and political language is never neutral. Take, for example, the issue of immigration reform. If we use the phrase “illegal immigrant” we are already, by framing it with that adjective, making a judgment about the issue that is very different from the alternate frame available in the term “undocumented immigrant.” We are usually not aware that we are using such frames when we think about issues, but by talking about these issues in these ways, repeating the framing metaphors over and over again, our brains are changed.
George Lakoff argues that there are two primary frames that shape the way people think about political issues: both see governance through metaphors of the family. One is an obedience-oriented frame that Lakoff calls the “strict father” metaphor. It sees a family structure where “children” (i.e., the citizens) need to be disciplined by a strong “father” (i.e., the government) in order that they can be made into responsible “adults.” Once the “children” reach adulthood, however, the “father” should no longer interfere with their lives: the government should not interfere with the business of those in society who have proved their responsibility.
The other frame is an empathy-oriented approach that he calls the “nurturing parent” metaphor. This metaphor sees both “mothers” and “fathers” working to help the essentially good “children” develop and keeping them away from “corrupting influences” like pollution, social injustice, and poverty. Most people are what Lakoff calls “biconceptional,” employing both models in different spheres of their lives. But when one frame is activated, the other turns off. The difference between conservatives and progressives, Lakoff argues, stems from the fact that they subscribe with different strengths to one or the other of these orienting metaphors. Conservatives follow more closely the “strict father” metaphor and thus find themselves in the Republican tribe, while progressives follow the “nurturing parent” model and find themselves in the Democratic tribe. However, Republicans, both Lakoff and Westen concur, have been much better at crafting frames for their arguments, moving politics from the world of ideas to the world of emotion-laden values.
At the same time Republicans have been mastering the world of metaphorical framing, Mormons leaders have, likely unconsciously, employed metaphorical frames from the same network. For example, Gordon and Gary Shepherd have shown how the rhetoric of General Conference shifted between 1890 and 1950, as uniquely Mormon themes like Zion, kingdom-building, eschatology, missionary work, apostasy, etc. declined and more American themes like patriotism and good citizenship increased. Particularly important has been an increased emphasis, especially since the 1950s, on obedience, keeping the commandments, and the importance of obeying priesthood leaders. Academics like Richard Poll, Eugene England, and most recently Terryl Givens have noted the tension within Mormon thought between obedience and individuality, community and freedom, the “Iron Rod” and “Liahona” perspectives. However, within the general Mormon populace the emphasis has shifted so far toward “obedience” that most members don’t often perceive much tension.
For example, when I read to my High Priests Group the 1945 ward teaching message that “when our leaders speak, the thinking has been done,” all of them nodded in agreement, assuming the statement was gospel. When I told them that the statement had been repudiated by President George Albert Smith, they were astonished, but seemed, ironically, eager to follow their priesthood leader’s orders to stop blindly following orders. Combine this discourse of obedience with the patriarchal structure of Mormon hierarchy, and contemporary Mormon cultural framework maps astonishingly well onto Lakoff’s metaphor of the “strict father.” In fact, Lakoff even cites as an example of the strict father “politics of authority” a quote by President James E. Faust: “Obedience leads to true freedom. The more we obey revealed truth, the more we become liberated” (61).
Another significant shift in Mormon rhetoric has been noted by Armand Mauss in an essay published in the recent festschrift for Eugene England. Mauss sees a change in Mormon discourse from the analytical to the affective, from an emphasis on doctrine to an emphasis on feelings. He astutely observes that while speakers in Mormon chapels once “reached under the lectern in search of the books of scripture,” today they reach for that “dependable box of Kleenex tissues” (23). This change in discourse, Mauss argues, “symbolizes the triumph of feeling over understanding” in contemporary Mormonism. It is indicative of:
“a softer worship over a harder one; perhaps of an evangelical—or even Pentecostal—homiletic over an analytical style; of personalized adaptations of scripture over appreciation of historical context. It represents the triumph of the heart over the head in popular Latter-day Saint religious expression.” (24)I certainly do not wish to characterize conservative thought as less intellectual or less rational, but many on both sides of the political divide have acknowledged that Republicans have done a better job of framing their agenda in emotional terms. Democrats have too often grounded their campaigns on Enlightenment theories of rationality, ignoring the ways emotion and reason work together in the decision making process. So the Church’s move toward more emotive discourse would also help solidify an unconscious tribal connection between Republicanism and Mormonism.
Many Mormon Democrats share with me a sense of frustration that we are not fully accepted within Mormon culture, that our tribe has been voted off the island. We believe, as we must seeing the world as we do through our framing metaphors, that what we see as our core moral values—caring for the poor, providing strong education, protecting the environment—are fully compatible, in fact, central to Mormonism. Yet many of our fellow Church members see us as apostates. For example, in Tuesday’s Deseret News, an op-ed written by an adjunct history professor at Weber State cried out for tolerance among Mormon congregations for differences of ideology, stating that Mormon Democrats “have faced increasingly vicious verbal attacks in [our] wards and in [our] neighborhoods.” Many of the comments from readers of the online version of the article drove her point home with unconsciously and self-righteously vicious irony. They compare progressive ideology to “Satan’s plan,” state that tolerating Democrats’ views would necessarily “dilute the true doctrines of the Church,” and call the author of the column “morally week,” “unstable,” and “a nutcase.” Utah Mormons still ask the question, “Can a good Mormon be a Democrat?” But no one is asking “Can a good Mormon be a Republican?” despite the fact that many of us see, as we cannot help but see, through our progressive Mormon frame, serious problems reconciling some of the values of the Republican party with Mormon values. At times we progressive Mormons feel like we are not just a different tribe, but like we are living on a different planet from politically conservative Mormons, and I’m sure that conservative Mormons can only look upon progressive Mormons with disbelief. While we may not be living on separate planets, we are seeing our world through different frames and that gap that divides us into separate tribes can seem unfathomable.
This gulf between the tribes is not healthy for Mormon religious devotion. I have personally known many students who have left the Church because they have felt excluded or ridiculed for their progressive beliefs. However, I believe, one-party dominance is a problem for the Church itself. As others have noted, nationally both parties tend to ignore the Mormon vote; Republicans know they have it in the bag and Democrats know they don’t have a chance. Candidates for national office don’t bother with Utah. But one-party rule also leads to ethical lapses. When I lived in Washington, DC, I experienced first-hand the problem with single-party Democratic party rule, and I believe similar problems plague Utah. The problem also affects the image of the Church as we become a world religion. It becomes difficult to bridge cultural divides when we have a dominant “strict father” political frame and Mormonism is so closely tied to the Republican agenda. However, the bigger problem can result when our culture’s “strict father” obedience frame overwhelms and even denigrates the “nurturant parent” frame. I reported elsewhere how the Church received some extremely unfavorable media attention these past few years as it was revealed that Mormons had been involved in creating, implementing, and defending interrogation techniques that many felt crossed the line into torture. This was not just a crisis of bad publicity; it took a human toll. The press also reported how one Mormon Army interrogator committed suicide after she was forced to implement these techniques. The “strict father” model certainly is a valid frame from which to view the world, but without the mitigating influence of the “nurturing parent” model, it can lead to abuses.
So how might progressives create a space within Mormon culture for their tribe? The answer is to do exactly what conservative Mormons have done: employ frames both within political discourse and within Church discourse that remap the brain. Mormon theology fully supports an empathy-based frame, perhaps more so than any other Christian denomination. Mormons believe in a Heavenly Mother as well as a Heavenly Father, who are literal parents of each of us. We believe in serving each other and the community. We believe in building communities where people live with one heart, one mind, dwell in righteousness, and eliminate poverty among us—and not just by building gated communities in which the poor are unwelcome. We believe in an earth that is created spiritually, and we can understand environmental responsibility as an act of stewardship. And in a moving example of a completely nurturant parent, Mormon scripture tells us that God himself looks down from heaven and weeps for his suffering children. In short, Mormon theology supports a metaphorical frame of empathy.
Finally, I believe that as both sides come to understand the workings of language and the mind, we will be able to foster more tolerance. As we discover that each individual’s moral vision is necessarily framed by an organizing primary metaphor, one that necessarily shuts off competing frames, we can better relate to one another. . We will, we can hope, stop assuming that political difference is simply a matter of sinfulness, insanity or not having all the facts. To paraphrase the Apostle Paul, “For now we see through a frame darkly.” We must remember that each of us has a point of view. “I have a point of view,” says Madeline L’Engle, “you have a point of view—God has view.”
Alexander, Thomas G. Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-day Saints, i890-1930. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1986.
Bushman, Richard Lyman. “The Colonization of the Mormon Mind.” Annual Meeting of the Association for Mormon Letters (2000): 14-23.
Flake, Kathleen. “Re-placing Memory: Latter-day Saint Use of Historical Monuments and Narrative in the Early Twentieth Century.” Religion and American Culture 13 (2003): 69-109.
Gottlieb, Robert, and Peter Wiley. America’s Saints: The Rise of Mormon Power. New York: Putnam, 1984.
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L’Engle, Madeline. Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art. New York: Shaw, 1980.
Mauss, Armand L. “Assimilation and Ambivalence: The Mormon Reaction to Americanization.” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 22.1 (1989): 30-67.
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Prince, Gregory A., and William Robert Wright. David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism. Salt Lake: U of Utah P, 2005.
Quinn, D. Michael. Elder Statesman: A Biography of J. Reuben Clark. Salt Lake: Signature, 2005.
---. The Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power. Salt Lake: Signature, 1997.
Shepherd, Gordon, and Gary Shepherd. A Kingdom Transformed: Themes in the Development of Mormonism. Salt Lake: U of Utah P, 1984.
Westen, Drew. The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation. New York: Public Affairs, 2007.
*Editor’s Note: Learn more about why Boyd is a Mormon Democrat here.