Chapter 2 – Part 1: Biconceptualism

This article is part of the Thinking Points Discussion Series published by the Rockridge Institute in early 2007. It was written by Joe Brewer (Rockridge Institute staff member) on Friday, March 16, 2007 04:00 PM

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Last week we kicked off our discussion of Thinking Points with Chapter 1: Winning and Losing. In this article, we explore the nature of biconceptualism. This new perspective carries strong implications for the Myth of an Ideological Center and how to effectively connect with swing voters without alienating our progressive base.

I would like to begin by saying “thank you!” to everyone for making our discussion of Chapter 1 a tremendous success last week. Many wonderful insights have been offered by members of the Rockridge Nation community that help us better understand how to connect with fellow progressives. You are an inspiring group of compassionate and intelligent people to work with! Keep it up!

We have seen in Chapter 1 that there are numerous traps to avoid when working to unify people around the progressive vision. Now let’s go deeper into the problems progressives face when trying to attract new people to our cause. Chapter 2 starts out with the following:

“Understanding who we are talking to – and whom we want to talk to – is crucial before progressives begin to articulate what it is they have to say and how best to say it. This is true for progressive candidates as well as activists and activist groups.”

The challenge we face is two-fold:

  1. We want to activate our base while reaching swing voters at the same time.
  2. We want to do so without having to lie, distort, mislead, or pretend to be something we aren’t.

Essentially, this means we need to be authentic. But how do we do that and connect with more people when it seems that most people are not strongly progressive or conservative? And what do we mean when we say they aren’t strongly one way or the other? The standard answer is that there is an ideological center where most voters reside. We will see in this discussion that the standard answer is misleading in ways that are harmful to our cause.

We are making a controversial claim here. Politicians, pollsters, political scientists, and campaign strategists have built their careers on the existence of an ideological center, and many of them ardently believe it exists. Our claim is potentially controversial because the idea that an ideological center exists has been assumed for such a long time. As we will see shortly, the evidence actually contradicts the ideological center. We are talking here about the kind of controversy that arose initially around the Theory of Evolution (and has recently had a resurgence with proponents of Intelligent Design), the kind of controversy that rubs some people’s deeply held beliefs in a way that causes them to feel threatened.

Let’s talk about what is necessary to understand in order to advance our cause. As long as we understand the problem to be one of “moving to the right” to attract swing voters, we will lose. Plain and simple. Alternatively, we can win by clearly articulating our values in a way that resonates with swing voters. What, you may ask, is doing the resonating? It is the Nurturant Parent value system we hold dear that resounds in swing voters. They have the same values as us…along with another set of them.

This is the point where we throw in a bulky word, biconceptualism.

Biconceptualism is the reality that we have the capacity to carry in our brains two competing moral worldviews at the same time. Every one of us has both Strict Father and Nurturant Parent moral systems in us. The thing that determines how we identify with others politically is which one is dominant in our political lives. For many people, it is a combination of both.

The Mythical Center

Before going into greater depth about biconceptualism, let’s see what is misleading about the Myth of the Ideological Center. By going through this exercise we will begin to see its limitations and discover how to get around them. The Myth of the Ideological Center has four different versions. Here is a brief version of each and a discussion of how it leads us astray:

The Label Myth

This is when people are asked to give themselves one of three labels: liberal, moderate, or conservative. A discovery made by psychologists years ago is that people commonly make mistakes when asked to identify themselves with labels. This happens because we have preconceived notions of what the labels mean that are accompanied by good or bad feelings. These feelings bias our application of the labels. For example, in The Politics of Polarization centrist Democrats William Galston and Elaine Kamarck obtained the following poll results:

Percentage of Americans Who Identify with Each Political Ideology
(Disclaimer: Misleading Title)

Liberal 21%
Moderate 45%
Conservative 34%

They interpret these results to mean that strong liberals will only manage to rally 1 in 5 voters by speaking as a liberal. What they failed to take into account is that in 2004 (when these polls were taken) the word “liberal” had been branded negatively by conservatives. People did not want to identify with this negative term. However, the word moderate implies the person to be well reasoned, cool headed, unbiased, and balanced. This sounds like a good thing so people self-identified more often as moderate even though they might side with liberal ideology! The reality is that we cannot reliably tell which moral worldview people ascribe to when the question is framed this way. (This is an example of bad polling procedures that contribute to the Poll Trap discussed in Chapter 1.)

The Linear Myth

This myth is based on a bizarre metaphor. We can visualize it as citizens lined up from left to right, with some people on the extreme ends and others in between. Their locations correspond with their positions on individual political issues. According to this metaphor, the center is a real location where most people reside. Becoming more moderate, according to the linear myth, entails moving toward the center. This is visualized by the idea that “moving to the right” will result in more people being “to the left” of you. This increased number of people to your left is understood as the portion of swing voters you were able to bring to your side.

Serious problems arise when this idea is applied to campaign strategies. It creates an ethical dilemma by requiring a candidate to become inauthentic by moving away from his or her true values. The strategic disadvantages are two-fold:

  1. The candidate is more likely to offend his or her base and lose credibility.
  2. The candidate expresses values from Strict Father morality that strengthen the position of opponents by spreading conservative ideas and values.

The two moral worldviews (Strict Father and Nurturant Parent) are mutually inhibitive, meaning when one is activated it suppresses the other. Also, as we will see in Chapter 3 when we talk about deep frames, repeated exposure to Strict Father values reinforces their activation.

The Moderate Myth

This myth is interesting because it seems to be the optimal compromise. The idea is that people who act with moderation in their lives – well reasoned, cool headed, balanced, don’t want to go too far one way or the other – have a political worldview structured by moderation. It sounds great until you look at it a little closer. For starters, this disposition is not an ideology. There is no consistent set of moral values that constitutes moderation as a worldview. It really gets to be problematic when we consider the fact that many issues take the form of yes-no choices. Here are some examples:

Do you support capital punishment?
You can’t kill someone only a little or in moderation.

Should abortion be legal?
It is meaningless to suggest that a person have an abortion in moderation.

What about assisted suicide?
You are either for it or against it.

Things really get sticky when we consider a person who applies the principle of moderation universally to political decisions. This person seeks the balanced view on all matters, resulting in a series of compromises. Or worse, the person could be indecisive when presented with yes-no choices that are ambiguous. These are not the qualities of a moral leader and people do not connect with or trust in them as leaders.

The Mainstream Myth

This myth assumes there is a real center of public opinion as determined by polls on particular issues. Here’s how it works. Ask a large number of people which issues are most important to them and what their positions are on those issues. Perform statistical analysis on this data to figure out what the average position is for the group of people polled. Assume this average position represents the average voter – this is where things get distorted – and prepare a campaign platform to attract the average voter. In reality, this average voter doesn’t exist. It is like the household that has 2.3 kids. No such household exists but it appears as a result of the number crunching. You may not find a single person who holds the same views as the fictitious average voter. This is because there is no ideology – no worldview or system of values – connecting the different positions reflected in the polls.

Lay the Myth of the Ideological Center to Rest – People are Biconceptuals

Hopefully by now you can see how each of the four myths misrepresents real people. Political strategies built upon the Mythical Center fail to capture the essence of politics. This happens because real people don’t think and act in the ways assumed by the metaphors of the center. We are not the labels placed upon us. Nor do we line up in a linear fashion to represent our values. While moderation is a good thing in many aspects of life, its limitations in the field of politics lead to trouble. The diversity of people in our country cannot be packaged in a bundle of averages without losing the core of political life – our moral identities.

The reality is much more inspiring. We each hold within us the capacity to imagine competing moralities. My friend Mark Johnson (who has co-authored three books with George Lakoff and is an expert in moral philosophy) wrote a book titled Moral Imagination: Implications of Cognitive Science for Ethics that argued for the importance of imagination in our moral lives. He described how we create scenarios (or stories) to explore the outcomes of different choices to help us learn about the impacts of our actions.

Biconceptualism – perhaps it is more clear to describe it as compartmentalized ethics – naturally arises because of the way our brains work. We require the flexibility to ponder multiple courses of action. In the realm of morality, this means we benefit from having more than one cognitive model to build upon so that we can construct competing perspectives.

Let’s put this into more concrete terms with an example. When watching an action show on television, we need to activate concepts in our brains that make sense of the story. This requires a Strict Father worldview. All of us can understand the story because we hold within us the conceptual structures of the Strict Father worldview. When watching a family drama focusing on relationship issues, on the other hand, we cannot understand the story without activating the Nurturant Parent worldview. All of us can understand the story because we also hold within us the conceptual structures of the Nurturant Parent worldview. While watching either of these kinds of shows, our brains must suppress the competing worldview in order to have a coherent understanding.

What this means is that we have both moral worldviews in us, though for people who are strongly conservative or progressive, the competing worldview only exists passively to aid in comprehension. Swing voters actively use both worldviews in different aspects of their lives. This is why we call them biconceptuals – they actively use two incompatible systems of concepts to reason about moral issues.

Authenticity is the Key

When we talk about “speaking to your base,” what we mean is that it is important to express your real values (which are the basis of your moral foundation). Expressing values different from your own will be inauthentic and people will smell you out. It is difficult to pretend to be something we aren’t. That’s why actors get paid to do what they do – it’s really hard to appear authentic when it isn’t true.

Let’s talk about this. Is there anything about these ideas that is unclear to you? (Don’t be shy. This is pretty difficult stuff!) Can you think of ways to improve how we reach out to swing voters? If so, please share them with the rest of us. Perhaps you have examples of biconceptuals that you would like to share.

Go to the next discussion in this series.


Cognitive Policy Works specializes in providing organizations and individuals with frame analysis, policy briefs, strategic advising, and training.

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