Why Liberals and Conservatives see different worlds. Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think by George Lakoff.
THE PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION APPROACHES and two insular, evenly divided, and polarized Americas– one liberal and one conservative–wrestle for control of the government with intense hostility and mutual incomprehension. No matter who the candidate or what the issue–from abortion to the war in Iraq–conservatives (who tend to be long-married Christians living in the Rocky Mountain states and rural South) will likely oppose the views of liberals, who tend to be college graduates, “metrosexuals,” and less stably partnered people living near the Great Lakes and the East and West Coasts. Every day, members of these two Americas call into radio talk shows or log onto the Internet to insult each other. They read different bestsellers, vote for different candidates, and believe with equal fervor that their opposite numbers will lead the nation to its destruction. If they were siblings in a troubled family, a therapist might be forgiven for not having a clue how to find common ground.
Journalists usually describe this divide as political or cultural. But a book that has recently caught the attention of embattled liberal political strategists (including Howard Dean and the Democratic Policy Committee) describes it as moral and psychological, located in the territory that family therapist William Doherty once called “the subterranean moral domain of family life.”
The book is Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, by cognitive linguist George Lakoff of the University of California at Berkeley. First published in 1996 and recently updated and reissued in paperback, it argues that liberals and conservatives aren’t just quibbling over policy details like the size of a tax cut or the structure of a Medicare drug benefit. They’re fighting a war of opposing moral visions, rooted in notions of the ideal way to raise a child.
Moral Politics isn’t the first book to analyze such a link. In 1950, social critic Theodor Adorno used statistical analysis and extensive interviews in The Authoritarian Personality to argue that harsh childhood punishment, combined with a taboo against criticizing one’s parents, produced rigid, conventional adults who projected their disowned aggression onto external scapegoats like Jews, blacks, and Gypsies. In the 1970s, Swiss psychoanalyst Alice Miller followed a similar line of reasoning when she investigated Hitler’s childhood.
Lakoff, a liberal himself, is more evenhanded than either Adorno or Miller–less quick to pathologize conservatism, and more cognitive in his approach. He’s a specialist in “framing”: the ways that language evokes, shapes, and reflects the structures and categories within which we think. Deeply encoded within our language, he writes, is an unconscious metaphor of the nation as a family. We honor our “founding fathers,” love our “motherland” or “fatherland,” and send our “sons and daughters” off to war.
Equally embedded in our brains and culture, Lakoff argues, are two opposing moral prescriptions for how that family should be run. Liberals, including many therapists, idealize an egalitarian, communicative “Nurturing Parent” family run along the collaborative lines of psychologist Thomas Gordon’s Parent Effectiveness Training. This family values empathy, genuineness, flexibility, and mutual cooperation. Children are asked to do things, rather than told. Nonharming is a high moral value, and so is resolving differences through rational discussion. When Nurturing Parents criticize others, they call them “irrational,” not “immoral.” They think of conservatives as backward and ignorant, not sinful.
Conservatives, on the other hand, idealize a traditional “Strict Father” family, shaped by clear hierarchy, unchanging moral rules, and parental willingness to use rewards and punishments to shape children’s behavior. This family teaches order, obedience, discipline, manners, and doing the right thing, even if it’s unpleasant. Submission to the Strict Father prepares the child for obedience, as an adult, to the will of God, the president, the marine sergeant, the CEO, and, if the child is female, to her husband. The ultimate authority is the Bible, but Strict Fathers also rely on fundamentalist support groups, like the Promise Keepers, and childraising manuals by the Christian psychologist James Dobson.
When the conflicting moral values of these two families are mapped onto society at large, Lakoff says, they produce the ideological wars we’re living through. With their touching faith in rational communication, liberals think these differences can be talked or educated away. Conservatives don’t.
The Strict Father worldview now in political ascendancy, Lakoff writes, presumes that the world is a dangerous and difficult place. The Strict Father (in the case of the nation, President Bush) is the moral authority, answering only to God. His job is to uphold the moral order, to protect the family from external threats, and to teach the children right from wrong. The Strict Father doesn’t ask his children or his wife for advice or permission–just as the Strict Father President of the United States saw no need to listen to antiwar demonstrators or “get a permission slip” from the United Nations (especially its childlike, weaker “undeveloped” members) before he launched the Iraq invasion.
The highest value in the Strict Father moral system is the defense, preservation, and extension of the moral system itself. From this, writes Lakoff, flows the willingness to invade nations perceived to threaten the national family and to fight vigorously against perceived forces of immorality–including Democrats (tainted by the Clinton-Lewinsky sex scandal)–in the contested 2000 election.
Children, according to this model, are born bad and can be made good. When they do wrong, the Strict Father punishes them. Lakoff cites 12 different Christian childrearing manuals to make his point that this punishment must be painful–not light spanks, but hitting with a rod, belt, or paddle. From this, Lakoff argues, flows conservative support for Three Strikes legislation, the death penalty, and punishing the promiscuity of unwed mothers by forcing them to bear unwanted children.
The Strict Father model further assumes that if children are sufficiently disciplined, they’ll grow up to follow their self-interest and become self-reliant. If children remain dependent, parents are supposed to use Tough Love–to either continue with discipline or set the children loose into the world and let the world discipline them. Coddling makes people dependent and undisciplined.
Hence the moral logic of the Bush tax cuts, which liberals wrongly suppose prove that Republicans either can’t add or are mean-spirited. Lowering government revenues is deeply moral within the Strict Father system, because it forces cuts in social programs that reward dependency and thus threaten the moral order.
Tax cuts also reward the rich–justly so, in the Strict Father worldview, because the rich are presumed to have been rewarded by God for working hard, being self-reliant, and pursuing their self-interest. Dan Quayle neatly summarized this position to wild applause at the 1992 Republican convention when he attacked the graduated income tax by saying, “Why should the best people be punished?”
Lakoff says his research into conservative childrearing practices has revolutionized how he sees conservatism. “I once thought of conservatives disparagingly as mean, or insensitive, or selfish, or tools of the rich, or just downright fascist,” he writes. “I have come to realize that conservatives are for the most part ordinary people who see themselves as highly moral idealists defending what they deeply believe is right.”
In the last third of his book, Lakoff lays aside scholastic neutrality. Repeatedly citing John Bowlby’s attachment research, he argues that Strict Father childrearing is a terrible way to raise children. The Nurturing Parent family, he writes, is far more likely to produce securely attached, responsible, self-confident, and independent adults.
Children, in the liberal model, are born good and should be helped to blossom. Mapped onto the larger world, this family morality generates support for public education, arts in the schools, and job training. Nurturing Parents are also expected to protect children, and the cutoff between childhood and adulthood is less clearly defined. Hence, liberal support for seat belts, motorcycle helmets, air bags, and environmental and occupational regulations–all the accoutrements of the so-called “nanny state.”
Nurturing Parents are supposed to give their children empathy and respect so that they can grow up to nurture others. Nurturing Parents also have a moral responsibility to become fulfilled themselves, because only the happy can successfully nurture, rather than envy, others. Mapped onto the wider world, this ethic may help explain why liberals are more tolerant of divorce and gay relationships than conservatives.
Conservatives, Lakoff writes, have spent decades working out the connection between their “family values” and their politics, while liberals are embarrassed to articulate the moral basis of their political views. “Conservatives have taken the term ‘moral’ for themselves, and liberals have let them keep it,” he says. “It’s time to take it back.”
But–at the risk of showing my colors as a fuzzy liberal who worships open communication–is the division really so clear-cut and mutually exclusive? Both models may be encoded in our genes, and each, in varying situations, contributes to species survival. Both are present in the tension between Dionysius and Apollo and between the nurturing Christ of the New Testament and the vengeful Jehovah of the Old. Both show up in modern science: neuroscientists have discovered empathic “mirror neurons” that fire when one human watches another act or express emotion; field biologists fill libraries with descriptions of mammalian dominance hierarchies as well as cooperation.
Turning to the individual family, most therapists are intimately familiar with what happens when these two ways of social organization become totally unhinged from each other. In liberal families, much as we hate to admit it, a poisonous combination of indulgence, lack of boundaries, and neglect has produced plenty of spoiled and unhappy brats. On the other hand, random beatings from impulsive, authoritarian parents who express little love or empathy have turned many once-trusting children into adult criminals and abusive parents themselves.
Like skilled therapists facing such families, skilled politicians in our dysfunctional national family intuitively understand how to call forth the virtues of the neglected model, while preserving the dynamic and eternal tension between them. Bill Clinton, our departed therapist-in-chief, oozed empathy and yet bent conservative legislative initiatives to liberal ends. In his hands, “welfare reform” became “welfare-to-work,” incorporating job training and childcare benefits. More recently, General Wesley Clark integrated both models rhetorically when he talked about using “force only as a last resort,” thus reassuring Strict Father conservatives, while framing the foreign policy debate within a context of Nurturing Parent cooperation.
These are only hints of what might be possible if politicians, and perhaps therapists, read Lakoff seriously. Opinion polls reliably show America divided more or less equally between conservatives and liberals, with an uncommitted 20 percent in the middle. It’s unlikely that either side will ever totally defeat the other, no matter how much liberals and conservatives long for the New Age or the Second Coming–or fear the resurgence of Hitler’s Germany or Rome’s moral decadence. Therapists have decades of experience helping clients abandon either/or thinking in favor of a both/and metaperspective, which respects the strengths of both moral systems. If such skills can be extrapolated into our squabbling national dialogue, we may yet find ways beyond the current deadlock. In the meantime, it’s worth remembering this aphorism by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: “The line between good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either–but right through every human heart.”
©2004 Katy Butler. All Rights Reserved. Not to be reprinted without permission.