Why Liberals Lose: An Interview with George Lakoff
†2003 †††† Dec 24
By Katy Butler

One evening in the summer of 1992, George Lakoff -- a cognitive scientist at the University of California at Berkeley -- was watching the Republican National Convention on television ("out of duty," he says) and growing more and more confused. "Why should the best people be punished?" he heard Vice President Quayle ask indignantly, making a one-sentence argument against the graduated income tax, which is structured to hit the wealthy harder than the poor. At that, the well-dressed Republican delegates burst into cheers.

A professor of cognitive science and linguistics, Lakoff earns his living thinking about how people think, and he just didn't get it. "I found myself embarrassed," he told me in an interview in his basement office on the U.C. campus. "I understood each sentence, but I didn't understand how they fit together. Obviously all the people in the convention hall did, and this bothered me because I am a professor of semantics. I figured I must be missing something."

When conservative Republicans swept into Congress in 1994, Lakoff read all of Newt Gingrich's Contract with America and became even more confused. "I didn't understand how the positions fit together. I didn't understand what being against abortion had to do with supporting the flat tax, or the death penalty. I didnít understand what being for the flat tax had to do with being against environmental regulations, or for gun ownership. Then I asked myself how my own political positions fit together for me and I was just as confused. That's how things start, if you're a linguist. You look for puzzles."

What underlying metaphor, Lakoff wondered, gave coherence to liberal and conservative worldviews, when it obviously wasn't logic? He talked to conservative linguistics experts who earned their livings as Bible translators. He read manuals by political consultant Frank Luntz, who had advised the Gingrich campaign and would later advise Arnold Schwarzenegger. He talked to a friend, a therapist, who told him enigmatically that the answer to a single question -- "If your baby cries at night, do you pick him up?" -- would reliably distinguish liberals from conservatives. He literally put on dark glasses and went into the "Jews for Jesus" bookstore on Telegraph Avenue to buy copies of Christian child-rearing manuals like Dare to Discipline and God, the Rod, and Your Child's Bod: The Art of Loving Correction for Christian Parents.

The result was a book -- part cognitive scholarship and part liberal wake-up calll -- called Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think. In it , Lakoff 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 are fighting a war of opposing moral visions, rooted in notions of the ideal family.

But while conservatives aren't embarassed about connecting their "Strict Father" family values to their politics, liberals seem ashamed to mention their "Nurturant Parent" morality at all. Instead, liberal policy wonks and pollsters create a series of positions and niche-market them to narrow interest groups. (Think Al Gore, Michael Dukakis and Gray Davis.) And they lose, time and again.

Moral Politics, just updated and reissued in paperback by the University of Chicago Press, has become a must-read among embattled liberal political strategists: in the past year, Lakoff has been asked to explain its concepts to the Democratic Senators Policy Committee and the presidential campaigns of Howard Dean and Dennis Kucinich.

Intrigued by the book, I met with Lakoff in early November. An i-Mac winked from a Formica tabletop in one corner of his basement office, and battered metal desks and bookcases were stacked with linguistics journals, policy papers, and copies of Moral Politics translated into Japanese, Korean, and German. On first impression, Lakoff came across as smart, liberal, rumpled, and kind -- an embodiment of the "nurturing parent" values he favors. His perspective on the politics of childrearing is grounded in experience: he was divorced when his son was four and raised him as a single parent. (Lakoff has since remarried.) He was patient when I asked him to repeat material from his book and took my frequent challenges and interruptions without annoyance.

Q. We have a demoralized Democratic party and a President aligned with the Christian Right. Republicans have swept Congress, and -- aided by the votes of many Democrats -- approved tax cuts, the USA-PATRIOT act, the Iraq invasion, and restrictions on late-term abortion. Speeches are made about "compassionate conservatism" and "no child left behind," while environmental regulations are gutted and funding for Head Start is cut. Yet opinion polls suggest that Americans remain more or less equally divided between conservatives and liberals, except for an uncommitted 20 percent somewhere in the middle. Why are conservatives winning so many electoral battles Ė and liberals losing?
A: First of all, liberals donít have to lose. They have been losing because they don't understand what conservatives understand about politics. Conservatives have figured this out over 30 years, spending billions of dollars on think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, the Hoover Institution, and the American Enterprise Institute. They have figured out what links them together and what their common moral worldview is. They have figured out what language they should use to evoke that world. Liberals haven't spent the same money on think tanks, althought the money has been there. There is a reason for that, which we will get into.

Q: Can you get more specific about this worldview?
A: We think metaphorically without knowing we think metaphorically, and we have a basic, unconscious metaphor of the nation as a family. We send our "sons and daughters" to war. We have "founding fathers." It is such a natural metaphor that you don't even notice it is there. But it's there. It also turns out that in our culture we have two opposite models of how a family should be run: a Strict Father model and a Nurturing Parent model. The metaphor of the nation as family maps the values from those family models onto our politics, creating conservative and liberal politics.

Q. And conservatives adopt the Strict Father --
A. Yes. The Strict Father model goes like this: the world is a dangerous and difficult place. Children are born bad and have to be made good. The Strict Father, in this case, Bush, is a moral authority. He knows right from wrong. His job is to protect and support the family and to teach the children right from wrong. He has power, and the idea is to punish evildoers. Period. That is part of his "resolve." If you give up on that, all morality goes.

Q. How does this apply to politics?
A. Take the Iraq war. Why did Bush go in alone? Because the moral authorityóthe Strict Father -- doesnít ask anybody else for permission. Why didnít Bush go to the U.N.? Powerful countries are adult countries and non-industrialized countries are child countries. They are "undeveloped," or "underdeveloped." The powerful countries have to tell them what to do and if they donít do it they punish them economically. That's what the World Bank and the IMF [International Monetary Fund] are all about.

Q: So the strict father doesnít ask the children what to do.
A: Exactly. We donít ask the UN if this is OK. We know what to do, because we are the moral authority, period. There's more: when the children do wrong, the job of the father is to punish the children. And the punishment has to be painful. When people talk about spanking in such families they donít mean light spanks, they mean serious hittingówith a rod, with sticks, with paddles. The conservatives have hundreds of millions of dollars a year invested in the teaching of Strict Father parenting. And itís a terrible way to raise kids. James Dobson, who wrote Dare to Discipline, has a show on 3,000 radio stations across the country. He writes that there's no reason to apply physical discipline to a child before the age of 18 months. He is based in Colorado Springs, and he gets so much mail that he has his own zip code.

The Strict Father model assumes that punishment works. If children are sufficiently disciplined, they can grow up to follow their self-interest and become self-reliant. Some children embody this ideal. There are other children who remain dependent. Their parents are supposed to use tough love -- to continue with the discipline or set them loose in the world and let the world discipline them. Thatís the idea. No coddling. It would be immoral. Why? Because then you are making people dependent and undisciplined. And if they donít have discipline they wonít do whatís right in the world and then morality will break down.

Q. How does this translate into larger politics?
A. Social programs are seen as giving people things they have not earned. Therefore, they are seen as coddling these citizens, making them dependent on government, and therefore making discipline unecessary, which leads to immorality. They hurt the people they are supposed to help. When you think about it this way, the Bush tax program makes sense because it cuts down on government revenues so there can't be social programs. But that doesn't mean getting rid of the military.

Q. Because that is a Strict Father's function.
A: If you have the other worldview, itís completely confusing! You have to put yourself in this worldview in order to see it. This goes way, way back. Itís there in the Bible --

Q: --- in the Old Testament? --
†A: Well, the New Testament has it too. The problem is that the conservative Christians understand their theology and its relation to politics, and liberal Christians donít.

Q: How do Strict Father Christians come to terms with the passage in Matthew in which Christ says, "I was hungry, and you fed me, I was naked and you clothed meÖif you did this for the least of these my brothers you did it for me?"
A: They pick and choose. Everybody does [end of potential cut]

Q. Okay. So why do liberals fail to get their views across?
A: Liberals have a set of folk theories that are fallacious. One of them comes from the Enlightenment, and the assumption is that you are supposed to be logical. They assume all you have to do is tell people the facts and they will reason to the right conclusion. This is utterly ridiculous. Thought is mainly metaphorical. The frames trump all the facts. Gore would go out there and say, Look at these facts! Nothing. No effect. You have to frame it.

Q. Frame it?
A. Let me give you an example. Last year, I was called by the Democratic Senators' Policy Committee to go to their retreat and talk about language. This is where you go and meet the Senators when they are not being Senators. I was to tell them what framing was, what Moral Politics was about, and what conservatives were doing to them. My first surprise was how much I really liked them. My second surprise was that they didnít know who [conservative pollster] Frank Luntz was or what he was about! It was 2003, nine years after Luntz helped elect Newt Gingrich, and they still didn't know what Gingrich had pulled off. It was shocking.

Q: Well, who is Frank Luntz?
A: Luntz is a PR guy. He does focus groups and polls and trainings for conservative candidates. He is the guy who found the term "partial birth abortion" and pushed it. He puts out a 500 to 600 page manual every year that tells Republican politicians what to say on every issue --what language has worked, what language has not worked; what mistakes theyíve made, what mistakes the other side has made; how to say things, and how you can lie. Luntz's manual says that if you are talking to environmentalists, environmentalists love the words "clean, healthy, and safe." So you always use the words "clean, healthy, and safe" even if you're talking about nuclear power plants or coal plants. If you are talking to women, women like the words "love, for the children, and family." Sprinkle these words through liberally ---

Q: And it doesnít matter if those words relate to the rational content--
A: No, because it evokes the frame that this guy is speaking to you, to your interests, to your concerns. Take "tax relief." Tax relief is a new phrase that started coming out of the White House the day that Bush took office. The word "relief" evokes a frame --- of some affliction, an afflicted party, and a reliever who performs the action of relief, which is a heroic action. A reliever is a hero, and anyone who wants to stop him from the relief is a villain. You have two words, and all of that is embedded.

Q. It also echoes a New Deal phrase -- poor relief.
A. When I told this to the Democratic senators, they very reasonably said, "What do you do instead?" I said the answer is clear. Taxes are what you pay to be a member of this great organization called America. The people who donít pay taxes, registering their corporations in Bermuda, are not paying their dues. You say, " Sorry, no more free rides. Pay your dues, and then you can come back and be part of America again."

Q. Somehow that doesn't carry the same fire as what the Republicans say. It sounds wishy-washyÖ
A. Because you havenít heard this language before. And you havenít heard it over and over again.

Q. Did the Democratic Senators Ė
A. No. They went back to talking about "tax relief." And as soon as you use that phrase, you've lost.

Q. Any other examples of framing?
A. The abortion issue. The very term ďabortion issueĒ is actually pushed by the right. When womenís groups buy into it, they are buying into a losing cause. As soon as you use the word ďabortionĒ you assume that something good has gone wrong -- think of the term abort, as in "they had to abort the mission." Last spring, Newsweek had a picture of the fetus on the cover, as if it was floating in space, in a black void. No mother. It asked, "Does the fetus have rights?" If you accept that frame, you lose. The mother is left out. You have to create a different frame.

Q: Such as?
A: "Planned Parenthood" comes with a view of an idealized family in which children are wanted. Before you have children you are able to afford them, you have a good relationship, you have planned for them, you are going to bring them up in a healthy environment, in a healthy way. If you donít meet these conditions we help you not have the child. Liberals have not owned this model of the family because of a very destructive feminist ideology, which says, "We reject the idea that there should necessarily be marriage." They are misunderstanding cognitive science and the nature of the mind. They have the wrong spokespeople. They have the wrong rhetoric; they have the wrong way of framing things.

Q. So Dan Quayle was right about Murphy Brown. And liberal politics presumes an alternative ideal of moral and family life?
A. The Nurturant Parent model says that the world can become better. It assumes that children are born good and should be kept that way and made better. It assumes that both parents have responsibility and that their job as parents is to nurture their children and turn their children into nurturers of others. Nurturing involves empathy, which is feeling what someone else feels ó you have to know what all those cries mean ó and responsibility. You want to raise children to be empathetic toward others, responsible for themselves, and responsible for others who are in their care. One of the great recent discoveries in neuroscience is that there are things called "mirror neurons" in the brain which fire when you perform an action and see someone else performing the same action. When you see someone else expressing emotion physically, the mirror neurons will fire as if you were expressing those emotions physically. That connects you to other people, but more important than that, there are connections from that part of the brain to the emotional center, and we will know what someone else is feeling. So we evolved empathy. There is a a biological structure that is central to our functioning in the world -- and it also occurs in monkeys, it's not just human -- that works to connect us to other beings empathetically, and also to achieve purposes.

I want to explain the nurturant model, because it's often misunderstood. If you are not a happy, fulfilled person you are not going to want other people to be happier and more fulfilled than you are. So happiness and fulfillment are moral obligations. You want to raise a child who is happy and fulfilled and who sees his role in life as helping other people become happy and fulfilled. Second, empathy entails fairness and freedom. If you are empathetic toward someone you donít want to treat them unfairly, and you want them to be free to be fulfilled in their way. Those are central progressive values. Openness of communication is crucial. If you donít know what your child needs, you are not going to be fully empathetic. Whereas in the strict father model, it is one-way communication. This translates politically into openness in government versus ---

Q: the secretiveness of ó
A: --- the secretiveness of the Bush administration. Another central value is protection, including protection in the home, but also protection by the State. The government is there to protect citizens, including protection from cars without seatbelts, unscrupulous businesses, pollution, and things of this sort, as well as protection from invaders and crime and ---.

Q: ---this is what conservatives are talking about when they talk about the nanny state.
†A: You took it right out of my mouth! But notice they never talk about the nanny state when they talk about terrorism. Or the Army.

Q: And the nanny is female and doesnít really have authority, but is usurping authority
A: Exactly. Who has been given authority when it should be retained by the strict father.

Q. On many issues, I am liberal, and activist. However. I see virtues in both moral structures. When you look at substance abuse, for instance, empathy without limits can become enablement, or what Buddhists call "idiot compassion." I see lots of kids raised so-called liberally who are total brats. A: When you screw up on the liberal model you move to an indulgent model. And indulgent parenting is a disaster. Then there's a neglectful model, that says let the TV and the computer be the babysitter. You can be out there as a progressive and say, these children have not been raised right. They have been raised to listen to their music and find forms of fun, but not to build community.

Q: You can say that the worst of the strict father model ends up producing the people who end up in jail, and the worst of the liberal model produces these undisciplinedó
A: When you screw up on the conservative model you move to an abusive model. Abuse and neglect produces sociopaths. Indulgence produces people who donít care about anybody else.

Q: What frightens me is that the culture as a whole is splitting into extremely polarized versions of these two models. Whereas, I believe that there are places where limit setting pays off.
A:That is ignoring the notion of responsibility in the liberal model. You need help from your kid. And the wonderful thing about kids is that they want to help you.. A small kid can help you clean the house and hold the pan while you sweep something into it. When you're in a rush they can learn to make their own sandwiches for kindergarten. And they appreciate it when you appreciate them. But there are no organizations teaching nurturant parenting.

Q: You say that conservatives have done a great job of translating their moral view into a public language, and liberals have done a terrible job. Why?
A: If you look at the structure of the two moral systems, you find that the highest value in the conservative moral system is the defense, preservation, and extension of the moral system itself.

Q: Fighting and winning.
†A: So conservative foundations give money to the building of infrastructure

Q: Infrastructure?
A: Think tanks. Lavishly funded. You canít imagine a liberal foundation giving money for this. For progressives, the highest value in the nurturant moral system is helping individuals who need help.

Q: Why do you think the left is so uncomfortable with making the link between politics and a moral or spiritual view of the world?
A: Because they donít know how to describe their own morality. They assume that politics is about self-interest. As a result, they canít explain why people who are poor support Bushís tax program when the money goes to the richest 1%. They keep repeating over and over, ďrichest 1%!Ē and they donít win by that. People donít vote their self-interest. They vote their identity. They identify with Bush because he represents Strict Father values. The left has not understood this. The Democratic Leadership Committee has a crazy model of the electorate. It comes from marketing. The assumption is, that you go issue by issue, and you view your position on an issue as a product that you are trying to sell to the public. "Here's our view on prescription drugs. We will do polls, and we will see the issues we can get the most people on. Then we will run on those issues." Thatís a disaster. They think that they can sell candidates that way. [possible cut]

Q: Howard Dean tries to reach poorer white voters in the south by saying, 'Look, you've been voting Republican and you still donít have health insurance, you still donít have good public education for your children ---
A: It's a mistake. I told him that, to his face. And he didnít understand it. [end of cut]

Q: Vermont has an early-intervention program called Success by Six, which reduced child abuse by 40 percent. Dean tries to sell it pragmatically by saying that it saves prison costs down the road by reducing the number of children who will get in trouble with the law. How should he be trying to sell this?
A: As a moral being. He should talk about whatís right.

Q. But liberals don't put much faith in moral absolutes.
A: No, that's not right. Liberals feel moral outrage, but cannot express it because they shy away from the very idea of morality. But there is a single universal moral law on the progressive side, and it is this: help, donít harm. Liberals are concerned about immoral behavior all the time. If you say, is it immoral to pollute the waters? ó Yes, itís immoral. Is it immoral to execute people? ó Yes, itís immoral. Is it immoral to people in jail without trial? ó Yes, itís immoral.

Q. Any final advice for liberals?

A. The problem right now is the creation of language. It took the conservatives a long time to get their conceptual system out there, to create the language, to find whom it resonated with, and to build on it over and over again. Liberals need to do the same. Conservatives have taken the term "moral" for themselves, and liberals have let them keep it. It's time to take it back.

© 2003 Katy Butler.  All Rights Reserved. Not to be reprinted without permission.

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