Saturday, August 6, 2016

Moral Politics by George Lakoff

This is a fascinating, if sometimes repetitive, read. The subtitle is “How Liberals and Conservatives Think,” and under that banner it attempts to do two difficult things. One, explain why political liberals and conservatives think the way they do, and two, decide which way of thinking is better. I say difficult because, regardless of how much science and cognitive study Lakoff relies on to make his conclusions (and he relies on quite a lot, the book sometimes reading more like a textbook) lots of people in both the liberal and conservative camps are going to disagree with how he characterizes the way that they think, and everyone in the conservative camp is going to disagree with his conclusion about which way of thinking is better (i.e., liberal).

Needless to say, I enjoyed the first part of the book more than the second part; not because I’m a raging conservative, but because it plainly reads more like objective conclusions drawn from science and less like political opinions based on those objective conclusions. Accusations along those lines were probably unavoidable, given Lakoff’s stated purposes, and the author admits as much in several places in the book.

But let’s start at the very beginning. In the book’s opening acknowledgements, Lakoff says:

This book began with a conversation in my garden several years ago with my friend the late Paul Baum. I asked Paul if he could think of a single question, the answer to which would be the best indicator of liberal vs. conservative political attitudes. His response: “If your baby cries at night, do you pick him up?” The attempt to understand his answer led to this book.

Baum’s suggestion, it turns out, is an insightful one, at least according to the theory Lakoff subsequently offers in the book. That theory basically has two parts. One, people’s political attitudes are driven by their underlying morality and, in America, there are two basic moral frameworks at play, both arising out of different view of the family.

Conservatism, as we shall see, is based on a Strict Father model [of the family], while liberalism is centered around a Nurturant Parent model. These two models of the family give rise to different moral systems and different discourse forms, that is, different choices of words and different modes of reasoning.

And two, these family-based moral systems are relevant to political opinions because of the widespread view of the Nation through the metaphor of a family.

The link between family-based morality and politics comes from one of the most common ways we have of conceptualizing what a nation is, namely, as a family. It is the common, unconscious, and automatic metaphor of the Nation-as-Family that produces contemporary conservatism from Strict Father morality and contemporary liberalism from Nurturant Parent morality.

Before reading this book, I don’t think I ever realized how powerful this Nation-as-Family metaphor is. Both conservatives and liberals use it automatically. Indeed, Lakoff’s whole point is that the reasons conservatives and liberals think differently about politics is because they are basing their opinions on two different (and valid) conceptions of the family.

Except, our nation is not a family. We are not children of the government, and to believe that we are fundamentally misses the point of American-style democracy as it was originally structured. It also excludes from political conversations things governments are able to do (and sometimes should) that families could never dream of.

Indeed, an argument regularly used for the balanced-budget amendment is that, just as a family’s budget must be balanced, so must a nation’s. Any economist, liberal or conservative, knows that there are many crucial differences between a family and a nation that make the analogy economically ludicrous: a family can’t initiate economic stimulus programs, print new currency, or increase taxes.

But, as erroneous as the metaphor may be, it is entrenched. It shapes the way both conservatives and liberals think about politics, and it makes them both think the other is crazy or evil.

So far as I can tell, the main issue in every conservative political policy is morality--good versus evil. There is nothing surprising in this. Conservatives consider themselves moral people and they talk about morality and the family constantly. But to liberals, who have their own very different moral system, conservative policies are so immoral that any conservative discussion of morality is taken as demagoguery.

Of course, liberals also see their policies as moral and their overall politics as serving moral goals. Conservatives, however, talk as if liberals were degenerates opposed to morality; as if they were corrupted by special interests; as if they loved expensive and inefficient bureaucracy; as if they wanted to take away the rights of citizens. Each side sees the other as immoral, corrupt, and lunkheaded. Neither side wants to see the other as moral in any way. Neither side wants to recognize that there are two opposed, highly-structured, well-grounded, widely accepted, and utterly contradictory moral systems at the center of American politics.

After defining his theory and these two moral systems, and before moving on to discussing which way of thinking is correct, Lakoff does something, for me, immensely more interesting. He applies, as objectively as he can, the two moral systems to some of the most politically controversial issues of our day. And in doing so, he can’t help but make observations, again and again, about how the conservative worldview is practically never an issue of coherent ideology supported by objective facts. It is practically always, as mentioned above, an issue of making moral judgments based on their Strict Father interpretation of the family and applying them to the political issue at hand.

For example, in a section called “Military Spending,” he says:

In the Strict Father model, it is the duty of the strict father to protect his family above all else. By the Nation As Family metaphor, this implies that the major function of the government is, above all else, to protect the nation. That is why conservatives see the funding of the military as moral, while the funding of social programs is seen as immoral.

There is more than a little irony in this. The military is, on the inside, a huge social program, with its own health care, schools, housing, pensions, education benefits, PX discounts, officers’ clubs, golf courses, and so on--all paid for at public expense. But the military represents the strength of the nation, and strength has the highest priority in the Strict Father model.

In “Crime,” he says:

By Strict Father morality, harsh prison terms for criminals and life imprisonment for repeat offenders are the only moral options. Programs like Minnesota’s Kids First [a program that stresses day care, education, and community involvement over harsh imprisonment, and which operates at a lower cost with better crime prevention results] are social programs and are, as such, immoral to conservatives for reasons given above. The conservative arguments are moral arguments, not practical arguments. Statistics about which policies do or do not actually reduce crimes rates do not count in a morality-based discourse.

In “Education,” he says:

National educational standards are also set by the Department of Education. These standards include things that conservatives would rather not have taught and do not include things that conservatives do want to have taught, such as the recently developed new history curriculum which sets national standards for the teaching of history. Because conservatives have been most effective in changing education at the local level, the elimination of national standards and the leaving of content to local school boards would make it much easier for conservatives to change the curricula in the direction of conservative morality and politics. In other words, the issue seems to be not whether the standards are national or local, but whether they accord with Strict Father morality. Since the promotion of Strict Father morality itself has the highest of values in that moral system, it should follow that conservatives would be happy to have national standards that upheld Strict Father morality.

I think what I find most fascinating about these observations--apart from them being obviously true--is that most conservatives I know would not even deny them. When the question is put to them, “Are facts or moral opinions more important in determining your policy prescriptions?” you can bet that the answer is, “Moral opinions. Damn straight!”

And this is defensible to them for a very key reason. These moral opinions, for them, are not opinions.

Conservatives believe that all of the major ills of our present society come from a failure to abide by their moral system. Moreover, they believe that their moral system is the only true American moral system, as well as the only moral system behind Western civilization.

In addition…

Many religious conservatives believe that teaching both moral systems is itself immoral. Because it promotes discussion about what morality is, it prompts children to think for themselves, rather than merely obeying authority.

For anyone who wants to argue against this worldview, you will find that you have a steep hill to climb. Indeed, most of the time, it feels like a sheer brick wall.

Only with all this analysis as his background does Lakoff finally move onto his second difficult task, deciding which way of thinking is better. And by this point, the deck already feels stacked against conservatism. On top of that, Lakoff explicitly states his own bias.

I am a committed liberal. In the process of writing this book, I have had to examine, and therefore question, every point of my own beliefs. Every day, I have had to compare my liberal beliefs with conservative beliefs and ask myself what, if any, reason I had to hold my beliefs.

But then comes a startling admission.

I have emerged from the process with a great respect for the coherence of the conservative position and for the intelligence and cleverness used by conservatives in articulating their views in a powerful way. Like many other liberals, I once thought of conservatives disparagingly as mean, or insensitive, or selfish, or tools of the rich, or just downright fascists. 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. I now understand why there are so many fervently committed conservatives.

I felt this way, too. Even in the first part of the book, when Lakoff was objectively describing conservatism through the lens of Strict Father morality and liberalism through the lens of Nurturant Parent morality, I could see how attractive the simplicity of the conservative worldview was over the complexity of the liberal.

Here are the two models as Lakoff describes them:


A traditional nuclear family, with the father having primary responsibility for supporting and protecting the family as well as the authority to set overall family policy. He teaches children right from wrong by setting strict rules for their behavior and enforcing them through punishment. The punishment is typically mild to moderate, but sufficiently painful. It is commonly corporal punishment--say, with a belt or a stick. He also gains their cooperation by showing love and appreciation when they do follow the rules. But children must never be coddled, lest they become spoiled; a spoiled child will be dependent for life and will not learn proper morals.

The mother has day-to-day responsibility for the care of the house, raising the children, and upholding the father’s authority. Children must respect and obey their parents, partly for their own safety and partly because by doing so they build character, that is, self-discipline and self-reliance. Love and nurturance are a vital part of family life, but they should never outweigh parental authority, which is itself an expression of love and nurturance--tough love. Self-discipline, self-reliance, and respect for legitimate authority are the crucial things that a child must learn. A mature adult becomes self-reliant through applying self-discipline in pursuing his self-interest. Only if a child learns self-discipline can he become self-reliant later in life. Survival is a matter of competition, and only through self-discipline can a child learn to compete successfully.

The mature children of the Strict Father have to sink or swim by themselves. They are on their own and have to prove their responsibility and self-reliance. They have attained, through discipline, authority over themselves. They have to, and are competent to, make their own decisions. They have to protect themselves and their families. They know what is good for them better than their parents, who are distant from them. Good parents do not meddle or interfere in their lives. Any parental meddling or interference is strongly resented.

Simple and straightforward and with, whether you agree with it or not, clear implications for political opinions through the extension of the Nation As Family metaphor. Now, here’s the other model:


A family of preferably two parents, but perhaps only one. If two, the parents share household responsibilities.

The primal experience behind this model is one of being cared for and cared about, having one’s desires for loving interactions met, living as happily as possible, and deriving meaning from mutual interaction and care.

Children develop best through their positive relationships to others, through their contribution to their community, and through the ways in which they realize their potential and find joy in life. Children become responsible, self-disciplined, and self-reliant through being cared for and respected, and through caring for others. Support and protection are part of nurturance, and they require strength and courage on the part of parents. The obedience of children comes out of their love and respect for their parents, not out of the fear of punishment.

Open, two-way, mutually respectful communication is crucial. If parents’ authority is to be legitimate, they must tell children why their decisions serve the cause of protection and nurturance. The questioning of parents by children is positive, since children need to learn why their parents do what they do, since children often have good ideas that should be taken seriously, and since all family members should participate in important decisions. Responsible parents, of course, have to make the ultimate decisions and that must be clear.

Protection is a form of caring, and protection from external dangers takes up a significant part of the nurturant parent’s attention. The world is filled with evils that can harm a child, and it is the nurturant parent’s duty to ward them off. Crime and drugs are, of course, significant, but so are less obvious dangers: cigarettes, cars without seat belts, dangerous toys, inflammable clothing, pollution, asbestos, lead paint, pesticides in food, diseases, unscrupulous businessmen, and so on. Protection of innocent and helpless children from such evils is a major part of a nurturant parent’s job.

The principal goal of nurturance is for children to be fulfilled and happy in their lives and to become nurturant themselves. A fulfilling life is assumed to be, in significant part, a nurturant life, one committed to family and community responsibility. Self-fulfillment and the nurturance of others are seen as inseparable. What children need to learn most is empathy for others, the capacity for nurturance, cooperation, and the maintenance of social ties, which cannot be done without the strength, respect, self-discipline, and self-reliance that comes through being cared for and caring. Raising a child to be fulfilled also requires helping that child develop his or her potential for achievement and enjoyment. That requires respecting the child’s own values and allowing the child to explore the range of ideas and options that the world offers.

When children are respected, nurtured, and communicated with from birth, they gradually enter into a lifetime relationship of mutual respect, communication, and caring with their parents.

Apart from just being longer (478 vs. 323 words) this description of the Nurturant Parent model of childrearing, is more complicated and nuanced than the Strict Father model, with more varied and more interconnected expectations and responsibilities of both parents and children. It is this nuance, I think, that causes additional problems when, comparatively, when the two models are mapped onto conservative and liberal political opinions. The apparent succinctness and simplicity of conservative opinions stem directly from the succinctness and simplicity of their family-based moral system.

And this is why, ideologically, conservatives always seem to beat the pants off liberals. In his analysis, Lakoff clearly spells out this political phenomenon.

Because conservatives understand the moral dimension of our politics better than liberals do, they have been able not only to gain political victories but to use politics in the service of a much larger moral and cultural agenda for America, an agenda that if carried out would, I believe, destroy much of the moral progress made in the twentieth century. Liberals have been helpless to stop them, largely, I think, because they don’t understand the conservative worldview and the role of moral idealism and the family within it.

This book was written in 1996, when political conservatism was on the rise, not just in its ideological corners, but seemingly, across broad swaths of middle America. That may be less true today, but Lakoff’s general point survives. Conservatives are better moral ideaologues than liberals. And they bring that “A” game to their politics.

Conservatives know that politics is not just about policy and interest groups and issue-by-issue debate. They have learned that politics is about family and morality, about myth and metaphor and emotional identification. They have, over twenty-five years, managed to forge conceptual links in the voters’ minds between morality and public policy. They have done this by carefully working out their values, comprehending their myths, and designing a language to fit those values and myths so that they can evoke them with powerful slogans, repeated over and over again, that reinforce those family-morality-policy links, until the connections have come to seem natural to many Americans, including many in the media. As long as liberals ignore the moral, mythic, and emotional dimension of politics, as long as they stick to policy and interest groups and issue-by-issue debate, they will have no hope of understanding the nature of the political transformation that has overtaken this country and they will have no hope of changing it.

Is that spot-on, or what? We live in a time where the moral, mythic, and emotional dimension of politics has trumped all (no pun intended).

But as morally powerful as conservatism is, for Lakoff, in terms of which way of thinking is best, there is no contest. He is squarely against conservatism, primarily because he is so dead set against Strict Father morality.

Strict Father morality is not just unhealthy for children. It is unhealthy for any society. It sets up good vs. evil, us vs. them dichotomies and recommends aggressive punitive action against “them.” It divides society into groups that “deserve” reward and punishment, where the grounds on which “they” “deserve” to have pain inflicted on them are essentially subjective and ultimately untenable. … Strict Father morality thereby breeds a divisive culture of exclusion and blame. It appeals to the worst of human instincts, leading people to stereotype, demonize, and punish the Other--just for being the Other.

And he pulls out all the stops to back these assertions up. One of the more impactful sections for me was where he dissects the information available in childrearing manuals written by and for a conservative Christian audience. These are directly relevant, Lakoff argues, because of how closely people in general, and conservatives especially, align their beliefs about childrearing with their beliefs about politics, embedded, as we all seem to be in the Nation As Family metaphor. And the stuff in these childrearing manuals, to say nothing of the proudly ignorant thinking from which it spawns, is downright scary.

The conservative Christians who set the conservative family values agenda are not particularly interested in empirical research or the wisdom of the extensive community of mainstream experts on childrearing. As James Dobson puts it,

“I don’t believe the scientific community is the best source of information on proper parenting techniques. There have been some worthwhile studies to be sure. But the subject of parent-child interaction is incredibly complex and subtle. The only way to investigate it scientifically is to reduce the relationship to its simplest common denominators, so it can be examined. But in doing so, the overall tone is missed. Some things in life are so complicated that they defy rigorous scrutiny, and parental discipline (in my view) appears to be one of them.

“The best source of guidance for parents can be found in the wisdom of the Judeo-Christian ethic, which originated with the Creator and has been handed down generation after generation from the time of Christ.”

Let’s turn Lakoff loose on that nonsense.

I simply do not agree that research about childrearing is irrelevant. There are important things to know. What are the effects of punishing children, especially beating them with sticks, belts, and paddles? Are there physical effects? Long-term psychological effects? Is there any correlation between punishment by beating and humiliation and violent behavior later in life? Do most delinquent children have a history of strict parenting, nurturant parenting, or is it fifty-fifty? What is the effect of first whipping a child and then hugging her? What is the effect of breaking down a child’s will by hitting her with a stick? What is the effect of demanding absolute obedience to a father’s authority?

Good, discoverable questions all. But the real indictment comes when Lakoff summarizes what the conservative Christian guide to childrearing actually stands for.

To see more clearly what is at stake in knowing about research on such matters, let us look closely at what some conservative Christian childrearing manuals have to say about how children should be raised. These manuals are clear on many points.

1. Children are inherently sinful and defiant.
2. Only punishment and reward will train children away from defiance and pursuing their sinful desires.
3. The only way a child can be raised properly is for a father to demand absolute obedience to his authority. Any questioning of authority requires swift and painful punishment.
4. Obedience can be taught only through painful corporal punishment--by whipping with belts or beating with switches or paddles.
5. Continued disobedience requires greater beating.
6. Punishment for disobedience is a form of love.
7. Parental authority is a proper model for all authority, and children must learn to obey authority so that they can wield it properly in later life.

I think it would be difficult to write seven successive statements like this, each one even more wrong than the one before it. And what follows is even more scary. Pages and pages of quotes from these childrearing manuals, taking one or all of these seven false statements to their logical conclusions. Here’s my “favorite.”

Obedience is the most necessary ingredient to be required from the child. This is especially true for a girl, for she must be obedient all her life. The boy who is obedient to his mother and father will some day become the head of the home; not so for the girl. Whereas the boy is being trained to be a leader, the girl is being trained to be a follower. Hence, obedience is far more important to her, for she must some day transfer it from her parents to her husband. … This means that she should never be allowed to argue at all. She should become submissive and obedient. She must obey immediately, without question, and without argument. The parents who require this have done a big favor for their future son-in-law.

Perverse, isn’t it?

Lakoff is clearly expecting that these explorations will convince the reader that Strict Father morality is the wrong way to raise children, with Nurturant Parent morality being the far preferred, and far more effective, way of achieving those goals. And, in this regard, Lakoff presents a compelling case.

But since I believe in the fundamental fallacy of the Nation As Family metaphor, a premise on which much of Lakoff’s condemnation of conservatism is based, there is one additional question that only seems fair to ask. Strict Father morality is a horrible way to raise children. But is it a horrible way of running a country?

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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