The politics of conservatives and liberals follow opposite ideals of the "good" father, says UC Berkeley linguist in new book

by Patricia McBroom

Berkeley -- "Uncle Sam," "founding fathers," "sending sons into war": all of these phrases speak to a universal metaphor in political life, one which equates the nation with the family. That sounds warm and cozy until you hear a UC Berkeley linguist ask what kind of a family this is.

In fact, there are two broad kinds of idealized families and they are at odds with each other, according to George Lakoff, professor of linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley.

Lakoff is the author of a new book, "Moral Politics: What Conservatives Know that Liberals Don't," published by the University of Chicago Press. In the book, Lakoff proposes that conservatives and liberals split the political world into opposing camps, based on different ideals of family life -- specifically the "strict father" model for conservatives and the "nurturant parent" model for liberals.

These ideals are so powerful in the lives of American citizens that they shape most, if not all, liberal and conservative views on political issues, he says. He adds that the family metaphors are inclusive enough to accommodate complex variations in liberal and conservative philosophies.

Lakoff supports this theory by demonstrating how the two versions of parental morality track onto national politics in a multitude of contemporary issues, including abortion, multiculturalism, gay rights, social programs, crime control and environmental regulation.

"Politics is not about neutral rational discussion of issues. It's about what version of family-based morality we are going to have," said Lakoff.

"Conservatives know this very well, but liberals have been slow to understand that they also have a family-based morality stemming from ideal notions of how to raise children," he said.

A major difference between the two systems is that conservatives give the values of "moral strength" and "moral obedience" top priority. This means that anything that promotes weakness is immoral, says Lakoff.

The "good" father seeks to develop self-discipline in his children by exercising his authority using rewards and punishments. Punishment is seen as a form of nurturing in that it teaches discipline, self-reliance and respect for authority.

"To be morally strong, you must be self-disciplined and self-denying. Otherwise, you are self-indulgent and such moral flabbiness ultimately helps the forces of evil," said the linguist.

Carried into the political realm, this moral system -- which puts strength at the top of the list of values -- leads to the belief that "your poverty or your drug habit or your illegitimate children can be explained only as moral weakness, and any discussion of social causes cannot be relevant," Lakoff explained.

By contrast, for liberals, the highest moral good is nurturance, including empathy, fairness and protection but not painful punishment.

The "good" parent, therefore, develops the child's capacity to achieve happiness and fulfillment by being empathetic to its needs and teaching responsibility. This was originally a mother's model, said Lakoff, but is now widely expressed by both sexes.

In this moral system, obedience comes out of love and respect for the parent, not out of fear, and strength is in the service of nurturance. "You have to be strong to be a good nurturer," said Lakoff.

Carried into the political realm, morality as nurturance means that citizens are able to empathize with people who have different values and backgrounds, he said.

"One cannot maintain a strict good-evil dichotomy," said Lakoff. "To be able to see the world through other people's values and truly empathize with them means that you cannot see all people who have different moral values than yours as enemies to be demonized."

As an example of the family metaphor in a specific political conflict, Lakoff has this to say about affirmative action:

"'Strict Father' morality comes with a notion of the right kind of person -- a self-disciplined person, one who can set his own goals, make his own commitments and carry them out effectively....Any policy that gives people things they haven't earned is seen as immoral, because it lessens the incentive to be self-disciplined. From this perspective, affirmative action looks immoral to conservatives, on the grounds that it gives preferential treatment to women and minorities.

"The 'Nurturant Parent' model gives the opposite answer. "It is the job of a nurturant parent to see that the children in the family treat each other fairly. In the 'Nation As Family' metaphor, that becomes: It is the job of the government to see that its citizens treat each other fairly. Thus it is the responsibility of the government to guarantee fair treatment of people who have been subject to discrimination -- women, nonwhites and ethnic minorities."

Lakoff added that "because of the emphasis placed on individual moral strength by conservatives, they cannot see how social stereotypes become a source of discrimination."

The book demonstrates how many contradictions in political thinking -- or what appear to be contradictions to the opponent -- actually flow logically from these two parenting models, once they are understood.

The strict father model, for instance, contains a little-discussed clause requiring that once a child matures, the parent's authority ends, and any effort to assert authority then will be seen as "meddling." This clause explains the antipathy of American conservatives to "Big Government," which is seen metaphorically as an intrusive father, said Lakoff.

It goes like this: "The mature children (citizens) of the 'Strict Father' (country) 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 know what is good for them better than their parents (government), who are distant from them. Good parents (government) do not meddle or interfere in their lives. Any parental (governmental) meddling or interference is strongly resented."

Such a clause putting distance between parents and children does not exist in most other cultures with strict father models, said Lakoff. In France, Spain, Italy, Israel or Singapore, conservatives have no antipathy to big government since their family traditions have no prohibition against the "meddling" parent.

It is no accident, said Lakoff, that conservative antipathy to government is peculiarly American.


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