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Why are we conservative or liberal?
March 29, 2004 8:32 AM   Subscribe

George Lakoff writes in his book Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think that the book began with a conversation about a single question that might be used to tell liberals from conservatives. His friend offered the question: "If your baby cries at night, do you pick him up?" Is there a basic belief that underlies all conservative and liberal positions? Lakoff's answer, that our politics are connected to how we view family, is summarized in this interview. Is he right? What about you, what makes you a conservative or a liberal?
posted by yoz420 (67 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

 
Some Previous mentions of George Lakoff's work

This post, in turn, started with the recent MeTa discussion about how our threads cover narrow political issues without getting at the underlying beliefs that people hold.
It is an attempt at starting a deeper conversation.
posted by yoz420 at 8:36 AM on March 29, 2004


It's a trick question of course, the conservative will give themselves away when they start drinking the baby's blood.
posted by biffa at 8:39 AM on March 29, 2004


Or start an unnecessary war over baby oil
posted by trondant at 8:41 AM on March 29, 2004


this is harder than it looks. When my wife and I talk to our young children about politics ("Are we Republicans or Democrats?") we try to distill things for them in a similar way. One test I've used is, "Do you think helping people is just a good idea, or should people HAVE to help other people?" Usually things go on this vein for a few minutes, then finally one of us just goes, "Republicans are mean. We're Democrats."
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 8:41 AM on March 29, 2004


Liberals vs. Conservatives such a twencen dichotomy.
posted by signal at 8:50 AM on March 29, 2004


I often see the difference in terms of rhetorical style, as much as in the issues involved, with both sides often offering variations of the argument:"If we don't do X, then Y will happen."

Conservatives often make this argument in terms of morality; that is, we *have* to make a decision, yea or nay, on this particular issue; because if we don't, something bad will happen. (Lakoff also says this re. morality).

Liberals often make this argument in terms of plurality and negotiation; that is, we *have* to talk about this and discuss this particular issue; because if we don't, something bad will happen. (Lakoff also says this re. family communication).

Conservatives accuse liberals of prevaricating and being wishy-washy. Liberals accuse conservatives of being absolute and dictatorial.

I think this often happens, regardless of the issue under discussion. Unlike Lakoff, however, I don't think that either approach is superior.
posted by carter at 9:01 AM on March 29, 2004


A few quick comments. First, Lakoff is spot-on when it comes to the problem with sociobiology. Unlike so-called "naturalistic" biology must explain communication patterns through communication patterns, which requires some sort of interpretive frame, and that frame will overdetermine the measures then put in place. It's a problem that plagues the entire meme regarding "memes", which while intuitively correct, loses some of its appeal once it's forced into the rhetorical constraints of a biological/evolutionary model.

Second, the same interpretive dilemma plagues Lakoff here to some extent, which he seems to openly admit towards the end. His approach to bifurcating the family for the purpose of getting the two models to respect and talk with each other stems from a preexisting proclivity for nurturing. Of course, this belief requires that we believe the strict-father is strict because he doesn't care, and not its opposite, but whatever. Tough love, one might note, is still purportedly a type of love.

Third, is it really that surprising that politics is actually - oh my word - largely mired in different philosophical positions? Everyone who pays attention knows the debt the neocons owe to Leo Strauss (if not, check this), and the influence of folks like Locke or Hobbes or Schmitt. I appreciate Lakoff's contribution here, but I'm not sure he should take such pains to note how his background as a linguist prepares him to uncover what a student of political philosophy should already know. In the same vein, it would seem that someone might take seriously what philosophical suppositions are at work in Lakoff himself, if only at the level/concept of "modeling" political and individual ideologies.
posted by hank_14 at 9:04 AM on March 29, 2004


Hank_14, I think you are right to bring it back to Hobbes and Locke, and their views of the "natural state" of things. Conservatives, more than liberals, tend to subscribe to the Hobbesian belief that "it's a dog eat dog world out there" and, of course, this translates to the family model. If you want to raise your child to survive in such a world, some "tough love" will likely be required.

Lakoff attempts to figure out why we hold the beliefs that we hold from a cogsci standpoint, whereas political philosophers are more after justifying their version of the perfect political system. It's a subtle difference, but a difference nonetheless.

I couldn't follow the first few paragraphs of your argument, though. Care to elaborate/clarify?
posted by yoz420 at 9:16 AM on March 29, 2004


Certainly, there are two basic philosophies underlying Democrat and Republican -- as opposed to conservative and liberal, which are much broader categories -- thought, and these two philosophies betray the largest flaw in most political debate.

The Republicans' philosophy is, "We are going to use strength of arms to force people to be good."

The Democrats' philosophy is, "We are going to use strength of arms... to force people to be good."

This is the key concept -- however much you may think that one side or the other has nothing but pure, elemental evil in their hearts, each side, for the most part, is sincerely interested in doing what is right, and making people be good. The difference between the two comes in the value judgement about what is "good".

To the Republican, good is mostly moral. You will live a virtuous life. You will not swear on television. You will not have anal sex. You will not have ANY sex with anyone of the same gender. You will not have abortions. If you do any of these, the State will use its law and its weapons to punish you.

To the Democrat, good is mostly ethical. You will preferentially treat those who have been the victims of discrimination in the past. You will turn away from those who are more eminently qualified, in favor of those who did not have an equal starting point. You will give up 50% of your income to help those who are less fortunate than yourself. If you do not do any of these, the State will use its law and its weapons to punish you.

They're two different flavors of authoritarianism, with two different central foci. And they completely overlook the portion of the population that really has no interest in forcing anyone to do anything aside from leave each other alone. But that's another debate.
posted by jammer at 9:26 AM on March 29, 2004


I had the good fortune to see Lakoff speak about this book back in 99. I think he's fabulous, but I doubt this is a good one to start a balanced conversation across both aisles. It doesn't simply explore the differences between liberals and conservatives, it tries to figure out why conservatives are winning hearts and minds while liberals lose their asses. A lot of his talk centered on "What we can do to change this." Just look at the subtitle of the book.
posted by scarabic at 9:27 AM on March 29, 2004


I can try. I'm pointing out that when Lakoff talks out his difficulties with sociobiology, his argument reads something like this: by trying to understand patterns of behavior from a model already biased by a concept of 'survival of the fittest', rather than 'survival via some other means', sociobiology is biased from the get-go. In other words, the language that constitutes the "model" for sociobiology is flawed. I was agreeing, but pointing out that it's a difficult position for him, given that he is somewhat unreflexive about his own proclivity for models. I say "somewhat unreflexive" because he does admit, at one point towards the end of the interview, that his development of the two-family-types model is itself an outgrowth of his desire for a more nurturing atmosphere for communication.

This is where I take issue with the distinction between cogsci and political philosophy, at least as it operates here with Lakoff. Because, as with sociobiology: cogsci is itself always already philosophical, as is the belief that one can model behavior or belief with any degree of empiricist success. Lakoff wants people to believe that those who disagree with them are actually rational but with a different framing of the family metaphor; I would be more interested in seeing the philosophical backdrops that enable those metaphors be exposed and debated, rather than focusing on the distinction in the metaphors themselves.

The difficult comes, in my mind at least, when Lakoff bifurcates the nurture family from the strict-father family. Fathers can be bastards, without a doubt, but theoretically, not every strict father acts so strict simply out of some mild sadist urge. Tough love is still love - they still want their children to grow, to learn, to mature. As do nurturing families. But it's easy for Lakoff to act as if that common desire is in reality parsed by some large semantic gap, and I'm not sure that's the case. So for me, my issue is less about how to engender communication between the two sides of this alleged gap, and more about seeing how the mythical gap was dug, dirtload by dirtload by the work of political philosophy (both implicit and explicit). So rather than encouraging dialogue, I'd rather have our kids be required to take philosophy and semantics classes from junior high up as part of the curriculum, if onyl to give folks a chance to listen to political discourse with a more critical ear.
posted by hank_14 at 9:28 AM on March 29, 2004


"Do you believe America is mostly a better place or mostly a worse place, than 50 years ago?"
posted by callmejay at 9:35 AM on March 29, 2004


There's no doubt in my mind that conservatives and liberals/socialists simply see the world in a different way. No matter how hard I try, I just cannot comprehend conservatives.

What's missing in US politics is the pragmatism. Liberals and conservatives don't have to agree on issues, but they do need to at least try and engage the other side in political debate. All I see from the other side of the pond is mindless political point scoring.
posted by salmacis at 9:47 AM on March 29, 2004


They're two different flavors of authoritarianism, with two different central foci. And they completely overlook the portion of the population that really has no interest in forcing anyone to do anything aside from leave each other alone. But that's another debate.

Very astute, IMO.
posted by trharlan at 9:48 AM on March 29, 2004 [1 favorite]


Superb post, great thread. Kinda meta-metafilter. Geez, I nearly typed Fetamilter. Time for dinner.
posted by boneybaloney at 9:50 AM on March 29, 2004


They're two different flavors of authoritarianism, with two different central foci. And they completely overlook the portion of the population that really has no interest in forcing anyone to do anything aside from leave each other alone. But that's another debate.

Well said Jammer.
posted by a3matrix at 9:55 AM on March 29, 2004


They're two different flavors of authoritarianism, with two different central foci. And they completely overlook the portion of the population that really has no interest in forcing anyone to do anything aside from leave each other alone.

This only addresses half the issue in both cases. With regard to liberalism it doesn't address progressive movements to provide rights for all, that is, to free people from being told what to do. With regard to conservatism it doesn't address issues of fiscal freedom.

It also doesn't really address situations where interference is to the general benefit of society, i.e. public goods.
posted by biffa at 9:56 AM on March 29, 2004


So for me, my issue is less about how to engender communication between the two sides of this alleged gap, and more about seeing how the mythical gap was dug, dirtload by dirtload by the work of political philosophy (both implicit and explicit).

I think it goes back at least as far as Platonic idealism and Socratic elenchus, versus Aristotelian phronesis. But I am not a philosopher.
posted by carter at 9:58 AM on March 29, 2004


"Is he right?"

No.

Next question, please.
posted by insomnia_lj at 10:01 AM on March 29, 2004


It's a problem that plagues the entire meme regarding "memes", which while intuitively correct, loses some of its appeal once it's forced into the rhetorical constraints of a biological/evolutionary model.

And, if you look at it, the different ways that liberals and conservatives have reacted to memes are quite telling in this Lakoffian context: liberals are constantly asking whether it is a broadly viable model, whereas conservatives are using it to whack liberals on the head. This seems to b changing now, but--in truely stereotypical "egghead liberal" fashion--only self-consciously and because we have observed the working model employed by the right.
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 10:18 AM on March 29, 2004


the language that constitutes the "model" for sociobiology is flawed.

I don't think that the language given encompasses all of sociobiology. It's relatively new status makes room for a variety of ideas to be tested and then discarded when appropriate. I have not seen the establishment of any dogma that insists on the strict metaphors cited in existence throughout this branch of science. I admit to only a layman understanding from reading Pinker, Wilson, Ridley, and a few others and I probably need to read them again.
posted by john at 10:25 AM on March 29, 2004


the portion of the population that really has no interest in forcing anyone to do anything aside from leave each other alone.

That is ridiculous! The other day I had a controlled burn fire on my private property. My neighbor came over and told me "you need a permit for that". He is conservative. He is worried about sparks coming on to his property. He wielded the threat of state intervention on me. We live in a society, no one acts in a vacuum, you make choices every minutes of every day that impact other people. Do you drive the speedlimit? You are adding additional risk to other people. Do you come to a complete stop at every stop sign? Do you wear a seatbealt so that the State doesnt have to care for you when your in a coma from going through the windsheild?

Move to an Island in the south Pacific if you want to be left alone.
posted by stbalbach at 10:37 AM on March 29, 2004


insomnia_lj:
"Is he right?"

No.

Next question, please.

Why not?
posted by yoz420 at 10:55 AM on March 29, 2004


stbalbach: Everything you said is true, and every word of it supports jammer's point.
posted by divrsional at 10:57 AM on March 29, 2004


Except, of course, the final sentence.
posted by divrsional at 10:58 AM on March 29, 2004


I've recently thought a major difference between right & left comes down to who's trying to take away our money, or who our side is afraid of taking all our money.
For the right it's the government, for the left, it's big business.
That's probably just one part of it, but it seems to be fairly consistant at least.
posted by Blake at 11:05 AM on March 29, 2004


stbalbach --qualify: you were it seems breaking the law and what you called "controlled" might be against a law about polluting. Had a lady do that where I used to live and the fire dept had to come to put out the blaze that in fact threatened my house. As for seat belts> You get into an accident. You have no belt. You die. I get sued not for your injury but for your death.

Conservatives: filled with anger and rage; liberals: filled with guilt.
posted by Postroad at 11:08 AM on March 29, 2004


Carter, I'm not a philosopher either (at least not in any trained or disciplinary sense), so don't let that stop you. Two quickies. First, Plato does have a discussion of phronesis in the Meno, though it's nothing like what Aristotle does later. But if you want to read more on the difference, check out Rubenstein's _Aristotle's Children_, which offers a historical assessment of why Platonism is more dominant that Aristotelianism at times, and then at other times is overwhelmed by it. Still probably a bit too narrow a view (there are more philosophical -isms, for example), but pretty fascinating read.

Second, "pragmatism" is as much a myth as is the objectifiable existence of a given meme (which is to say, a meme exists only via its post hoc discovery, much like pragmatism which always makes obvious sense from hindsight but finds difficulty identifying its choice of new policies without becoming something more akin to "ideology"). Saying that "one should be pragmatist", like saying one should be "middle of the road" politically, seems to me just a neat way of bypassing one's political responsibility to think about the nature of the political. Here's Ernesto Laclau's thoughts on pragmatism, from an exchange with Rorty in 1996:
These internal ambiguities of the relation of representation, the undecidability between the various movements that are possible within it, transform it into the hegemonic battlefield between a plurality of possible decisions. This does not mean that at any time everything that is logically possible becomes, automatically, an actual political responsibility. There are inchoated possibilities which are going to be blocked, not because of any logical restriction, but as a result of the historical contexts in which the representative institutions operate. We should not forget, however, that there has been a general tendency to see the historical limitations resulting from these contexts as theoretical limits of the logic of representation as such. From there, there was only one step—which in most cases was unproblematically taken—to transform those limits into a canon and to consider any departure from it as perversion and distortion. All forms of ethnocentrism have developed in the wake of this operation.
What he's saying is that pragmatism suffers from the difficulties of a particular strategy of representation, just as does liberalism and conservatism. Once we pretend as if middle of the road politics is possible and desirable or that we can negotiate pragmatically, we just institute another hierarchy that excludes the possibility of thinking through its own status as a model or a representation. And we get back to the dogmatism and the (mostly latent) potential of authoritarianism inherent in this sort of political practice, something already alluded to by Jammer.
posted by hank_14 at 11:12 AM on March 29, 2004


I'm conservative, and I picked up my babies when they cried.

I think the problem is that people are forced into these categories in the first place. In my case I believe that churches and charities do a much better job in the long run than governments when it comes to helping the disadvantaged, but that doesn't mean I think all govt. social programs should come to an end...and yes, I am a Republican. I think these labels make it harder to really think and discuss so many issues.
posted by konolia at 11:13 AM on March 29, 2004


I find that people who try to oversimply the reasons why people hold the political positions they do, tend to have a large professional or emotional investment in maintaining the false binary Repulican/Democrat, liberal/conservative dichotomy. There are tons of ways to feel about an issue and even more reasons behind those beliefs.
posted by jonmc at 11:18 AM on March 29, 2004


I believe that churches and charities do a much better job in the long run than governments when it comes to helping the disadvantaged

I don't see charities and churches setting up too many unemployment benefit schemes, and which of them could possibly afford to run a universal health service? If you cut back on taxes no way would that amount of money be passed back in charitable donations. I just don't see the basis for your belief here.
posted by biffa at 11:22 AM on March 29, 2004


I grew up in and around the church. First Catholic, then Nazarene. I wasn't much of a believer, but I had friends and family and whatnot. And I've talked with the higher-ups in both and seen how the accounting went and the meetings about charitable engagements and social work were done. All of which led me to hypothesize the following: only people not involved in actually running a church can possibly think they are better in the long run than anyone else, including the government.
posted by hank_14 at 11:51 AM on March 29, 2004


Lakoff's views are incredibly narrow, speaking, at most, to the political choices of privileged, assimilated white people.

Privileged white liberals might be Democrats out of some "unstrict father" giving impulse; but no other Democrats are -- they're unsentimental ; they need the government to protect what they have and help them take what they don't. Rich white liberals can't even imagine how strict are the fathers in well-functioning working class families -- you need a strict and heavy hand to keep kids on the straight and narrow in tough neighborhoods.

Beyond economics, politics is a critical front in the defense of unassimilated cultural values. Democrats did very well for a long time as the party of ethnics; Republicans are doing quite well now as the party of rural and southern people who don't want to assimilate to dominant coastal-cultural liberalism.
posted by MattD at 12:05 PM on March 29, 2004


True story of my indoctrination as a liberal: I was a naturally sentimental kid -- cried at Puff the Magic Dragon, agonized over the fate of Eleanor Rigby, befriended dying birds and lonely sheep at petting zoos, etc. -- and so one day (c. 1973 or '74) burst into tears watching that old Iron Eyes Cody* anti-pollution TV ad where he's got the single lone tear falling down his face as he ponders the horror of a polluted river. My dad walked in and said, "honey, do you know who made that nice man cry?" "No," I hiccuped. "Who?" "Nixon," my dad clinched. "Nixon's a very bad man," I said. "Yes, he is. He is a Republican. Remember that." And so I did.

Ironically, 30 years later, my parents have forgotten. Not only do they luuuuuurve G. W. Bush, they think that Nixon really got a raw deal after all.

*no relation to our particular branch of Codys.
posted by scody at 12:10 PM on March 29, 2004


Or start an unnecessary war over baby oil

We'll rub their oil on our torsos!
posted by homunculus at 12:14 PM on March 29, 2004


hank_14 said:
only people not involved in actually running a church can possibly think they are better in the long run than anyone else, including the government.

i was actually part of the group that did that for my church..for all of a month or two. you are spot on.

what makes people with good motives that haven't been educated to work with finances or politics better at money and charity than people with shady motives yet paranoid about career advancement who've been trained in civil service?

one plausible answer is that chruches are at a very local level, and to that i'd have to say "touché"...but that doesn't necessary help the non-religious, and doesn't necessarily function better than centralized government.

in fact, why are most conservatives FOR centralized businesses but AGAINST centralized government?
posted by taumeson at 12:22 PM on March 29, 2004


I think these labels make it harder to really think and discuss so many issues.

i agree

I find that people who try to oversimplify the reasons why people hold the political positions they do, tend to have a large professional or emotional investment in maintaining the false binary Repulican/Democrat, liberal/conservative dichotomy.

yep

Lakoff's views are incredibly narrow, speaking, at most, to the political choices of privileged, assimilated white people.

word.

It's crazy, every attempt at defining a dichotomy between liberals and conservatives I've read in this thread or in the linked articles seems to break down when I look at my own personal experience. It's an interesting question, but I have to wonder if it's all all useful due to it's extreme un-applicability to the "real" world. I feel like the terms liberal and conservative are so poorly- and over-used as to render them completely meaningless. Yet somehow I still know what someone means when they use them. Weird how your brain can categorize things for you, but any attempt at explaining that categorization is impossible.
posted by jacobsee at 12:28 PM on March 29, 2004


In my case I believe that churches and charities do a much better job in the long run than governments when it comes to helping the disadvantaged,

I hear this or similar often, and wonder where the data supposedly comes from.

When have you ever seen a church-sponsored Social Security program? What about church-based unemployment benefits?

Surely noone would think a few church food kitchens out-distribute the welfare and food-stamp and WIC programs?

The few church-arranged adoptions must pale in comparison to state run adoption agencies.

A few faith-based hospitals writing off some indigent 's charges does not make for a health plan.

Prescription benefits? Inoculation programs? Child welfare and protection services? Do you really want a church group going to investigate claims of child abuse?

I think lots of people (including most of my conservative friends) repeat this sentiment without really giving it any thought or even caring from where it originated.

The best they can do is spout a couple of success stories like "Feed the Children" and just assume the rest necessarily follows.
posted by Ynoxas at 12:35 PM on March 29, 2004


Democrats did very well for a long time as the party of ethnics; Republicans are doing quite well now as the party of rural and southern people who don't want to assimilate to dominant coastal-cultural liberalism.

That resistance to assimilation may be more cultural than political. For years the south was solidly democratic hence the term "Dixiecrat." And there's always the sticky issue of race in the south. But if you put the race issue aside (and I'm not saying anyone should) George Wallace, for example was a hard-core leftie economically speaking.

And MattD, it's been my experience that Conservatives on the various coasts are as much part of the "bi-coastal" culture lifestytle as their liberal neighbors. Culture and politics are closely related but they are not the same thing. A republican residing in in a hip NYC nabe probably drinks lattes and goes to avant-garde plays and exotic restaurants too, in my experience, whereas a liberal living in rural Kansas probably enjoys fishing and auto-racing as much as his neighbors. (I'm making broad generalizations I realize, but you see my point.)
posted by jonmc at 12:40 PM on March 29, 2004


JonMC, you;re People tend to have the cultural practices of their neighborhood, college peer groups, professions, etc. One can regularly spot the young lions of conservative media (and even blogosphere, if you're sufficiently hooked-in to recognize 'em) at hip spots in the Village, Adams Morgan, etc., where the Democrat to Republican ratio is probably 19 to 1.

Quite simply, though, they've chosen to put economic/foreign policy ideology above personal culture, and don't exercise their vote to protect the latter. The same can be said of Democrats who hunt, go to Nascar, and attend an evangelical church in rural Kansas.
posted by MattD at 1:22 PM on March 29, 2004


... "Nixon's a very bad man,"; I said. "Yes, he is. He is a Republican. Remember that."; And so I did.
Ironically, 30 years later, my parents have forgotten. Not only do they luuuuuurve G. W. Bush, they think that Nixon really got a raw deal after all. ...

That's so funny--my first political memory is Nixon on TV resigning, and later, getting into the helicopter, and my ma saying,"He was very bad, so he had to leave" (but my family stayed Dems) : >
posted by amberglow at 1:23 PM on March 29, 2004


To those of you who don't think churches and charities do better-remember, I am comparing them to GOVERNMENT.
And remember I didn't advocate getting rid of all govt social programs. Read the whole post, please, before your knee jerks. ;-)
posted by konolia at 2:09 PM on March 29, 2004


I want to agree with Lakoff, I really do. But a cursory look at my experience tells me that his explanation is woefully incomplete.

One's own family life is the place to start. My wife and I are liberals and we are "nurturant" parents, so that seems to confirm his hypothesis. But then you look at our parents. I was raised by my mother, who is a "strict father" type. She thinks my wife and I are much too lenient with our son. My mother criticized me for the practice alluded to in the front-page post -- she thought I shouldn't pick up my baby son when he was crying because he had to learn to soothe himself and to grow up and be self-sufficient. I figured that such lessons could wait, since he was less than a year old. My mom is the "strict father" type, and she's even more liberal then me.

My wife's parents were and are a strange mix of extreme leniency and physical cruelty. One of the six kids, a 40-year-old daughter, still lives at home with her parents. Although they might have said things like "18 and out," they didn't put that philosophy in practice. They are kinda-sorta nurturant and kinda-sorta strict father. Mom is apolitical and dad is the dean of Dittoheads.

In the dialogue between Lakoff and Hayward Alker (third link in the FPP), Alker asks Lakoff about researchers "who think there is sociobiological evidence for the naturalness or innateness of humans' searching for hierarchy in their moral order and elsewhere." Lakoff's reply: "I also find the implicit metaphor that people are animals is a partial truth, at best."

Huh? People are animals. That is a fact, not a metaphor. We are apes, and as Alker mentions, apes are hierarchical animals. To deny this is similar to rejecting Darwin's theory of natural selection. It's wrongheaded and points to serious problems with one's scholarship and reasoning abilities.
posted by Holden at 2:11 PM on March 29, 2004


Cheers for the Rubenstein cite, hank_14, looks good; I just ordered it off of AbeBooks for $10!

And I tend to agree with you that pragmatism is an ideology that implicitly argues for the lack of ideology/ideologies (if that is what you said); especially the pragmatism of Dewey and Peirce.
posted by carter at 2:35 PM on March 29, 2004


So, if I believe - in terms of child rearing - in a certain measure of discipline and the setting of limits, does that make me "conservative"?

In environmental terms, if I believe that it is unwise to use up the Earth's resources beyond the planet's ability to replenish those, does that make me conservative or liberal?

If I am a US Republican who argues - as many do - that it is now necessary to run up huge deficits to force a permanent reduction in the "welfare state", does that make me conservative or liberal?

If I insist on establishing US military bases throughout Southwest Asia to - among other things - guarantee US access to oil resources in the Mideast and the Caucasus region while, simultaneously, refusing to shift major US government subsidies for the petrochemical and coal industries towards the development of now highly promising sustainable energy and energy efficiency technologies which could eventually lead to US energy self sufficiency - especially when the current US reliance on Mideast and non-US oil reserves is contributing to a massive US balance of trade deficit that is slowly undermining the US economy and, additionally, given the likelihood that World oil production will soon begin to decline.......

Do we call this position Liberal, conservative, or radical and perhaps even insane?
posted by troutfishing at 2:38 PM on March 29, 2004


To those of you who don't think churches and charities do better-remember, I am comparing them to GOVERNMENT.

And when I questioned your statement I asked about how churches and charities could possibly replace two major govt support mechanisms. I don't believe either could possibly replace govt in any significant undertaking. In the UK churches can barely keep their own doors open, never mind providing billions of pounds to keep people healthy and fed. If we're just talking about them acting as facilitators then the bureaucracy can just be passed into private hands anyway, though straight away you get negative repercussions such as private employees looking for any excuse to refuse benefits. (And throwing in some kind of moral judgement to this mix doesn't seem like any way forward to me.)
posted by biffa at 2:59 PM on March 29, 2004


That resistance to assimilation may be more cultural than political. For years the south was solidly democratic hence the term "Dixiecrat." And there's always the sticky issue of race in the south. But if you put the race issue aside (and I'm not saying anyone should) George Wallace, for example was a hard-core leftie economically speaking.

Funny that you brought up George Wallace. My entire family were strictly Democrat...right up until Wallace was shot...at which point both my mother and father became staunch Republicans. Especially strange as my mother used to work for Democratic campaigns and she is now even more "staunch" than my father. Even odder is their defense of GWB even though they live exclusively on a military pension and now social security! And yes a big reason for this is racism AND fundamental religion (though neither of my parents set foot in a church save for the occassional wedding or funeral.) Both of my mother's parents remained Democrats, her father to his grave since he has passed, but my grandmother cannot wait to vote against GWB this fall and says she cannot stand to look at that smirking face of his on TV anymore. We speak of my parents and cannot imagine what the heck they are thinking!
posted by SweetIceT at 3:00 PM on March 29, 2004


I've come across the idea of "conservative as father" and "liberal as mother" before, and the notion stuck in my head.

One of the most surprising changes that it brought to my political views is the idea that conservatives need liberals (and yes, vice versa!), just as fathers or mothers alone can't raise a child as well as both working together.

I hate to think of what would happen to this nation if we became a one-party system, regardless of which party.
posted by oissubke at 3:10 PM on March 29, 2004


Apropos of nothing: Carrot or stick?
posted by asok at 3:13 PM on March 29, 2004


I hate to think of what would happen to this nation if we became a one-party system, regardless of which party.

That's a fairly narrow (dare I say, conservative) vision. How about a multi-party system? Truthfully, as a "liberal" I don't need Democrats, and I sure don't need Republicans as they are now. I think what we need is the acceptance of a variety of ideas ... acceptance in the sense that we don't cry "traitor" at the faintest whiff of disagreement. And in that, would lie my critique of Lakoff. When survival of the ideology requires an opposition, something is wrong with the ideology itself. Both liberals and conservatives recognize situational ethics in their family relationships, so why does Lakoff paint them as hardened truths of the belief system of each? (Oh, I forgot, Conservatives follow morality, and that's why all conservatives reject their gay children *snort*.) It's not nearly that simple, and the common ground lies in the complexity of the relationship through changes, not in an underlying foundation of approach to any issue.

Change is inevitable, to struggle is an option, say the Buddhist masters. I think their on to somethin' with that.
posted by Wulfgar! at 3:30 PM on March 29, 2004


For years the south was solidly democratic hence the term "Dixiecrat."

This might be a little off topic but...

Dixiecrat doesn't mean Democrat (not that you said that it did). I grew up in Mississippi and the Dixiecrat phenomenon is something has always fascinated me. The definition of a Dixiecrat that I grew up with was someone who was a Republican at heart but couldn't bring themselves to identify with the "Party of Lincoln" and the party of Reconstruction.

The gaping wound that the Civil War left on the south is something that most people don't fully appreciate. PBS has an interesting website on Reconstruction. From that site:

Were blacks the Klan's only targets?

Eric Foner: The Klan is also directed against whites, in some ways. White Southern Republicans are also victims of the Klan. Northerner carpetbaggers -- as they call them -- who come down, become victims of the Klan... Part of the appeal is: Okay, if there is going to be a race war, so to speak, or race violence, then all whites must unite. Those whites who have been with the Republicans are traitors. They're traitors to the race. They're traitors to the region. And all whites must now unite in opposition to this Republican government. If you stay with the Republicans, you are opening yourself up to being a victim of violence.


The south really hated Reconstruction and Reconstruction=Republican. It took 100 years for the south to get the taste out of their mouths. We southerners can hold a grudge for generations!
posted by whatever at 4:48 PM on March 29, 2004


I read somewhere the other day:

A conservative might be a liberal who was mugged... where as a liberal may have been a conservative who was arrested.

To which I'd like to add:

I guess Libertarians are people who went to jail after shooting their mugger with an concealed firearm.
posted by wfrgms at 5:27 PM on March 29, 2004


Huh? People are animals. That is a fact, not a metaphor. We are apes, and as Alker mentions, apes are hierarchical animals. To deny this is similar to rejecting Darwin's theory of natural selection.
It may be a fact, but it's not one that provides much useful insight. Animals or no, homo sapiens are very different from any other species and it's misguided to draw detailed comparisons between human and ape behavior -- both are products of complex multi-multi-multi-generational social-genetic soups, and the soups are totally different.

As far as the conservative/liberal thing, I think maybe a better question would be why people aggregate into these 2 general philosophies in the U.S. (and elsewhere, mostly to a lesser extent). I think it has something to do with trusting sources (including people) that already agree with you more on issues you haven't formed a solid view on yet.
posted by Tlogmer at 5:42 PM on March 29, 2004


"Why not?"

Because even Republicans can care for their children sometimes. Because even Democrats can believe in tough love. Because people are human. Because the whole premise is inane and overly simplistic. Because there is no one personality trait which is Republican or Democrat.

Most everyone would call me a liberal, and yet I don't feel needless guilt or shame, thanks. That said, I *do* feel that our government (and society in general) treats some people -- hell, treats ORDINARY, non-billionaire people -- worse than others. It's bleedin' obvious that this is the case.

I don't like the game as it stands. I want to change the rules so it's fairer for the majority of people. What's more, I (and others) have the right to change those rules, within reason.

Like morality, enlightened self-interest isn't the sole property of the Republican Party, nor is compassion the sole property of the Democrats... it just seems that way at times. ;-)
posted by insomnia_lj at 6:04 PM on March 29, 2004


I don't like the game as it stands. I want to change the rules so it's fairer for the majority of people. What's more, I (and others) have the right to change those rules, within reason.

Yes, you do. Only remember others - holding completely different perspectives - have an equal right to define what they believe is "fair", and to try to change the rules in the way they want. Everyone is perpetually trying to change things ... and most of those working for "change" (Republican or Democrat) believe they are in the right.

I actually think we're in the midst of a slow shift - politics receives more and more press attention (mostly because its a focal point, and is cost-effective to cover for news agencies) ... but I think all that attention is masking the fact that the national politics of nation-states are actually declining in strength. The power governments have is getting increasingly limited. Leaders are no longer looked up to - they are largely considered glorified administrators. Getting elected is a process in which huge numbers of factions, on both sides, get whatever concessions and promises they can from a candidate in return for support, and then expect their candidate (if elected) to deliver. Of course - on both sides, those that support one's own candidate are noble organizations, while those that support the other candidate are "special interests that must be removed from politics".

And so as the interest and focus on politics on the part of radical fringes and those with hyper-specialized interests grows almost daily, the bulk of the population becomes increasingly less interested in the nastiness ... and just gets on with their lives.

IMO, its been a couple a decades since the US had a government that could actually be considered legitimate ... legitimate as in representative. The growing numbers that don't bother to vote are widely condemned (by activists on both sides, and the government itself) as indifferent, or lazy (or a host of less polite things) ... but really, they ARE voting. They are voting NO to the whole mess.

Both parties have become so radicalized that there IS no middle ground left. But that radicalization has also been accompanied by a splintering ... so Lakoff's premise is largely idiotic. There isn't a "liberal" or "conservative" perspective. Rather, there's many mini-me's of each - many of which don't even agree with each other. Wall Street Republicans barely even resemble (and in fact, could probably only barely understand) Bible-belt fundies. Likewise, the only time Manhattan latte liberals think about blue collar workers is when they condescend to embrace them (see Barbara E., who discovered that some poor people actually work really really hard). And if you want to see a real "strict-father" home, walk into the (Democratic) house of a Detroit sheet-metal worker.

Point is - though I hate to throw a wet rag on the joys of the current political season - politics are increasingly becoming merely one of several avenues through which individuals and groups achieve whatever ends they are aiming for ... and for growing numbers of people, not the primary one.

For liberals ... they get handed candidates like John "ABB" Kerry - who hardly anyone believes will change much of substance. For the "rich" Republicans everyone complains about? Sure raise their taxes. Empower unions. They now have other countries begging them to come open their businesses (and provide the jobs) overseas.

Politics are fun - but they are actually becoming less and less relevant.
posted by MidasMulligan at 8:17 PM on March 29, 2004


Thanks for sharing your fantasy.
posted by y2karl at 8:32 PM on March 29, 2004


MidasMulligan: don't you see that as a problem, though? Americans live in a country that is supposed to value liberal democracy and the ideals embodied therein -- freedom of speech, freedom of association, etc. These are things that non-governmental organizations, including churches, businesses, and what-have-you, cannot and do not provide.

What good is a democracy where the democratic part is powerless? Ask an Iranian -- it ain't good.
posted by Ptrin at 9:51 PM on March 29, 2004


Don't be an asshole, y2karl.

The growing numbers that don't bother to vote are widely condemned (by activists on both sides, and the government itself) as indifferent, or lazy (or a host of less polite things) ... but really, they ARE voting. They are voting NO to the whole mess.

Yes. This is why I won't be voting in the next presidential election; because, as far as I'm concerned, it doesn't matter who wins. The problems I'm concerned about are endemic to our system of government and won't be solved by having one talking head rather than another in power. I don't see why I should help to provide an aura of legitimacy to an obviously (to me) illegitimate system.
posted by IshmaelGraves at 10:35 PM on March 29, 2004


Here is my view:

In the beginning (oh, yeah, that's were we start), survival was essential. Knowledge was gathered, but, unlike DNA coded traits, it was difficult transmit it from one generation to the next. Strict, enforced rules were one sure method to deliver the survival strategy (the DNA based rules are even less flexible). Of course there was a trade-off: talented, gifted, but eccentric people were not allowed to reach their own potential.


In US, most of the so-called "conservative rules" come from Benjamin Franklin's "The Way to Wealth". I recognize some of Poor Richard's sayings: they are old proverbs from Europe (mainly from Bible, but Franklin emphasized their secular aspect). Once, when I was kid, I thought I could gain wisdom by reading a collection of proverbs book; the attempt ended quickly, as I discovered that for each saying there is another one with the almost the opposite meaning (for example, start with letter A).

The trick is, of course, rules depend on context. Franklin put together a collection of sayings that conveyed a good personal strategy for that historic period in America. If the environment changes, so should the strategy. For example, for our timeframe, I consider timing (coordination, teamwork) to be as important as time (diligence, time is money).


The society survived and, as it progressed, the risks become smaller and the cost of maintaining strict rules (shadow price) has relatively increased. It is very tempting to say remove the rules; however, rules provide guidance and we would need another strategy to be sure we do as well as we did before. If one has no way of benefiting from previous knowledge, he or she will try things at random, so we are back to square one. Since we want our person to make an informed decision, he or she needs the information. With no lasting rules it is up to education to transmit the knowledge.

From this point of view, the "conservatives" want to maintain a set of rules that proved themselves over the centuries. In this context, "conservative" does not imply the "strict-father model"; e.g. Chinese tradition, as described in the interview, is an example of a different, but still conservative model. The "liberals" (herein very loosely defined) provide more "nurture" and they are more willing to relax the rules.

In politics there is a third type, a Robin Hood kind of a character, which views only the social inequality and recommends solutions such as trade barriers, tax the rich to give to the poor, etc., without providing any "nurturing". Without an educational substrate, these policies are simple monetary transfers, they are temporary and do not transfer any knowledge (more agenda pushing here).

(oversimplified) examples of rules relaxed over time:
- Slavery - without education almost resulted in "grandfather clause".
- Monarchy - especially in France, that revolution was not a good way of eliminating a rule.
- Communism in Eastern Europe - the transition has not ended yet, although role models were available; on the other hand, China seems OK.
- Introduction of revolutionary products: steam engines, railroads, cars, computers were followed by periods of high volatility in those industries as random exploration of the possibilities space were in place.
- IT industry plus outsourcing of manufacturing jobs after '80 leaded to higher income inequality in US. Now we have outsourcing of IT jobs and biotech looks promising. What have we learned?
- Gay-rights: while I do not expect a civil war, I am surprised to find out that "states rights" vs "federal government" is again on the table.

It seems to me that the society reacts in the same way when rules are relaxed, it seems that nothing (or very little) is learned; from a rational expectation framework this is does not make too much sense.
posted by MzB at 11:09 PM on March 29, 2004


Since forever, I've thought that a pretty good barometer of someone's political leanings might be found by taking a look at the relationship that person has with their father (or the absence thereof). I was disconcerted when (as used to happen every bloody day when I was young, and happens much less frequently after decades of bootstrapping book-larnin') I found that someone had written at great length about the very idea that I thought I'd come up with all on my lonesome.

Life's rough, ain't it?

But it seems to me that Lakoff frames his argument in a very different way than I always have, looking top-down, from the perspective and practices of the parent of our putative political spud, rather than from the viewpoint of the spud him or herself, and his or her feelings toward The Father, and that, to me, at least, feels ass-backwards.

But I probably think that way because I was raised by wolves.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 1:54 AM on March 30, 2004


Very good insight, stavros. Conservatives believe, "My father, right or wrong" (just as they believe "My country, right or wrong"), while liberals ... well, what do liberals believe? "I want my mommy"? Sometimes it's hard to get perspective on your own mindset.
posted by Holden at 5:11 AM on March 30, 2004


what do liberals believe? "I want my mommy"?

No. We want your mommy. Preferably from behind, in the ass. Way to jerk up the thread.

On-topic, I always thought the primary difference between conservatives and liberals was the way the results were counted. With conservatives, policies promote the best in society, sometimes at the expense of the rest of society. Liberals measure the "good" of a society based on what level the bottom is at; in effect, "What, as a society, are we willing to tolerate?"
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 6:52 AM on March 30, 2004


This is the key concept -- however much you may think that one side or the other has nothing but pure, elemental evil in their hearts, each side, for the most part, is sincerely interested in doing what is right, and making people be good. The difference between the two comes in the value judgement about what is "good"...To the Republican, good is mostly moral...To the Democrat, good is mostly ethical.

It's taken forever for me to remember my rejoinder to this, but here it is: libertarianism is not free of the impulse to make people be good, either. I mean, a lot of the talk about rewarding people fully for their efforts, creative destruction, etc. - for Republicans, good is moral; for Democrats, good is ethical; for Libertarians, good is heroic.
posted by furiousthought at 7:30 AM on March 30, 2004


A liberal is someone who feels a great debt to his fellow man, which debt he proposes to pay off with your money.
--Atributed to Gordon Liddy
posted by Pressed Rat at 9:25 AM on March 30, 2004


the kernal of truth in this is that you can really say, one of the bedrock beliefs of the democratic party as it is conceived today by its more passionate affiliates is, "we can work together to help those less fortunate." this is definitely the mother wanting to help the weaker child. the republican party, i guess, is more interested in helping the high achieving child do as well as he possibly can. but this isn't really as strong an analogy... after all, republicans don't really have any sort of bedrock principle, they are much more into pragmatic solutions than ideals.

perhaps one can say, the republican attitude towards kids is more, "let him keep crying, it's good for them to learn" but deep down [as with most fathers] they just want someone else to take care of the problem.

this sort of discussion is rather silly, in the end, isn't it? you can really squeeze all sorts of arguments into shape to make neat analogies. how about old testament vs. teachings of jesus? or vinyl vs. cd? klosterman wrote about celtics vs. lakers, his point being an effective antipoint.
posted by mitchel at 10:59 AM on March 30, 2004


how about old testament vs. teachings of jesus? or vinyl vs. cd? klosterman wrote about celtics vs. lakers

Easy.

Old Testament, Vinyl, and definately Celtics.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 1:31 PM on March 30, 2004


I had an idea for a painting or something like it recently. Basically it was this:

Two football teams meet on the gridiron. One team, the one on the right of course, is loaded up with muscular, massive athletes intent on winning -- getting the ball into the endzone. Their opponents, on the left, are a much more shabby but still competitive crew. The team on the left, the liberals, aren't however playing to "win" per se. Because you see, behind the liberal team's front line and surrounded by the linebackers and safeties is a group of little kids sitting around in a circle playing, oblivious to the brutal contest happening around them. The liberal team of course wants the children to remain ignorant of the game, for if they're able to stave off the single minded, win-at-all-costs conservatives for just a few moments longer, those are a few more minutes in which the children can remain innocent. And that in the end, is what it's all about to be a bleedin' heart liberal -- protecting the innocence of us all in our empathic desire to see a day come that "No it doesn't always have to be a game!" There are indeed other, far more edifying pursuits. Ask the little tikes.

Yeah simplistic. But like I said, it was an idea for a painting.
posted by crasspastor at 4:47 PM on March 30, 2004


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