Conservatives are from Mars, Liberals... aw screw it, just read the post
March 19, 2003 9:51 PM   Subscribe

Conservatives and Liberals obviously think differently. Here's how. George Lakoff, a highly respected linguist and author of Moral Politics: What Conservatives Know and Liberals Don't is tipping. Why? Part of it is that while Lakoff is obviously a Liberal, he's one of the few around to have taken the time to understand that Conservatives, too, have a coherent worldview. He's then added to that, er, insight his neuroscientific understanding of the power of metaphor in human communication. He's getting mad buzz right now, I just heard him lecture, and folks, Conservative or Liberal, this guy's ideas are worth exploring.
posted by AlexSteffen (20 comments total)
> He's getting mad buzz right now, I just heard him lecture, and folks,

> Conservative or Liberal, this guy's ideas are worth exploring.

And they are? Come on, if you read the book, they are no good ideas
worth holding back `because someone is making money off them....'

(First mefi post, or so, and I'm drunk -- you know, the ongoing killing
and everything....)
posted by NewBornHippy at 10:12 PM on March 19, 2003

I took some classes with Lakoff while I was at college and this is what I can remember of his Moral Politics (I was only in his "The Mind and Mathematics" class and another more general cognitive science type thing, so my knowledge of this was only from the bits and pieces he talked about as asides to us...) - the idea is that both liberals and conservatives view the relationship of government to people as analogous to the relationship of parents to children, as far as raising them goes. Liberals have a "nurturing parent" mentality, while conservatives have a "strict father" mentality. You can draw a lot of conclusions by carrying this mapping out - I, however, am not a political philosopher, just someone who happened to be in the same room as Lakoff for a while, so I'm not the best person to talk about this... Anyone else care to give it a shot?
posted by wanderingmind at 10:32 PM on March 19, 2003

To play in the parent / child metaphor some more, perhaps a child of a strict parent saying "man, when I have kids, I'm never going to be so controlling" and then ending up being exactly like their father is a bit like the way conservatives promise small government but don't seem to deliver.
posted by Space Coyote at 10:40 PM on March 19, 2003

Or, as I used to think of him on those painful occasions in Berkeley when I had to endure his blather, fawning, etc.: "George Jackoff."
posted by Zurishaddai at 11:05 PM on March 19, 2003

Well, this is just my (no doubt imperfect) take on it, and I have to get to bed soon so I can't really craft this into fine prose, but here are the notes I scribbled:

Lakoff started with the observation that different metaphorical frameworks of understanding do more than just incline someone to a particular way of thinking: they make it very difficult to even understand ideas expressed by those operating under different frameworks.

Two central frameworks in American politics: the strict father model (Conservatives) and the nurturing parent model (Progressives).

Strict Father: The world is essentially a dangerous place. Necessary to teach right from wrong through punishment and discipline. External discipline becomes internalized, letting the child grow strong, self-reliant and able to pursue own self-interest. By pursuing own self-interest, will grow wealthy, be strong enough to fight evil and, ultimately, produce a society where most people benefit. (Invisible Hand)

Nurturing Parent: World ought to be a nurturing place. Empathy and responsibility primary goals, as parenting is a conversation. Fairness, open communication (as opposed to obedience to authority), protection of the weak (instead of competition), community (as opposed to self-interest) and trust are the main expression of those moral values.

Said the Left forgotten how to talk about morality.

Meanwhile, the Right has poured billions of dollars into thinktanks, media, academia and so on. And that the highest value in the Right's moral system is defending and expanding that moral system itself, whereas the Left is stuck on issue politics, and, even more so, on directly aiding those who most need help. "The Right has privatized the Left," meaning that the Left now spends most of its resources trying to help people directly, rather than change the system.

Many people live by both models in different spheres of their lives ((eg, union members who are strict father at home, but nurturing parent when it comes to their unions, or conservative Christians who are strict father on cultural issues but nurturing parents on helping the indigent)).

Roughly the same percentages of Americans are predominantly one or the other (35-39% each), with a middle ground which leans "nurturing" on most issues, but not all. Said this is why DLC strategy has failed – because you don't win more voters by shifting right, you win them by reminding them why they agree with nurturance on more issues than strictness.

Five main groups of progressives: socio-economic liberals, concerned with economic fairness, money and class; identity politics progressives (feminists, equal opportunity-seeking minorities, gay rights...); environmentalists; civil libertarians; anti-authoritarians. "One of the most dangerous ideas to the Left is the idea of a coalition," he said, because it defines people by provisionally held compatible goals, whereas movements build upon moral agreement, which is strong on the Left, but un-recognized.

[He then talked quite a bit about strategies and messages he believes Progressives should adopt. I'm editing for brevity.]

Hope that's helpful, if inarticulate. I haven't done him justice, but I must head off to bed.
posted by AlexSteffen at 11:17 PM on March 19, 2003 [1 favorite]

From the posts above, Lakoff seems to internalize virtually everything about political philosophies. It seems to me that historical circumstances have an important role to play as well. (Why, for example, were so many people "liberals" during the time of the Vietnam war? Why did their children [who presumably grew up in nurturing families] turn into the Alex P. Keatons of the 1980's?)

And what about folks who don't bother voting? Or registering to vote? Did the Democrats (or liberals, as Lakoff seems to want to label them) really misunderstand the fundamentals of the American family in 1994? Or did they simply fail to present an articulate and alternate version of one?
posted by jonz at 12:14 AM on March 20, 2003

jonz: My brief take on that is that '94 was a "Daddy's revenge" of sort after Clinton went Mommy for a while (health care reform comes to mind most readily; gays in the military may have been a factor, but may not qualify considering how Daddyized it got by morphing into "don't ask, don't tell"). '96 and '98 brought Clinton back over into the Daddy side, passing welfare reform, "wagging the dog" and triangulating and Dick Morris-seying his ways on perceptions of public policy into voters' good election-booth graces.

Who wants to Daddy/Mommy things from there forward?
posted by allaboutgeorge at 2:51 AM on March 20, 2003

I wasn't clear where Abortion fitted into this analysis. It was mentioned early on as a defining Conservative/Liberal issue and then passed over, perhaps because it just doesn't fit.

Any attempt to model a complex phenomenon with reference to a simple metaphor has these problems, it's superficially alluring but it won't bear any real weight.
posted by grahamwell at 3:03 AM on March 20, 2003

What about the great many people who are neither conservative nor liberal? Those who fall somewhere in between?
posted by eustacescrubb at 3:26 AM on March 20, 2003

George Orwell, in Nineteen Eighty-Four, describes a fictional totalitarian regime lead by Big Brother, which teaches its citizens a version of English ("Newspeak") in which opposition to it cannot be expressed. Some claim that Moral Politics likens either liberals or conservatives (usually the latter) to Big Brother; the offending party is said to deliberately impose its views by repeating idioms and altering terms of reference in debate.

My reading of this is not a simple Mother/Father/Child dynamic alone in models of political hierarchy, but only as much as that is mediated through language, which is a very interesting (and traditionally progressive) idea, if not a very new one. Work that back into the age of 24-hour, content-ravenous news and the repetition of idioms... 'Weapons of Mass Destruction', 'Regime Change'... latest one in the UK is 'Support for our Troops'. These repeated phrases become positions rather than ideas, and enable a very easy pro/anti dichotomy. With us or against anyone? The other vital document is Orwell's 'Politics and the English Language', the grand-daddy (Yeah, how do grandparents factor?) of them all. If you haven't read it, you must.
posted by klaatu at 4:09 AM on March 20, 2003

To simplify a bit: Liberals are filled with GUILT. Conservatives filled with RAGE.
posted by Postroad at 4:50 AM on March 20, 2003

sweet, another liberals vs. conservatives thread.
posted by mcsweetie at 4:54 AM on March 20, 2003

Thanks for the very interesting summary AlexSteffan.
posted by alms at 5:05 AM on March 20, 2003

Five main groups of progressives: socio-economic liberals, concerned with economic fairness, money and class; identity politics progressives (feminists, equal opportunity-seeking minorities, gay rights...); environmentalists; civil libertarians; anti-authoritarians.

In this context what is the difference between civil libertarians and anti-authoritarians?
posted by furiousthought at 7:01 AM on March 20, 2003

Two central frameworks in American politics: the strict father model (Conservatives) and the nurturing parent model (Progressives)

Jeez, what next? Reinventing the wheel, film at 11? If this is what passes for sophisticated political/social analysis these days, I despair.

My problems with this "model" are the following: it is simplistic and reductive; anytime you attempt to express complex sociological phenomena using metaphor you are bound to end up trapped within the limitations of the metaphors you invoke, thus shutting down any chance for analysis; and attempting to explain the political landscape of a society through investigating received ideas is bound to fail ("Most conservative opppose abortion, most liberals support it", etc.). And Lakoff works backwards in his argument. From the Wikipedia link:

There is one cluster of beliefs that most conservatives share (including some kind of condemnation of abortion, a positive emphasis on military spending, and a fixed-percentage income tax) and another cluster that most liberals share (including some kind of support for abortion, a negative emphasis on military spending, and a progressive income tax). What is the explanation for this clustering?

I think the more relevant question would be to look at what circumstances might lead to the perception of these as benchmark differences, and why. Okay, enough already.
posted by jokeefe at 7:15 AM on March 20, 2003

Lakoff's observations are borne out in the working world, where those of us in the nurturing professions (the women's professions: nurses and teachers) tend to be liberals. The Strict Professions (cops, D.A.s,) tend more toward conservatism. I'm not really sure where dominatrixes fit into all of this, though.
posted by kozad at 7:30 AM on March 20, 2003

All I know of Lakoff is what I learned from the Wikipedia post, but I think it's misleading to focus on the political beliefs of politicians as he seems to.

Politics today is commoditized - it runs entirely on money, and the relatively few people willing to spend a lot of money (to time) are overwhelming ideologically driven.

Politics used to be about "your ward boss found a job for my brother - the other guys' ward boss didn't" or "your farm credit policies are better for me than the other one's policies are". That is, politics used to be about getting votes so you could get money or support for yourself.

Now, politics is about getting money so you can get votes - to fight the ideological battles that the people who supplied the money want to fight.

In the old way, there was a lot of room for mixed beliefs and even inconsistent ones - as long as your guy won and delivered the $$$ it didn't really matter.

Today that's not the case - Barbara Striesand sends a fax saying, more or less, "I'm not paying you to roll over for Bush's War!" and the dogs start barking. Some other rich person sends the other side a fax saying "I'm not paying you to roll over for Barbara Striesand!" and their dogs bark.

So beliefs tend to look much more like they fall into neat ideological buckets than they really do.

I think that 'real peoples' beliefs are too varied and mixed to be explained by the theory presented here.
posted by Jos Bleau at 7:33 AM on March 20, 2003

eustacescrubb: What about the great many people who are neither conservative nor liberal? Those who fall somewhere in between?
Presumably they were adopted?

This isn't political philosophy so much as the kind of thoughts any reasonably bright 13-year-old would have discussing ideas with his friends. I'm with jokeefe in thinking that these ideas are simplistic, catchy sounding in a Dr. Phil sort of way, void of any real depth, and not particular inventive or ground-breaking.
posted by hincandenza at 1:27 PM on March 20, 2003

I wonder how libertarians fit in his model. They may not make up as big a percentage as conservatives or liberals, but I think they make up a non-trivial percentage of the political landscape. They also have a strong issue clustering, but it doesn't fit either the "strict father" or "nurturing parent" model. Consider that most libertarians don't support welfare or progressive taxation, but do favor abortion rights and legalizing drugs. They oppose gun control but also oppose more police power.

What model of the family is that supposed to fit with?

You could try to pigeonhole them in with conservatives, but I don't think they really have a shared moral system with neoconservatives, paleoconservatives, traditionalists, or "good government"/Rockefeller convervatives. In fact, I'm not sure the last 4 share a moral value system with each other.
posted by maciej at 1:14 AM on March 21, 2003

Lakoff's essay "Metaphor and War: The Metaphor System Used to Justify War in the Gulf" though written in response to Gulf War 1, has also opened up for me whole new perspectives regarding the current invasion. Worth a read or a reread I think.
posted by cmacleod at 12:57 AM on March 30, 2003

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