Examining Morals in Politics and the Media

Looking beyond rhetoric to the true meaning of 'family values' in political discourse

Moral Politics: What Conservatives Know That Liberals Don't

By George Lakoff

University of Chicago Press

413 pp., $24.95

When you come to a fork in the road in your life, you're not really on a journey, nor are you in danger of getting a ticket for obstructing traffic.

But you are doing something extremely common: You're using a cognitive metaphor, structuring an abstract experience in terms of a more familiar, concrete one.

George Lakoff is the father of cognitive linguistics. Of course, cognitive linguistics never wore diapers, but you understand. And Lakoff, the cognitive linguist, understands "how" you understand.

In "Moral Politics," Lakoff deftly applies that seemingly arcane understanding to the heart of American politics. Conservatives, he explains, "have learned that politics is about family and morality, about myth and metaphor and emotional identification." For years, they've talked about "family values" in ways that seem obvious to them, but are cryptic, if not downright self-contradictory to liberals. How do "family values" lead to opposing family leave? Or to taking children from welfare mothers and putting them in orphanages? And why does liberal support for family leave and families on welfare not count as "family values?"

The answer, according to Lakoff, lies in the family model that conservatives use in their moral and political reasoning, the "strict father" model which can be found in books like James Dobson's "Dare to Discipline."

According to this model, the father has the primary responsibility to support and protect the family, to lay down the rules, and teach his children right from wrong by the strict application of punishments and rewards. In this view, moral strength is the primary concern. Moral self-interest comes next, linking self-discipline to self-reliance. Moral nurturance comes last, in the service of the first two concerns.

When conservatives talk about family values, therefore, they really mean "strict-father family values." For them, there is no other kind.

But there is another kind of family values, called "nurturant parent" by Lakoff, which is found in the majority of parenting and child-care books today. Two parents are optimal but not required.

What is necessary is nurturance, care, respect, communication, and understanding.

In this model, moral nurturance is the primary concern, moral self-interest comes second, and moral strength, in the service of the other two, comes last. Lakoff argues that liberal politics is as firmly rooted in nurturant-parent morality as conservative politics is rooted in strict-father morality - only liberals just don't know it.

Lakoff builds his argument by elaborating both models of the family in turn, then applying them to the world of politics, showing how the assumptions about family morality lead to very different views about politics.

A crucial part of the book centers on the failure of liberals and conservatives to understand themselves or each other. Lakoff exploits key contradictions - like conservatives arguing for smaller government but more military spending and more prisons - not to discredit the positions, but to argue that traditional explanations of both liberalism and conservatism are conceptually inadequate. He then shows how family-based models explain the seeming contradictions in a straightforward manner.

Finally, to demonstrate the models in action, he explores a number of hard issues, from taxes and social programs to crime, the environment, culture wars, religion, and abortion.

As a cognitive linguist, Lakoff makes the case for his family models in the first five sections of this book. Then, in section six, he makes his case as a liberal for the superiority of the nurturant-parent model. His case is based on combining the results of the two methods of child-rearing, since they are the foundations of the two competing political worldviews.

Even so, Lakoff retains his focus on objective evidence, citing a wide range of literature on child development. His commitment is strong and deep, but his language is far from the rhetoric usually associated with political partisanship.

Clearly, he is one who believes that the interests of the heart and mind deeply coincide. Even those who disagree with him will profit deeply from encountering his challenging ideas. In an election year, how many books on politics can make that claim?

*Paul Rosenberg is a writer in Los Angeles and founder of Reason and Democracy, an organization that advocates democratic values and the promotion of cultural diversity.

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