You Know He's Right

Moral Politics
What Conservatives Know That Liberals Don't
George Lakoff
University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1996

When I first heard of George Lakoff, he was being interviewed on one of those Public Radio stations. I heard him point out that the particular collection of "causes" that USAn conservatives and liberals hold dear seem a rather mixed bag.

Conservatives tend to oppose abortion rights, citing the human rights of the defenseless unborn child. But they don't support social programs that would ensure that a healthy child is born into a society where there is help for poor and uneducated people. Liberals, on the other hand, oppose the death penalty, reasoning that the value of human life is diminished by it, but they don't see a problem with abortions.

To conservatives the positions taken by liberals seem inconsistent and immoral, and liberals view conservative politicians as cynical and self serving. Yet each group thinks of themselves as trying to do what is right, what makes common sense.

Lakoff suggests that the answer to these apparently contradictory positions lies in the moral underpinnings of conservatives and of liberals. The interview intrigued me enough to read the book.

Lakoff starts with an explanation of some principles of cognitive linguistics, a fairly recent branch of cognitive psychology, and then proceeds to lay out his thesis.

This is deceptively straight forward. Conservatives, Lakoff explains, tend to a view that favors what he calls the "Strict Father Model" of the family. Liberals, on the other hand, prefer the "Nurturant Parent Model." Each model implies a system of beliefs that determine how conservatives or liberals judge the morality of a situation. When the models are applied to the nation, the conservative and liberal politics result.

Lakoff suggests that one test for this model might be if it explains some of the apparently contradictory positions taken by conservatives or liberals. He argues that, while the model's ability to predict various aspects of USAn politics may not be sufficient proof of its validity, it would certainly be a strong indicator as to its usefulness.

Which he then proceeds to illustrate. It takes him 178 pages to explain the model. For the next 143 pages he pulls up a number of aspects of USAn politics to show how his model explains what is going on. The remainder of the book is spent on explaining why USAn politics cannot get away from morality based models, and why liberals have the better moral model.

The message, as expressed by the book's subtitle, is that USAn conservatives, with their push for "family values," understand very well where the basis for their politics originates. Liberals will have to come to a similar understanding if they want to participate in the political dialog.

The book is well written. Lakoff spends a fair amount of time on the model, taking it apart for the reader to show how it fits together. His discussions of how the model applies to politics are lucid and mostly fair minded. The book includes a thorough reference, 25 pages long, to support Lakoff's assertions, but no index.

I found the book very persuasive. Lakoff's ideas are transforming ones, and since I've read the book every aspect of USAn public life has changed for me. I now read books - fiction and non-fiction - with an eye towards the political semantics. "Star Wars" is no longer just an exciting space opera, but a powerful romance of USAn conservative politics. Political speeches by conservatives and liberals alike suddenly have become transparent to me, showing not just their outward intent, but their inner motivations.

That is not to say that the book doesn't have its flaws. Lakoff admits from the very beginning that he is approaching this task from an unashamedly liberal political point of view, and the book is peppered with allusions to this. Eventually, Lakoff promises several times in the book, he will get to the chapters where he'll show that liberal morality is superior to conservative morality. Some of the book suffers as a result.

Lakoff paints liberals and conservatives as sitting on the opposite ends of a spectrum. This may well be unintentional, since he shows that the moral models are radial categories. As such there is no reason why the models cannot intersect. But Lakoff appears blind to this, which is particularly obvious during his discussion of conservative vigilantism. He shows how the Strict Father model of conservative politics is a radial category that includes people who blow up a federal government building ("How Can You Love Your Country and Hate Your Government?"), but makes no mention of liberal vigilantism that ranges from assaulting fur-wearing women to potentially deadly monkey-wrenching.

Readers who think of themselves as conservatives may well find these flaws extremely irritating. However, the book contains such a powerful look at the very human basis of USAn political life that it is worth while to bear with the irritation and give the book serious consideration.

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