Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think
is a 1996 novel by cognitive linguist George Lakoff. In the book, Lakoff argues that the condition of identifying as either a liberal or conservative can be traced to one of two distinct belief systems. Liberals, he argues, are driven by a nurturant parent model, which contrasts with conservatives’ strict father model. While the nurturant parent model is comprised of beliefs that the world is neutral and people are equipped from birth with tools and rights to explore and test it, the strict father model holds that an individual is best molded with reinforcement learning to minimize risk-taking decisions in an intrinsically hostile world. Lakoff grounds his argument in these Freudian theories, but uses examples of incidents from his contemporary political life to demonstrate how they are implemented.Moral Politics
begins with the argument that differences in political opinion between conservatives and liberals stem from the fact that they attach differently to two central models comprised of beliefs and metaphors
about how a person should exist in a socially governed world. Lakoff claims that both liberals and conservatives understand governance using complex systems of metaphors about the family. Conservatives act and believe in accordance with the strict father model, and structure their families accordingly around a powerful, dominant father, which he analogizes to the government. He further asserts that this model assumes that children, which he analogizes to citizens of a society, require discipline to properly internalize social norms and be sculpted into responsible adults (“adults” being a concept that he analogizes to the state of being morally whole and economically self-sufficient). When children become adults, Lakoff argues that in the strict father model, the subjects are released from this power relationship, themselves becoming “fathers.” This phenomenon goes hand in hand with the belief that government should not interfere in the business of people in a society who have already proven that they are responsible.
Lakoff goes on to contrast the strict father model with a breakdown of the nurturing parent model. He argues that liberal people place a higher value on “nurturant” behaviors and attitudes. In this model, mothers and fathers coexist with even power relationships to shield the children, who are essentially good, from forces that can damage their belief systems. As examples he points to forces such as pollution, social injustice, and poverty. Lakoff theorizes that most people probably hold hybrids of both belief systems, contextually and sometimes unpredictably choosing which metaphors to apply to different events in the world. He abstracts this theory to political speech, noting that political rhetoric functions by invoking belief-based metaphors and urging audiences to prioritize certain ones over others.
Lakoff then analyzes the reasons liberals might have had difficulty in the past few decades galvanizing audiences. He asserts that the main reason is that liberals are actually ignorant when it comes to knowledge of the metaphors that guide them. Liberals too often mentally fuse conservative terms with their liberal beliefs, unintentionally tapping into and empowering the strict father model. Lakoff urges that liberal people stop using words taken from the conservative vocabulary like “partial birth abortion” and “tax relief” because they are loaded with implicit endorsements of conservative beliefs no matter how they end up being used. For example, the phrase “tax relief” suggests that taxes are an exhausting burden on people and makes obvious that one would only desire relief from it. He appeals for liberals to devise their own powerful and scalable linguistic systems to evolve without also empowering conservative metaphors.
In the latter part of Moral Politics
, Lakoff finally gives an explicit endorsement of the liberal mindset over the conservative mindset, arguing that it is more amenable to a healthy society. He endorses the liberal model’s favoring of rationality and logic over tradition and unchecked patriarchal power. To prove that it is better, he states how the United States Constitution explicitly rejects metaphors that support patronage relationships with other entities in its bestowal of common rights on its citizens, and rejection of the British power that had informed its heritage. Lakoff believes that liberal people have more traits ascribed to healthy cognitive evolution, such as openness and tolerance of perceptions of difference. Conservatives, he argues, are unable to form much tolerance under their model of the unknown as dangerous.Moral Evolution
is a book that seeks to theorize about the nature of opposition through the vehicle of the political belief system. Criticized for oversimplifying the complex interweaving of metaphor that operates in real people, Lakoff’s argument is that these systems are actually highly intelligible, if not outright obvious. His model, too, constitutes a formula for moving through the world with an openness to political attitudes and the metaphors people deploy to influence each other, and learning to use them to subvert rather than simply absorb predominant belief-based vocabularies.