Take Off With Lakoff: A Linguist’s Aerial Tour Of American Politics

It took 12 years, but the “family values” Christians won.

When the Santa Fe Institute sponsored a public lecture by George Lakoff in April 1996, he was just a Berkeley professor promoting a book. But the Institute does not support hacks, and this scholarly work in cognitive linquistics, a field he had practically invented, was brilliant. Now, probably through no fault of his own, Lakoff is a yogi for desperate liberals seeking to get back in touch with political bodies.

Howard Dean’s enthusiastic discovery during the Democratic presidential primaries of Lakoff and his theory of political metaphor and “framing” triggered mass publicity early last year. And the attention has been renewed by current critiques in the Washington Monthly, Salon and Reason magazine.

The University of Chicago Press has reissued his 1996 book, “Moral Politics: What Conservatives Know That Liberals Don’t,” and brighter Democrats are reported to be engrossed in his new Internet-marketed booklet: “Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate.”

An example of Lakoff’s analytical method, which is not deconstructionism, is his interpretation of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s acceptance speech as governor of California. Schwarzenegger said, “When the people win, politics as usual loses.” Lakoff’s comment (in an interview): “He knows that he’s going to face a Democratic legislature, so what he has done is frame himself and also Republican politicians as the people, while framing Democratic politicians as politics as usual — in advance. The Democratic legislators won’t know what hit them. They’re automatically framed as enemies of the people.”

Another recent example: “the war on terror” describes an internal state, not the outward enemy, the relatively few active terrorists in the world, he says. So, “The war on terror is not about stopping you from being afraid. It’s about making you afraid.” Or take “tax relief,” which implies that taxes are a wrong when they are a necessity for government to operate for the good of all. When John Kerry, who was not enlightened like Howard Dean, began talking “tax relief” for the middle classes, he framed himself out of the game. (The conservative critic in Reason says all this comment does is prove the Democrats are “the party of taxes.” Which in itself is an example of counterframing.)

When Lakoff gave his Santa Fe lecture, which I attended, Republicans controlled Congress but Democrats had Bill Clinton in the White House. The Santa Fe Institute, known primarily for its theoretical work in chaos theory, was no liberal think tank. Lakoff read from his book (which he hawked shamelessly because it was not doing that well) and seemed to keep a scholarly distance from politics. But his warning was clear. To quote the book: “If liberals are to create an adequate moral discourse to counter conservatives, they must get over their view that all thought is literal and that straightforward rational literal debate on an issue is always possible.”

There’s a paradox in the use of rational exposition to discredit rationality. It’s as if the most trustworthy people in politics are advocating a philosophy of self destruction. But it has happened before, and it is eclipsed by the brilliance of Lakoff’s analysis. Cognitive linguistics, he said, is the study of “common sense.” Or, “how we conceptualize our everday lives and how we think and talk about them.” In the same way, I thought, anthropology is the study of culture and Freudian psychology is the study of sexuality. Eventually, both fields turned into self-contradicting commonplace cartoons of themselves.

Lakoff’s primary example of metaphorical thinking in American politics has already become more famous than his general theory. He said that both sides of the political spectrum were thinking in terms of the nation as a family. The difference was that conservatives advocated the “strict father” model, and knew what they were doing, while liberals advocated the “nurturant parent” model, and didn’t know what they were doing.

The strict-father family is run according to rules enforced by punishment. There’s a high value on self-reliance, and parents don’t meddle once a kid grows up and goes out into the world to sink or swim. Therefore, conservatives advocate free markets and survival of the fittest, among other things.

The nurturant-parent family, according to Lakoff, operates by love and empathy. (Not the same as indulgence and permissiveness, he says.) There’s a high value on protection of the weak against the strong, on learning to care for others. Therefore, liberals advocate economic protection and government social programs, among other things.

Lakoff’s arechetypal strict father has primary responsibility for supporting and protecting his family in the world which is, as the conservative icon Oliver North liked to say, “a dangerous place.” And that calls for Arnold.
As Lakoff put it in an interview, “In the strict father model, the big thing is discipline and moral authority, and punishment for those who do something wrong. That comes out very clearly in the Bush administration’s foreign and domestic policy. With Schwarzenegger, it’s in his movies: most of the characters that he plays exemplify that moral system. He didn’t have to say a word! He just had to stand up there, and he represents Mr. Discipline. He knows what’s right and wrong, and he’s going to take it to the people. He’s not going to ask permission, or have a discussion, he’s going to do what needs to be done, using force and authority. His very persona represents what conservatives are about.”

In Lakoff’s nurturant-parent family, the adults, if there are two, share responsibilities. They believe in protection of the weak against the strong through community and government and programs. They emphasize two-way communication, not punishment. Their rules aren’t absolute and unchangeable and don’t come from some Higher Order. “The principle goal of nurturance is for children to be fulfilled and happy in their lives and to become nurturant themselves,” he wrote. And they will fight for government-imposed fairness and protection.

Conservatives think liberals spoil their kids. Liberals think conservatives abuse their kids, he said, allowing that in most cases both judgements are wrong.

“Conservatives are furious at the entire institutional structure of American education,” he said. “Who runs it? Who gets into education as a profession? Not surprisingly, a great many educators are nurturers. And nurturers often have a Nurturant Parent morality. . . That is why conservatives are attacking the infrastructure of public education in the country. They have no choice. They are up against an infrastructure full of nurturers, and they don’t like it one bit Í and they shouldn’t like it one bit.”

He returned to the topic later: “Our public schools have been shaped by a moral function. They don’t just teach the three R’s. They teach how to understand our moral life, our history, our politics, and our culture. What liberals think is `open’ history taught in the public schools, conservatives think is `negative’ history.”

Further, “The very foundation of Strict Father morality is the legitimacy of parental authority. To someone raised with Strict Father morality, a `negative’ history might call into question that authority. Strict Father morality cannot tolerate the questioning of legitimate authority by children.”

A few months later I witness the reparte over Hillary Clinton’s book, “It Takes A Village.” Bob Dole said, “It does not take a village to raise a child. It takes a family!” and the San Diego Republican National Convention went wild. Hillary Clinton’s rebuttal was to catalog all the programs and professions, especially teachers, involved in raising children and then say, “Yes, it takes a village. And it takes a president. It takes Bill Clinton!” and the Democratic National Convention in Chicago went wild. By then the dichotomy was ingrained, if not consciously.

This family metaphor began in earnest in 1992, I recalled, when conservative Christians wrote the platform adopted by the Republican National Convention in Houston. It was a manifesto for the return of “Family Values” in a Christian nation where, it said, the “traditional family is under assault” by government and liberals. It opposed “the efforts of the Democratic Party to redefine the traditional American family.”

The platform, of course, opposed abortion (proposing adoption incentives and maternity homes as alternatives) and the teaching of birth control in the schools (proposing abstinence lectures instead). It opposed civil rights protection based on sexual orientation, advocated criminal penalties for transmission of AIDS, and opposed any law that “recognizes same-sex marriages and allows such couples to adopt children or provide foster care.”

The media set aside the 133-page illustrated booklet, dismissing it as a formality that meant nothing in the real politics of the campaign. And after George H.W. Bush lost re-election, “family values” became a ridiculed slogan that would not appear again. The soil from which it sprang lay fallow, silently enriching. The media forgot the issue.

But it was just getting started, as Lakoff recognized in 1996. To quote his book: “There seems to be no way around it. American politics is suffused with family-based morality. When it comes to specifying policy goals, family-based morality is going to enter Í in a big way. Family values are going to matter. The question is, which family values?”

Now, following an election in which “gay marriage” may have been the decisive hidden issue and with the constituency that produced the 1992 Republican platform in complete control of national government, we know.