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How Liberals and Conservatives Think
By George Lakoff
Second Edition
University of Chicago Press, 2002

In Moral Politics, George Lakoff makes the case that people’s political reasoning is determined to a large extent by unconscious metaphors. The political views of Americans on both ends of the political spectrum derive from the metaphor of the nation as a family, he says. But the liberal and conservative worldviews are informed by two very different conceptual models of the ideal family. At the center of the conservative worldview is the “strict father” model, while liberals subscribe to an ideal of family life centered on the “nurturant parent.”

“Strict father” morality emphasizes the importance of the traditional nuclear family with the father having primary responsibility for supporting and protecting the family as well as the authority to set and enforce strict rules for the behavior of children. In this worldview, self-discipline, self-reliance, and respect for legitimate authority are the crucial qualities that children must learn. Reward and punishment factor strongly in this model for it is assumed that people, left to their own devices, will pursue selfish interests and will only make themselves act on behalf of others to gain rewards or avoid punishment.

The “nurturant parent” model, by contrast, stresses the importance of empathy, nurturance, fair distribution, and restitution. The primal experience behind this model is one of being cared for and cared about, having one’s desires for loving interactions met, living as happily as possible, and deriving meaning from mutual interaction and care. In this model, the obedience of children comes out of their love and respect for their parents and their community, not out of the fear of punishment. Good communication is crucial because it is only when parents explain to their children why their decisions serve the cause of protection and nurturance that their authority is seen as legitimate.

Lakoff acknowledges that “liberalism and conservatism are anything but monolithic.” Both “provide rich moral and political worldviews, rich enough to permit a wide range of variation,” he says. Nevertheless, the underlying metaphors at the heart of each moral system go a long way toward shaping a person’s political outlook and ideology. And since family-based morality is all-encompassing for most people, they tend to frame political questions in light of their family values. These are not just opinions about what makes for the best public policies, they are ethical views about what makes good people and a good nation. These conceptual models therefore come into play across the full spectrum of issues in public life, from affirmative action and abortion to public education to national security.

Lakoff believes that conservatives tend to be more mindful of the underpinnings of their political worldview than liberals. Over the past two decades or more, they have carefully defined their ideas and adopted the best language to express them. “My findings indicate that the family and morality are central to both worldviews,” Lakoff writes. “But where conservatives are relatively aware of how their politics relates to their views of family life and morality, liberals are less aware of the implicit view of morality and the family that organizes their own political beliefs. This lack of conscious awareness of their own political worldview has been devastating to the liberal cause."

In the final pages, Lakoff abandons his scholarly neutrality in order to advocate for the liberal worldview. As a committed liberal, he says, he cannot remain completely silent on which conceptual model is the better one. While he admires the coherence of the conservative position and the “intelligence and cleverness” with which conservatives have articulated their views, he finds that their underlying morality is unhealthy for society since it fosters a divisive culture of exclusion and blame.

[Originally published in 1996, Moral Politics was released in a second edition with a new subtitle in 2002. Its original subtitle was “What Conservatives Know and Liberals Don't.”]