A commenter on this blog (Dan) has repeatedly suggested I read Moral Politics by George Lakoff. He’s suggested it will explain all when it comes to why conservatives are the way they are and vice versa for liberals. Naturally, I never did it, but I’ve been more and more wondering about this question and seeking some insight.
Today there was a piece in the New York Times called The Gulf of Morality that tries to get at how and why the two sides think as they do. And who should be the first person they quote, but Professor Lakoff who makes this ridiculous comment:
conservatives believe in individual responsibility alone, not social responsibility. They don’t think government should help its citizens. That is, they don’t think citizens should help each other.
This is absurd on its face – especially given my post earlier today about conservatives giving a lot more of their income to charity, being more likely to devote their own time to charitable causes (volunteerism), and when they do volunteer, to spend almost double the amount of time doing it.
So if this is what this guy thinks about conservatives, how can Dan be recommending him as the font of wisdom? I wanted to know more. Since I’m too lazy to read an entire book, I took a shortcut and listened to a lecture he gave at UC San Diego in 2005 about the topic of his book ‘Moral Politics’. It’s an hour long and I’ve listened carefully to it twice.
Here are some thoughts:
– He is a very erudite fellow who speaks well and clearly and has a wide ranging scope of knowledge. He spoke for an entire hour without pause, except for one sip of water, and without a note or a slide to guide him. Most impressive.
– The ‘family model’ approach that he uses as a foundation seems somewhat randomly chosen – perhaps it seemed like a promising way to get the outcome he had in mind. Especially after hearing the descriptions thereof, I have a hard time believing that the family model is either determinative or complete as an explanation for how either side thinks in totality. I know for my own family, it obeyed none of the qualities he attributes to people who become conservatives. None of my conservatives friends (save one) seem to fit either. At best, his models are loosely instructive – or maybe all of us are in the ‘other’ bucket where we have elements of both models. I suspect a very, very large number of people are in this middle ground.
– His profiles of conservatives (‘strict father model’) and liberals (‘nuturing parent model’) are highly selective and preferential (he’s a liberal). In particular, he attributes three qualities to ‘progressives’ that seem to me to apply to conservatives quite well or even better. Building off his ‘family’ model where family behavior determines political thought, the three qualities that make for a progressive are:
1. Progressive parents want to protect their kids. That’s why liberals advocate for environmental safety, consumer safety, worker safety, etc. Surely conservatives want their kids to be safe too? Perhaps not in the same way or to the identical degree, but surely not zero.
2. Progressive parents want their kids to be ‘happy and fulfilled’ so they can pursue their dreams. He says liberals want people to be ‘free’ and to have ‘opportunities’ by living in a ‘prosperous’ society. This is motherhood and apple pie. Surely conservatives want happy kids and prosperity, too? I would be shocked if you heard words like ‘freedom’ ‘opportunity’ and ‘prosperity’ spoken more on a channel like MSNBC than on Fox News.
3. Progressive parents want their kids raised in a supportive ‘community’. Who doesn’t? He says that to have a good community you need:
leaders who care about the people in the community and are responsible. And you want community members who care about each other and are responsible to other members of the community and to the community itself. People who do community service.
What kind of community is that? One where there is cooperation. For cooperation you need trust – and for trust, you need honesty and openness.
So this explains why liberals volunteer so much more than conservatives in their local communities. Er, oh, no, actually they don’t do that. So we are to believe that conservatives care nothing at all for community and yet volunteer more of their time in community organizations?
But seriously, do liberals actually believe that conservatives don’t want a supportive community? That they don’t prefer cooperation? That they prefer lying over the truth? That they don’t want prosperity? That they don’t want their kids to be safe? Please. It is ridiculous. Except maybe in the most general of way, these sorts of simplistic academic ideas are not where the communication breakdown between the parties is occurring.
– My takeaway about part one of the talk is that he’s constructed two models that nicely fit into his own preconceptions of what the two sides stand for. He’s offered up some nice bits for his favored progressives – qualities to his liking that he’s apparently plucked out of thin air. Rather than follow the same ‘plucking’ procedure for conservatives, he’s found an objective-sounding basis (Dobson) to build a not entirely flattering portrait of conservatives. He does grant that conservatives are ‘moral’, but he’s framed that morality as self-serving and essentially corrupt at it’s core. It’s not an especially promising foundation for the rest of his lecture, but it does seem to be making his (mostly progressive) audience laugh – and that’s important.
– He observes that Rationalism has had a profound effect on the Democratic party and says that a foundational part of progressive thinking is that
government should be in favor of the material interests of all the people
This is nice to know, but by implication he is suggesting that conservatives are not in favor of the material interests of the people? I guess the unstated point he’s making is that conservative government is for some certain favored parts thereof (the rich, presumably), rather than ‘all’. I expect a lot of conservatives would disagree with this vehemently.
– He asserts that by the Rational model, people should be voting ‘in favor of their self-interest’, but that they often do not and this disappoints him. He laments that progressives put together these long lists of beautifully designed programs that address the voters self-interest, but voters often don’t vote for these programs. Why? Because conservatives are appealing to them on a whole other level to do with frames and metaphors.
This is probably quite so, but could it also be that the programs that progressives think are in the self-interest of people are not actually the programs that the people think are in their self-interest? In my opinion, liberals often think they know what is best for other people, when they don’t have much of a clue. In other words, it might not just be that conservatives sell their programs better, but that they actually craft better programs? The thought doesn’t appear to have crossed his mind.
– He goes on to talk about Reagan, Goldwater, and various historical events in the conservative movement and concludes that conservatives:
have a deeper understanding of how the mind actually works [than progressives do]
Finally, something I actually agree with – full stop. And I’d go further and say that not only do they better understand how the mind works, they better understand how the physical world (i.e., reality) works than do progressives – this is a contributing factor to why people vote for their programs. But that’s for another episode.
– This leads him to a lengthy bit about conservatives banding together and getting extremely organized: endowing centers in universities, creating think tanks, magazines, and book publishers, and buying up media properties. He speaks of this partly in a tone of respect that they were so clever and disciplined, but also somewhat derisively since clearly these ideas are wrong-headed and destructive. He observes that what you have is a ‘right wing idea factory and messaging machine’ that is pushing ideas into the public sphere. Part of this is very reasonable, he opines, but part of it is ‘lies’. Lies being where these idea factory folks are using language to overcome weaknesses in or absences of fact.
Throughout this bit, he repeatedly asserts or implies that progressives are driven by rational thought and facts. That in the fight for hearts and minds, they are hampered by their determination and in-borne nature to be pure truth tellers. This part doesn’t really work for me because a) since when did we start giving demerits to people or groups for being too organized and disciplined? and b) it is nonsense to believe that liberals are data-driven truth tellers.
On this second point, I continually notice that liberal opinion pieces cite data much less frequently than do conservative pieces. A few years back when I was reading both the WSJ and the NYT daily, I did an informal tally each day for a month or so of the number of citations of numbers (excluding dates and the like) in the opinion pieces. Conservative columns, including conservative columns in NYT, were much more likely to use data than liberal columns (all these think tanks are busy generating data, so why not use it?). I would also add that when I do posts for this blog, I am often looking for data (especially nice charts) to understand issues and illustrate points. It is not very often that I find data coming from liberal sources. It isn’t just that I don’t pick the liberal version of the data – it simply doesn’t exist. So, in my view and contrary to Lakoff’s point, progressives are not driven by ‘facts’ and certainly are not driven by facts to a higher degree than are conservatives.
– The lecture sort of peters out in terms of valuable commentary until the end when he offers up a gem of a closing point using Hurricane Katrina. Here he articulates that Katrina was not so much caused by nature, but by man. Why? Because research into global warming proved that category 5 hurricanes were an inevitable result of global warming and that the particular disaster in New Orleans was caused by Republican budget cuts of FEMA and of the funds to build the levies as well as poor policy choices on how to run FEMA (i.e., it should not be first responder).
Parts of this are probably true, but the main premise is absurd. We ‘knew in advance’ that Katrina would hit and destroy the levies, etc.? That category 5 storms were an inevitable human-caused menance? I don’t think even hours before it hit did anyone know what was going to happen. I also checked the records of Category 5 storms throughout history. 2005 was the worst year in history with 4 storms, so that’s something, but there have been only 2 since then and there were only 2 in the 1990’s. Perhaps there is a trend in there, but it is far from ‘known’ in the general case, let alone that a storm would hit New Orleans specifically where it would cause this type of damage.
If remote possibilities like this are ‘known’ and must be protected against, we are looking at trillions of dollars in investments to shore up all sorts of things against all sorts of remote risks. Clearly, liberals want to do this, but it is not affordable even under the most generous of budget regimes. So a lot of this is messaging and positioning on his part to make his case for the progressive agenda – which is all well and fine, but it isn’t fact.
I also think that the budget fights over the levy had been going on for decades through any number of presidencies and congresses (and are still going on even after the Dems controlled all branches of government a few years ago). By this logic, if Republicans are solely responsible for the Katrina damage, then Democrats are solely responsible for the mortgage crisis because they were the strongest advocates for loosening mortgage qualifications to increase home ownership in low income areas which was the starting point of the unraveling.
Overall, I don’t think I am feeling a whole lot wiser about the underlying reasons why conservatives and liberals think like they do – especially in the particulars. Well, that’s not quite right: I do understand that a lot of liberals have been influenced by what Lakoff has said and written, however flawed it may be, and as a result, this is what a lot of liberals think that conservatives think. I don’t think it is a terribly accurate portrayal, but it is out there and it is well articulated and it is entertaining to listen to.
But when you get right down to it, do I understand why liberals so strongly oppose domestic energy development any better now than I did when I woke up this morning? No. And I think this is where the problems emerge from his generic models. If I look at the issue of domestic energy and I wanted what Lakoff says progressives want: ‘prosperity’ for my children, not to mention ‘safety’ and to be part of a supportive community, then I would want there to be a lot more domestic energy production. It would keep us out of wars, create huge numbers of jobs here, and generate massive tax revenues for funding all sorts of liberal programs, among other benefits. In the largest sense of community, it could also be viewed as being a good world citizen by increasing supply of a limited resource which drops global prices and enables peoples the world over access to many things they cannot now afford. But no, absolutely, positively not. Not now, not ever. For all his insistence that liberals are, above all else, excessively rationale, this appears to be an irrational position to hold.
My conclusion is that this position on oil, among others, arises from some other dynamic which is not contained in his explanation. In this sense, Lakoff’s ideas are a disappointment.