George Lakoff – How conservatives and liberals think. or not.

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.

4 thoughts on “George Lakoff – How conservatives and liberals think. or not.”

  1. John,
    I am glad you wanted to know more but sorry you are too lazy to read an entire book. The problem with short cuts is that you never get a full picture or understanding. The same goes for reading just one book. If you prefer one written by a conservative, read Russell Kirk’s “A Conservative Mind”. It won’t give you a comparision between liberial and conservative thought, but it is considered an very influntial book by many conservatives on conservative thought. If you had read Lakeoff’s book I think you would have picked up that he said almost everyone is bi-conceptual holding some views that would fall on both sides. But usually one side is more dominate and that is how an individuals worldview is framed. The family model approach as he describes the “strict father” and “nurturing parent” is not something random he chose to support his preconceived positions. It is actually a model that I have seen used often. I am sure you have heard people (including Rush) refer to the Democrats as the “mommy” party and the Republicans as the “daddy” party. This is very similar framing to what Lakeoff and many others have used. You shouldn’t be dismissive because of a personal bias that you may or may not have based on the writer being either liberal or conservative. Also, you should recognize that, how he descibes both models are in a pure idealistic form which rarely applies to individuals, although you might be able to find a few people. If you have ever read Ayn Rand she also writes in a very idealistic form, even though reality never exists in the ideal.
    I don’t think that you can deny that conservatives believe in a system based more on “individual responsability” and that people should “pull themself up by their bootstraps” and “people should not expect things to given to them.” Nor can you deny that liberals believe in a system based more on “we are all in this together” and “we need to look out for one another.” I am not a religious person, but if you listen to preachers on each side they are a good example of this “me” verses “we” divide based on what portions of the bible they chose to preach. Compare the dominionist theology and those who preach that if you are wealth it is because you were chosen by God to be so. Verses the more liberal religious sects who preach the Sermon on the Mount and what you do to the least of my brothers, you have done to me. Or look at child rearing books written by conservatives like James Dobson and others and you will see that they promote a very strong “strict father” model. I am not attempting to make a religious point here, but I do think that those who are very religious do tend more towards the ideals of the “strict father” or “nurturing parent” memes.
    I am not sure what studies or where you have read that “conservatives give 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.” I have not run across anything showing this, but I would be interested if you could give me a reference.
    But what I found interesting about your comment is the quote that it was in response too.
    “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.”
    I read your comment a couple of times and I think you actually provided proof of his statement. Parse what you said, conservatives give more time and money. But what is implied in your statement is that they make an individual choice to do this, and to what level of time and money they are willing to give. This fits right in with Lakeoff’s statement that “conservatives believe in individual responsibility.” So this is not so absurd on its face. I often hear conservatives arguing that government programs like food stamps, medicare, medicaid, and should be elimnated because people should take individual responsability. And for those who can’t take care of themselves, churches and charities, not the government should take care of them.
    Finally to answer a few of your questions:
    Do liberals actually believe that conservatives don’t want a supportive community? Yes, they believe that conservatives would like to dismantle the governmental social safety net programs and leave community support to charities and volunteers. We had this type of a system in place back in the 1930’s and it did not work very well during the depression. Why would we want to go back to that type of a system?
    That they don’t prefer cooperation?
    Yes, Exhibit A, the Republicans in Congress. They will not even vote for things they have supported in the past because it might make Obama look good. Exhibit B, the Tea Party’s or rigt-wing radio hosts who’s stated position is that there should be no compromising with Obama or the Democrats. Exhibit C, Mitch McConnell saying we will work with Obama if he adopts our position. Where is the cooperation?
    That they prefer lying over the truth?
    I don’t know if the prefer it, but they sure have gotten good at it 🙂
    That they don’t want prosperity?
    No, they want prosperity, but it seems to be a more of a winner take all prosperity that they prefer. If special interest can lobby to get the rules changed to their advantage, or the disadvantage of others that seems to be OK with conservatives. Liberals also want prosperity but believe that there should be a level playing field.
    That they don’t want their kids to be safe?
    No, everyone wants their kids to be safe. But what about other peoples kids?
    “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.” I don’t think these are “simplistic academic ideas”. Frank Luntz, like George Lakeoff, understands that framing and language matters at the most base level in a persons world view. That is why Luntz coaches conservatives to use phrases like “death tax” instead of “estate tax”.


  2. hi dan:

    good timing. i am waiting on something.

    yes, i grant you i am lazy and not good at reading entire books. i do spend a lot of time on this stuff – more than i should, so there are limits.

    he did say in the talk most all the further explanations you suggest – that people have elements of both in them, that some people are in the middle (e.g., me), and so forth.

    yes, i accept that in a general way, the way he describes the left and the right has some elements of truth to it. i’m more easily sold on the ‘nuturing’ idea for the left, but the ‘strict father’ thing might take some getting used to, in part because there are many, many conservatives, including almost all the ones i know, who are not religious.

    i think if he’d offered up his ‘strict father’ model as applicable to social / religious conservatives, i’d have bought into it more easily. but by offering it up for all types, including economic conservatives, i don’t feel that works.

    to be clear, he’s the one that listed those elements of the progressive ideology very specifically in a list which concluded ‘and that’s it.’ after finishing point #3.

    and i agree that his general concepts are not unlike other frameworks other people have used. i guess that’s the point of my disappointment – it doesn’t seem all that insightful to me. or not that it is not insightful – surely it is – but it is not particularly new to me.

    i do agree about the power of language, too. this is crucial stuff, absolutely. but again, i am very familiar with this type of thinking having spent my early years involved with some aspects of cognitive science and linguistics, including work with some of the top linguists in the country. it also doesn’t hurt that i’ve spent years in consulting and marketing and know well how the tiniest nuance of speech can affect comprehensive.

    one of the most interesting parts of his talk was where he explains that progressives somehow collectively are not very informed about this. i have to say that is surprising given people like clinton and obama who are masters in the use of words.

    and it explains partly why they get so upset at people like karl rove (and luntz) who apply this type of thinking to politics in very sophisticated ways.

    as to the charity stuff, see this post from the other day (i was on a roll). it has links to a few sources. you can google it, too. ‘charities by political party’ or some such.

    i don’t much buy you point that it, in a reverse logic sort of way, further proves that conservatives are exclusively driven by personal responsibility. i agree it is a central tenent, but my sense is that you and progressives vastly overplay this idea. i don’t know of anybody who is conservative who actually believes the major social programs should be abolished. i accept that some conservatives probably do believe that, but i’d be extremely, extremely surprised to see data that indicates that the majority of conservatives or republicans would choose to eliminate those programs.

    just because somebody on the right says something, that does not mean every single person believes the identical same thing. the right is not that monolithic – as Lakoff eventually acknowledged in his talk.

    but really the central problem i had with his ideas is that they aren’t rich enough to explain or predict specific progressive policy preferences. i don’t think these general ideas include either detailed enough constructs (maybe the book somehow knits it together better) or encompassing enough ideas.

    for instance, the idea that bigger government is the path to better nuturing. how does that follow from his general principles? there are a zillion assumptions and beliefs between his principles and the idea that ‘big government is good’, let alone all the specific programs that progressives prefer. big government is not necessarily the only way that high nuturing could be achieved, but it is the way progressives prefer to obtain it. why?

    i think this has to do with a belief that i got from one of your posts: progressives believe that people who work in government are inherently ‘better’ people who are able to rise above the petty behaviors that lead to bad results in the private sector. i have to admit this observation of yours has been quite a revelation to me – far more so than Lakoff’s comments. i’ve discussed it with many people and most can’t even begin to fathom why and how you believe this – there is so much evidence to the contrary – but you do – and now that i see that, i can see that many progressives believe this and it strongly guides their policy preferences.

    or the example i cited at the end of the post about energy development. there are many things about domestic energy production that would achieve apparent progressive benefits: more prosperity, more safety, stronger, more secure community, etc. but in this case, progressive aversion to environmental degradation is soooo strong that it moots these other more immediate concerns.

    if you push this point very far, you see that to avoid developing domestic energy, progressives are prepared for us to maintain a huge military and go to war to provide for it from overseas. this makes no sense to me and is not explained at all by his construct. now progressives probably don’t see it this way, but the reality is that it is so. if we wanted to, we could be an energy independent nation (or very close to), but we can’t even get remotely close to that because of the environmental lobby.

    this was brought home the other day with the Keystone pipeline decision. here again Lakoff offers no help. the environment trumps unions / jobs? and everybody, including you, fell right in line with that. no hesitation. no question. astonishing.

    i’m not sure if i am communicating this well or not. the point i’m trying to make is that i’m looking for explanation at a more micro level than the model Lakoff seems to be offering- perhaps his book offers a much deeper model that will explain these types of policy choices.

    but as i wrote in a subsequent post, after giving it more thought i don’t know that it is possible to even write this stuff down because i doubt it actually fits into a coherent, internally consistent model (for either party). it is situation specific – obama’s choice on Keystone was made in the exact circumstances of the moment. no one, perhaps not even him, could have predicted that 6 months ago, much less penned a predictive model years in advance.

    about the Lakoff quote I pulled. seriously, please. you are being crazy if you believe this statement of his to be true in the absolute way he has phrased it. yes, they lean towards individual responsibilty, but ‘individual responsibility alone’ – i doubt even a single conservative believes that on the entire planet. the fact that they team up into all these think tanks and so forth to advance their cause illustrates how absurd this extreme phrasing is. if even the most enthusiastic conservatives prefer help each other by working in groups, imagine how the 99% of other conservatives feel about sharing and collaboration.

    this is a good example of the ‘simplistic’ piece that i don’t like. if he had a genuine appreciation for real conservatives in real life, there is no way he’d make such a extreme comment.

    i can’t respond to all your points, but as to your answers to my rhetorical questions, i think you are taking this stuff way, way too far. i’d encourage you to talk with more conservatives using neutral language and see what their answers are. very few, if any, actual people would answer these questions as you have answered on their behalf. certainly not a single one that i know. and none that i read in the Wall Street Journal. not even the commentators on Fox News hold positions like this. i’m not saying none do – particularly the provacteurs – but seriously you need to start weeding the wheat from the chaff.

    as to the obstruction charge against the House, it takes 2. both sides are holding their ground. neither side is relenting. if one side were giving in, then there would be votes. i see this oft repeated charge is a misdirect. why don’t the Dems just yield to the GOP, then we’d not be at loggerheads? why do you and others assume that it must be the GOP that yields? when the Dems are in opposition, it is always a ‘prinicpled’ opposition. when the GOP is in opposition, it is assumed to be venal.

    i appreciate the dialog, dan, it is instructive and informative.

  3. John,
    Since you called yourself lazy I couldn’t resist taking a little jab at you. But you obviously spend more time thinking about and exploring new ideas than most people do even if you don’t like to read entire books. The way I conceptualize the “strict father” vs. “nurturing parent” models is along a bell curve with one model at each end of the curve. Most people are clustered around the middle portion of the curve. Then there is the 15 to 20% that are out further on the curve. The social/religious conservatives are out there in this group, which is why I think it might be easier for you to see the “strict father” model being applicable to them. They are much more idealistic than those that are economicly conservative. Personally I am more economically conservative than those out on the far end of the liberal portion of the curve. But I am obviously on the other side of the mid point of the bell than you are.

  4. I don’t know what happen there, I was trying to start a new paragraph and it posted my comment.
    I just wanted to add that I noticed that Lakeoff had used the word “alone” in the quote you posted. I thought it was odd for a linguist to use an absolute term like this in his statement. Was this from the speeech or was it written. I know that when I speak I will sometimes get lazy and use terms like “always” or “never” and my wife will call me on it. I noticed in your response you have a tendency to do the same thing. For example, using “exclusively driven by” is one of those phrases. I don’t think anything is “exclusively.” I think better words are “tend”, “lean” or “prefer” for example. But I am and engineer, language was not my forte.
    On your Keystone point, you said I fell right in line with the environmental lobby. But also the elected officials in Nebraska did as well. I think we need to look at this in a much broader policy context. Yes, there is the environmental vs jobs aspect to the argumet. But consider the bigger picture that oil and coal are old technologies and will not be the energy sources of the future. Should government policy continue to support old technologies which may negatively impact things like the water supply which the farmers are using for irrigation? Contaminating this supply could have very negative impacts on the food supply. Is it worth the 6,000 +/- jobs that building the pipe line would create (I know that hire numbers were submitted, but eve the company admitted that they were counting using one job for one year, so yhe one job was counted as 2 or 3 jobs over the life of the project.) My position is that from a government policy perspective we need to be moving away from the old energy sources towards the new. The old will continue for awhile longer, and will be secondary sources in the future but policies should be pushing the future new sources. If we want to stay as the economic superpower we need to be at the forefront of this change. When you look at history, the dominant economic power in the world has always been the country that was at the front of the energy technology of the day, such as the Dutch with wind, British with coal and U.S. with oil. I think everyone agrees that oil as the primary energy source is on the decline. Should we try to hold onto the old and go down with it, especially if it has other detrimental impacts?
    Here is a question I have, and I have not researched this issue, but why not build a new refinery near the source instead of piping it all the way across the country? We don’t pipe our sewage from South Florida all the way to Tallahassee to get to a treatment plant. The longer your distribution system, the more potential negative impacts you will have.
    I will check out the charity study.

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