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Disagreeing with Lakoff

I am nowhere near as smart as George Lakoff, but that's not going to stop me from saying he's completely wrong. His classic book Moral Politics models progressivism and conservativism (discussed here). Progressives are "nurturant parents," who assume "that the world is basically good and can be made better and that one must work toward that," governing through empathy. Conservatives are "strict fathers," who assume "that the world is dangerous and difficult and that children are born bad and must be made good," governing through painful discipline. People use frames to interpret the world in accordance with these models.

Lakoff's examination of particular frames is always fascinating, whether he's talking about "tax relief" or "death tax." But his prescriptions are always weak, because his models are more harmful than helpful. There is sufficient indeterminacy in progressive and conservative worldviews that both can be justified through either model. What's more, characterizing progressivism as the product of a "nurturant parent" worldview buys into a conservative frame that diminishes progressivism as soft, while characterizing conservatism as stern buys into the delusional conservative mythology of toughness.

There is nothing "tough" about looking out solely for number one. There is nothing tough about exploiting people. There is nothing tough about claiming people are oppressed by taxation. There is nothing tough about using fear as a political tool. Conservatives are not tough.

What's more, they aren't disciplined. They can't discuss policy details. They can't acknowledge that they have made mistakes. They won't punish rich people who break the law, whether its polluters or tax frauds, CEOs or leakers of classified information. They can't make hard decisions, always opting for the easy out, even when it's delusional. They are as close to reality as I am to Bill Clinton (not very). For Christ's sake, they cut taxes during a war!

Progressives, on the other hand, are tough. If someone can't cut it because the highest marginal tax bracket if 38%, well fuck 'em. If people can't cut it paying employees 7$ an hour, well fuck 'em. If people can't function in their daily life because Mr. Arab is on a plane with them, or Mr. & Mrs. Black moved into their neighborhood or their school, that's life. If Mr. Andro can't compete with Ms. Gyno, he's screwed.

Progressives are disciplined. A parent should have the right to family leave to take care of a sick family member or newborn babe, because it's right. People should have a right to health care because it's right. People should accept that they are where they are because of our countries human, social and institutional capital - and that they have an obligation to give something back. That is what discipline means - playing by the rules, and making sure that the rules are fair.

Conservatism says "I am where I am because of me" when I succeed and "I am where I am because of the government" (or minorities, or immigrants, or women, or whatever) when I fail.

So what's the right answer? I think every conservative argument has to be met in two ways. First is reframing, the approach embraced by Lakoff, defending issues on "nurturing parent" grounds. Second, though, is counter-framing. Taking their "stern father" frame, and showing how it applies better to progressivism.

It's what conservatives have done. Clint Bolick took social justice and "civil rights" and turned them into anti-tax and anti-regulation frames. Grover Norquist counseled College Republicans to meet every human rights issue with an anti-Communist issue (divestment from Apartheid v. support for Solidarity), to argue, in effect, that progressive empathy wasn't actual empathy, just crypto-Communism.

They're bastards, but we should learn from them.


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