Why is it that conservatives and liberals so often fail to understand each other? George Lakoff, a cognitive linguist at the University of California, Berkeley, has devoted his career to the study of how metaphorical concepts shape the way people think. In his most recent book, Moral Politics: What Conservatives Know That Liberals Don’t, Lakoff examines the role of metaphor in shaping political discourse. How do liberals and conservatives formulate their worldviews and political perspectives? Why have conservatives so effectively preempted moral claims in political discourse? According to Lakoff, American politics is about morality and the family. Conservatives have understood this connection more clearly than liberals, and have capitalized on it to articulate their beliefs. In failing to appreciate the power of the metaphorical connection between politics, family, and morality, liberals have been ineffective in defending their beliefs.
Lakoff analyzes the language of American political discourse and finds it rife with metaphors whose conceptual implications shape the political ideologies and practical policy differences between liberals and conservatives. These metaphors are rooted in the basic notion of the nation-as-family, but with quite different understandings of family. These differing notions of family consciously or unconsciously shape political morality. Our political and moral views, according to Lakoff, develop systematically from our models of ideal families. Both liberals and conservatives link morality to politics through the concept of the family, but they have differing ideas of what constitutes the family paradigm. Conservatives think in terms of a patriarchal, authoritarian family, while liberals value a nurturing, caring family. The nation-as-family metaphor produces contemporary conservative values from the strict father morality and contemporary liberalism from the nurturing parent morality.
If the nation is a family, then what kind of a parent is the government? Conservatives and liberals have quite different views of the legitimate size and role of government, and the degree of sovereignty that is vested in government. The traditional conservative view is to limit the scope and size of government to essential functions that citizens cannot provide for themselves. Their mistrust of big government is grounded in the federalism of the Constitution, with its balance of power and respect for states rights. The proper role of government is to encourage civic virtue among its citizens, specifically self-reliance and self-discipline. Conservatives believe that extension of government encourages corruption, abuse of power, and moral weakness among citizens. Their mistrust of government is rooted in their skepticism of human nature and in their preference for private, voluntary action to remedy social ills.
This traditional view of the role of American government generally prevailed until the 1930’s, when in response to the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “New Deal” began an era of activist government. Paternalistic government—what has come to be called “the welfare state”—evolves quite naturally from trust in the benign uses of power and the notion of government as a nurturing parent. Social programs are seen as an extension of the nurturing role of government to protect and enhance the lives of its citizens. Interventionist government balances the economic power of big corporations and provides a “level playing field” for all citizens. Nevertheless, do social programs ultimately do more harm than good? While liberals believe that government has the obligation to intervene for “the common good,” conservatives believe that excessive dependence upon government programs destroys self-reliance and promotes moral weakness.
In Moral Politics, Lakoff presents his arguments in a clear and logical manner, beginning with an explanation of the connection between conceptual metaphors and common sense. What is called common sense, Lakoff explains, is conceptually quite complex because “common sense has a conceptual structure that is usually unconscious.” Conceptual metaphors allow us to understand one kind of experience in terms of another. Metaphors, in turn, depend upon radial categories or prototypes, such as a typical, ideal, salient, or essential case. Lakoff is interested in how Americans conceptualize morality and politics. How do liberal and conservative arguments differ? According to Lakoff, political arguments are grounded in root metaphors with distinctive moral and social implications.
“A central notion in the strict father morality is character,’” according to Lakoff, “which is taken to be a kind of essence that is developed in childhood and then lasts a lifetime.” A person’s character is made up of a number of dominant moral traits, or...
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