by Scott D. O'Reilly
November 22, 2004
Democrats are now a minority party in America. If Karl Rove and George Bush have their way, liberals will soon be an endangered species. The election of 2004 was not decided by fraudulent voting machines, but by a fundamental political realignment that threatens to steer the country in a starkly conservative direction for a generation or more.
The cognitive scientist George Lakoff discerned this possibility more than a decade ago in Moral Politics (1994), a book updated in 2002, which helps explains the impeachment of President Clinton, and the Florida election debacle, in the context of a rightward revolt against secular government.
Conservatives have spent the last forty years, Lakoff argues, developing an infrastructure designed to put the Left in a stranglehold. Well-funded think tanks, media outlets like Fox New, an extensive talk-radio network, and state of the art direct mail campaigns have succeeded in framing the issues to the advantage of conservatives, in effect controlling the terms of political debate, while mobilizing a vast army of voters on the behalf of a conservative agenda.
The issue of "framing" is a critical component of Lakoff's latest book, Don't Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate. What is framing? As a cognitive scientist, Lakoff studies how particular concepts activate a constellation of ancillary ideas and emotions that make up an audience's worldview. For example, the concept of "tax-relief" carries with it a rich array of associations that include the lifting of an unfair burden, standing up for the little guy against big government, and the notion that hard work is rewarded when citizens keep more of the money they earn.
Frames, as Lakoff explains the term, are concepts that have a metaphoric and a moral dimension, and exert a very powerful influence on target audiences when activated. One tactic that conservatives use is carefully crafted language. For example, by using the term "death-tax," conservatives conjure all sorts of negative associations, encouraging audiences that would never be affected by the estate tax to support an agenda that actually goes against their interests.
Conservatives, Lakoff argues, have simply been masterful at crafting language and concepts that resonate with a wide swath of voters. But language is only one part of the equation, and the most powerful part of Lakoff's analysis emerges from his conjecture as to why such language appeals to large segments of the American electorate in the first place.
Lakoff contends that one's political outlook and affiliation is shaped, to an extent greater than most realize, by one's conception of the "ideal family." In Lakoff's view, there are two competing models of the ideal family in the United States: the Strict Father Model and the Nurturant Parent model.
The Strict Father model entails a particular worldview and childrearing philosophy. According to this model, the world is an inherently dangerous place, and the father is responsible for protecting his family and instilling strict discipline, which will build the character children need to compete in a fiercely competitive world. Character, according to this view, is largely a matter of internalizing explicit moral laws that teach right from wrong, and following these rules is the best route to success in a world where morality is largely black and white.
The Nurturant Parent model views the world as a friendlier place, even an arena for personal development. Empathy, not a rigid adherence to rules, is seen as the basis of morality; and cooperation and the common good are given a higher priority than competition. Further, morality is viewed as a complex affair, with the world and moral dilemmas suffused with shades of gray and nuance.
According to Lakoff, our expectations concerning the proper role of government derive from our conception of the ideal family. For instance, for conservatives, taxes that redistribute wealth are bad because they discourage competition; for liberals, progressive taxation is desirable because it can promote greater economic equality and fairness. But even more importantly, Lakoff's analysis suggests how powerfully "the war on terror" tilts the political playing field in favor of conservatives.
In fact, the Bush administration does everything in its power to activate and reinforce the Strict Father model. During the campaign, Bush kept reminding voters that we were at war and that his first responsibility as commander-in-chief is to protect and defend America. The Bush campaign painted Senator Kerry's emphasis on international cooperation as effeminate, and the Bush campaign ridiculed Kerry for engaging in nuance when moral matters like the war on terror simply came down to a matter of good versus evil.
H.L. Mencken once said that for every complex problem there is a simple solution, and it is wrong. For Bush, however, the simple solutions he offers to complex problems, like terrorism or taxes, have the virtue of appealing to a large segment of the population that is inclined towards the Strict Father model. The Bush campaign's rhetoric, imagery, and ideas seemed tailor made to tap into and exploit this pervasive mindset.
The Kerry campaign, on the other hand, was far less psychologically astute, seemingly trying to win over an amorphous pool of swing voters by remaining as bland and morally innocuous as possible. Kerry did not activate the Democratic base by tailoring his message as cunningly as conservatives did in activating their base.
Lakoff makes a persuasive case that unless the progressive movement begins to develop the kind of language and ideas that stimulate the values associated with the Nurturant Parent model, they will continue on the path towards electoral irrelevancy. This is not an encouraging prospect. But Lakoff does provide hope. There are ample grounds to believe that many of the ideas now being championed by conservatives are fatally flawed. The notion of "tax-relief," which rests on the metaphor that taxes are a form of punishment, is faultily conceived, Lakoff argues. A better metaphor, Lakoff suggests, is that taxes are "the price of civilization."
Former Vice President Dan Quayle once rhetorically asked, why use the tax system to punish our best citizens? He was expressing an article of faith among conservatives, namely that a progressive form of taxation is morally objectionable because it punishes successful citizens while rewarding the least deserving citizens. Lakoff argues that this is a shortsighted way of looking at taxes; because the wealthy invariably benefit the most from public spending, they owe the most back in return.
For example, Vice President Dick Cheney once claimed that the government had nothing to do with the riches he made as the CEO of Halliburton. Cheney's claim is preposterous on many levels. Corporations could not create the wealth they do without tapping into a pool of employees educated in public schools, without publicly funded infrastructures like modern highways and airways, or without a publicly financed investment like the Internet.
Lakoff demolishes the rationale behind the "taxes equals punishment" metaphor that forms the basis of Bush's fiscal policies. Empirical evidence would seem to bear Lakoff out; low-tax, low-service states of the Deep South seem to lag behind their "progressive taxation" counterparts on a range of social, educational, and economic measures. Yet the "taxes equals punishment" metaphor exerts a strong psychological attraction for a significant number of voters, even as it works against their interests.
The metaphor of "the war on terror" offers similar possibilities for conservatives to mislead Americans against their interests. Before his reelection, Bush ridiculed Senator Kerry for suggesting that "the war on terror" was a metaphor: "My opponent must believe we are at war with a metaphor," the president chortled.
But Kerry's point was valid. Once the Bush administration managed to bait and switch Saddam Hussein for bin Laden, they were well on their way towards extending the martial metaphor in perpetuity. As Lakoff observes, the events of 9/11 could have been framed as a crime rather than an act of war. A concerted effort to mobilize the world community to bring bin Laden and his accomplices to justice before an international court was an alternative course the Bush administration chose not to pursue. International alliances could have been strengthened, global law enforcement cooperation improved, and new international security arrangements and institutions devised. Instead, we got the war in Iraq.
In fairness to the Bush Administration, it should be pointed out that the World Trade Center Towers were bombed in 1993 and legal proceeding did little to discourage Islamic extremists. But Bush's war on terror has so far failed to capture bin Laden, and his invasion of Iraq has arguably been a boon to al-Qaeda's recruitment efforts. The point is that metaphors matter and that framing issues in light of some metaphors rather than others can confer enormous political advantages. Conservatives recognize this to a far greater extent than progressives; if you doubt this, ponder the outcome of a hypothetical race between Hillary Clinton and Arnold Schwarzenegger in the midst of a "war on terror" mentality.
Lakoff's book shows why conservatives are winning the war of ideas, but also why the American public is losing in the process. Campaigning and governing, alas, are two different things. By helping us to understand why the Bush administration is succeeding and misleading at the same time, Lakoff's work offers trenchant insight and encouragement for the future.
Scott D. O'Reilly is an independent writer with degrees in philosophy and psychology. He is a contributor to the book The Great Thinkers A-Z and is working on Deconstructing Demagogues, a book which examines how politicians use and misuse language.