Recent book offers hopeful advice to ailing Democrats
By Marshall Helmberger
February 18, 2005
Two differing models of child-rearing—the strict father versus the nurturing parent—pretty well sum up the differences between the country's two major political parties according to the author of a recent book that offers a possible road map for a Democratic resurgence in the U.S.
So excited was state Sen. Becky Lourey (DFL-Kerrick) after reading the book, titled: Don't Think of an Elephant, that she bought a copy for every DFL member of the Minnesota Senate.
Written by George Lakoff, a professor of linguistics at UC-Berkeley, the breezy paperback ($7.50 on amazon.com) offers the best explanation I've seen to date for the remarkable success of Republican candidates in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.
The terrorist attacks have so helped Republicans because they reinforced the underlying framework of the new Republican belief in strict father morality, which holds that the world is a dangerous place and that it is up to a strict male authority figure to protect us from evil.
Lakoff explains how Bush strategist Karl Rove masterfully uses language (such as having President Bush refer to our enemies as "evildoers"¯) to reinforce this world view and is simultaneously careful to present the president as a source of strength and consistency (i.e. the strict father). Likewise, they attacked John Kerry for "waffling,"¯ which is viewed by strict father moralists as a sign of weakness.
Strict father moralists also view dissent as sinful, which helps to explain why Republicans have reacted so vehemently to any Democratic opposition to their policies. While most Democrats would view dissent as a distinctly American right, and even a responsibility in some cases, under the strict father world view, it is the duty of children (in the family sense) or citizens in the broader context to be obedient to the moral authority. In that context, offering political opposition is little different than backtalking to your father.
The thinking works the same on the international level, where the French and Germans were vilified by Republicans for their unwillingess to support the Iraq war. While Kerry made a major point of Bush's failure to build a broader coalition of allies, in the strict father world view, the U.S. is the world's moral authority and other nations have an obligation to support our policies. When it didn't work that way, conservatives saw the fault lying with the other country's disobedience, rather than with the administration's heavy-handed approach. After all, the strict father doesn't consult with his children about how to approach problems, so why should the U.S. consult with France?
What Democrats saw as a failure of diplomacy, actually reinforced the idea of Bush as the strong father figure. In other words, while Democrats were campaigning as if policy mattered, Republicans were waging their campaign on a far more fundamental, and more powerful, psychological level.
The Democrats, according to Lakoff, have long represented the opposing view of child, or citizen, rearing. While the strict father believes that people are basically evil and must learn obedience through sometimes painful disclipine, the nurturing parent model holds that children, or citizens, are basically good, but need affirmative guidance to help them on the path to a responsible and creative adulthood. This belief system rejects corporal punishment, since it holds that, in most cases, children can be properly guided without such blunt, and potentially counterproductive, tactics.
I suspect many parents would recognize the challenges in the nurturing parent approach. It's harder work, because it requires better communication with your children and a willingness to be flexible. "Because I said so,"¯ may be all the explanation needed in the authoritarian strict father household, but being a nurturing parent requires more than that.
Such differences play out in public policy, says Lakoff, with Democrats supporting nurturing policies such as workplace safety and environmental regulations, social safety net programs, and tax policies that help to redistribute income (sharing is considered a virtue to nurturing parents).
The Republican's strict father framework opposes safety net programs, because they believe that people are poor due to their own bad decisions and that they shouldn't be "rewarded"¯ with government handouts that only encourage more irresponsible or immoral behavior. Republicans, for similar reasons, don't like taxes that redistribute wealth, since they believe the wealthy got that way because they've led morally exemplary lives and should be rewarded with low taxes.
So why are many Democrats so excited by Lakoff's book? In part, it's because most of them have never understood the new style Republicans represented by the Bush administration. Without knowing how the Bush folks think and, more importantly, how they communicate so effectively with their followers, the Democrats were essentially fighting with one hand tied behind their backs.
And Lakoff has advice for how to respond. He offers ways for Democrats to reframe the political debate and better communicate the strengths of their world view and their approach to issues. He also urges Democrats to steer clear of those who urge the party to become more like the Republicans. According to Lakoff, if Democrats allow the Republicans to set the terms of the political debate, the Republicans will always win.
Lakoff says Democrats need to take on big challenges in advancing their agenda, rather than simply quibbling over the details of Republican proposals, as they've done for far too long. If they can do that, Lakoff argues, the Democrats will rise again.