George Lakoff is probably best known for his book, Don’t Think of An Elephant, but he has produced a steady stream of significant articles and books throughout his academic career. ( He was the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley from 1972 until he retired a few years ago. He currently serves as Director of the Center for the Neural Mind and Society.)
Lakoff’s abiding interest has been identification of the cognitive differences between Progressives and Conservatives, and his blog frequently applies the results of his research to contemporary political puzzles. A recent post considered two questions about Donald Trump and Republicans that Lakoff says tend to stump Progressives.
1) Why don’t Trump supporters turn against Trump even though he is doing things that hurt them? (like taking away their healthcare)
2) Why do Republicans hate the Affordable Care Act, and why are they so transparently acting to give wealthy people a tax break funded by making healthcare unaffordable?
The short answer? Voters don’t vote their interests. They vote their values.
The longer answer? According to Lakoff,
Most thought (as much as 98% by some accounts) is unconscious. It is carried out by neural circuitry in our brains. We have no conscious access to this circuitry, but it’s there. This is basic neuroscience.
When it comes to politics, progressives and conservatives essentially have different brains. The unconscious beliefs conditioned in their brains are nearly exact opposites.
Lakoff describes conservative morality as a “Strict Father” worldview, and progressive morality as a “nurturant parent” paradigm.
Conservative moral values arise from what I call the Strict Father Family.
In this family model, father knows best. He decides right and wrong. He has the ultimate authority to make sure his children and his spouse do what he says, because what he says is right. Many conservative spouses accept this worldview, uphold the father’s authority, and are strict in those realms of family life that they control.
In this moral worldview, it is his moral duty to punish his children painfully when they disobey. Harsh punishment is necessary to ensure that they will obey him (do what is right) and not just do what feels good. Through physical discipline they are supposed to become disciplined, internally strong, and able to prosper in the external world.
What if they don’t prosper? That means they are not disciplined, and therefore cannot be moral, and so deserve their poverty. In this conservative view, the poor are seen as lazy and undeserving while the rich deserve their wealth. Responsibility is thus taken to be personal responsibility, not social responsibility. What you become is only up to you, not society. You are responsible for yourself, not for others.
Lakoff then outlines the conservative “moral hierarchy.”
• God above Man
• Man above Nature
• The Disciplined (Strong) above the Undisciplined (Weak)
• The Rich above the Poor
• Employers above Employees
• Adults above Children
• Western culture above other cultures
• America above other countries
• Men above Women
• Whites above Nonwhites
• Christians above non-Christians
• Straights above Gays
You can almost hear Mike Pence talking about how he is a Christian first….
Lakoff wants us to understand the differences in worldviews, so that we can better understand the genesis of conservative Republican policy prescriptions.
Understanding is well and good, but what Lakoff doesn’t tell us is whether it is possible to reason with–or failing that, neuter– Dear Old Strict Dad.