Why We Vote The Way We Do

I have come to believe that George Lakoff’s book Moral Politics holds the key to understanding progressive and conservative politics.

This article, The Frame Around Arnold contains a good summary of what Lakoff is saying to us:

“Our politics is organized around two opposite and idealized models of the family, the strict father and nurturant parent models.

The nurturant parent family assumes that the world is basically good and can be made better and that it is one’s responsibility to work towards that. Accordingly, children are born good and parents can make them better. Both parents share responsibility for raising the children. Their job is to nurture their children and raise their children to be nurturers. Nurturing has two aspects: empathy (feeling and caring how others feel) and responsibility to take care of oneself and others for whom we are responsible. These two aspects of nurturance imply family values that we can recognize as progressive political values: From empathy, we want for others: protection from harm, fulfillment in life, fairness, freedom (consistent with responsibility), open two-way communication. From responsibility there follows: competence, trust, commitment, community building, and so on.

From these values, specific policies follow: Governmental protection in form of a social safety net and government regulation (as well as the military and the police), universal education (competence, fairness), civil liberties and equal treatment (fairness and freedom), accountability (from trust), public service (from responsibility), open government (from open communication), and the promotion of an economy that benefits all and functions to promote these values. The role of government is to provide the infrastructure and services to enact these values and taxes are the dues you pay to live in such a civilized society. In foreign policy, the role of the nation should be to promote cooperation and extend these values to the world. These are traditional progressive values in American politics.

Different Family Values

The conservative worldview is shaped by very different family values.

The strict father model assumes that the world is and always will be dangerous and difficult and that children are born bad and must be made good. The strict father is the moral authority who has to support and defend the family, tell his wife what to do, and teach his kids right from wrong. The only way to do that is painful discipline – physical punishment that is to develop by adulthood into internal discipline. Morality and survival jointly arise from such discipline – discipline to follow moral precepts and discipline to pursue your self-interest to become self-reliant. The good people are the disciplined people. Once grown, the self-reliant disciplined children are on their own and the father is not to meddle in their lives. Those children who remain dependent (who were spoiled, overly willful, or recalcitrant) should be forced to undergo further discipline or cut free with no support to face the discipline of the outside world.

Project this onto the nation and you have the radical right-wing politics that has been misnamed “conservative.” The good citizens are the disciplined ones – those who have already become wealthy or at least self-reliant – and those who are on the way. Social programs “spoil” people, giving them things they haven’t earned and keeping them dependent. They are therefore evil and to be eliminated. Government is there only to protect the nation, maintain order, administer justice (punishment), and to provide for the orderly conduct of and the promotion of business. Business (the market) is the mechanism by which the disciplined people become self-reliant, and wealth is a measure of discipline. Taxes beyond the minimum needed for such government are punishments that take away from the good, disciplined people rewards that they have earned and spend it on those who have not earned it.

In foreign affairs, the government should maintain its sovereignty and impose its moral authority everywhere it can, while seeking its self interest (the economic self-interest of corporations and military strength).”

There’s more . . . so much more . . .

“What conservatives have learned about winning elections is that they have to activate the strict father model in more than half of the electorate – either by fear or by other means. The 9/11 attacks gave the Bush administration a perfect mechanism for winning elections. They declared an unending wear on terror. The frame of the War on Terror presupposes that the populace should be terrified, and orange alerts and other administration measures and rhetoric keep the “Terror” frame active. Fear and uncertainty then naturally activate the Strict Father frame in a majority of people, leading the electorate to see politics in conservative terms. “