September 24, 2003


Framing a Democratic Agenda (George Lakoff, September 24, 2003, The American Prospect)

When I teach framing in Cognitive Science 101, I start with an exercise. I give my students a directive: "Don't think of an elephant." It can't be done, of course, and that's the point. In order not to think of an elephant, you have to think of an elephant. The word elephant evokes an image and a frame. If you negate the frame, you still activate the frame. Richard Nixon never took Cognitive Science 101. When he said, "I am not a crook," he made everybody think of him as a crook.

If you have been framed, the only response is to reframe. But you can't do it in a sound bite unless an appropriate progressive language has been built up in advance. Conservatives have worked for decades and spent billions on their think tanks to establish their frames, create the right language, and get the language and the frames they evoke accepted. [...]

Reframing takes awhile, but it won't happen if we don't start. The place to begin is by understanding how progressives and conservatives think. In 1994, I dutifully read the "Contract with America" and found myself unable to comprehend how conservative views formed a coherent set of political positions. What, I asked myself, did opposition to abortion have to do with the flat tax? What did the flat tax have to do with opposition to environmental regulations? What did defense of gun ownership have to do with tort reform? Or tort reform with opposition to affirmative action? And what did all of the above have to do with family values? Moreover, why do conservatives and progressives talk past one another, not with one another?

The answer is that there are distinct conservative and progressive worldviews. The two groups simply see the world in different ways. As a cognitive scientist, I've found in my research that these political worldviews can be understood as opposing models of an ideal family -- a strict father family and a nurturant parent family. These family models come with moral systems, which in turn provide the deep framing of all political issues.

The Strict Father Family

In this view, the world is a dangerous and difficult place, there is tangible evil in the world and children have to be made good. To stand up to evil, one must be morally strong -- disciplined.

The father's job is to protect and support the family. His moral duty is to teach his children right from wrong. Physical discipline in childhood will develop the internal discipline adults need to be moral people and to succeed. The child's duty is to obey. Punishment is required to balance the moral books. If you do wrong, there must be a consequence.

The strict father, as moral authority, is responsible for controlling the women of the family, especially in matters of sexuality and reproduction.

Children are to become self-reliant through discipline and the pursuit of self-interest. Pursuit of self-interest is moral: If everybody pursues his own self-interest, the self-interest of all will be maximized.

Without competition, people would not have to develop discipline and so would not become moral beings. Worldly success is an indicator of sufficient moral strength; lack of success suggests lack of sufficient discipline. Those who are not successful should not be coddled; they should be forced to acquire self-discipline.

When this view is translated into politics, the government becomes the strict father whose job for the country is to support (maximize overall wealth) and protect (maximize military and political strength). The citizens are children of two kinds: the mature, disciplined, self-reliant ones who should not be meddled with and the whining, undisciplined, dependent ones who should never be coddled. [...]

The Nurturant Parent Family

It is assumed that the world should be a nurturant place. The job of parents is to nurture their children and raise their children to be nurturers. To be a nurturer you have to be empathic and responsible (for yourself and others). Empathy and responsibility have many implications: Responsibility implies protection, competence, education, hard work and social connectedness; empathy requires freedom, fairness and honesty, two-way communication, a fulfilled life (unhappy, unfulfilled people are less likely to want others to be happy) and restitution rather than retribution to balance the moral books. Social responsibility requires cooperation and community building over competition. In the place of specific strict rules, there is a general "ethics of care" that says, "Help, don't harm." To be of good character is to be empathic and responsible, in all of the above ways. Empathy and responsibility are the central values, implying other values: freedom, protection, fairness, cooperation, open communication, competence, happiness, mutual respect and restitution as opposed to retribution.

In this view, the job of government is to care for, serve and protect the population (especially those who are helpless), to guarantee democracy (the equal sharing of political power), to promote the well-being of all and to ensure fairness for all. The economy should be a means to these moral ends.

This is more true than not though it's old hat. Conservatives are the Daddy Party--the party of freedom and freedom requires strict morality, because if you can't be fairly certain of how those around you are going to behave you'll not be willing to have them be free. Liberals are the Mommy Party--the party of social security and imposed equality of outcomes. Morality is not required because the State takes responsibility for regulating all behavior. One glaring error is his mention of the "job of parents" in the "Nurturant Parent Family"--actual parents are unimportant, are in fact a pediment, once the State takes on the role of "nurturer".

The other problem with Mr. Lakoff's analysis is that those provisions of the Contract with America that he couldn't figure out all polled in the 60-80% range. America is generally a Daddy Party kind of place with a deep distrust of the State, or as progressive see it: Mommy.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 24, 2003 8:05 PM

Why would a poltical program have to be coherent?

We all have lots of interests, and there is nothing that says all our desires are compatible.

Our desire (mine anyway) for stable families conflicts with my desire to protect children from incompetent parents.

Therefore, I am simultaneously pro- and anti-divorce.

It's all relative, isn't it?

Posted by: Harry Eagar at September 24, 2003 9:25 PM

For you. Conservatives recognize that even crappy parents tend to be better for kids.

Posted by: oj at September 24, 2003 9:30 PM

This Daddy vs. Mommy idea is a good point to keep hammering on. Conditional love vs. unconditional love.

Another way of expressing it is one that The Economist came up with about a dozen years ago: the party of rationality vs. the party of compassion.

Posted by: Steve Sailer at September 25, 2003 1:24 AM

Actually, "Mommy" implies adulthood; the 'Surly Drunken Teen-Ager Party' would be closer to the mark.

Lileks called it The US Party vs. The UN Party. And there's P.J. O'Rourke's famous 'Santa v. God' riff.

Some other delineations:
Victory Party v. Victim Party
Crude Oil v. Mood Oil
Panama Canal v. Panama Red
Self-Defense v. Self-Esteem
Human Nature v. The New Democrat Man
SAT Test v. Smell Test
Stock Exchange v. Needle Exchange
& Unpleasant Facts v. Wishful Thinking

Posted by: Noel at September 25, 2003 5:54 AM

The goal of conservative parenting actually has
a tangible and clear goal : To make self-sufficient adults. The assumption is that
childhood is a transitional stage. Children
need some nurturing but they'll outgrow it (hopefully sooner rather than later).

The "nurturning family" concept I think assumes
that people need a certain type of coddling
for their whole life. It also buys into the
view of children as noble savages who have much
to teach their children, so that the transmission
of lessons is a two way streat.

In a conservative society a helping hand is
a reciprocal thing, sort of like my brother
coming over to help shingle the roof. He and
I both know the favor will be returned in one
way or another. The liberal society attaches
few or no strings to the helping hand. The
individual is therefore debased and childlike.

Posted by: J.H. at September 25, 2003 9:36 AM

Using the family analogy as a method for desribing political ideology or philosophy of government is unhelpful at best. Is limited, constitutional government within a republican framework a "daddy" or "mommy" paradigm? A difficult concept to get past liberal social scientist types is really very simple: Government ain't your family and the governor is not your daddy. Grow up.

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford,Ct. at September 25, 2003 10:55 AM


It's actually perfect and in one way that we've not touched on: the family requires both the Mother and the Father and so we are suspended between our competing desires for freedom and security, as the single-parent or gay-couple family is inherently dysfunctional, so too is the society where the pendulum swings entirely to one side or the other.

Posted by: oj at September 25, 2003 11:03 AM


I suppose. I was always annoyed when Mario Cuomo first ran for governor on the "family of New York" campaign. I found it distasteful and pandering as well as revealing. I guess a Democrat like Mr. Cuomo could be described as the "my mommy the bulldike". Not that there's anything wrong with that...

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford,Ct. at September 25, 2003 2:38 PM

"Tend to be better for kids." We expect more absolute determinism out of you, Orrin.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at September 25, 2003 3:39 PM

Well, there's crappy and then there's crappy.

Posted by: oj at September 25, 2003 4:56 PM

Progresives are Nurturing Parents and conservatives are Strict Fatherists.
It is fallacious and reductionist to attribute ideas to personal characteristics. Lakoff has made particullary egregious use of pop-psychology to "market" political ideas. In doing that he commits the same sins as the person who says that liberals are idiots or conservatives are violent.

Even if some yet unkown science were able to establish that certain personality types were limited by some biochemical mechanism to understanding or holding certain classes of idea (e.g. A strict fatherist is biologically incapable of believing that it takes a village), it would not prove or disprove the validity of ideas.

However there is no such science. There are a multitude of personality types and a multitude of ideas. There is no a priori reason to believe that any one personality type is limited, ipso facto, to any class or type of ideas. Furthermore, using ideas to type personalities is purely ad hoc and does not resemble science, although it does greatly resemble marketing. (Nurturing Parents prefer mini-vans).

A quote from a recent George Will column: "Professors have reasons for their beliefs. Other people, particularly conservatives, have social and psychological explanations for their beliefs."

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at September 25, 2003 10:43 PM

It is also instructive to note the similarities between bad political philosophies and bad parents. Bad fathers & conservative governments become abusive and tyrannical, bad mothers & liberal governments become stultifying & suffocating.

Posted by: Robert D at September 26, 2003 2:38 PM