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Moral Politics

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Moral Politics

What Conservatives Know That Liberals Don't

University of Chicago Press,

15 min read
10 take-aways
Text available

What's inside?

Conservatives and liberals hew to different moral frameworks.

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In this substantial study, liberal linguist George Lakoff delves into schools of thought that mold political debate everywhere, but particularly in the United States. He cites the old-fashioned “strict father” school, which focuses on order, discipline, morality and punishment, as the ethos that shapes conservative ideology. He identifies the newer “nurturant parent” theory, which stresses mutual respect, encouragement and equality, as the bedrock of liberal thinking. Lakoff explains how these theories underpin a variety of political positions. Small-government conservatives espouse bigger prisons, more police and a larger military because they see the world as inherently evil. Liberals who give the benefit of the doubt to the poor are suspicious of CEOs because wealth offends their sense of egalitarianism. This update of Lakoff’s 1996 book came out in 2016, just before the rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders and the defeat of Hillary Clinton. So, some examples are dated: Newt Gingrich faded from power nearly two decades ago. But, to his credit, Lakoff spells out a political theory that holds no matter which party is in power or who is the latest political star. He acknowledges he’s a liberal and clearly sides with the “nurturant parent” point of view, but he doesn’t shortchange the “strict father” school.


The “Strict Father” Model of Morality

The strict father school of thought shapes modern conservative values. In this view, life is treacherous, humanity is inherently nefarious and evil abounds. Anyone can turn bad if he or she lacks the guidance of an unyielding moral code and a stern parent ready to mete out punishment. In this worldview, children are born dissolute, and must learn discipline at a young age so that when they become adults, they can live prosperous lives.

In this “sink or swim” view of the world, you master obedience and self-control – and thus become wealthy and independent, or you sink into immorality and shiftlessness. In the strict father view, spoiling a child is a grave sin. Children learn right from wrong only through stern parenting that reinforces the rules with corporal punishment. From this perspective, survival, not to mention material success, depends on learning to compete. The strict father theory idealizes the nuclear family, but a stern mother can also fulfill the role of disciplinarian and moral compass.

The strict father theory stresses motivating people with rewards and punishment; it says people will alter...

About the Author

Linguist and cognitive scientist George Lakoff teaches at the University of California at Berkeley. His political books include The Political Mind, Don’t Think of an Elephant and Thinking Points.

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