Why “Poor Conservatives Vote Against Their Financial Interests”

George Lakoff, a professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at Berkeley, has written a most fascinating piece for the Huffington Post, titled “The Santorum Strategy.” What that strategy is has nothing much to do with Santorum, but has to do with,

pounding the most radical conservative ideas into the public mind by constant repetition during the Republican presidential campaign, whether by Santorum himself, by Gingrich or Ron Paul, by an intimidated Romney, or by the Republican House majority.

“Constant repetition” can come only from having the money to constantly repeat the message, and Republicans, as we know, have enough money men willing to part with millions upon millions to keep the message going.

But there is another way that right-wingers—those who, in Lakoff’s words, want to guarantee “a radical conservative future for America“—can reinforce their radical message, which seems counter-intuitive to me:

Liberals tend to underestimate the importance of public discourse and its effect on the brains of our citizens. All thought is physical. You think with your brain. You have no alternative. Brain circuitry strengthens with repeated activation. And language, far from being neutral, activates complex brain circuitry that is rooted in conservative and liberal moral systems. Conservative language, even when argued against, activates and strengthens conservative brain circuitry. This is extremely important for so-called “independents,” who actually have both conservative and liberal moral systems in their brains and can shift back and forth. The more they hear conservative language over the next eight months, the more their conservative brain circuitry will be strengthened.

The “conservative and liberal moral systems” that form the root of the “complex brain circuitry” is the key to understanding what Lakoff is saying.  Those moral systems, for those unfamiliar with Lakoff’s earlier works (for a more detailed view, see the article or my earlier post here), follow from two idealized family models that generate very different views of government. The two models are the “nurturant parent” (for liberals) and the “strict father” (for conservatives).

Each model produces basic moral values and in turn produces a distinct view of government. For nurturant parent-liberals:

The basic moral values in the progressive moral system are empathy and responsibility, both for oneself and others. This leads to a view of government as having certain moral obligations: providing protection and empowerment for everyone equally. This requires a vibrant commitment to the public — public infrastructure (roads, buildings, sewers), public education, public health, and so on. No private business can prosper at all without such public provisions. The private depends on the public.

For strict father-conservatives:

When this idealized family model is projected onto various governing institutions, we get conservative versions of them: conservative religion with a strict father God; a view of the market as Decider with no external authority over the market from government, unions, or the courts; and strictness in other institutions, like education, prisons, businesses, sports teams, romantic relationships, and the world community. Control over reproduction ought to be in the hands of male authorities.

For conservatives, democracy is about liberty, individual responsibility and self-reliance — the freedom to seek one’s own self-interest with minimal or no commitment to the interests of others. This implies a minimal public and a maximal private.

Lakoff says that it should now be obvious “why the Santorum Strategy is so concerned with family values,” which form the “model for radical conservative values“:

Conservative populism — in which poor conservatives vote against their financial interests — depends on those poor conservatives having strict father family values, defining themselves in terms of those values, and voting on the basis of those values, thus selecting strict fathers as their political leaders.

The repetition of language expressing those values leads to more and more working people becoming political and accepting those values in their politics. As long as the Democrats have no positive moral messaging of their own, repeated over and over, the Santorum Strategy will go unchallenged and conservative populism will expand. Moreover, repeating the Santorum language by mocking it or arguing against it using that language will only help radical conservatives in propagating their views.

An example: Democrats think they have a winning issue on the birth control fiasco engineered by right-wingers, says Lakoff, but seeing that issue as “irrational Republican self-destruction” and a “war against women” is a dubious analysis:

This is anything but an irrational position for radically conservative Republicans. Quite the contrary. It fits conservative moral logic — the logic used by conservative populists, male for sure and for many women as well. In some respects it embodies the most powerful aspects of conservative moral logic, strengthening conservative moral logic in the minds not only of conservatives, but also of independents who have both conservative and progressive world views and swing between them.

Those independents, Lakoff suggests, “can be pragmatic about the birth control details, while accepting the moral logic as a whole.”

That’s scary.

What Lakoff is saying to those on our political side is this:

All moral logic in politics, whether progressive or conservative, is based on metaphorical thought processes, applying family moral values to political moral values.

Republicans understand this,” he says, and Democrats need to. The advice:

Democrats need much better positive messaging, expressing and repeating liberal moral values — not just policies– uniformly across the party. That is not happening.

Something to think about.

Democrats Must Understand: “At Stake Is The Moral Basis Of American Democracy”

George Lakoff is a cognitive linguist who has famously applied his insights to the world of politics, especially in his expression of the differences between conservatives and liberals: the “strict father morality” and the “nurturant parent morality.” 

Yesterday, however,  he did Americans a favor by perfectly diagnosing exactly what is going on in contemporary American politics. Certainly every progressive-liberal should read his short essay, but it would behoove thoughtful (there are still a few, but only a few, left) conservatives to read it, too.  It’s thesis is:

Conservatives really want to change the basis of American life, to make America run according to the conservative moral worldview in all areas of life.

Lakoff begins:

The central issue in our political life is not being discussed. At stake is the moral basis of American democracy.

The individual issues are all too real: assaults on unions, public employees, women’s rights, immigrants, the environment, health care, voting rights, food safety, pensions, prenatal care, science, public broadcasting, and on and on.

Doesn’t that just about say it all?

Conservatives,” Lakoff argues, “believe in individual responsibility alone, not social responsibility.”  And this general belief has consequences:

The part of government they want to cut is not the military (we have 174 bases around the world), not government subsidies to corporations, not the aspect of government that fits their worldview. They want to cut the part that helps people. Why? Because that violates individual responsibility.

As for the upheaval in Wisconsin, Lakoff correctly points out that it was caused by the governor turning “a surplus into a deficit by providing corporate tax breaks, and then used the deficit as a ploy to break the unions.” He then explains in that context the philosophy of the dominant force on the Right:

The way to understand the conservative moral system is to consider a strict father family. The father is The Decider, the ultimate moral authority in the family. His authority must not be challenged. His job is to protect the family, to support the family (by winning competitions in the marketplace), and to teach his kids right from wrong by disciplining them physically when they do wrong. The use of force is necessary and required. Only then will children develop the internal discipline to become moral beings. And only with such discipline will they be able to prosper. And what of people who are not prosperous? They don’t have discipline, and without discipline they cannot be moral, so they deserve their poverty. The good people are hence the prosperous people. Helping others takes away their discipline, and hence makes them both unable to prosper on their own and function morally.

This conservative moral system adopts the “let the market decide” slogan because the market is The Decider:

The market is seen as both natural (since it is assumed that people naturally seek their self-interest) and moral (if everyone seeks their own profit, the profit of all will be maximized by the invisible hand). As the ultimate moral authority, there should be no power higher than the market that might go against market values.

Thus, government can promote the market, but must not “rule over it” through,

(1) regulation,

(2) taxation,

(3) unions and worker rights,

(4) environmental protection or food safety laws, and

(5) tort cases.

Further, this leads to the conclusion that government should not involve itself in public service programs —”health care, education, public broadcasting, public parks“—since, “the market has service industries for that.”  Lakoff says,

The very idea of these things is at odds with the conservative moral system. No one should be paying for anyone else. It is individual responsibility in all arenas. Taxation is thus seen as taking money away from those who have earned it and giving it to people who don’t deserve it. Taxation cannot be seen as providing the necessities of life, a civilized society, and as necessary for business to prosper.

From the strict father ruling the conservative household to the strict rule of the Lord of the Bible, conservatives naturally believe their values should rule society and thus in their black and white view, “progressive values are seen as evil.”  Therefore, in the fight against such evil, conservatives are free to use “the devil’s own means,” including “lies, intimidation, torture, or even death, say, for women’s doctors.”

The strict father metaphor extends to defining freedom, which is seen as “being your own strict father—with individual not social responsibility, and without any government authority telling you what you can and cannot do.”  And,

To defend that freedom as an individual, you will of course need a gun.

Of course.

The most challenging part of Lakoff’s analysis, for Democrats, is the following:

Budget deficits are convenient ruses for destroying American democracy and replacing it with conservative rule in all areas of life.  What is saddest of all is to see Democrats helping them.

Sad, indeed. Here is a list of how Lakoff sees Democratic complicity in the ongoing, in-your-face, conservative effort to transform America:

  • Democrats help radical conservatives by accepting the deficit frame and arguing about what to cut. Even arguing against specific “cuts” is working within the conservative frame. What is the alternative? Pointing out what conservatives really want. Point out that there is plenty of money in America, and in Wisconsin. It is at the top. The disparity in financial assets is un-American — the top one percent has more financial assets than the bottom 95 percent. Middle class wages have been flat for 30 years, while the wealth has floated to the top. This fits the conservative way of life, but not the American way of life.
  • Democrats help conservatives by not shouting out loud over and over that it was conservative values that caused the global economic collapse: lack of regulation and a greed-is-good ethic.
  • Democrats also help conservatives by what a friend has called Democratic Communication Disorder. Republican conservatives have constructed a vast and effective communication system, with think tanks, framing experts, training institutes, a system of trained speakers, vast holdings of media, and booking agents. Eighty percent of the talking heads on TV are conservatives. Talk matters because language heard over and over changes brains. Democrats have not built the communication system they need, and many are relatively clueless about how to frame their deepest values and complex truths.
  • Democrats help conservatives when they function as policy wonks — talking policy without communicating the moral values behind the policies.
  • They help conservatives when they neglect to remind us that pensions are deferred payments for work done… If there is not enough money for them, it is because the contracted funds have been taken by conservative officials and given to wealthy people and corporations instead of to the people who have earned them.
  • Democrats help conservatives when they use conservative words like “entitlements” instead of “earnings” and speak of government as providing “services” instead of “necessities.”

Ending on a hopeful note, Lakoff points out the tens of thousands of folks in Wisconsin who “are willing to flood the streets of their capital to stand up for their rights.”  He ends:

They are flooding the streets to demand real democracy — the democracy of caring, of social responsibility, and of excellence, where prosperity is to be shared by those who work and those who serve.

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