We are pleased to offer this piece by Ad astra – the well known and popular writer from the long running blog The Political Sword. In this article Ad astra
closely examines a way of understanding differences between the
thinking of progressives and conservatives, as expressed through the
work of cognitive linguist, George Lakoff.
The myth of political sameness: Why progressives and conservatives think differently.
Cock your ear at your local watering hole, listen to the boys as they
clasp a frosted schooner of VB, and you’re bound to hear: ‘They’re all
the same these pollies. Ya just can’t trust em’. Of course they are
right to some extent. The deception and deviousness we see day after day
from our politicians has earned them that condemnation. On the other
side of the coin, by and large politicians enter public life to make a
difference, to do good things, to make life better for their
electorates, indeed the whole nation. Only the Eddie Obeids of this
world have self-interest as their driving force.
Similarly, political parties have good intentions and many comparable
policies. It’s not surprising then that many voters perceive
politicians and parties as ‘all the same’.
This notion of sameness needs debunking, lest too many entitled to
cast a vote swallow the myth that the ‘sameness’ of the parties absolves
them from making a critical decision about who is best equipped to lead
the nation, who has the best policy agenda, who has the most acceptable
ideology, who has the most suitable approach to policy development, who
can take us to a better future.
Politicians and parties are not ‘all the same’.
In his book: Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2002), George Lakoff, linguist and cognitive scientist, tells us how very
different are conservatives from progressives, and how the major
differences in their mindset affects their approach to politics. Because
he studied US politics, he uses the term ‘liberal’ to describe
‘progressives’ (in the US, Democrats; in this country Labor and perhaps
the Greens), and ‘conservative’ to describe conservatives (in the US,
Republicans or their extreme variant, The Tea Party; in this country the
Liberal National Party, the Coalition). Most of the quotes in this
piece are from this book. I quote him extensively; my words could not do
a better job than his.
His underlying thesis rests on a central metaphor: ‘Nation as Family’. He elaborates on this as follows:
- The Nation is a Family.
- The Government is a Parent.
- The Citizens are the Children.
We know that the metaphor is not wholly applicable, but many people
find it a comfortable one with which they can identify readily. They can
accept that family dynamics and economics might be seen as applicable
to the nation’s dynamics and economics, even though there are many
fundamental differences. Our politicians often use this metaphor, making
reference to the family budget to argue that the nation, like a family,
must ‘live within its means’.
Building on the Nation as Family metaphor, Lakoff identifies two
types of family based upon two distinct styles of parenting, which he
assigns to conservatives and progressives respectively. When applied to
the Nation as Family metaphor, they result in vastly different
The two parenting styles are:
- The Strict Father model, and
- The Nurturant Parent model.
At the center of the conservative worldview is a Strict Father model;
the liberal (progressive) worldview centres on a very different ideal
for family life, the Nurturant Parent model, which encompasses both
Lakoff asserts that the Strict Father model is a metaphorical version of an economic idea. He explains:
It is based on a folk version of Adam Smith’s economics:
If each person seeks to maximize his own wealth, then, by an invisible
hand, the wealth of all will be maximized. Applying the common metaphor
that Well-Being Is Wealth to this folk version of free-market economics,
we get: If each person tries to maximize his own well-being (or
self-interest), the well-being of all will be maximized. Thus, seeking
one’s own self-interest is actually a positive, moral act, one that
contributes to the well-being of all.
Lakoff goes on to cite some words and phrases used over and over in
conservative discourse, words that reflect the Strict Father model:
Character, virtue, discipline, tough it out, get tough,
tough love, strong, self-reliance, individual responsibility, backbone,
standards, authority, heritage, competition, earn, hard work,
enterprise, property rights, reward, freedom, intrusion, interference,
meddling, punishment, human nature, traditional, common sense,
dependency, self-indulgent, elite, quotas, breakdown, corrupt, decay,
rot, degenerate, deviant, lifestyle.
How many times have you heard Coalition members use these words,
particularly those who have responsibility for the economy: Tony Abbott,
Joe Hockey and Mathias Cormann? Countless times!
Liberals [progressives], in their speeches and writings,
choose different topics, different words, and different modes of
inference than conservatives. Liberals talk about: social forces, social
responsibility, free expression, human rights, equal rights, concern,
care, help, health, safety, nutrition, basic human dignity, oppression,
diversity, deprivation, alienation, big corporations, corporate welfare,
ecology, ecosystem, biodiversity, pollution, and so on. Conservatives
tend not to dwell on these topics, or to use these words as part of
their normal political discourse.
How often have you heard Labor members and Greens using these words? Over and again!
The conservative/liberal [progressive] division is
ultimately a division between strictness and nurturance as ideals at all
levels—from the family to morality to religion and, ultimately, to
politics. It is a division at the center of our democracy and our public
lives, and yet there is no overt discussion of it in public discourse.
Yet it is vitally important that we do so if Americans
are to understand, and come to grips with, the deepest fundamental
division in our country, one that transcends and lies behind all the
individual issues: the role of government, social programs, taxation,
education, the environment, energy, gun control, abortion, the death
penalty, and so on. These are ultimately not different issues, but
manifestations of a single issue: strictness versus nurturance.
In Australia, an identical and just as fundamental division exists
between the Coalition, the conservatives, and Labor and the Greens, the
progressives. This division results in the striking differences in
attitude, behaviour, rhetoric, policy, and indeed morality, which day
after day define our own conservatives and our own progressives. It
explains so much of the contrast we see.
Lakoff summarises the relationship between morality and politics as follows:
The Strict Father and Nurturant Parent models of the family induce…two moral systems…
The link between family-based morality and politics comes from one of
the most common ways we have of conceptualizing what a nation is,
namely, as a family. It is the common, unconscious, and automatic
metaphor of the Nation as Family that produces contemporary conservatism
from Strict Father morality and contemporary liberalism from Nurturant
According to Lakoff, conservatives cannot understand the thinking of
progressives, nor can progressives understand conservatives.
Conventional logic does not help; it is only when the two methods of
parenting are used as explanatory models that understanding comes into
view with a startling flash of insight.
To assist understanding, Lakoff compares conservative and liberal (progressive) moral systems:
Conservative categories of moral action:
1. Promoting Strict Father morality in general.
2. Promoting self-discipline, responsibility, and self-reliance.
3. Upholding the Morality of Reward and Punishment.
a. Preventing interference with the pursuit of self-interest by self-disciplined, self-reliant people.
b. Promoting punishment as a means of upholding authority.
c. Ensuring punishment for lack of self-discipline.
4. Protecting moral people from external evils.
5. Upholding the Moral Order.
Liberal categories of moral action:
1. Empathetic behaviour, and promoting fairness.
2. Helping those who cannot help themselves.
3. Protecting those who cannot protect themselves.
4. Promoting fulfillment in life.
5. Nurturing and strengthening oneself in order to do the above.
He clarifies these concepts as follows:
In the conservative moral worldview, the model citizens
are those who best fit all the conservative categories for moral action.
They are those (1) who have conservative values and act to support
them; (2) who are self-disciplined and self-reliant; (3) who uphold the
morality of reward and punishment; (4) who work to protect moral
citizens; and (5) who act in support of the moral order. Those who best
fit all these categories are successful, wealthy, law-abiding
conservative businessmen who support a strong military and a strict
criminal justice system, who are against government regulation, and who
are against affirmative action. They are the model citizens. They are
the people whom all Americans should emulate and from whom we have
nothing to fear. They deserve to be rewarded and respected.
These model citizens fit an elaborate mythology. They have succeeded
through hard work, have earned whatever they have through their own
self-discipline, and deserve to keep what they have earned. Through
their success and wealth they create jobs, which they “give” to other
citizens. Simply by investing their money to maximize their earnings,
they become philanthropists who “give” jobs to others and thereby
“create wealth” for others [trickle down economics]. Part of the myth is
that these model citizens have been given nothing by the government and
have made it on their own. The American Dream is that any honest,
self-disciplined, hard-working person can do the same. These model
citizens are seen by conservatives as the Ideal Americans in the
We can now see clearly why liberal [progressive] arguments for social
programs can make no sense at all to conservatives, whether they are
arguments on the basis of compassion, fairness, wise investment,
financial responsibility, or outright self-interest. The issue for
conservatives is a moral issue touching the very heart of conservative
morality, a morality where a liberal’s compassion and fairness are
neither compassionate nor fair. Even financial arguments won’t carry the
day. The issue isn’t about money; it’s about morality.
What we have here are major differences in moral worldview. They are
not just differences of opinion about effective public administration.
The differences are not about efficiency, or practicality, or economics,
and they cannot be settled by rational argument about effective
administration. They are ethical opinions about what makes good people
and a good nation.
Lakoff illustrates his thesis with an example from America that has application in this country:
Take a simple example: college loans. The federal
government has had a program to provide low-interest loans to college
students. The students don’t have to start paying off the loans while
they are still in college and the loans are interest-free during the
college years [similar to our HECS - HELP loan program].
The liberal rationale for the program is this: College is expensive
and a great many poor-to-middle-class students cannot afford it. This
loan program allows a great many students to go to college who otherwise
wouldn’t. Going to college allows one to get a better job at a higher
salary afterward and to be paid more during one’s entire life. This
benefits not only the student but also the government, since the student
will be paying more taxes over his lifetime because of his better job.
From the liberal [progressive] moral perspective, this is a highly moral
program. It helps those who cannot help themselves. It promotes
fulfillment in life in two ways, since education is fulfilling in itself
and it permits people to get more fulfilling jobs. It strengthens the
nation, since it produces a better-educated citizenry and ultimately
brings in more tax money; and it is empathetic behavior making access to
college more fairly distributed.
But through conservative spectacles, this is an immoral program.
Since students depend on the loans, the program supports dependence on
the government rather than self-reliance. Since not everyone has access
to such loans, the program introduces competitive unfairness, thus
interfering with the free market in loans and hence with the fair
pursuit of self-interest. Since the program takes money earned by one
group and, through taxation, gives it to another group, it is unfair and
penalizes the pursuit of self-interest by taking money from someone who
has earned it and giving it to someone who hasn’t.
I started with college loans because it is not as heated
an issue as abortion or welfare or the death penalty or gun control. Yet
it is a nitty-gritty issue, because it affects a lot of people very
directly. To a liberal, it is obviously the right thing to do. And to a
conservative, it is obviously the wrong thing to do.
I trust that these extensive quotes from Lakoff’s book paint clearly
the differences that he postulates exist between the mindset and
thinking of conservatives and progressives.
Although Lakoff’s description of the extremes of conservative and
progressive thinking might lead one to conclude that there is a spectrum
along which this thinking is distributed, somewhat after the fashion of
a bell-shaped curve, which could throw up ‘moderate’ or ‘middle of the
road’ conservatives and progressives, Lakoff maintains that there are no
such politicians. He acknowledges that sometimes conservatives may have
a progressive view on some issues, and progressives may have a
conservative view on other issues, but insists that there are no
moderates. A conservative is a conservative, and a progressive is a
Lakoff spells out in detail just how conservatives and progressives see the world:
It should now be clear why, from the conservative
world-view, the rich should be seen as “the best people”. They are the
model citizens, those who, through self-discipline and hard work, have
achieved the American Dream. They have earned what they have and deserve
to keep it. Because they are the best people – people whose investments
create jobs and wealth for others – they should be rewarded. Taking
money away is conceptualized as harm, financial harm; that is the
metaphorical basis of seeing taxation as punishment. When the rich are
taxed more than others for making a lot more money, they are, according
to conservatives, being punished for being model citizens, for doing
what, according to the American Dream, they are supposed to do. Taxation
of the rich is, to conservatives, punishment for doing what is right
and succeeding at it. It is a violation of the Morality of Reward and
Punishment. In the conservative worldview, the rich have earned their
money and, according to the Morality of Reward and Punishment, deserve
to keep it. Taxation – the forcible taking of their money from them
against their will – is seen as unfair and immoral, a kind of theft.
That makes the federal government a thief. Hence, a common conservative
attitude toward the government: You can’t trust it, since, like a thief,
it’s always trying to find ways to take your money.
Liberals, of course, see taxation through very different lenses. In
Nurturant Parent morality, the wellbeing of all children matters
equally. Those children who need less care, the mature and healthy
children, simply have a duty to help care for those who need more, say,
younger or infirm children. The duty is a matter of moral accounting.
They have received nurturance from their parents and owe it to the other
children if it is needed. In the Nation as Family metaphor, citizens
who have more have a duty to help out those who have much less.
Progressive taxation is a form of meeting this duty. Rich conservatives
who are trying to get out of paying taxes are seen as selfish and
mean-spirited. The nation has helped provide for them and it is their
turn to help provide for others. They owe it to the nation.
He could scarcely make it any clearer. How relevant is this
exposition to the contemporary dispute about the Gonski model for school
Lakoff goes on to assert a worrying trend:
The conservative family values agenda is, at present,
being set primarily by fundamentalist Christians. This is not a
situation that many people are aware of.
These groups have been most explicit in developing a Strict Father
approach to childrearing and have been extremely active in promoting
their approach. On the whole, they are defining the conservative
position for the current debate about childrearing, as well as for
legislation incorporating their approach. Since the ideas in
conservative Christian childrearing manuals are fully consistent with
the Strict Father model of the family that lies behind conservative
politics, it is not at all strange that such fundamentalist groups
should be setting the national conservative agenda on family values.
In short, conservative family values, which are the basis for
conservative morality and political thought, are not supported by either
research in child development or the mainstream childrearing experts in
the country. That is another reason why the conservative family agenda
has been left to fundamentalist Christians. Since there is no
significant body of mainstream experts who support the Strict Father
model, conservatives can rely only on fundamentalist Christians, who
have the only well thought out approach to childrearing that supports
the Strict Family model.
The claims to legitimacy for the conservative family values
enterprise rest with the fundamentalist Christian community, a community
whose conclusions are not based on empirical research but on a
fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible. And that…is based on Strict
Father morality itself. Thus, there is no independent or non-ideological
basis whatever for conservative claims about family values.
Is this group of fundamentalist Christians representative of
conservative attitudes about childrearing? I don’t know, but they are in
charge. They are the people setting the conservative family values
We have become aware of the influence of fundamentalist Christians in
The Tea Party on the recent debt ceiling debate in the US, which
resulted in the closure of some government departments, and threatened
the government with the prospect of defaulting on repayment of its
borrowings. They pressured their less radical Republican colleagues and
almost succeeded in overwhelming them.
Lakoff comments on the funding of policy think tanks:
Because of the way conservative think tanks are funded –
through large general block grants and virtually guaranteed long-term
funding – conservative intellectuals can work on long-term, high-level
strategies that cover the whole spectrum of issues.
Liberal [progressive] think tanks and other organizations are not
only out-funded four-to-one, they are also organized in a self-defeating
manner. There are three general types: advocacy, policy, and monitoring
the other side. The advocacy and policy organizations generally work
issue-by-issue. Few are engaged in long-term, high-level thinking,
partly because of the issue-by-issue orientation, partly because they
are kept busy responding to the current week’s conservative assaults,
and partly because they constantly have to pursue funding. The funding
priorities of liberal foundations and other funders are also
self-defeating. They tend to be program-oriented (issue-by-issue) and
relatively short-term with no guarantee of refunding. Moreover, they
tend not to give money for career development or infrastructure. And
liberal organizations tend not to support their intellectuals! In short,
they are doing just the opposite of what they should be doing if they
are to counter the conservatives’ successes.
I’m sure these words will resonate in Labor hearts in this country,
where we have seen several well-funded conservative think tanks (the IPA
is a classic example) outperform the few progressive ones, set the
policy agenda for the Coalition, and fashion the most effective framing
of these policies. Labor has not been able to match this, has been
manipulated to use the frames set by the Coalition, and thereby has
repeatedly failed to get across its message.
It is heartening to see that the Centre for Policy Development, a local progressive think tank, has this year written a book: Pushing Our Luck: ideas for Australian progress,
about which reviewer Ken Wolff tells us that it ‘presents a wide
ranging picture of the changes needed in our economic and social
structures if we are to maintain our “luck” into the future’.
Finally, in another Lakoff book: The Political Mind – A Cognitive Scientist’s Guide to your Brain and its Politics
(Penguin Books, London, 2009), he asserts that the different thinking
of conservatives and progressives has a neural basis. He argues:
To change minds, you must change brains. You must make
unconscious politics conscious. Because most of what our brains do is
unconscious, you can’t find out how people’s brains work by just asking
them. That is why neuroscience and cognitive sciences are necessary.
There is not space here to elaborate; that will have to wait for another piece.
me, Lakoff’s thesis was a revelation. As one who applies logic to
resolve puzzling matters, Lakoff showed how pointless this process is in
attempting to understand how conservatives and progressives think, and
why they think so differently. He also showed the pointlessness of
expecting conservatives and progressives to explain why they are so
different; they don’t know themselves!
Lakoff provides a plausible explanatory model. I for one believe he
has tapped into a rich vein of understanding that for me explains the
extraordinary differences between our own conservatives and
progressives, which until I read his thesis, defied explanation. What he
says makes sense. Hereafter, it will enable a depth of comprehension
for me that was not previously possible.
Try keeping Lakoff’s thesis in mind as you now listen to
political dialogue, no matter what the forum. You might be surprised how
much more sense you are able to make of it!
What do you think?
This article was first published on The Political Sword and has been reproduced with permission.