A few days ago, my brother showed me a video of Glenn Beck, bloviating hatefully about the world for a good seven minutes or so. He asked me, "Good God, Carl, Glenn Beck is crazy! We need some sanity in the news! Why do people listen to him?" I've been wondering the same thing about the right wing in general. Why has the extreme right taken the reins of conservative dialogue everywhere? Why are they moving further to the right, and why are they growing more hateful and intolerant by the day? Why do people listen to such hateful lies every day?
I’ve just read “Don’t Think of an Elephant!” by George Lakoff, and it’s really opened my mind to understanding both conservative policy, foreign and domestic, and how progressives can communicate more effectively in a public forum.
But more than that, it’s a clear-cut guide to how the conservatives break down their arguments into framing their values- this is the edge they had for forty years, as think tanks shaped the way they communicated and networked with one another. It’s a guide to understanding what ties their value and belief systems together, and explains quite clearly why progressives have only just started to get their perspectives out in the open.
Lakoff shared one moment with the reader that I identified with personally- he talked about how mystified he was at why the conservative position on gun control was the same position held on abortion, gay marriage, health care, the war on terror, tort reform, global warming, and others. And he wondered to himself, how does one’s position on gun control have anything to do with their stance on the environment? Or on fiscal responsibility or abortion? Then he suddenly realized that he was just as mystified at why his own positions all coincided with other liberal stances on the same issues. The question was why? Why does one identify with one ideology that has the same positions on all the issues? And why did conservatives get so many people to vote this way?
Basically, conservatives don’t win voters by convincing them to vote with their self-interest, but rather by aligning their values with the people through a very intelligent, long and arduous 40 years of framing their policymaking based on values, with the help of the mainstream media. Values and frames hold the key to winning votes and support, not giving people the facts.
Lakoff explains just how people think in frames and metaphors, rather than ideas, interests, and programs, like progressives believe the people think. Through aligning their value system in a simple philosophy (strong military, small government, lower taxes, free markets, family values) and by effective metaphor use (a nation as a person—a la rational actor theory—a clear interpretation of what is good and moral versus what is evil and immoral) the right wing has won the hearts and minds of the people by selling these metaphors and frames to the media.
For example, take into account Bush’s use of the phrase “Tax Relief.” This implies that taxes are an affliction, and that Bush is the one providing the relief from the affliction. Therefore, those getting in the way of relief from such an affliction are hindering relief, and being counterproductive to efficient society. Through this way of framing, those opposed to “Tax Relief,” or Bush’s tax cuts for the top 1%, were labeled as traitors, un-American, and the like.
Lakoff proposes a new way of framing taxation; taxes are the price we pay for effective government, a strong military, and efficient infrastructure. Without taxes, there would be nobody to maintain these programs, and our nation would tumble into despair. Thus, taxes are indeed patriotic, as every person pays his or her fair share to reap the benefits of good government, national security, and quality infrastructure. Hence, America is like a club, and everyone needs to pay their dues. If someone skimps on paying their dues, then they are mooching off of the hard work and payment of everyone else. Thus, those who refuse to pay taxes can be labeled as traitors, un-American, and the like through this type of frame.
I’ll be citing Lakoff frequently in this piece, and sometimes paraphrasing heavily from this book, because he spells it out so simply. I highly recommend this book to any progressive who wants to understand how conservatives think, and how to beat them. I’m interested particularly in feedback from my conservative readers on how accurate of an interpretation I’ve made of right wing values, and from my progressive readers on how this may have reshaped their perception of conservative thinking and progressive strategy.
Metaphors for each distinctive value system
Lakoff states we think and talk in metaphors. One which we rely on heavily is the family metaphor—our nation was created by the “founding fathers.” We “send our sons” to war, and our planet must be preserved “for future generations.” Family hits a note with any person, regardless of ideology.
One of the models Lakoff frequently refers to in his book is that of the parent models he has constructed for both right wing and left wing thought, originally from his book Moral Politics. The two models are the Strict Father model and the Nurturing Parent model. You can pretty much guess which one corresponds to which school of thought. I’ll explain Lakoff’s nurturant parent model and progressive values in my final piece of the series.
Throughout the book, Lakoff reminds readers that the Strict Father model does not represent all conservatives, but rather the most fundamental as opposed to the more moderate. Just as there are different types of conservatives, there are different kinds of progressives (social, spiritual, environmental, etc.) and the nurturing parent model does not reflect all progressive thought, just the fundamentals. Lakoff writes if one conservative happens to adhere to strict father, but can still understand an episode of The Cosby Show, then he also has a nurturing parent model of understanding, just passively. Likewise, a progressive could understand a John Wayne movie while still being a nurturing parent. This means some progressives have a passive strict father model.
The Strict Father model
(Here is the outline for conservative policy in a nutshell. Think of how a tough dad raises his kids. This is taken directly from the first chapter of George Lakoff’s book. He cites the writings of the right-wing Evangelical pastor James Dobson for the basis of the model.)
The world is a dangerous place, and it always will be, because there is plenty of evil in the world. The world is also difficult, because it is competitive. There will always be winners and losers. There is an absolute right and an absolute wrong. Children are born bad, in the sense that they always do what feels good, not what is right. Therefore, they have to be made good through discipline.
What is really needed in the world is a Strong, Strict Father who can—
1. Protect his family in a dangerous world.
2. Support the family in a difficult world.
3. Teach his children right from wrong.
What is required of a child is obedience, because the strict father is the moral authority over what is right and wrong. It is assumed that the only proper way to teach children obedience is through strict discipline and painful punishment after any wrongdoing. Authors on conservative child-rearing advocate the use of belts, switches, and wooden paddles on a child’s naked rear end. While some suggest this starts at birth, the Rev. James Dobson is a little more considerate--
”There is no excuse for spanking babies under fifteen or eighteen months of age.”
–James Dobson, the New Dare to Discipline, 65
This is the rationale behind corporal punishment-
When children are physically disciplined after doing something wrong, they know not to do it again. This means over time, a child will develop internal discipline to keep themselves from doing wrong, so in the future they will be obedient and act normally. Without such punishment, the world is bound for hellfire. There will be no morality without strict discipline.
This internal discipline carries with it other secondary effects; an internal discipline is required for personal success in a competitive world. If people are self-disciplined and pursue their own self-interest in America, the Land of Opportunity, they will turn into prosperous, self-reliant individuals. Therefore, prosperity and morality are thus intertwined in the Strict Father model; the discipline needed for morality is the same needed for prosperity. The link connecting these two is the pursuit of one’s self-interest. With enough opportunity and the proper discipline, pursuing one’s self-interest equals prosperity.
According to James Dobson, the Strict Father worldview is very clearly linked to Free Market Capitalism. The link is the morality of self-interest, kind of like Adam Smith’s economic philosophy. If Smith is right, then the pursuit of profit by all will maximize everyone’s own profit individually. He theorizes that pursuing one’s own profit will benefit everyone naturally, assuming everyone does the same.
This is linked to a metaphor that views general well-being as wealth. For example, if you do a favor, you say, “I owe you one,” or “I’m in your debt.” Doing something good for someone is metaphorically like giving someone money. He “owes” you something. And he says, “How can I ever repay you?”
Living by Adam Smith’s claim that it is moral to pursue self-interest as it maximizes the good of all, there is a name for those who do not live to pursue their own self-interest. Rather, there are some people who try and help others pursue their self-interests instead of their own. These people are referred to as “do-gooders.” A do-gooder tries to help someone other than themselves, and thus get in the way of those trying to fulfill their own individual pursuits. In other words, do-gooders screw up the system.
According to this model, there is a definition of what it means to become a good person. A good, moral person is someone who has learned to be obedient, learn what is right, do what is right and not do what is wrong, and to pursue their own self-interest in order to prosper and become self-reliant. A good child under a strict father will learn to become this way. Bad children do not learn internal discipline, nor do they do what is right or function as a moral person. Thus, they do not become prosperous and instead continue to remain dependent and not be able to take care of themselves.
The bottom line is this- when good children mature, they have either learned discipline and thus prosper, or they don’t learn discipline and become dependent. No matter the outcome, the strict father doesn’t personally meddle in his children’s lives at this point. Politically, this means no government meddling.
The strict father model for social programs
In the strict father model, it is believed that social programs encourage habitual dependence, and are rendered immoral as they exist to give people things they haven’t earned. As long as one lives this way, the model’s logical conclusion is that those who remain dependent won’t ever learn self-discipline, learn good morals, and prosper.
This means the mere promotion of social programs is immoral in conservative ideology. And if there are progressives in congress who vote for such programs, it is the goal of conservatives to stop the encouragement of immorality from immoral people.
To achieve this goal, conservatives believe you have to reward the good people—the ones with enough moral capacity and self-discipline confirmed by their prosperity—with a tax cut. The tax cut must be big enough that to compensate for the loss of revenue, social programs have to be cut across the board. By Grover Norquist’s far-right logic, this “starves the beast,” and thus makes the deficit a good thing for those who are wealthy enough.
In the 2004 State of the Union address, Bush addressed the economic crisis through his commitment to “cut wasteful spending.” As we’ve seen, that translates to even more deprivation of government funds to social programs. For the far right under the strict father model, this means deficits are beneficial in the long run.
One of the most clever frames used by the far right is the hatred of what they call “big government.” Conservatives regularly emphasize deregulation of businesses, multinational corporations and financial institutions. They say less government is better. But the far right is a big fan of “big government.” Ask any conservative if they are against funding for national defense, the justice department, the finance department, or border security, or government subsidies for multinational businesses. They like these programs; this type of big government is permissible. Conservatives value subsidies that reward the good, moral, prosperous people in those corporations, and their investors.
However, conservatives continuously stand against nurturing and care, and the social programs that provide it. This is seen as wrong according to strict father values. And on moral grounds, the far right seeks to eliminate these social programs. Lakoff says this is why liberals are wrong about the right merely being scary, or greedy, or elitist, or selfish; indeed, the crusade against social programs is a cause championed by the majority of conservatives as well as their massive bloc of supporters. Conservatives believe their mission is a morally responsible one. Thus, people with a strict father perception of morality will strive for the government to rule this way.
Foreign policy from a strict father perspective
If one is a moral authority, how does one deal with their children? Would they be asked how to behave or how the father should behave, or does the father tell them how to act? He tells them. No back sass. Communication is one-way. This was the policy of the Bush White House—he decides, the people and the government act. If a moral authority has power, he knows what is right and will use that power as he sees fit. It would, in fact, be immoral to not govern in such a way.
There is also a prevalent metaphor for viewing nations as individual people; this is called the rational actor theory. It is a theory that implies nations are like people acting for their own personal self-interest. There are “rogue states,” “friendly nations,” and so on. Bush lumped the countries against American interests into the “Axis of Evil.” Countries like North Korea and Iran were considered “rogue states.” And, of course, our “friendly nations” like Germany and France weren’t supportive of the Iraq war. That means in this theory, they are fair-weather friends—not there when you need them.
This is why you see backward, third-world countries labeled as “underdeveloped,” much like a young child that has yet to learn the proper internal discipline. “Developing” nations are countries that are beginning to industrialize and gain military strength. “Developed” nations are the top-tier countries that have strong national defense and are economically prosperous. Thus, in the rational actor mindset, military strength and industrialization are measures for prosperity. And in the strict father worldview, prosperity is morality. Thus, the developed nations are the disciplined ones that have earned their place, and the underdeveloped countries are like the bad children who have yet to learn good and need to be disciplined—in short, they deserve to languish until they adopt the proper values and develop.
A strong GDP and a strong military means a strong country. It isn’t so much that the people are individually healthy, but that the corporations and businesses are. As long as the country has a whole lot of money, that’s the general idea. Now, the bulk of the countries in the United Nations are underdeveloped or developing, so that means these countries are metaphorically children. A strict father would discipline these children and tell them how to develop properly—tell them what rules to follow, punish them for wrongdoing, or otherwise use the policies of the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank.
Using this frame of mind for foreign policy, and you end up with a state that cannot give up its sovereignty. The United States is the moral authority, being that it is the best, richest, and most powerful country in the world. We know the right thing to do. We shouldn’t be asking anyone else. It’s like when George W. said we didn’t “need a permission slip” from the United Nations to go to war in Iraq in his 2004 State of the Union Address. That evokes a frame, where there is a student, asking a teacher (a moral authority) for permission to leave the classroom. Just through that one phrase, Bush evoked powerful imagery; the United States is the moral authority, and we don’t need to be asking for permission from the underdeveloped states to do the right thing. Conservatives understood this imagery right away.
What conservatives want
Using this view of the world and the framing that goes with it, conservatives thus have a set stance on all issues based on the strict father perspective. I’ll go through each issue as Lakoff did and explain just exactly what the issues mean for people following this worldview.
God is the ultimate strict father; the main moral authority. As God sits at the top of a natural hierarchy where morality is linked with power, this makes conservative ideology seem natural and good. God rewards virtue with power, as He wants us to be in power in our world. Thus, God installs moral authorities on his behalf for people to obey and follow.
God makes laws and commandments telling people what is right and wrong. Following the Ten Commandments takes strong internal discipline, and those who do not follow them are punished. Those disciplined enough to keep them will be moral, and will eventually prosper because of their moral capacity.
The moral order
There is a natural moral order- God above man, man above nature, adults above children, western culture over non-western culture, America above other countries. For many conservatives, this can also lead to man above women, whites above non-whites, Christians over non-Christians, or straights above gays.
Preserving this moral order is of utmost importance for conservatives. Conservative morals come with a set of values, laws, and commandments. Those with enough discipline to follow the rules will prosper. Those without it will suffer from punishment until they learn proper discipline. Right wing morals are thus maintained in a system of rewards and punishments.
Resources are scarce, and competition for these resources is good, as only the deserving get to use them. This imposes discipline and morality, as only those moral enough to win competitions can do so.
Wealthy people are the good people—a natural elite. Poor people are poor because they lack the discipline to be moral and prosper. They will not become prosperous until they learn the proper discipline.
This means that the poor deserve to be poor and serve the wealthy. And the rich deserve to be rich, and need poor people to serve them. The increasing gap between rich and poor is thus seen to be natural and good. This is why, for example, conservatives support the private health insurance lobby and stand vehemently against public coverage for all.
In this model, free markets are seen as the mechanism for the wealthy, or stereotypically “good” people, to prosper using their discipline to amass as much money as possible. This is why free markets are considered moral—if we all pursue our own profit, everyone will benefit. Competition is moral, as it encourages the disciplined to pursue scarce resources and rewards the most disciplined people.
Corporate regulation is seen as bad, as it gets in the way of the free pursuit of profit. Wealthy people serve society by investing and giving jobs to poor people who make their money by serving the rich. This division of wealth is inherently good, as it rewards the disciplined and forces the moral, undisciplined masses to learn morality or struggle.
Social programs are seen as immoral, as they give undisciplined people things that they haven’t earned. In the conservative mindset, this removes the incentive to gain discipline, which is needed for prosperity and morality. Therefore, social programs must be eliminated. Anything that can be privatized and owned by a wealthy few instead of the general public should be. The only roles government has are to protect the lives and property of wealthy (moral) Americans, to make profit-seeking as easy as possible for the disciplined, and to promote conservative strict father ideology and religion.
As preserving the moral order is of utmost importance for the far right, education should serve that intent. This means conservatives should gain control of school boards and curriculum to make sure this happens. Teachers should be strict moral authorities so children can be disciplined as much as needed through rewarding the moral ones and punishing the immoral ones. Because there are right and wrong answers, uniform testing, a la No Child Left Behind, is the ultimate standard for intellectual discipline. If schools pass these tests, they are rewarded with more federal funding. If they do not pass, then they deserve punishment by having funding taken away.
As immoral and undisciplined children can lead the good ones astray, parents should be able to choose which schools their children attend. This means money should be taken from schools that are being “punished” and given to the affluent (moral) parents in the form of private school vouchers. This will help the wealthy (the moral elite) send their children to private or religious schools that teach conservative values and use strong disciplinary methods. Vouchers given to poorer, less moral people will not be sufficient enough to pay for private schools, so they will be forced to send their children to unruly, underfunded public schools.
This way, the natural moral order (rich above poor) will be reflected in schools. The good, moral parents can send their kids to private schools to learn the discipline necessary to be moral and prosperous. Simultaneously, the poorer, undisciplined children will attend low-quality public schools. Students who show exceptional discipline and morality will gain scholarships to the “good” schools, maintaining the social and class elite as the natural, deserving elite.
Parents are responsible for caring after their children, not the government. If they cannot afford to care for their children, then they aren’t living up to their individual responsibility. Nobody has the responsibility of doing other people’s jobs for them; thus, pre-natal care, post-natal care, and health care for children, the aged, and the infirmed are seen as immoral. Health care is an individual responsibility, not a right. Taxpayers should not be burdened with caring for other people.
Tort reform in a nutshell involves putting caps on how much settlement money one can receive in a lawsuit. While conservatives dress up this issue to suggest that it’s made to stop people from suing frivolously for spilling a cup of hot coffee on their lap or eating too much fast food, the issue itself is much deeper. A vast majority of lawsuits are corporate, meaning an employee, a client, or someone otherwise disaffected by a large corporation is suing the company for wrongdoing. It should also be known that lawyers who win these types of cases are a major source of campaign contributions for democrats. Thus, tort reform is a strategic issue for conservatives—this means people are less likely to sue corporations for wrongdoing against their communities or the environment, and a major funding source for the left is cut off. The right wing wants corporations to be free to walk on whomever they please in order to make the most profit, as profit-seeking in a free market is seen as a moral and good thing. In reality, tort reform has nothing at all to do with frivolous lawsuits.
Gay marriage doesn’t fit into the strict father worldview; as Lakoff writes, it goes squarely against it. A lesbian marriage has no father to impose discipline. And a family with two fathers is seen as unnatural, being that a gay man is not a “real man.” Because preserving strict father morality is so important for conservatives, gay marriage must remain illegal, as it openly attacks all forms of conservative ideology. It is also seen as personally offensive to those following a strict father worldview.
Abortion works the same way as gay marriage does for conservatives. The two most stereotypical cases of women needing abortion are unwed teenagers who have been having “illicit” sex, and career women who want to put child-rearing on hold. Both of these cases fly right in the face of the strict father mindset. Pregnant teens have violated the commands of the strict father, and career women are challenging the power and authority of the strict father. Thus, both should be punished by being forced to have the child. Neither one should avoid the consequences of their actions, and must learn discipline through punishment.
Pro-lifers on the right are largely against prenatal care, postnatal care, and health care for children, which all have major causal effects on a child. Basically, by this standard, pro-lifers aren’t really about protecting babies at all, but rather about making sure that those who violate the rules are punished accordingly. It is a culture war strategy to gain and maintain political power.
Gay marriage and abortion, according to Lakoff, are both stand-ins for all of the strict father values in which conservatives identify themselves. This is why these are such hot-button topics for right wingers.
This is not to ignore the extreme pain and difficulty most women face when they are given the choice of keeping or terminating a pregnancy. For anyone who cares about children, this is a choice that is anything but easy to make. The far right uses and exploits this pain when they use the termination of a pregnancy as a wedge issue to gain political influence in the culture war against progressives that they have been waging for decades.
Now, those who are genuinely pro-life, like progressive Catholics, do care about the health and well-being of children, and understand that the choice to end a pregnancy is always difficult, and show empathy and support for these women. They believe that life begins with conception, that life is the ultimate gift, and support prenatal/postnatal care, health care for children, early childhood education, and who oppose the death penalty, war, genocide, and the like.
God has given man dominion over nature, and the earth and its resources are here for man to use for profit. Nature is seen as a resource for prosperity. Those who seek to protect it are hindering the personal pursuit of self-interest by others, and are thus considered immoral and undisciplined.
Strict father morality defines what is considered a right and what is not. That being said, abortion does not count as a right, nor does quality health care for all. Or any kind of government assistance via social programs. There are no rights to how the administration (the moral authority) decides policy, no right to a living wage, and so on.
As Lakoff has stated, in the strict father worldview, America is the moral authority as it is the most prosperous and strongest nation. It is a superpower because it deserves to be. America’s values (the only right ones) are defined by strict father morality. Thus, if there is to be any sort of moral order in the world, American hegemony, sovereignty, wealth, and power must be maintained. Conservative family values, free markets, privatization, elimination of social programs, dominion of man over nature, and other right wing values must be spread across the globe.
The Cultural Civil War
Because the strict father moral system is the definition of what a good society is, progressive values and programs must be treated as threats and fought at all costs and on all front. To conservatives, the very fabric of society is at stake.
As Lakoff writes, these are just the basics of how conservatives view their country and the world—through these values. The ideas and values that the right wing wants to establish require a radical revolution in our government and our populace. This is why conservatives today have taken the warrior banner given them by warrior conservatives like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Mark Levin, and those like them. For strict father morality to gain and maintain political and social influence, there must be a disunity. Economic disunity (the moral, deserving rich vs. the undisciplined, immoral poor) is key for the system to flourish.
This means that to achieve their goals, conservatives, who represent the political and social elite, needed a good number of the uneducated poor and middle class to vote against their own economic self-interests. In doing so, they have branded progressive values as elitist, and conservative values as populist, even though the reverse is true. While truth wasn’t on the conservative side, the strict father worldview was; the basis of that being that the wealthy deserve their money as they have done what is necessary to earn it.
So how do they achieve such a lofty goal? Through the vast right wing conspiracy, as I’ll discuss in detail in the next piece of this series, the right has very carefully seized control of the national dialogue through meticulous organization and heavy publicity. Right wing conspirators work through heavily funded think tanks using money given through grants fro private industries that support their ideology. For example, the Heartland Institute is funded heavily by Exxon-Mobil, the world’s largest oil and gas company. Taking that into account, it’s easy to see why they exist primarily to produce studies that dispute global warming, as environmental regulation would hurt the profit potential of Exxon-Mobil. It’s also noteworthy to know that 80% of the news pundits on cable TV are intellectuals from conservative think tanks. This means Americans will gradually become inundated with right wing values and perspectives the more they are exposed to it.
To further insure conservatives are on the same page strategically, Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, holds a weekly meeting each Wednesday with representatives from each branch of conservative ideology—from the Christian Coalition to the Bush/Cheney administration. Through intense organization and funding of conservative values and interests, the far right has managed to control the national dialogue very well. As Lakoff says, they do this mainly through cleverly framing issues that evoke their values. And they maintain control by waging an intense cultural civil war against progressives. Thus, progressives are labeled as threatening the way of life and cultural, religious, and personal identities of conservatives.
Through forty years of careful organization, lots of private funding, media time, and think tanks, George Lakoff states the right wing has branded the left wing as a bunch of effete elitist, unpatriotic spendthrifts—there are limousine liberals, Hollywood liberals, tax-and-spend liberals, latte liberals, East Coast liberals, wishy-washy liberals, the liberal elite, and other such nonsense.
They have also branded conservative ideology (which benefits the elite) as populists through clever language. There was Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush’s smirky down-home boyishness—W. had his John Wayne-esque “Bushisms” and “Bubbaisms,” while taking on the language style, dialects, body language, and narrative of rural Americans. Right wing talk radio is polluted with warrior conservatives who use such incendiary rhetoric and shouting similar to those of hellfire and brimstone preachers.
However, as Lakoff states, the message has been the same for decades. The “liberal elite” is poisoning American culture and family values, and serve as a threat to the right wing way of life. This means they must be fought viciously on every front to ensure that right wing ideology remains supreme. They label progressive thought as the key threat to the very security of the United States, as well as the threat to morality, religion, and the family values conservatives hold dear. Conservative positions on wedge issues like abortion, gay marriage, guns, school prayer, taxes, and the flag reflect the “treachery” of the liberal left. These issues are not important in themselves, but serve as a fraction of the strict father morality conservatives strive to force onto the rest of the world.
In short, without the cultural civil war, conservatives cannot win.
Friday Thoughts and Links
8 years ago