Strict Father vs. Nanny State
Lakoff’s comical “strict father” hypothesis is based on a long-vanished stereotype of how conservatives think. He doesn’t seem to be aware that conservative ideology has undergone deep transformations in recent decades.
To show just how out of touch Lakoff is, when analyzing core conservative values on pages 50-1 of The Little Blue Book he still cites of all people James Dobson (an evangelical Christian whose political influence peaked thirty years ago in the early ’80s) as a leading conservative philosopher; even worse, to prove his “strict father conservatism” thesis, Lakoff quotes a book that Dobson wrote back in 1970 about disciplining children, as if it was relevant to the 2012 election. Rather, it’s more likely that Lakoff almost certainly knows that Dobson is now at most a minor gadfly, but he’s useful to hold up as an example of extreme social conservatism, since there are no similar current examples informing the 2012 campaign. My guess is that Lakoff first formed his theory about “strict fathers” back in the early ’80s, and his thesis remains frozen at the historical moment when Dobson and the Moral Majority lorded over America as puritanical tyrants. Or something.
But the conservatives are way, way ahead of Lakoff, who doesn’t seem to fully grasp that an entirely new paradigm has emerged.
There’s a new frame in town: The nanny state. In a masterful maneuver of political aikido, conservatives have taken Lakoff’s antediluvian “strict father conservatism” frame and completely reversed it. Conservatism now stands for freedom from authority, while is it progressivism that seeks to implement the new scolding parent metaphor, now known as the “nanny state.” It’s liberals who want to tell you what to do and what is allowed, not conservatives.
And this frame is widely accepted by the general public not simply because of superior conservative messaging, but because there is evidence backing it up. It is mostly liberal politicians, not conservative politicians, who pass laws and regulations telling citizens what they can and cannot do, what they must and must not buy, what they are and are not allowed to say.
Who seeks to impose the “strict parent” paradigm now? Liberals. And everyone knows it. Yet still there’s George Lakoff off by his lonesome still pounding his fists about “strict father conservatives.” All the rhetoric in the world can’t hide the fact that conservatism now stands for unintrusive small government, and that progressivism stands for intrusive big government. The “nanny state” frame is so powerful and self-evidently true that it can’t be ignored away, and can’t be euphemized away.
Yes, there has long been tension within the Republican Party between social conservatives, the “strict fathers” of Lakoff’s frame, and fiscal conservatives. Long long ago, social conservatives briefly seized the spotlight and for a while got all the attention, but that seems like ancient history now. The small government/libertarian/fiscal conservative/laissez-faire/Tea Party wing of conservatism is ascendent, and this rise to power and prominence dealt a death blow to Lakoff’s “strict father” thesis. There’s been a magnetic reversal of the poles, but Lakoff’s compass is still pointing south.
A Euphemism for “Euphemism”
When Lakoff talks about liberals needing to come up with better “moral frames” and “conceptual metaphors,” what he’s really talking about is euphemism. Lakoff is the King of Euphemism.
Take for example one of the best euphemisms of the last 50 years: “Affirmative Action.” Wow. Two positive, vigorous words inseparably paired. If you had never heard the phrase before, you’d be convinced that whatever Affirmative Action is, it’s simply got to be something good.
It’s so catchy and effective that even opponents of “Affirmative Action” endlessly repeat the phrase themselves as they are arguing against it and pointing out that it’s neither “affirmative” nor “action,” but rather is government-imposed racism, unfair and unconstitutional. When even your opponents repeat your phrase — now that‘s an effective euphemism.
But Lakoff wouldn’t call it a euphemism: He’d deem the phrase “Affirmative Action” merely a “conceptual metaphor” which succinctly conveys an embedded moral message. And he thinks that if this metaphor is repeated loudly and often enough, that it will over time sway public opinion.
And it’s right around here in my exploration of the Lakoff universe that I start to get confused and increasingly disturbed.
As a layperson, an outsider, I have always assumed that a new label doesn’t change the intrinsic nature of what is being labeled. Thus, I could take a can of beans, peel off its label and replace it with a label that says “Cherries,” but that doesn’t mean the contents of the can suddenly transform into cherries; it remains beans, regardless of what the label says.
But Lakoff seems to be saying, throughout The Little Blue Book, that when you slap a new label — or euphemism, or “conceptual metaphor” or “moral frame” or whatever you want to call it — on an idea, that this somehow transforms the idea itself and people’s opinions about it. “I don’t like new taxes,” says Average Joe. “These aren’t taxes — they’re a Deficit Reduction Bonanza!” Lakoff might say. “A Deficit Reduction Bonanza? Why didn’t you say so earlier? Sounds great! Where do I sign up?”
Sorry, George, but it doesn’t work that way. Instead of embracing the Deficit Reduction Bonanza, Average Joe will get twice as mad as he was to begin with, first that his taxes are being raised, and then even moreso that politicians are trying to deceive him with doublespeak.
Lakoff apparently believes that if we spoonfeed a mislabeled can of beans to the American public, they’ll say, “Mmmmm, yummy cherries!”
What scares me is that Lakoff seems to actually think that the euphemisms he creates to mask the true nature of political concepts are actually accurate descriptors. Thus Lakoff would never ever say that the term “Affirmative Action” is a euphemism to hide the practice of government-enforced racism, but rather would insist that the policy truly and authentically is affirmative action.
In other words, throughout The Little Blue Book, he never drops the mask, even when in a huddle with his own team. He has no “off” switch; he’s never out of character. Flipping the pages felt like trying to interview the actor Leonard Nimoy about his long career, yet the only thing he says to you is “Live long and prosper,” even though he’s supposed to be speaking as himself, not as a character he plays.
Lakoff endlessly argues that liberals need to come up with better “narratives” and “frames,” but then simultaneously acts like those new narratives and frames are factually true, that the new way of describing something somehow changed its nature.
At first I thought that he seems to have drunk his own Kool-Aid; but I reassure myself with the secret hope that he only pretends to drink the Kool-Aid as a motivational tool.
Man Behind the Curtain?
For years I have wondered to myself: Is there anyone at the controls of leftist ideology? Sure, there are millions of Democratic voters and run-of-the-mill vaguely liberal Americans, but those people are the recipients of the message-control and the talking points. And then there are the pundits and the talking heads, but many of those people seem like automatons, repeating the instructions given to them on teleprompters and JournoLists. Behind them all must be the true masters, the deep thinkers, the philosophers. Lakoff is supposed to be one of those people behind the scenes, directing strategy. In fact, if you believe his own self-promotion, he is the guy behind the curtain, issuing magisterial instructions on how to engage in political warfare. So I had high expectations for The Little Blue Book.
But then I read it, and its hollowness left me flummoxed. It’s not just that there’s no there there; it’s that he elevates therelessness to liberalism’s pre-eminent virtue. Sloganeering had replaced introspection.
I finished the book with the rather unnerving conclusion that no one remains at the wheel of the Good Ship Liberalism, that it rides the political currents, adrift.