Why the disconnect between conservative electoral wins these last thirty-five years, and how leftward American culture and law has slithered? How did it come to this?
Thought being the father of action, ineffective efforts spring from flawed worldviews. Our ballot box wins having proven at best delaying actions against the Left’s Borg-like assimilation of the United States, it is time for conservatives to take a hard look at how conservatism views itself and the Left.
Ultimately, much of the problem results from certain conceptual metaphors inherent in modern conservatism. Change those metaphors, and different, more effective actions will result.
The Importance of Conceptual Metaphor
A conceptual metaphor means understanding one idea in terms of another—for instance, argument is war or life is a journey. What metaphor we use affects how we act on or towards the idea.
As George Lakoff and Mark Johnson discuss in their groundbreaking work on the subject, Metaphors We Live By, we see markers of conceptual metaphors scattered throughout our language. Because our culture views argument as war, we seek to win debates, attack our opponent’s position, claim their position is indefensible, and probe for weak points in the other side’s argument. With such a metaphor, it is not surprising that arguments are often very charged in our culture.
To demonstrate how profoundly different conceptual metaphors can affect views and actions towards the same subject, Lakoff and Johnson mused on how a society that likened argument not to war but to a dance might approach debate:
[T]he participants are seen as performers, and the goal is to perform in a balanced and aesthetically pleasing way. In such a culture, people would view arguments differently, experience them differently, carry them out differently, and talk about them differently [than in a culture where argument is war]. But we would probably not view them as arguing at all: they would simply be doing something different. It would seem strange even to call what they were doing “arguing.”
A more individual example of how conceptual metaphors can affect thought and so action is to imagine two men. One thinks of life as a gift. The other thinks of life as struggle. Who’s more likely to have a happier life?
The Two Metaphors the Right Lives (and Dies) By
[The National Review] stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.
“Our Mission Statement,” National Review
November 19, 1955
To understand the workings of American politics, you have to understand this fundamental law: Conservatives think liberals are stupid. Liberals think conservatives are evil.
“Stupid or Evil?,” syndicated column
July 26, 2002
The above quotes contain several self-defeating and inadequate conceptual metaphors embedded in mainstream conservatism. Let’s see what they are.
The Self-Defeating Metaphor of Historical Inevitability
Buckley’s is the more famous of the two, and while he was talking specifically about his then-new weekly magazine, this quote in the popular mind has become “a conservative is someone who stands athwart history, yelling Stop.” What are the conceptual metaphors implicit in this statement? The crucial one is that history itself is framed as favoring—or worse, being—leftism. Thus, the Left becomes an unstoppable force, its ultimate triumph inevitable. The individual conservative, and the Right in general, is analogized to someone screaming impotently.
If this seems like too deep a reading into what was no doubt meant as a wry comment, consider how many on the Right take for granted that the ratchet only turns left, that once a new government wealth transfer program is created it’s impossible to undo. Take gay marriage, our de facto open borders policy, and Obamacare: how many of us believe—not hope, but believe—that even one of these can be undone? Precious few, I’d bet. With such a resigned worldview, why bother even trying to roll back leftist wins?
Even the word “conservatism” plays into this shrinking, defensive metaphor. Derived from “conserve,” meaning to maintain a given quantity or to keep something safe, the ideology’s name itself has no conception of rolling back enemy incursions or recovering what was stolen.
With such a defensive, Maginot Line mindset, we find ourselves perpetually losing ground to the Left’s offense-focused cultural Blitz. Thus in 2005, we were trying to keep the institution of marriage from becoming another notch on the gay lobby’s political bedpost. In 2014, we couldn’t even save wedding cake bakers that believe in traditional marriage from being screwed by state commissars.
What’s the next meaningless line we’ll fall back to?
The Inadequate Metaphor of Stupid
Krauthammer’s quote at first seems like just the parties’ preferred pejoratives for each other. Yet if we think about it, we can easily see the conceptual metaphors at work.
We should begin by noting that “stupid” here is meant not so much as a lack of intelligence but as naiveté or foolishness. When we collectively roll our eyes at the administration’s hashtag diplomacy, for example, it’s less an indictment of their brains’ raw processing power as it is their credulity. “Can you believe these idiots think this will stop Boko Haram?”
The conceptual metaphor of the fool brings with it important assumptions. The fool can, with work, be convinced of the foolishness of his position. He may not even be a bad person. But even if you don’t like the fool, it still doesn’t justify a no-holds-barred effort to defeat him. There are limits on your conduct against them. They’re just fools, after all.
Contrast this to the Left’s conceptual metaphor of conservatives are evil. If you define your opponents as morally reprehensible, anything is justified in defeating them. When we understand that they view us so hatefully, it suddenly makes sense why a Washington Post columnist would be surprised that Republicans might care about the adequacy of Secret Service protection for a Democrat president. It makes sense why they’d weaponize the IRS against us. It makes sense why Obama, following the 2014 elections, would treat the electorate’s choice as illegitimate claiming instead to divine the will of people that didn’t vote.
It makes sense because they view us as monsters. Indeed, it’s righteous to wage war on monsters, their metaphor giving them a jihadist intensity in every fight. The point of their politics is often simply to hurt the monsters.
Which side—the group that considers their opponents fools, and the group that considers the other side evil incarnate— is going to fight harder and dirtier to defeat the other? The answer is obvious, and demonstrates how ill-served conservatives are by their conceptual metaphor of the Left.
Building a Better Metaphor
A better conceptual metaphor would assume that leftist wins are transient. It would also give us a mindset on equal footing with the Left’s own weaponized conception of us.
Try this: Leftism is Trash.
As a verb, trash can mean to damage or destroy something. Dysfunctional government and divided society being leftism’s legacy, it is correct to say that the Left has trashed America. Trash as a noun is something that is broken or of little worth—something that should be discarded—and here it works especially well as a metaphor for leftism. Something so damaging as leftism, and what has resulted from it, naturally should be thrown out.
More importantly, and in sharp contrast to Buckley’s implicit metaphor, trash can be thrown out. It doesn’t have to pile up forever. Trash can be picked up, allowing something more beautiful to flourish. Debris can be cleared so that greater things can be built. What a more hopeful way of thinking. Isn’t that better than the battered sense of resignation under which so many conservatives now fight?
The leftism is trash metaphor also allows the Right to more effectively combat what flows from the Left’s conservatives are evil mindset. It’s hard to take a bunch of naïve fools seriously as a threat. Vandals destroying your home, on the other hand? That’s something people will fight with all their hearts against, and it’s something that would result naturally from a leftism is trash conceptual metaphor.
Moreover, the trash metaphor would keep the Right focused on repairing and improving. This is in contrast to the Left’s metaphor which makes its acolytes focused simply on hurting us, ignoring the collateral damage their efforts have on society and themselves (as recently demonstrated by Harvard faculty who supported Obamacare, and are now suffering under it).
A Word About Feelings
We pause a moment to note that being effective is more important than being nice. The judgment inherent in the word “trash” is accurate, but not kind. Its truth will be especially offensive in a culture that demands we accept ugliness as beauty, weakness as strength, and lies as truth.
Yet by defining the trash as leftism instead of leftists, we gain distance not present in the current liberals are stupid/conservatives are evil framework. This actually makes the metaphor less personal than either side’s present conceptual operating system.
Aside from thinking the metaphor too harsh, some readers may wonder if all this talk about conceptual metaphor is a bit too out-there. If you do, consider that George Lakoff (one of the researchers mentioned above) has written about the use of metaphor in politics, focusing on how the Left can use it to its advantage. If the other side cares about metaphor, we should as well.
Additionally, we know the power of metaphor in framing retail politics. A given welfare program is likely to get broad support if sold to the public as “an investment.” The same welfare program will not garner much support if we are using a less charitable but no doubt more accurate metaphor such as “pissing money down a hole.” How much more powerful the metaphors that control how and whether we fight?
Upstream of Culture
The late Andrew Breitbart famously said, “Politics is downstream from culture.” In explaining the disconnect between conservative electoral wins and our inability to stop the debasement of American society, this remains an important observation. But it does not go far enough.
Culture may be upstream of politics, but the mind is upstream of culture. Conservatism’s failings are traceable in significant part to our conceptual metaphors and the limiting assumptions they contain. Before we can have any hope of changing the culture, we have to change our own self-concept and also how we conceive of our adversaries.
We have to believe that leftism is debris that can be removed, that it deserves to be removed, that the Left’s gains are only as permanent as litter that simply needs to be picked up, that the damage it has done can be repaired for something better to again stand in its place, and that far from uselessly shouting “stop” we can win. Only then will our actions change, only then will we fight with the intensity of men that have hope of victory.
A new conceptual metaphor is the means by which we can do this.
Editor’s Note: This essay is part of an ongoing dialogue between the writers of PJ Lifestyle and Liberty Island regarding the future of conservatism and the role of emerging counter-cultures in restoring American exceptionalism. See the previous installments in the series:
- Sarah Hoyt, March 22 2014: Interview: Adam Bellow Unveils New Media Publishing Platform Liberty Island
- David S. Bernstein, June 20 2014: What Is Liberty Island?
- Adam Bellow at National Review, June 30 2014 kicking off the discussion: Let Your Right Brain Run Free
- Dave Swindle on September 7, 2014: Why Culture Warriors Should Understand the 10 Astounding Eras of Disney Animation’s Evolution
- Dave Swindle on September 9, 2014: The 50 Greatest Counter-Culture Films of All Time, Part I
- Dave Swindle on September 19, 2014: The 50 Greatest Counter-Culture Films of All Time, Part II
- David S. Bernstein on November 19, 2014: 5 Leaders of the New Conservative Counter-Culture
- Dave Swindle on November 25, 2014: 7 Reasons Why Thanksgiving Will Be My Last Day on Facebook
- Dave Swindle on December 2, 2014: My Growing List of 65 Read-ALL-Their-Books Authors
- Mark Elllis on December 9, 2014: Ozzy Osbourne and the Conservative Tent: Is He In?
- Aaron C. Smith on December 22, 2014: The Villains You Choose
- Paula Bolyard on January 1, 2015: 7 New Year’s Resolutions for Conservatives
- Susan L.M. Goldberg on January 1, 2015: The Plan to Take Back Feminism in 2015
- Kathy Shaidle on January 4, 2015: Did the 1960s Really Happen? (Part One)
- Andrew Klavan on January 5, 2015: In 2015 The New Counter-Culture Needs to Be Offensive!
- Clay Waters on January 5, 2015: The Decline and Fall of Russell Brand
- Mark Ellis on January 5, 2015: How Conservatives Can Counter the Likable Liberal
- Audie Cockings on January 5, 2015: Entertainers Have Shorter Lifespans
- Aaron C. Smith on January 6, 2015: How Mario Cuomo Honestly Defined Zero-Sum Liberalism
- Stephen McDonald on January 10, 2015: Why the New Counter-Culture Should Make Strength Central to Its Identity