The myth of political sameness

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Sunday, 8 December 2013 18:30 by Ad astra
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 behaviours.

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 parents.

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!

Lakoff continues:

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!

Lakoff summarises:

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.

He continues:

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 Parent morality.

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 American Dream.

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.

Lakoff explains:

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 progressive.

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 funding here!

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 agenda.

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.

To 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?