As a Canadian, I have been watching the current American electoral process very closely, for reasons that should be obvious. As former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau once said, in speaking about the Canada-U.S. relationship, “Living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered the beast, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.” The elephant is doing a lot more than twitching and grunting these days, and no longer seems all that friendly and even-tempered, so it is, I believe, even more important for the mouse to pay close attention, not just to what the elephant is doing, but to anything that can shed some light on why the elephant is doing it.
In this context, I have lately been hearing a great deal about George Lakoff, a UC Berkeley professor of cognitive linguistics who has made a considerable study of the language of politics. He has been getting a fair amount of media time of late with his discussions of framing in political language. (For anyone who has missed this, here
is an interview with Lakoff that discusses framing.)
Lakoff has also theorised that much political thought in the United States is influenced by the “Nation as Family” metaphor, in which both liberals and conservatives see the nation as a family, with the government as the parent and the citizens as children. One of the results of thinking about politics within this metaphorical framework is that personal and family values, goals and morality are mapped onto the policies and actions of the state.
Lakoff observes that, while both liberals and conservatives use this metaphor, they rely on two different models of the family, which he calls the strict father model and the nurturant parent model; therefore, the two main political constituencies in the U.S. see the nation as two very different kinds of families – which in turn means that they have different expectations of the policies and actions of their governments.Well, the progressive worldview is modeled on a nurturant parent family. Briefly, it assumes that the world is basically good and can be made better and that one must work toward that. Children are born good; parents can make them better. Nurturing involves empathy, and the responsibility to take care of oneself and others for whom we are responsible. On a larger scale, specific policies follow, such as governmental protection in form of a social safety net and government regulation, universal education (to ensure competence, fairness), civil liberties and equal treatment (fairness and freedom), accountability (derived from trust), public service (from responsibility), open government (from open communication), and the promotion of an economy that benefits all and functions to promote these values, which are traditional progressive values in American politics.
The conservative worldview, the strict father model, assumes that the world is dangerous and difficult and that children are born bad and must be made good. The strict father is the moral authority who supports and defends the family, tells his wife what to do, and teaches his kids right from wrong. The only way to do that is through painful discipline — physical punishment that by adulthood will become internal discipline. The good people are the disciplined people. Once grown, the self-reliant, disciplined children are on their own. Those children who remain dependent (who were spoiled, overly willful, or recalcitrant) should be forced to undergo further discipline or be cut free with no support to face the discipline of the outside world.
So, project this onto the nation and you see that to the right wing, the good citizens are the disciplined ones — those who have already become wealthy or at least self-reliant — and those who are on the way. Social programs, meanwhile, "spoil" people by giving them things they haven't earned and keeping them dependent. The government is there only to protect the nation, maintain order, administer justice (punishment), and to provide for the promotion and orderly conduct of business. In this way, disciplined people become self-reliant. Wealth is a measure of discipline. Taxes beyond the minimum needed for such government take away from the good, disciplined people rewards that they have earned and spend it on those who have not earned it.Full article here.
This leads me to the recently published book Fire and Ice: The United States, Canada and the Myth of Converging Values.
by Michael Adams.( Personal bias disclaimer here )
Adams argues, based on more than a decade of research into social values in the United States, that there is a growing trend towards an acceptance of both traditional patriarchal authority and hierarchical social structures in the United States today. One of the most striking items we have been tracking during the past decade addresses Americans’ orientation to traditional patriarchal authority. In 1992, 1996 and 2000, we asked Americans to strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree or strongly disagree with the statement, “The father of the family must be master in his own house.”
In 1992, 42 percent of Americans agreed (either strongly or somewhat) with this statement. The number seemed high at the time (1992 wasn’t so very long ago), but we hadn’t, as they say, seen nothing yet. Support for the Father-knows-best credo was actually on the rise. In 1996, 44 percent of respondents agreed with the statement, and in 2000, a full 49 percent of our sample – almost half the population – agreed that Dad should be boss; this is in spite of the frontal assault on patriarchal authority waged by Homer Simpson and Bill Clinton during the 1990s.
This growing acceptance of traditional patriarchal authority is truly remarkable – and seriously divergent with the patterns in other advanced industrial nations. But it is not only patriarchal authority that is enjoying increased acceptance among many Americans. When we asked Americans in 1996 whether it was better for one leader to make decisions in a group or whether leadership should be more fluid, 31 percent agreed with the more hierarchical position that a single leader should call the shots. In 2000, the proportion agreeing with the hierarchical model had shot up seven points to 38 percent. These Americans were becoming more and more willing to fall in line and do what the boss tells them to do, and this was before their president and commander-in-chief began to rally them for a post-9/11 war on terrorism.
Here, then, is the link between Lakoff and Adams – Lakoff suggests that conservatives in America see the nation/family in terms of a strict father who disciplines his citizen/children into his model of self-reliant individualism, and punishes those who fail to achieve this goal, and Adams presents evidence supporting the view that an increasing number of Americans find the “strict father” family model to be comfortable – and perhaps even comforting. I do not argue a causal link here – it is impossible to say, given the available data, if the observed increase in the acceptance of patriarchy and hierarchy is supporting a move toward the political right in America, or is merely documenting shifts in social values resulting from an overall trend to the right that is also reflected in political ideology and policy.
However, if both the theory and the research do in fact reflect the reality of American politics and society, then the current rightist administration under Bush may not be an aberration, but a real reflection of where American society, and the United States as a sovereign entity, is headed. And if this is so, then it may also suggest that those in the U.S. seeking to counter this trend may need to focus on not only on political action, but also on social movements such as the feminist movement to influence the values that may well be feeding the march to the right.