Democrats Need a Moral Argument

Professor George Lakoff talks about why conservatives are better at appealing to their base than liberals.

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Why do voters respond to some arguments and not others? George Lakoff, a professor of cognitive science and linguistics at the University of California–Berkeley, argues that part of the reason is that ideas activate moral perspectives existing in the brain. And, he writes in The Little Blue Book: The Essential Guide to Thinking and Talking Democratic, Republicans are better at framing their arguments to activate conservative viewpoints than Democrats are in framing theirs. Lakoff recently spoke with U.S. News about why that is and when Democrats lost blue-collar voters. Excerpts:

You say that conservatives use language more effectively than liberals do. What do you mean by that?

Democrats take their own moral system for granted. One of the things conservatives have learned is that they need to talk from their own moral point of view. This became very clear in the healthcare debate. The president chose for his healthcare bill policies that tested as being extremely popular with the public, and they still are. The Republicans never attacked those provisions. They moved to a moral position, and said we're going to have two moral principles: freedom and life. Freedom—there's a government takeover. Life—there are death panels. And they repeated it.

How should Democrats have argued it?

They should have argued it on a moral basis. They could have used some of the same principles, which is that if you have cancer and you don't have health insurance, you're not free. And you could die—a very simple message that everyone can understand. This is really about the question of what the values of our country are, and the question of whether you care about your fellow citizens as well as yourself. That's a major question behind all of the disputes that we have.

[See a collection of political cartoons on healthcare.]

What are the basic differences between the progressive and conservative moral views?

That has to do with two very different notions of the family. Conservative child-rearing practices have to do with a strict-father family, where you have a father who's in charge, and he knows right from wrong and his job is to protect the family and support the family, but also to teach the kids right from wrong by punishing them when they do wrong. If they learn that discipline, then they can go out in the world and become prosperous. If they're not prosperous, that means they're not disciplined, and if they're not disciplined they can't be moral and they deserve their poverty. In nurturing-parent families, you have a very different point of view, that the parents are there to empathize with their children, to engage with them, find out what their concerns are, answer their questions, gain respect by their actions. And they're supposed to not just be responsible for their children but have children learn to empathize with others.

Is unity possible?

There are many general practical things that people agree on. They agree that you want an economy that works, that you want protections, that you want there not to be disasters or you want people to be able to respond to them. There is unity at that level. Then if you ask in terms of moral systems, the answer is no, there's not unity across them, but there is moral complexity and that saves us. It is possible for people to be partly one and partly the other. It means that people can shift back and forth.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

What distinguishes extreme conservatism from regular conservatism?

Mainstream conservatism had lots of moral complexity, because the old conservatives were partly progressives. Starting with Newt Gingrich in 1994 there was a systematic attempt to purge the Republican Party of candidates who were partly progressive. And what it means in terms of governing is what we see in terms of the Tea Party. The Tea Party is just the product of an evolution that began in 1967. Between 1964 and 1967 three major things happened that affected how workers could feel about politics. One was the antiwar movement. A lot of workers had been in the military and they saw the anti­war movement as being antimilitary and pro-communist, so [Richard] Nixon ran against communists. Then the civil rights movement came about and many workers, some in the South especially, were racists. Others were worried that their jobs would be taken. So you got Nixon running for law and order and against school busing. And then, of course, feminism took hold. And many working men were strict fathers at home, they were paternalistic, and were actually turned off very, very strongly by feminism. So you got Nixon running on traditional family values. What they did was create a very strong core of conservative populists. And they did one more thing: They had to attack liberals, so they created the idea of the liberal elite, the idea that liberals looked down on working people. And the Democrats never knew what hit 'em. And they always wondered, why are all those people voting against their financial interests? And the answer was they were voting their morality. They learned a different moral view.