In Parts I and II of SC's review of George Lakoff's Moral Politics and Don't Think of an Elephant!, we laid out the theory and practice of Lakoff's approach to analyzing political speech. Here in Part III, we'll deal with Lakoff's characterization of conservative rhetoric, and go through a number of examples that demonstrate how poor his grasp of the subject is. In Part IV, we'll do the same for his discussion of liberalism. All page citations below are from Moral Politics.
Despite SC's contention that this is where Lakoff's partisanship gets the better of his scholarly judgment, it is admittedly hard not to let this happen. Part of the problem, as we'll see on a number of issues is that Lakoff has to resort to a "moral" explanation in terms of his metaphorical system, because the facts could not possibly explain conservative beliefs. At least not George Lakoff's facts. Senator Moynihan's famous aphorism, "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts", turns out to be key here -- in coming to understand Prof. Lakoff's view of conservatives, it's necessary to make much more careful distinctions between facts and opinions than Lakoff does himself.
Your host feels obliged to engage in a round of extended throat-clearing before proceeding. First off, his biases are no less real than George Lakoff's, and it would be wholly inappropriate to pretend otherwise. Second, a number of claims will be advanced here that many readers will find politically unpalatable. It is not SC's intent to get into any sort of argument over the relative merits of various taxation schemes, government services, abortion, or other political issues. The point is to demonstrate that Lakoff's Freud-like analysis of conservative reasoning comes about because of his inability to understand or take seriously conservative arguments.
We begin with Lakoff's characterization of what he believes to be the True Theory of Conservative Ideals, which he labels "Strict Father morality". As we noted before, there are some 18 distinct metaphors which make up his moral reasoning schema, which he groups into three categories: 1) The "Strength Group" (comprising some 8 metaphors of , 2) Moral Self-Interest, and 3) Moral Nurturance (p. 102). Lakoff's view is that the difference between conservatives and liberals comes from ranking them in either the order given here (which produces conservative thought), or the reverse order (which produces liberal thought). As we noted in comparing the form of the argument to Optimality Theory, the relative rankings effectively render certain metaphors inoperative -- an argument that Lakoff uses to claim that liberals are basically incapable of racism, sexism or other bigotries (p. 138), while conservatism purported to be riddled with them (p. 276).
Lakoff argues that this way of thinking about the world produces 5 types of particularly conservative moral actions (and does the same vis-a-vis liberalism). Listed in Lakoff's order (which he does not claim to be hierarchical), they are: 1) Promoting Strict Father morality, 2) Promoting self-discipline, responsibility, and self-reliance, 3) Upholding the Morality of Reward and Punishment, 4) Protecting moral people from external evils, and 5) Upholding the Moral Order (p. 163). These actions conform to a stereotype of conservatives which Lakoff takes to be the central model: wealth is an indicator of both success and moral behavior and therefore should not be punished; anything not perceived as "earned" is immoral; some people are better than others.
To illustrate this, Lakoff gives a toy example of why conservatives supposedly oppose Stafford loans and Pell grants (programs which help pay for undergraduate educations). Dependence on the loans means dependence on the government, which violates #2. Since not everyone qualifies for the loans, this crowds out the free market (violating a subcategory of #3). Since the programs are paid for through the compulsory power of the state to tax, they represent an immoral redistribution of wealth (also #3). (All examples paraphrased from p. 168.)
But are these actually why conservatives object to such loan programs? Maybe. But maybe it would have behooved Lakoff to see how conservatives actually argue these points. Here's a just-printed Cato Institute opinion piece arguing that the real problem with these grants is that the market being distorted is the tuition price market, not the loan market. The expectation of subsidies causes educational institutions to raise rates, based on the expectation that grants will follow. Following from this, it could easily be argued that the conservative position actually is an attempt to keep the price of college down so that the availability of college educations will be more fairly distributed -- exactly the argument Lakoff claims motivates liberals to support Pell grants. One may reasonably dispute whether or not the Cato analysis is correct, but arguing that they don't really mean it because they have some ur-motive that thinks of students as immoral dependents ought to be backed up by evidence that they actually argued that way. In fact, it's easy to find a baker's dozen of identical arguments from the Cato institute alone with an irritatingly simple Google search. While Lakoff didn't have Google to play with back in 1997, SC is sure that the Cato people would have happily sent him reams of position papers if he had just called and asked. The Heritage Foundation folks would have happily done the same -- and amazingly, they have a number of arguments for reforming, not ending the Pell program. Later in the book, in a different context, Lakoff tries to argue that eliminating waste rather than eliminating programs is a specifically liberal approach, citing an effort of then-VP Gore, and he ends up claiming that conservatives would not endorse exactly the sort of reform proposals that comprise the first three Heritage Foundation hits for "Pell Grant" (p. 191). This is sloppy reasoning on Lakoff's part, but SC wouldn't call it sloppy research -- because that would erroneously imply that he even tried. It's not very good work on Lakoff's part to construct an elaborate metaphorical system in defense of positions that aren't actually held.
If Lakoff's intuitions about conservatives can't be trusted in what is, by his own acknowledgement, a toy example, how much worse do they hold up iin "heated" issues like "abortion or welfare or the death penalty" (p. 168)? We'll answer that the web way: with links.
The first issue Lakoff treats in depth is social spending and taxation. Previously, Lakoff argued that social spending and taxation violate the highly-ranked metaphor of Morality of Reward and Punishment, and thus conservatives see it as immoral. There is a certain surface plausibility to this; one example from the Heritage Foundation website uses scare quotes around "in poverty" and "poor" in the opening paragraph, and goes on to argue that the statistics of the time (1998) argue that poverty as measured by the Census is grossly overstated. The article blames exactly the causes that Lakoff associates with conservative reasoning against social programs: spending undermines "hard work, self control and marital stability". But the surface plausibility ends there -- the article cites specific empirical data purported to demonstrate that this is a fact, not simply an inbred model of the world. Others may well disagree that the statistics cited prove the case -- but the point is that there is another explanation for conservative thought about the effects of social spending that suggests that they actually apply their principles to data, and might even be...gasp!...susceptible to changing their positions if the data says they're wrong. For Lakoff, it is consistently a foregone conclusion that "liberal arguments 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 (p. 183)". This is mere tendentiousness, an assumption that Lakoff's interpretation of the data is uniquely correct, and therefore disagreement must be located in something stubborn, irrational, and unable to be reasoned with (in fairness, a property he also attributes to liberals hearing conservative arguments, but with rather less gusto).
Another example of Lakoff's assumption that his opinions are actually facts on this point can be found in his analysis of why conservatives dislike single-payer medical spending (p. 144); he argues that conservative opposition must be based on their metaphorical constructs, since it would otherwise save them money. Apparently, they must not mean it when they disagree with the notion that it would involve cost savings or provide better care. Again, one may disagree with the Heritage Foundation's position (or the Cato Institute's) -- but one may not assume that conservative opposition to social spending is grounded in a metaphorical worldview that acknowledges the facts and merely dismisses them as irrelevant. This would be no more fair to liberals than it is to conservatives, and as we'll show in Part IV, Lakoff is nearly as insulting to his own side in this regard.
Lakoff dismisses the idea that conservatives are motivated by self-interest as a pathological liberal stereotype early on (p. 143). But in his actual discussion of taxation, he replaces it with an even more pernicious and unfair analysis -- that conservatives believe that "the rich" (a term Lakoff does not precisely define) are "the best people" (p. 189). This contrasts rather uneasily with George Bush's framing of tax reform as a policy aimed at the middle class. Lakoff reveals his own prejudices by claiming that "[T]axation of the rich is, to conservatives, punishment for doing what is right and succeeding at it." If he omitted "of the rich' from his formulation, he would have a much better explanation of a talking point in the Bush press release linked before -- a boast that 5 million individuals would stop paying income tax under Bush's plan. This ought to be anathema to conservatives under Lakoff's moral schema, derived from his principle that conservatives are obsessed with a Moral Order, a key tenet of which is "Rich people are more moral than poor people". It's not Lakoff's fault that George Bush ran for election after his book was published -- but it is his fault that he simply assumes conservatives have a hang-up about "the rich".
Lakoff's analysis of immigration policy also requires him to make highly questionable assumptions. Again, Lakoff starts with a surface-plausible intuition -- "[W]ithin Strict Father morality, illegal immigrants are seen as lawbreakers ('illegals') who should be punished" (p. 187 -- [that's an ironic page number if I ever saw one -- ed.]). And if we wanted to follow Lakoff, we might make some bland assertion that conservatives say "illegal immigrant", while liberals reframe the issue with "undocumented worker". But the problem is with Lakoff's conceptual underpinnings, not even actual rhetoric -- Lakoff contrasts an assumption that conservatives just want to punish lawbreaking with an assumption that liberal policies are motivated by a desire to nurture "citizens in the making" who do the "low-status tasks that citizens will not do" (p. 188). As SC discussed in his review of Samuel Huntington, there is the small matter of the Mexican government explicitly indicating that they see the U.S. as a solution to internal social problems. Lakoff's analysis excludes the possibility that conservatives are motivated by a notion of economic fairness that places taking care of their own citizens ahead of other countries'. SC also deliberately omitted three words from Lakoff's claim of American unwillingness to work -- he actually wrote "low-status tasks that citizens will not do for those wages". Lakoff has excluded the possibility of a conservative argument that, by being willing to work for sub-minimum wages, illegal immigrants actually harm those citizens who would be otherwise willing to do the work, which might pay more if the labor pool was smaller. Assuming that Lakoff's "Nation as Family" metaphor is valid, would it not be at least as plausible that conservatives oppose illegal immigration because they'd rather take care of more immediate family (citizens) than relative strangers (foreign citizens)? Perhaps this analysis is wrong -- but at the level of speculation we're dealing with, it is at least as plausible as Lakoff's assumption that punishing lawbreakers motivates conservative views on immigration.
All this analysis barely covers one chapter of Lakoff's faulty handling of conservative views. As should be readily apparent, debunking the entire book could easily fill a book of its own. So we'll just handle one more, Lakoff's discussion of an environmental issue. He claims that conservatives "want to get rid of regulation completely" (p. 211), and cut the EPA's power to enforce the Clean Water Act, so that "it could no longer stop industries from polluting drinking-water sources" (p. 219). Had the book been written in 2001, Lakoff could have used the infamous arsenic controversy; perhaps conservatives were even onto his reframing idea in this regard as a result of his book. The Clinton administration proposed a new rule lowering the arsenic standards in drinking water from 50 to 10 micrograms per liter; the Bush EPA froze implementation of that rule. The conservative argument is that the change in rules was a primiarly political move, and that a cost-benefit analysis suggested that the costs were large, with almost no change in lives saved. A liberal might reasonably argue that the pricing of human lives is difficult, and the possibility of saving lives should outweigh any higher costs that might result. But Lakoff's view doesn't allow for conservatives to oppose such a move for data-driven reasons -- it must be a nefarious moral system that puts profits first. In some sense, he's even right -- saving taxpayers money and keeping prices low are the basis of the conservative argument. Lakoff's framing of the issue turns conservatives into people who love corporations the way that husbands love their wives, though, and this precludes the possibility that conservatives might agree that if more lives could be saved, the policy would be justified.
It would be a waste of the reader's time to exhaustively address all of Lakoff's imagined derivations of conservative policy positions. SC hopes that the above exercise adequately demonstrates two points: 1) that there are explanations for conservative policy proposals that don't require Lakoff's convoluted metaphorical schema, and 2) that even within the framework, stipulating that Lakoff has the premises right, the specific analyses are just-so stories which require Lakoff to leave out framings wholly incompatible with the partisan portrait he is trying to paint. Lakoff would argue that some of this misses his point, which is that the empirical claims adduced in support of policy positions are simply post hoc attempts to justify the positions dictated by a perverse moral system. But the onus to prove that claim is on Lakoff, who simply assumes that he both understands the positions and knows the rhetoric being used to advance them. The evidence does not justify either of these claims.
Your host considered addressing a number of additional issues in this section of the review. In dealing with conservative hostility towards government, Lakoff strongly insinuates that Klansmen are prototypical conservatives (p. 277), and also that conservatism is responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing and structurally incapable of admitting it (p. 280). Readers who look up page 280 will notice that he makes the latter claim in a very roundabout way, but it is as present as in his less temperate screed, where the same charges are made more explicitly. But this is merely the pathological stereotyping that Lakoff cautions us against doing in his more sober moments. Surely Lakoff would deny that the Earth Liberation Front or Greenpeace represent nurturant parenting when their agents commit acts of sabotage. In order to make the claim that these are actually asymmetrical situations, Lakoff needs to argue that conservatives are obssessed with a Moral Order metaphor, and that white, male, fundamentalist Bible-believing Christians are actually the highest ideal of conservatism, while no similar exaltation of True Believers occurs on the liberal side. He does so on page 276 of Moral Politics, and while he claims that it's a provocatively extreme example, he asserts that it's at least latent in all conservatives: "[T]he Moral Order hierarchy used to have all the bigoted clauses in it; now it has many open slots available for such clauses" (p. 277). If Lakoff had demonstrated that his understanding of conservatism extended beyond his stereotypes of it, this might merit a more serious rebuttal; however, without actual justification, it's merely another self-serving rigging of the analysis to produce the outcome that he needs in the final chapters -- that Nurturant Parent morality is superior on the abstract merits, and should be applied to all policies in their specifics.
Of course, there is a coherent explanation of Lakoff's writing that explains how he can systematically ignore conservative arguments, and frame conservative rhetoric in terms that ignore its actual use. It's delightfully Straussian, and simultaneously embraces Lakoff's paranoid assumption that arguments cannot be seriously meant, prima facie, to convince. According to this version of events, Lakoff's descriptions of conservative thought are not intended to be a scientific, neutral analysis -- they're intended to be talking points for his side! For the record, SC does not seriously believe that Lakoff set out to write an "esoteric text" of this sort. But he'd love to watch Lakoff's reaction to hearing such a thing.
In Part IV, we'll address Lakoff's failure to do much justice to liberal thought and rhetoric. We've still got more to say on Lakoff's typology of the varieties of political thought, but that will wait for the grand finale, where we go through Don't Think of an Elephant!, and see why Lakoff's conception of conservatism as the love child of Cruella de Vil and Montgomery Burns is ultimately as bad for his own side as it is unfair to his opponents.