If George Lakoff conceives of conservatives as Simpsons character Montgomery Burns, it's at least as true that his idealized liberal is humorless prig Lisa Simpson.
In the tragically overdue Part IV of our review of George Lakoff's political writings (see Part I here, Part II here and Part III here), we examine Lakoff's fundamental misunderstanding of liberalism, which might better be described as a difficulty on his part in locating himself within the universe of liberal ideas. All page number citations in what follow are from Moral Politics unless otherwise noted.
This is a uniquely problematic issue to write about, because while Lakoff does not pretend to sympathize with conservative ideas (and thus his misapprehensions may be dealt with in a rather straightforward manner), he self-identifies as a "progressive" liberal (Don't Think of an Elephant!, p. xv) and imagines that his readers are largely the same (ibid., p. 13). Therefore, it is difficult to untangle those claims which are genuine attempts to neutrally categorize and describe liberal thought from those which are in fact arguments -- dare we even say "reframings"? -- attempting to project his particular version of liberalism as normative. It is, in fact, Lakoff's difficulty in carrying out this project which ultimately causes Don't Think of an Elephant! to fail as a rhetorical strategy.
Nevertheless, the analysis of Lakoff's failings vis-a-vis liberalism proceeds largely along the same lines as the debunking of his views on conservatism. As before, Lakoff assumes that liberal views are due to the interaction of the same moral metaphors available to all native English speakers raised in the United States (Lakoff never addresses the extent to which immigrants diverge from this scheme, or whether or not it even applies to cultures other than that of the U.S., but given his focus on the experiential nature of language and morality, it is safest to assume the most narrow construal of its applicability). Since the ranking of the metaphors in Nurturant Parent morality is opposite that of Strict Father morality, it produces 5 rather different categories of moral action: 1) Empathetic behavior and promoting fairness, 2) Helping those who cannot help themselves, 3) Protecting those who cannot protect themselves, 4) Promoting fulfillment in life, and 5) Nurturing and strengthening oneself in order to do the above (p. 165). As described, Lakoff's conception of liberalism is relentlessly other-centered, and verges on a secular form of sainthood. While Lakoff does not deny that he is quite partisan, even a sympathetic observer might reasonably question whether or not the angelic self-portrait he paints hides some rather tendentious assumptions.
One area where this tendentiousness manifests itself is in the area of taxation and social policy, where Lakoff asserted that conservative opposition to both increased taxes and spending was rooted in a metaphor of "reward and punishment", where earning money was innately moral, and taking it was innately immoral. While we noted before that Lakoff's view of conservative policies did not comport well with actual conservative argumentation, his analysis is no more fair to actual liberal views or rhetoric. Lakoff argues that liberal support for taxation is rooted in promoting fairness, like so:
In Nurturant Parent morality, the well-being of all children matters equally. Those children who need less care...simply have a duty to help care for those who need more...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. What is punishment and theft to conservatives is civic duty and fairness to liberals. (p. 190)
It is difficult to decide what the most egregious error in this paragraph is. Is it the assumption that liberals support progressive income taxation for purely ideological reasons, and make no attempt to justify this as a fair taxation scheme on the merits? At least one model claims to demonstrate that progressive taxation actually produces higher economic productivity than revenue-equivalent flat/proportional taxation. Maybe, maybe not -- but if true, it's a rather more compelling reason to support progressive taxation than simply maintaining that "the rich" owe it. On that note, where does Lakoff get support for his claim that only "rich conservatives" pursue tax-minimizing behaviors? It might be a bit more equal-opportunity than that. Lakoff might be on firmer ground arguing that the rhetoric of such claims turns on a notion of paying one's "fair share", as per examples he might have gotten this way, but simply asserting that fairness is uniquely a liberal attitude both demeans their intellectual arguments and denigrates the possibility that conservatives might have rather different views about fairness. Considering the rather elaborate typology of fairness that Lakoff develops (p. 60), it is simply asinine of him to frame the liberal perspective on taxation in this way.
In dealing with the notion of healthcare, Lakoff assumes that the central/ideal liberal position is government-controlled single-payer healthcare, a point which is not made explicitly, but through contrast with imagined conservative reasons for opposing it despite purported cost efficiencies (p. 144). In debunking Lakoff's cartoon of conservative thought, we pointed out that his argumentation left no room for the possibility that conservative opposition might be grounded in disagreement over the facts. Although there are certainly other progressive liberals who share Lakoff's view, it certainly isn't John Kerry's view. Lakoff would argue that all this demonstrates is that there are variations of liberalism based on moral focus, pragmatic versus idealistic considerations, etc. But to the extent that this maintains the internal consistency of the theory, it undermines its predictive power as a means of discerning policy differences. Arguing that "Strict Father" morality militates against single-payer healthcare is plausible, but it needs support to be chosen in favor of an alternative theory based on actual economic and medical arguments. Arguing that "Nurturant Parent" morality militates for the same view collapses under the weight of having to prove that this is true, except when it isn't, all the while denying that these views derive from concerns rooted in economics or medical practice -- a burden that Lakoff never even attempts to take up.
We observed earlier that Lakoff's moral vision bears a strong resemblance to Lisa Simpson's. One of the ways this manifests itself is in a moral smugness that never can quite come to terms with competing claims. One example of this is in Lakoff's explanation of liberal views on environmental issues. Lakoff offers the following metaphors to explain liberal views in this regard: "nature is a mother", "nature is a whole", "nature is a divine being", "nature is a living organism", "nature is a home", "nature is a victim of injury" (pp. 215-6). Lakoff derives from these metaphors a claim that "liberal metaphors assign intrinsic value to aspects of nature" (p. 221), and concludes that cost-benefit analyses therefore are secondary to liberal views on pollution (ibid.). Lakoff's characterization comes perilously close to declaring liberal views on the environment to be grounded in nature worship. In discussing Lakoff's cartoon of conservatism, we observed that he excluded the possibility that conservatives might oppose tighter arsenic regulations on data-driven grounds instead of Strict Father ones; Lakoff must therefore be scandalized to learn that some liberal policy analysts reach the same conclusions for (some of) the same reasons. Cass Sunstein is no friend of the Bush administration; if he nevertheless fails to reason according to Nurturant Parent metaphors on the environment, does that make him less of a liberal? Lakoff impugns the credibility of liberal arguments on environmental policy when he asserts that their metaphorical schemas trump considerations of mere trivialities like actual data. Prof. Sunstein's argument on arsenic policy demonstrates how cost-benefit reasoning can be employed in pursuit of liberal goals:
The benefits of some regulations are enjoyed disproportionately by people who are poor and members of minority groups. The burdens of some regulations are imposed disproportionately on exactly the same groups. To assess the arsenic rule, it would be highly desirable to know whether poor people are mostly helped or mostly hurt. Would they bear high costs? Would the regulation operate as a regressive tax?(pp.4-5)
Lakoff's rejoinder would no doubt be that this is yet another demonstration of how some liberals are more motivated by idealistic concerns -- and thus assign the environment an "intrinsic value" -- while others are more pragmatically focused on fiscal issues. But his whole argument for Nurturant Parent metaphors for the environment dictates that the "intrinsic value" notion is central, and that Sunstein's views are only marginally liberal. Yet again, either this means that Lakoff's theory is too vague to be useful, or that he has substituted his own idiosyncratic political views for a supposedly neutral exploration of politically liberal views on the environment. From a more pragmatic standpoint, by framing liberal views on the environment in metaphors like "Earth as Goddess" (p. 216), Lakoff is practically gift-wrapping talking points for conservatives.
From SC's standpoint, though, the most damningly Lisa Simpson-ish characteristic of Lakovian liberalism is the utter, total lack of ironic self-reflection. Lakoff would most likely fail to see the humor in the following joke:
Q: How many feminists does it take to change a light bulb?
A: That's not funny!
We'll demonstrate that point by considering Lakoff's choice of "pathological stereotypes" to debunk. Lakoff notes that conservatives recoil from insinuations that their views are responsible for events such as Oklahoma City, or the shooting of abortionists, and grants that this is a case of pathological stereotyping (accusing pathological variants of a model of being the central version) (pp. 310-1). Such accusations are serious ones, and Lakoff rejects them as being unfair, as he does with the crude accusation of "fascism" (p. 311). But then he goes on in considerably more detail to rebut two varieties of pathological stereotypes of liberals. First is a grouping of conservative critiques of liberals as: 1) lovers of bureaucracy, 2) defenders of special interests, and 3) advocating only rights and no responsibilities (p. 317). Second is a conservative critique of "sixties liberals" (Lakoff's phrase) as: 1) "eternal flower children", 2) "deadheads", and 3) violent radicals (p. 318).
The first grouping is simply a poor choice of things to argue about. Arguing that rhetoric about tax cuts is actually code for racism, as Charlie Rangel has, or associating George Bush with Hitler, represents an attempt to equate opposition to specific taxation or spending policies to mass murder. Of course, the Nazis were legendarily bureaucratic, but Lakoff is not complaining that conservatives compare liberals to Nazis, only that they're being accused of preferring more bureaucracy than is healthy. If Lakoff truly sees these rhetorical acts as morally equivalent, it is very hard to imagine what rhetoric he sees as representing legitimate opposition to his views.
He's on far better ground when complaining about the stereotypes of flower children and Deadheads, despite his own resemblance to Jerry Garcia (it helps to imagine Garcia without the glasses). These categories represent recognizable groups with well-established, if not entirely reputable, images. And it's certainly fair to argue that they weren't representative of liberals in general in the 1960s. But rather than settle for claiming that these people were not representative of liberals of their era, he goes on to defend their behaviors:
Concerned with self-development, many turned to the human potential movement and to eastern [sic] religions with meditative traditions. The requirement of self-nurturance brought many to a concern with health (physical development and natural foods), healing, and therapy. The concern with moral happiness led to involvement with the aesthetic dimension of life -- with art, with living in nature, with sensuality, and with forms of beauty in everyday life (pp. 319-20).
In spite of this defense, he claims that liberals themselves viewed flower children as pathological (p. 320). One senses that Lakoff watches Scooby-Doo with righteous indignation, angry at the psychedelic colors of the Mystery Machine, and furious at the not-terribly-subtle pothead humor associated with Shaggy. No doubt he fails to see that Shaggy is often the most endearing character, especially by comparison to the nauseatingly preppy Fred. Quite simply, Lakoff's writing demonstrates a serious inability to laugh at himself or his compatriots, or to find humor even in things he himself considers to have been excessive behavior. This intolerance of even light criticism and mocking serves him poorly.
While this last point may seem comparatively frivolous, it has serious repercussions when Lakoff attempts to argue other points. Lakoff attempts to argue that while conservatives give a high priority to self-interest, liberals do not. However, an important parameter of variation in Lakovian moral reasoning is "moral focus" (p. 289). Lakoff writes, with no trace of irony:
It is hardly uncommon for blacks, whether ordinary citizens or politicians, to focus on race, or for women to focus on gender issues, or for members of ethnic minorities to focus on ethnic issues, or for gays to focus on gay rights issues. These kinds of focus constitute a politics of identity...Moral focus is very different from self-interest, with which it is often confused (pp. 289-90).
Now, there are plenty of arguments for and against affirmative action, school busing for integration, gay marriage, and other identity-related issues, and it is not our purpose to sort out their validity here. Lakoff is simply stipulating that as long as someone holds appropriately liberal values, any appearance of what economists call "moral hazard", or what the rest of us might simply see as conflict of interest, is merely an appearance. This sort of argument is an attempt to delegitimize all opposition to identity politics as merely grounded in hatred, or possibly "just" self-interest. As we saw shortly before, Lakoff views criticism of "special interests" as pathological, which maintains internal consistency with the idea that specifically liberal identity politics cannot be motivated by self-interest. Aside from Lakoff's failure to justify the morality of focusing on oneself as being different from self-interest, he seems utterly oblivious to the rhetorical nightmare he is creating. Simply asserting that an apparent conflict of interest isn't one if the people involved say it isn't does not constitute serious argumentation in politics. Put in terms Lakoff would no doubt have less difficulty making judgments about, does he believe that Dick Cheney is free of conflicts of interest regarding Halliburton merely because Cheney says he has none? Unless Lakoff is prepared to say yes to this question, then he might want to reconsider the grounds by which he exempts himself from stricter scrutiny.
Thus, to recapitulate, we have seen that Lakoff's views on liberalism reflect a highly idiosyncratic idea of what core liberal tenets are. Lakoff believes that ideology trumps data for conservatives in formulating policy, and he is similarly contemptuous of the idea that liberals would, or should, do any differently. In cases where apparent conflicts of interest exist, Lakoff demands a special exemption to avoid grappling with the conflicts, on the grounds that his own righteousness and disinterest should be obvious to any observer who is not innately hostile. And he has a terrible sense of humor. From this foundation of self-righteousness, arrogance, and deep indifference to serious policy discussions, Lakoff claims to have written a field guide to rhetorical strategies that will convince not only the base of similar-thinking citizens, but swing voters not inclined to accept his most tendentious assumptions at face value. In Part V, the end of our odyssey through George Lakoff's political books, we'll examine some of the rhetorical prescriptions that Lakoff has built on this rickety foundation, and why partisans otherwise disposed to agree with Lakoff risk four more years of elephants if they don't think about them.