In the first article in this series I outlined some ideas about cognition and introduced George Lakoff’s notion of framing: the way that words invoke thoughts, images and emotions that shape our responses. He also helps to explain how the conservatives have outclassed progressives by understanding these issues and by understanding that at heart all political debate is moral debate.
In this article I want to look at how political discourse is framed according to Lakoff. Conservative and Progressive Frames Lakoff's analysis here is based on the US, but I think it crosses over enough to be useful. He sees the political left and right using the family as a metaphor for society, and that there are basically two kinds of family: the Strict Father and the Nurturing Parent. Each is associated with a particular kind of morality, and Lakoff argues that political discourse is at its heart moral.
In the Strict Father family the head of the family is invested with righteousness, authority and power. They protect and support the family which depends on them. Morality is expressed as obedience which is rewarded by privilege and advancement; and lapses in morality require punishment. If you love your kids you will teach them to be moral by punishing errors. This kind of family encourages self-reliance and personal responsibility.
Self-interest is our guide
Success is earned by being morally deserving, And if you are not successful, you are immoral. Conservatives on the whole subscribe to this narrative. The abstract notion of ‘the market’ evokes the strict father in many ways. The market rewards success with prosperity. The market decides. Proponents of free markets argue that there should be no higher authority, meaning that government should not usurp the market though regulation. Self interest, i.e. greed, is the natural driver of the market. In the nurturing parent family, respect has to be earned.
Communication is open
Parents teach empathy and emphasise social responsibility. Each person is their own authority. The orientation is towards community, to taking care of others. Morality is expressed as concern for others. If you love your kids you will protect them harm, and nurture their potential.
The finest example of this model in action is the welfare state. The basic idea is that the nation is a family, and that we all need to look after each other. For the most part none of this is conscious; it is simply that one or other approach will feel right, making factual arguments particularly ineffective. The Conservative Head Start In the late 1960s the US conservatives realised that they were losing their grip on power, partly because they were divided, and formulated a plan to arrest this which was enunciated in the Lewis Powell Memo.
On Powell’s advice they began tapping wealthy donors to buy university chairs in business that would teach conservative thinking; to create well resourced conservative think tanks to generate and publish ideas; to systematically train spokespeople; and to buy media organisations and create booking agencies to ensure that the conservative message was being heard.
They also began to politicise the religious fundamentalists who till then had been disinterested in politics. During this period progressives grew their hair and took mind addling drugs; organised aggressive trades unions that held organisations to ransom (which in the UK created the backlash that carried their nemesis Thatcher into power); or dissipated energy in internecine struggles, so aptly mocked in The Life of Brian.
Who frames the debate?
The upshot is that conservatives have largely framed the political discourse and taken the moral high ground. They are the natural leaders while progressives are portrayed as a divided, out of touch liberal elite, who look down on the working classes, who practice tax and spend. So conservatives have held onto power for most of the last 40 years, despite the economic havoc caused by their policies.
The very success of conservatives reinforces the framing of the situation, since only the moral can be successful, whereas progressives have been responsible for a decline in morals and getting us all into debt.
In 1995 Lakoff concluded “If this analysis is right, or even close to right, then a great deal follows. Liberals do not understand what unifies their own worldview and so are helpless to deal effectively with conservatism. Not only is there no unified liberal political structure, but there is no overall effective liberal rhetoric to counter the carefully constructed conservative rhetoric. Where conservatives have carefully coined terms and images and repeated them until they have entered the popular lexicon, liberals have not done the same. Liberals need to go beyond coalitions of interest groups to consciously construct a unified language and imagery to convey their worldview. This will not be easy, and they are 30 years behind.” Metaphor, Morality and Politics.
This week saw Cameron give an excellent demonstration of how conservatives frame the political debate, and steal a march on progressives by setting the agenda for the next election. I certainly did not welcome his message, but I could not help but admire his cunning.