“What George has done is tie the question of political belief to cognitive science,” said Lawrence Rosenthal, chair and lead researcher of the UC Berkeley Center for Right-Wing Studies. “He understands that the way to get at people’s political opinions is by talking about values, rather than specific arguments about specific issues. He believes conservatives are much better at this than liberals and have been for a very long time. They have a much better track record of crafting political appeals by way of the appropriate value statements for their audience.”
The reason Democrats have such a hard time with Lakoff’s message, Rosenthal said, “is because George is going up against something very deep-rooted, something that goes back to the Enlightenment. He would argue that the Enlightenment approach to political persuasion was never appropriate… Every time I hear a political candidate say the word ‘percent,’ I think of ‘Oh God, they haven’t read George’.”
Lakoff gave a talk recently at the Center for Right-Wing Studies and pointed out that students who become Democratic operatives tend to study political studies and statistics and demographics in college. “Students who lean Republican study marketing. “And that’s his point,” Rosenthal said. “It’s a very different way of thinking.”
Lakoff’s core finding revolves around the metaphor of family. He claims there are two core beliefs about the role of families in society, and the belief one holds determines whether one is conservative or liberal. Moderates are people in the middle who are able to hold some ideas from both sides, and being able to understand and persuade them is crucial to winning any election.
Conservatives believe in a what Lakoff calls the “strict father family,” while progressives believe in a “nurturant parent family.” In the strict father family, father knows best and he has the moral authority. The children and spouse have to defer to him, and when they disobey, he has the right to punish them so they will learn to do the right thing.
“The basic idea is that authority is justified by morality, and that, in a well-ordered world, there should be a moral hierarchy in which those who have traditionally dominated should dominate,” Lakoff said. “The hierarchy is God above man; man above nature; the rich above the poor; employers above employees; adults above children; Western culture above other cultures; our country above other countries. The hierarchy also extends to men above women, whites above nonwhites, Christians above non-Christians, straights above gays.” Since this is seen as a “natural” order, it is not to be questioned.
Trump and those crafting the Republican message play straight into this strict father worldview, which is accepted in many parts of the country. Even traditionally Democratic groups such as union members and Hispanics include members who are strict fathers at home or in their private life, Lakoff says. The Republican message plays well with them.
The nurturant parent family, on the other hand, believes that children are born good and can be made better. Both parents are responsible for raising children, and their role is to nurture their children and raise them to nurture others. Empathy and responsibility toward your child also extend to empathy and responsibility toward those who are less powerful, or suffering from pollution or disease, or are marginalized in some way.