By George…He’s Right

George Lakoff is probably best known for his book, Don’t Think of An Elephant, but he has produced a steady stream of significant articles and books throughout his academic career. ( He was the   Richard and Rhoda Goldman Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley from 1972 until he retired a few years ago. He currently serves as Director of the Center for the Neural Mind and Society.)

Lakoff’s abiding interest has been identification of the cognitive differences between Progressives and Conservatives, and his blog frequently applies the results of his research to contemporary political puzzles. A recent post considered two questions about Donald Trump and Republicans that Lakoff says tend to stump Progressives.

1) Why don’t Trump supporters turn against Trump even though he is doing things that hurt them? (like taking away their healthcare)

2) Why do Republicans hate the Affordable Care Act, and why are they so transparently acting to give wealthy people a tax break funded by making healthcare unaffordable?

The short answer? Voters don’t vote their interests. They vote their values.

The longer answer? According to Lakoff,

Most thought (as much as 98% by some accounts) is unconscious. It is carried out by neural circuitry in our brains. We have no conscious access to this circuitry, but it’s there. This is basic neuroscience.

When it comes to politics, progressives and conservatives essentially have different brains. The unconscious beliefs conditioned in their brains are nearly exact opposites.

Lakoff describes conservative morality as a “Strict Father” worldview, and progressive morality as a “nurturant parent” paradigm.

Conservative moral values arise from what I call the Strict Father Family.

In this family model, father knows best. He decides right and wrong. He has the ultimate authority to make sure his children and his spouse do what he says, because what he says is right. Many conservative spouses accept this worldview, uphold the father’s authority, and are strict in those realms of family life that they control.

In this moral worldview, it is his moral duty to punish his children painfully when they disobey. Harsh punishment is necessary to ensure that they will obey him (do what is right) and not just do what feels good. Through physical discipline they are supposed to become disciplined, internally strong, and able to prosper in the external world.

What if they don’t prosper? That means they are not disciplined, and therefore cannot be moral, and so deserve their poverty. In this conservative view, the poor are seen as lazy and undeserving while the rich deserve their wealth. Responsibility is thus taken to be personal responsibility, not social responsibility. What you become is only up to you, not society. You are responsible for yourself, not for others.

Lakoff then outlines the conservative “moral hierarchy.”

• God above Man
• Man above Nature
• The Disciplined (Strong) above the Undisciplined (Weak)
• The Rich above the Poor
• Employers above Employees
• Adults above Children
• Western culture above other cultures
• America above other countries
• Men above Women
• Whites above Nonwhites
• Christians above non-Christians
• Straights above Gays

You can almost hear Mike Pence talking about how he is a Christian first….

Lakoff wants us to understand the differences in worldviews, so that we can better understand the genesis of conservative Republican policy prescriptions.

Understanding is well and good, but what Lakoff doesn’t tell us is whether it is possible to reason with–or failing that, neuter– Dear Old Strict Dad.


  1. What about Dear Old Strict Mom? Aren’t there varieties in there the fine tune the differences? Right now in Texas we have the lt. governor who essentially says , with slotted eyes, if you you don’t do what I say, I’ll make you sorry. Abbott says yes dear and accommodates Patrick. Joe Straus doesn’t go for that way of meeting needs–blackmail.
    It’s time for me to reread Lakoff again.

  2. Pat, I love outvoting. What about finding good candidates and funding them? What about voter suppression going on?

  3. So the left has to package its message in terms that will appeal to the Strict Fathers in order to attract their votes? I have to believe that Trump’s magic can’t last much longer; he’s down in the polls and every day there is some new issue that should upset (at least) the Strict Fathers, but it must take a huge mass of evidence to demonstrate to them the vivid contrast between the actions of Mad King Donald and their closely held beliefs that he actually represents something other than his own economic interests and ego.

  4. I have been reading more and more about Lakoff since the 2016 election, and I believe his views and strategies are key towards winning any kind of progressive majority in this country. I would love it if you did a follow up article that went beyond diagnosis of the problem (in the Lakoff way) and showed examples of strategies for winning arguments with the voters. This article discusses a few:

  5. There is the benevolent strict father who respects others and whose moral code demands fidelity and devotion to a marriage partner. The benevolent strict father is generous in support of charities that deliver on promise. The benevolent strict father rewards performance and honors contract agreements on completion. The benevolent strict father empowers his children to succeed and mentors them how to succeed by following rules of engagement and proper social etiquette. The strict father who distorts truth, lies about his generosity, known more to fire than to hire, views people as self-serving and demonstrates disdain for them … is not benevolent and unworthy to earn the distinction even to be called a “strict father”.

  6. Stephen; the left greatly underestimated the possibility Trump would/could get elected.

    The right vastly OVERestimated their ability to control his mental instability IF he were elected. Their sick joke nominating him has backfired and we are paying their piper.

    This brought us to where we are today with his mental instability growing by the hour; his threats and destruction of foreign diplomatic relations, causing high levels of fear and anxiety because the right has waited too long to attempt to control his words or his actions. He and his expanded family are ruling from their lofty positions of wealth in various home-sites but living off of our tax dollars as they laugh at our futile efforts to survive their destruction of democracy and as they ignore the Constitution and all governing laws.

  7. Thanks,
    More from Lakoff’s article:

    You’re not free if you are not educated, because your possibilities in life are limited.
    You’re not free if you have cancer and no health insurance.
    You’re not free if you have no income — or not enough for basic needs.
    And if you work for a large company, you may not be free without a union. Unions free you from corporate servitude. They free you to have a living wage, safety on the job, regular working hours, a pension, health benefits, dignity.
    If you’re a progressive, you most likely agree with these ideas. If you’re a conservative, you may be apoplectic by now.

  8. This didn’t happen organically, however. There has been a planned, concerted, directed effort to move this country in this divided direction. Read the July 19 Guardian article by George Monbiot reporting on a new book by Nancy MacClean describing the life and work of the Nobel-prize-winning economist James McGill Buchanan and his goal of totalitarian capitalism. I know; it sounds like left-wing hysterical conspiracy theory. But, with the help of the Kochs and the Mercers, this country has been manipulated into moving away from shared ideals despite our differences and toward our divided present.

  9. Father knows best is an educational ideal from long ago, at least in The Netherlands.
    I thought the same for the USA. Lakoff shows me I’m wrong as far as the Trumpvoters are concerned. It means that educational development is very much needed in order to make Archie Bunker someone from the past. Archie is alive and well!

  10. If George Lakoff is not precisely on target, I’d be highly surprised. He answers a lot of baffling questions, like “Why in the world would millions of Americans consistently support such a bubblehead for President?” Quite simply, they’re against change; any kind of change.

    However, there just might be an important change on the horizon. In 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court opened the doors to thousands of service clubs. It became illegal for women to be banned from membership. And now you’re seeing thousands of women playing leadership roles in service clubs. Change one truism … Men above Women … and you may be on the road to changing all of them.

  11. I’d like to see a “framing” that presented government as the Strict Father trying to rein in his drag racin’, pot smokin’, womanizin’ ne’er-do-well Corporate Son. It would take a pretty talented PR firm.

    My chief complaint regarding the center-left (and the left-left, for that matter) is the tone of whiny indignation. It might be more effective to appeal to America’s vanity by angrily claiming that miscreants are “making the family look bad.”

  12. Some reading that I’ve done, typifies conservatives as having an authoritarian personality. That confused me a little until it was explained that such people love authority even if its not theirs. They make wonderful followers but typically poor leaders except in militaristic structures where lines of authority are black and white.

    To my way of thinking that’s a pretty plausible explanation and it seems to mesh well with Lakoff’s views.

    Right now we are saved by the fact of ineffective leadership capability in all of the top spots in Washington just as strict fathers often run into during children’s teenage years when fear turns into “make me”. That plus, at least for now, politicians don’t decorate themselves with authority trappings like what allowed the success of fascism. Authority must still be earned in every transaction.

    It’s interesting that the eyes of the world are now on quiet unobtrusive Robert Mueller as he patiently gathers evidence. What George Lakoff ought to be advising us on is how will authoritarian voters react in midterms with the ultimate strict father is under a big black cloud of facts.

  13. Lakoff gets it right. The problematic results are, unfortunately, counterproductive to any harmony whatsoever. The strict father model is also very UN-CHRISTIAN.

    It takes a “special” kind of mind to juggle those conflicts.

  14. Pete @ 10:17 – How will authoritarian voters react in midterms with the ultimate strict father is under a big black cloud of facts?

    There is an answer: Hard-wired: The brain’s circuitry for political belief. A USC-led study confirms what seems increasingly true in American politics: People become more hard-headed in their political beliefs when provided with contradictory evidence. If this study is correct the voters will dig in.

    Hierarchy is rooted in our genetic past. Mammals with few exceptions (hyenas are one I can think of) have an Alpha Male structure. Males will sometimes fight to the death for breeding rights. Hierarchy among mammals, is a rational response to the survival of the individual, the group or the species.

    It is not surprising to me that the success of hierarchy in nature (organization as we humans would call it) would be amplified in our human institutions. Hunting certainly requires organization. The switch from a hunter-gathering society to agriculture required even more organization. Religion and political leadership has in the been past intertwined: The King as a God, or the sole conduit to God, along with a religious establishment to reinforce this belief. It was not so long ago we had the Divine Right of the King.

    No, political figure in the USA would dream of calling themselves a living God, or a sole conduit to to God, but they can and do sell themselves off as doing God’s work.

  15. Lakoff comes to the scene cloaked in the expertise of brain science and tends to assign voting and other patters to physicality rather than culture. He is brilliant, and incidentally, earned his doctorate at IU. He has a blog as well. His nurturant and strict father distinctions tell the story, in how much empathy does McConnell have for the poor and sick?

  16. Is the moniker “conservative” a misleading stretch when used to describe a personal political conviction? Sounds good, doesn’t it? One view of self-styled “conservatives” is that the social safety net (disparagingly called “entitlements”) should be scrapped as a perilous burden instead of balancing revenue with the budget (think New Taxes). One long-retired elderly Hoosier took great pride in oft-reciting the mantra “Root, Hog, or Die” but continued to receive Medicare, monthly Social Security checks and trade union retirement income (while cursing labor unions) as well as income from investments while laughing all the way to the bank to make deposits and to transfer cash to certificates.
    Why did the GOP give us the draconian Trump administration? Was it just to fill their carpetbags with green?

  17. Im living in this world every day in the working class side of life. , im framed as a liberal, against a insensitive conservative class. 15% liberal,85% so called conservitves,and you wondered why the working class fell apart on this one. (worry)the targeting of words,and so called news,hype,and discontent,were the defining reasons why,they all stimulated this class to seperate and aim for their values. I find talking with them on various subjects,only led to arguments,and facts take a back seat. I agree with this report,and some reports like it. theres nothing like being in the line of fire,when your speaking,only to give some direction on why they are killing themselves and thier futures over petty crap. p.s. they all like guns, but,when your too broke to buy bullets,they blame it on the goverment taking over the arms sales( no such thing)….. of course, the costs maybe related to fighting wars all over the world. blame the goverment now!

  18. Or, the answer to both of your questions could just be good old fashioned racism. It really chafes some people that a black President did something so good for the entire country that will save so many lives, is also paid for in part by taxes on higher wage earners. This would help explain why Cruz, et al, are pushing for just plain old repeal of Obamacare, even though experts say this would cause chaos to the entire system. This explains why Chump has delayed subsidy payments to exchanges–so insurers would want to pull out due to delays and uncertainties. Creating more uncertainty by repealing Obamacare would cause even more insurers to pull out, thus making Chump’s claim of Obamacare “failing badly” self-fulfilling.

  19. These repeated attempts, now being forced on Republican Senators, is headed down the road they took with 60+ defeated attempts to repeal the ACA. Now the heavy concentration is blatantly to destroy it with no thought of the consequences. No thought as to how many Republican voters and continuing supporters are low income and will have no health care; will those voters and continuing supporters finally realize what they have done and are doing? And the vast majority of Trump’s voters and supporters are white Americans.

  20. To me the most telling part of the article is the listing of the hierarchy of “Strict Father” thought and Professor Kennedy’s observation of Pence. What also surprised me was realizing just how far my personal beliefs are from this mind set. It is beyond me that this backward ideas are still prevalent, but I accept that they are.

  21. This, for someone such as myself who has dedicated to research into the text of the Traditional Hebrew Torah is a breath of fresh air – I wish I could communicate directly with Dr. Lakoff – he has touched on something I think that could be demonstrated by a specialized test using text. Thank you for your bringing this man’s thinking to our attention, Ms. Kennedy. I have only just started reading your thoughts – you have provided me something I have been missing; reasoned, intellectually based, raw at times – observation from a truly objective POV. I hope we have a long relationship.

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