Moral Politics: What Conservatives Know That Liberals Don’t

ISBN: 0226468054
ISBN 13: 9780226468051
By: George Lakoff

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About this book

Moral Politics takes a fresh look at how we think and talk about political and moral ideas. George Lakoff analyzed recent political discussion to find that the family—especially the ideal family—is the most powerful metaphor in politics today. Revealing how family-based moral values determine views on diverse issues as crime, gun control, taxation, social programs, and the environment, George Lakoff looks at how conservatives and liberals link morality to politics through the concept of family and how these ideals diverge. Arguing that conservatives have exploited the connection between morality, the family, and politics, while liberals have failed to recognized it, Lakoff explains why conservative moral position has not been effectively challenged. A wake up call to political pundits on both the left and the right, this work redefines how Americans think and talk about politics.

Reader's Thoughts


This is a very dense, academic book with a great deal of methodical presentation of evidence for his thesis. His later book, "Don't think of an elephant" is a distillation of the ideas put forth in Moral Politics with a more direct line drawn to the U.S. political scene in 2003 and 2004. I found it helpful to read these two books because the shorter "Elephant" is supported by the (excruciatingly) academic "Moral Politics" and "Moral Politics" is tied together nicely by "Elephant".I know that Lakoff has been trotted out by liberals in the political theater here, but it I would hope that all areas of the political spectrum could have an honest discussion informed by the psychology understood in this book. It really does lay out a useful pattern for discussing sincere policy differences without resorting to the intellectual dishonesty of most of what passes for political discussion these days.


I wasn't entirely convinced by Lakoff's theory, but I thought it was well-reasoned and worthy of consideration. I really liked that Lakoff forced me to really consider the conservative viewpoint, and after reading this book, I felt at least a little less anger toward conservatives, which is definitely a good thing. That being said, Lakoff is obviously very liberal, so his theories on the conservative mind aren't necessarily accurate. I'd like to read another book like this written by a conservative.


this is a favorite of mine. as i've gone back and read it more than once (one time in particular taking extensive notes/reactions) i certainly consider it very worthy. i very much enjoyed cognitive science as applied to political ideology. of course, i believe there is much, much more to flesh out in that regard, but this book functions as a worthy foray into that area. i hope more cognitive scientists take on this subject matter: contradicting it and expaning upon it, etc, etc. this one stays in my library into the foreseeable futurre as it doesn't just collect dust.


What a miserable book. What it boils down to is, if you're a Democrat you follow a nurturant model of government and you're effeminate; if you're a Republican you follow a punitive model and you're masculine... but we should all be effeminate. What tripe. This perpetuates culture wars.


I find George Lakoff's work in cognitive psychology to be absolutely fascinating! His conceptualization of two family models (the strict father model and the nurturant mother model) provides a framework to view the current political polarization in the USA these days. Living with this polarization is often very difficult, and seeing the impact it can have on both sides of the division (the Republicans who think Democrats eat their young for breakfast, and the Democrats who think the Republicans eat their young for breakfast) is often painful in the way it plays out in families, churches and communities.What I think Lakoff may be overlooking, however, is the role that media and politicians may be playing in stirring up this polarization. This division is clearly profitable to the media, on both sides of the politcal spectrum, and the more there is conflict, the more successful the media can be in filling their 24/7 "news" coverage now. Politicians are finding easy, slick, platforms by claiming to not be "the other side" rather than being held accountable for having solutions to the problems facing us all.But Lakoff's book may provide some real clues as to how the initial, basic, differences are shaped, before they have "accelerants" thrown on them by politicians and the media.


This is one of the best works of non-fiction I have ever read. For the first time in my life, I feel like I actually understand why conservatives think the way they do. I still don't agree with their values or views at all, but I do recognize now that it is an internally coherent worldview. Conservatives are not going to go away in America, so we better learn how to live with them and engage in dialogue that actually resembles communication, not just a trading of insults.The basic thesis of this book is that humans live and think by relying on metaphors. These metaphors guide the way they perceive themselves, their families, their career, and their government. Lakoff argues that conservatives rely on a "Stern Father" model, and liberals look to a "Nurturing Mother" model.Does it make sense that millions of Americans can be pro-life, pro-military, pro-death penalty, pro-wealthy, anti-poor, anti-social justice, anti-peace, anti-environment? Liberals usually dismiss these views as stupid, selfish, and prejudiced, but this conclusion reveals liberals' own ignorance: they don't understand the way that conservatives think! Using a liberal lens, the conservative worldview is completely wrong, but the reverse is true, too. Once you understand the principles of Stern Father morality, all the social and political issues simply fall into place.While I think this book is a resounding success for enlightening liberals about how conservatives think, I'd be curious whether conservatives think they've been fairly characterized, and whether they were enlightened about the liberals' Nurturing Mother morality.Please read the book and tell me what you think!


Four and a half stars.This book was the first selection for an EPA Water Permits Division book club that never really got off the ground. We never got around to discussing this book (or any other), but I found the argument very compelling and find myself recalling it often even several years later.Lakoff's primary argument is that there is a common thread through family life and parenting styles, morality, and politics. He makes a persuasive argument that right-wing conservative polities is closely allied with authoritarian ideas of family structure and, conversely, liberal politics can be connected to authoritative ideas of family structure. These connections help to explain a lot of things about the respective political platforms that can seem otherwise contradictory. Like how the supposedly "fiscally conservative" Republican party has been subsumed by leaders/groups that have no problem spending billions of dollars on defense and the military. Lakoff notes that conservatives have recognized the coherency of their position, and used it to gain a rhetorical monopoly on "family values" and "morality." But he argues that the liberal point of view can be seen as just as coherent, and that recognition of that internal consistency would go a long way toward balancing the morality argument in politics.

Jon Stout

Lakoff has fascinating, even exciting, insights, but his treatment is ponderous and marred by equivocations in how he approaches his subject. His basic idea is that the differences between Democrats and Republicans can be explained by different metaphors of family life used by the two sides. Lakoff says that Republicans analogize government to the “Strict Father” style of parenting, which is more authoritarian and emphasizes self-discipline and self-reliance. Similarly, Democrats analogize government to the “Nurturant Parent” style of parenting, which is more supportive, and emphasizes nurturance and empathy.This basic insight is very powerful, and Lakoff is able to develop the idea in some detail to explain a wide variety of political positions held by Democrats and by Republicans. My first difficulty with the approach is that it seems to identify the “Strict Father” approach with men, and the “Nurturant Parent” approach with women. While there is a well-documented “gender gap” in which more men support Republicans and more women support Democrats, the differences are not more than 10% or so. I think it would be a mistake to say that Republicans do things in a “manly” way and Democrats do things in a “womanly” way. I would have preferred it if he had left gender out, and just talked about “Authoritarian” and “Nurturant” as options for people, as well as for political parties.Another problem is that it is not clear whether Lakoff is talking Politics and Morality, or whether he is talking about the psychology behind political and moral talk. He says that his two conceptions of family life are “unconscious, cognitive metaphors.” Science often operates on the basis of metaphors, known as theoretical models, and they have specific consequences, as well as definite limitations. For example, when Torricelli said that the atmosphere was a “sea of air,” he could explain bouyancy in the air, but he did not expect to get wet. Molecules of gas may be considered as “elastic balls” in hydrodynamics, but you can’t throw them.The “Strict Father” and “Nurturant Parent” metaphors are, in a sense, rival theoretical models for political and moral systems. In this sense, they parallel the rivalry between the “wave” and “particle” models for the theory of light. But, since there is evidentiary support for both models, scientists try to reconcile them, or to show in what circumstances each is appropriate, while Lakoff treats his rival metaphors differently. Sometimes he treats them as arbitrary, as in “You could believe this, or you could believe that.” Other times, he takes an advocacy position, and offers reasons why you should accept one over the other. He seldom, if ever, tries to reconcile the two views.When Lakoff expresses his personal attitude, he appeals to my liberal biases. I googled reviews of his book, especially in conservative sources such as the National Review, and Lakoff is regarded as anathema by conservatives. I thought that they might be impressed by the explanatory power of his metaphors, but conservatives regard him as a liberal partisan. And as I thought about it, I realized that my conservative friends can be affectionate and indulgent with their children, while my liberal friends can appreciate lines of authority and “tough love.” As Woody Allen said sarcastically, “I love being reduced to a cultural stereotype.” Life is more complicated than Lakoff describes. Somehow there must be room for dialogue between the two points of view. Lakoff provides a starting point, but it needs to be taken farther.


Though I found the writing style arduous and plodding, this book really pushed me into understanding the underlying (and rational, each given their own premises) philosophy, ideology, and world views of the Conservative and the Liberal minds.

Michael Villasenor

I lost interest in this book about half way thru which is why it took me two years to finish. An interesting topic and Lakoff's theory is easy to understand. It became repetitive but I suppose this was a tool he used to hammer home his main thesis - conservatives view the world through a strict father morality model of the family prism and liberals through a nurturant family morality model.The book becomes a PR manual for the Democratic Party towards the end, with the same conclusions as I've encountered in a lot of other recent poli-sci texts- conservatives are great at selling their brand; progressives not so much and this how they could do better. A decade later and not much has changed in the political landscape looked at by Lakoff's in 2002. Would I recommend it to a friend looking for a theory as to why liberals/conservatives think the way they do? Sure, but only bits and pieces.


There at points at which Lakoff, whose book served as another of our local reading group's book selection, shines through and clarifies the seemingly inherent contradictions between liberal and conservative moral views. Certainly, in the book's final hundred pages, Lakoff takes off the gloves and works to highlight how the semantic and linguistic values of moral framing has been a battle increasingly won by conservatives. For example, he explicates the Bush v. Gore decision and the outcome of the 2000 presidential election using the framing analysis he explains in the book's preceding pages. Lakoff tries to be fair here, and perhaps that is the book's primary flaw, because my own intuitive expectation is that conservatives will rarely be willing to give the message a fair hearing. The same implicit dichotomies Lakoff so convincingly pinpoints will deny him the chance for a balanced discussion. It is easy and every day easier still to lose faith in the potential for American political life to reconcile two (perhaps irreconcilable) value systems. If anything, his Strict Father vs Nurturing Parent straw men can allow the individual reader to better differentiate one's own viewpoint and natural allegiances.

Cooper Cooper

This book might change how you think about American politics. A worldclass cognitive linguist from the University of California-Berkeley, Professor George Lakoff analyzes liberal and conservative ideology in terms of his specialty—metaphor. In America, he insists, politics is all about morality, and American morality is grounded in the metaphor of the family: conservatives champion a Strict Father morality and liberals a Nurturant Parent morality. In Strict Father morality “father knows best”: the father rules and must be obeyed. The father’s authority derives from the Moral Order, a God-given hierarchy in which man dominates nature and exploits it for his own use, men dominate women and parents dominate children. With authority goes responsibility: to provide for, to protect against external evils, and to teach the self-discipline that alone will yield the moral strength for combating internal evils (temptations), and (in the case of children) the self-reliance needed for success in life. Among other things, this translates into a black-and-white politics with little middle ground, and policies that favor the successful and militate against life’s “losers” (the unself-reliant). This brief description scarcely touches the surface of a metaphor that Lakoff treats at great depth, and which makes sense of many apparent inconsistencies in conservative politics—for example, being against abortion but in favor of the death penalty. In fact, Lakoff devotes many chapters to demonstrating the moral consistency of apparently inconsistent political views of both conservatives and liberals. The Nurturant Parent morality of the liberals is based on moral nurturance. This includes protection as a prerequisite but is primarily based on empathy: being able to walk in other peoples’ shoes, see what they see and feel what they feel (remember Bill Clinton’s “I feel your pain.”). Nurturant Parent morality emphasizes social ties, community, interdependence (“We’re all in this together”), self-development, happiness, fairness. Nurturant Parent moral authority stems not from the “Moral Order,” but from respect earned through nurturing and setting a good example. For instance, when enforcing standards, the Nurturant Parent shows respect for the child by patiently explaining the rules and reasons and by encouraging the child to ask questions and state her views. Politically, these beliefs translate into policies that respect the voices of all Americans, and that seek to “level the playing field” so every American has a genuine (not merely rhetorical) opportunity to pursue his own version of the American Dream. These are ideal models; Lakoff discusses many variations on the “central metaphors.” He describes both normal and perverse versions, the latter including abuse by strict fathers and over-indulgence by nurturant parents. Lakoff is a liberal. In the interest of analytical rigor he attempts to suppress this personal predilection in the first portion (about four-fifths) of the book, then explains why, from a meta view (rising above the Strict Father and Nurturant Parent metaphors), the Nurturant model makes more sense and is more effective in light of what is now known about child-rearing and how the human mind works. Scientifically, according to Lakoff, the Strict Father model is not only out-of-date but counterproductive. The first edition of this book appeared in 1996. The second edition (2002) includes an afterword that discusses, in terms of the Family Metaphors, the Clinton impeachment and the 2000 election. I think it’s fair to say that if Al Gore and his advisers had read and taken to heart the first edition of this book, George W. Bush would never have made it into the White House. Conservatives, on the other hand, have (as Lakoff says) for some time intuitively understood the power of these metaphors and have developed coherent policies around them; liberals, including John Kerry, suffered incoherence for not doing so. I have little doubt that the GOP’s Frank Luntz (and probably Rove and Mehlman) read the first edition of this book with great interest. I think Lakoff got quite a bit of attention from the Obama campaign. A disturbing implication of this book: since politics is based on morality, on many issues compromise may be well nigh impossible. This is especially true for conservatives, for whom in some cases any yielding is considered immoral—giving in to evil. According to Lakoff, at core there’s really no such thing as a “moderate”: at core you’re either a liberal or a conservative—you favor either Nurturant Parent morality or Strict Father morality. Does this mean that “moderates” and “independents” should quit waffling and choose sides once and for all? Read this book. It will teach you to x-ray right through the partisan bickering and obfuscation and propaganda to the heart of American politics.

Lisa de Jong

Why are liberals against the death penalty but anti abortion and conservatives vice versa? Lakoff gives fascinating insight into how the mind works from a political point of view and where these morals come from. Politics meets cognitive science and holds hands with semantics. Great read!


If one of the characteristics of postmodernity is the understanding that all truths are contextually situated, then cognitive linguistics provides a more-than-adequate means for reckoning what we believe and why we believe what we believe.The cognitive model that lies in the heart of Lakoff’s Moral Politics thoroughly illuminates the American political landscape. If you have an open mind, then reading this book will provide you with a solid framework for understanding why political discourse since 1992 has been so polarized. Those who dismissively accuse Lakoff of having a liberal agenda are either missing the point or are applying a pre-Enlightenment, authority-based epistemology to their worldview and their interpretation of this book. His assumptions are reasonable and his methodology is transparent. Given his warrants and the evidence he provides, his conclusion—that our political ideologies are derived from our conception of an ideal family—is indisputable. Lakoff’s agenda, if he has one, is to foster the belief that we can know ourselves and our world. That—nothing more, nothing less—is what makes him a liberal. This is a great book. Read it.


George Lakoff is out to explain the political behavior of AmericansFor the first third of this book, I wearily turned the pages as he built the foundation upon which he would defend his theory that it is our moral worldview that determines our political view, not the objective facts upon which arguments for or against some policy might be made. In several cases he shows conclusively how the logical conclusions on an issue have little to do with how policy on the issue is decided. Gut feelings count for far more than logic. Lakoff is looking for the basis of the remark we have all made that "it just doesn't seem right to me" or "that's just plain wrong!" when discussing politics. What, exactly, makes something wrong? Where do these feelings that drive our votes come from?But the author has to be forgiven the dry and (I thought) boring first third of he book because he must present the basis for the writing that follows, if it is to hold together logically and not simply be his unsupported opinion.This is the only reason I don't give the book five stars - because I think many readers might give up reading before they get to the very persuasive last two thirds, that starts with the chapter called "The Hard Issues". Feel free to skip the first third - you can go back to it if you are as intrigued as I was.So what's his argument?He says we don't view issues on the actual practical merits of experiential reality, but from the metaphors that we use to make sense of reality; our worldview. The common political metaphor that holds sway is that of the nation as family. This metaphor portrays the country as a large family within which morality exists, may be flouted and must be supported. How citizens should be treated by the government and the function of government are seen through two different ways of looking at the nation as family.Underlying conservative thought, Lakoff identifies what he calls the "Strict Father" metaphor. In this model, being upright and forceful, setting a strict standard for behavior, competition as an unqualified good, punishment for misbehavior/reward for good behavior and "tough love" are thought to mold the morals of the citizenry as it is claimed to do for the children in a family headed by a strict father. Just as a child under this paradigm is spanked, so should citizens who do wrong be punished, because retribution is right.Underlying liberal thought, Lakoff presents the "Nurturant Parent" metaphor of the nation as family. In this worldview the cultivation of the person is the priority. A child is not punished physically but shown by example and explanation, with reasoning, when bad behavior occurs. The government exists not simply to protect the citizenry but to aid it in full realization through fair treatment. Here, it is cultivation and fairness, not retribution that are key.Calmly and clearly, Lakoff shows how these two worldviews tie together all the stands on different issues such as abortion, the environment, welfare, the military, feminism and more, that define conservatism and liberalism.Though Lakoff identifies himself in the introduction as a liberal, he respects and even admires the way that conservatives in recent years have been able to frame political arguments to make it appear their stand on each issue is a natural consequence of what is right and wrong. He brings the reader up through the the Supreme Court ruling on the election of George W. Bush to show that political actions follow the belief in the metaphorical concepts he discusses.In keeping with any good theory, this one should allow one to predict the conservative and liberal views on almost any political issue, though Lakoff is careful to say that many individuals are variants of the conservative/liberal dichotomy...and he illustrates this with convincing analyses of the libertarian and feminist variants. I will not reveal the closing argument that he makes that confounds the Strict Father metaphor, but it certainly seems irrefutable to me.Two thoughts were prominent when I finished the book:1) I grasped that "the way things are" is by no means the only way they can be, or the way they must be, or the way they should be. It is the metaphorical worldview we have that seems to be firmly set in a concrete of the mind that is harder to chip away at than any rock found on the ground.2) he who frames the issues, wins the debate.It's Lakoff's goal to break the conservative framing within which American political discourse is trapped. I found his presentation convincing.

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