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


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.

Andrew Webb

I read this book for a logic class my sophomore year of college. Following is the paper I wrote in hopes of defusing Lakoff's argument. In Moral Politics, George Lakoff gives us two models for running a family—the strict father and the nurturant parent. He then attempts to show that these are also the conservative and liberal models for government, and explains why the nurturant parent/liberal government model is superior to its counterpart. This paper will attempt to show that his underlying suppositions are false and that the conservative model of government is in fact superior to the liberal model. After more than five sections and three hundred pages of reiterating the difference between the two family models, and how these models fit various political issues, Lakoff finally makes an argument for a liberal form of government in pages 335-388. However, almost half of this argument is a chapter entitled “Raising Real Children” in which he shows that that the nurturant parent model is the superior one for raising a family. He may very well be correct in this, but the time he spends discussing family reveals a major weakness in his argument regarding government. On page 258, Lakoff uses the Biblical story of the Garden of Eden in a metaphorical sense—it represents being sheltered in infancy, while the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil represents leaving home and reaching independence. Whether his interpretation of the book of Genesis is correct is irrelevant. However, he is absolutely correct in saying that in childhood we are protected and cared for by our family, and that in later life we reach a state of more freedom, but also responsibility. This brings to light a major problem in his “family” models of government—what works in a home to raise children may not necessarily work on the vast scale of government. To begin with, children and adults are very different. Parents should be nurturant and forgiving and tolerant to their children; their children are young, innocent, naïve, and need a lot of help, love, and instruction. But later in life, when the children reach adulthood, they are no longer able to have their parents fill all their needs. Should they therefore go to the government as a kind of “new parent” when their biological or adoptive parents have passed away or are no longer able to provide for them? Of course it seems apparent that eventually adults must learn responsibility. That is not to say that the government should not help people who are truly in need and have no means of livelihood, but the role of the government is to protect its citizens and give them opportunity, helping when it is necessary. But, its role should not be that of a “parent.” Another challenge to Lakoff’s argument lies in the “dependence” problem. That is, if the government takes the role of a loving parent, people will adapt and learn that they do not have to work to survive. Though he brings up the problem as a complaint from conservatives, no where do I see a response to it—he instead dismisses it as being unimportant next to the virtue of kindness. The problem with a government whose main aim is to be kind is the question: kind to whom? It may be kind to give money to the poor, but if that means raising taxes, it is also taking money from someone who has earned it. Whatever laws are passed, some parties will benefit and others will suffer. Of course there must be compromise, and the government must take taxes and help those who are unable to provide for themselves and their families, but Lakoff almost seems to imply a “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” manner of rhetoric. Lakoff creates yet another contradiction on page 254 when he says, regarding the conservative and liberal interpretations of the Bible “if you have a Strict Father interpretation, you need not use the Nation as a Family metaphor to project Strict Father morality onto the public domain.” If this is true, it defuses the very basis of his argument; isn’t the point of the book that morality and religion are the backbone of American politics and government? That it is truly impossible to separate morality, religion, and politics into separate spheres? Why is the conservative model of government superior to the liberal model? Referring back to Lakoff’s interpretation of the Genesis story, and his demonstration that nurturance is the best policy for raising children, the answer can be put very simply: the government concerns adults. It is true that there is no one way to be a parent; if there was, surely everyone would know of this wonder method and practice it. As it is, there are thousands of books describing as many methods for raising children— empathy, reward systems, physical discipline, non-physical discipline, etc. With that said, in the chapter “Raising Real Children,” which is essentially the first half of Lakoff’s real argument, he sets forth a very solid argument for the nurturant parent model of child rearing. But generally, children are reared by their parents (or close relatives, or step-parents, or adoptive parents). And, also generally, the only authority to which an adult ultimately answers (other than his conscience and his God) is the government. And so, the family should be organized in a manner conducive to the rearing of children, and the government should be organized in a manner conducive to the regulation of the activities of adults. Lakoff presents many issues in Moral Politics, and they are too many to cover here. But perhaps explanation of a few key issues will serve to demonstrate why a government should behave differently than a family. For example, he accuses conservatives of spending too much time and effort on military defense. In a family following the Strict Father model, this translates to the father’s number one priority being the physical defense of his family, at the cost of helping them in other ways. Now, a suburban father stockpiling guns and other home defense mechanisms might be damaging to a child’s upbringing, and would certainly seem somewhat paranoid, or at least eccentric. But a major reason it would seem strange is that suburban neighborhoods are generally safe places. There are better ways to be a parent than simply waiting to shoot someone who threatens your child. But when applied to government, spending on defense makes much more sense. After all, there are always threats to the country, recently during the Cold War, and now because of the threat of terrorism. To acknowledge a very real danger is not paranoid; we know very well that a large part of the world would like to see our country destroyed. True, our military seems so huge and powerful that it could probably scare off an attack by a coalition of five or ten other countries’ militaries without a fight… but isn’t that what we want? If the government failed to protect the country from physical danger from communists, terrorists, or other parties who would seek to destroy the country, all other freedoms and government benefits—from freedom of business, to welfare, to the most basic freedoms of speech and expression—would be meaningless. Thus, it makes perfect sense for a government’s major priority to be the physical defense of its citizens, rather than their nurturance. Another major issue of the book is that of government aid to the poor. Of course, both sides agree that someone incapable of providing for himself (the handicapped, the recently laid off, etc.) should be given some help by the government. But for how long? Should the government give money to everyone who wants it, or only to those who are in deepest need? Lakoff says that children need to be helped, and by continuous helping they can be trained to succeed. This is very true. Nonetheless, when the issue concerns adults, and not children, the conservative views on limited welfare fit much better than the liberal views. That is to say, children are inexperienced and need constant help and reinforcement. Adults, on the other hand, are usually physically and mentally capable of helping themselves. The conservative, and much hated, “Welfare to Work” act passed during Clinton’s administration is a good example—is a few years of welfare insufficient time for a capable adult to get back on his feet after a job loss or other crisis? In short, Lakoff’s argument is flawed on a very basic level—the models of family he discusses are a good way to discover they most effective ways of raising children, but not regulation of adult activities, simply because children and adults are very different and should be treated as such. A liberal, nurturant, method of raising children is probably preferable to a strict, conservative method. But, when the child grows up, he will be ready to live as an adult under a government which treats him accordingly.


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.


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.


In the body of his work, and stated in especially systematic fashion in his early book, “Moral Politics,” George Lakoff presents an intellectual framework for the next Utopia. That Jean-Jacques Rousseau has a lot to answer for was first suggested to me, I believe, in Christopher Hudson's 1984 book, “The Killing Fields.” It was Rousseau who first dangled the hypnotic bauble of human perfectibility before the developing Enlightenment. It was only a matter of time..., and not much, either..., before a line of butchers from the Paris revolutionaries-- through Stalin and on to the dark figure of Hudson's book, Pol Pot--arrived at the conclusion that the tabula rasa effect could most efficiently be achieved by a wash of blood. Overlooking what might be called the experimenter effect (or subjective blindness), there is a reductive appeal to the notion that by eliminating the older generation, established social institutions, history itself (or knowledge of it), the young might be molded into better..., even ideal...form. How very seductive and long-lived the notion of the perfectability of human nature proved to be illustrates the importance of social ideals--that is, Utopian thinkin--on human affairs. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, followed on by the transformation of still-Communist China to a quasi-capitalist state, the world's long fascination with socialism has lost credibility or it has fallen out of fashion, and I have been looking for the next Utopian proposition to make its debut. The American right has fallen back (as is its wont) upon an authoritarian fantasy of some colonial/frontier-era Eden, the Elysium of that part of our society's mythos. But so backward-looking a posture seems to suffer from fatal problems which must shorten the dream. Of course, the very notion suggested by Rousseau of a “noble savage,” was rather retro in view-point. Still, what has been tried and abandoned is only likely to be abandoned by society if tried again. George Lakoff styles himself a cognitive linguist, which ought to throw most followers off his scent. In plainer words, he studies the effects of language usage on thought. Say to yourself daily upon rising, “Every day, in every way, I am getting better and better,” and you are a lay practitioner. I produce so simple an example for clarity's sake (and hoping for a laugh), but Lakoff takes the matter much deeper, with greater significance, and he avoids the pitfall inherent in the assumption that humanity is perfectable. For a more thorough explication of his thinking, Wikipedia is an excellent resource. Briefly stated, in Moral Politics he proposes that left and right talk past each other, as they do, because the two sides of political discourse in America use the same words to mean quite different things: good and bad, family values, for example. A series of metaphors accepted by the conservative faction produces what Lakoff calls Strict Father morality. The man rules the family, is meant to do so, and it is for his wife and children to obey his rulings. It is the father's duty to be strict, to punish short-comings so that his children can grow to be self-sufficient. In the absence of the father, a mother may enforce Strict Father standards, and children internalize them after the fashion of the Freudian super-ego. The ideal individual is self-sufficient above all, rigid in belief and unforgiving of error. Liberals adhere to what Lakoff calls the Nurturing Parent model, in which male and female parental roles are seen as essentially equal, in many ways interchangeable; and it is the primary function of a parent to nurture the weak; to support the young or the misguided, so that they may become cooperating members of society. The ideal individual is supportive, before all else, compromising, respectful of difference and empathetic in the presence of error. The difference between the two positions is obvious: the reliance of Strict Father morality upon punishment and the utilization of nurturence as a teaching tool by the Nurturing Parent. Many of society's divisions originate here: the right-left divide on prisons and sentencing guidelines, on support for militarism in foreign policy versus support for the returning veteran, on welfare eligibility, union membership, the right-to-life in contrast to a woman's right to decide for herself whether to initiate or continue a pregnancy. The list could go on. Unfortunately for the Strict Fathers side of the debate, the opposing camp has the field of psychology on its side; it really is more effective to reward an individual into good behavior than to punish him out of bad behavior—this has been proven in reproducible experiments with everything from Planarian flat-worms to college students. When the systematizing minds of the modern world shape the next dream of a perfect society, it is most likely to take on the lines sketched by Lakoff as the Nurturing Parent morality, not because he invented the position, but because it had already become a force in modern society when he took note of it. He posits that the Nurturant Parent arose from the negotiating position of women: that disenfranchised portion of patriarchal societies. Lacking the force to coerce, women make their way, perforce, by flexibility, compromise and respectful listening. Lakoff has only posed terms to explain what has long been developing as the more reality-based social phenomenon in a world of increasingly limited options. Thus it seems entirely likely that we will someday see two movements in conflict for possession of the future: one in which a return to patriarchal values and practices is promoted and another in which women's independence is fostered by nurturing spouses. This last will be the fertile bed the next great Utopian dream will have in which to germinate. By reading George Lakoff's various publications and Moral Politics in particular, one has the best chance of participating in the future's formation, or at least apprehending and appreciating it as Utopia forms one more time, cumulus on the horizon.


Fascinating concepts (analysis of how liberals & conservatives use different family-based mental models to think about politics, & why liberal thought and conservative thought tend to cluster around the same sets of beliefs), but drily written. I've read later books of his that expand on these topics or address more specific applications, and they were much better. I wanted to read this one to understand the foundation of his ideas, but it wasn't really necessary.

Mike Edwards

Lakoff argues here that how we think about politics is a direct result of how we think about family. He argues that conservatives view both of them in traditional and patriarchal ways, while liberals tend to think about both in more nurturing and inclusive ways. It's an intriguing argument and a well-written book, and there may very well be some truth to it. The problem, unfortunately, is that Lakoff over generalizes, especially when discussing the conservative outlook.

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.


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.


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.

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.

Peter Davis

Great introductory concept: moral politics is based on what clusters of conceptual metaphors we subscribe to. But, the whole middle is too confident in his attempt at guessing and stretching his descriptions of the dominant metaphor clusters. Read the start and the end for the best insights.


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.

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.


Lakoff reveals the paradigms that shape liberal and conservative points of view. It is astonishing to realize that we truly live in different worlds depending on the perspective through which we view the world and the values that shape that perspective. Lakoff draws parallels between different philosophies of childrearing and how these shape not only behavior and self-concept, but also political loyalties and economic realities.

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