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‘Then you are a Republican!’
Berkeley linguist analyzes the rhetoric that dominated last week’s GOP convention, where ‘strict fathers’ stayed strictly on message

09 September 2004


George Lakoff (Bart Nagel photo)
Professor George Lakoff, whose academic specialty is cognitive linguistics, is particularly interested in its application to politics, literature, philosophy, and mathematics. In his book Moral Politics; How Liberals and Conservatives Think (2nd edition, 2002), he explains in some detail how political speakers and writers “frame” their moral worldviews rhetorically. Conservatives, says Lakoff, embrace a worldview he calls the “strict father” model, which (as he told UC Berkeley NewsCenter reporter Bonnie Azab Powell in an October 2003 interview) “assumes that the world is dangerous and difficult and that children are born bad and must be made good....The strict father is the moral authority who supports and defends the family, tells his wife what to do, and teaches his kids right from wrong.” The progressive worldview, on the other hand, which he styles as that of the “nurturant parent,” is built on the assumption that “the world is basically good and can be made better, and that one must work toward that....Nurturing involves empathy, and the responsibility to take care of oneself and others for whom we are responsible.”

Lakoff, a senior fellow at the progressive Rockridge Institute in Oakland, is back from sabbatical this year, teaching a class on framing and answering calls for advice from the Democrats. We won’t come out and say that he (and Powell, his Public Affairs amanuensis) watched last week’s Republican National Convention so you wouldn’t have to ... but it’s a cinch that they watched more of it than anyone this side of George Pataki. Both were on assignment from the NewsCenter to pay attention to each and every speech broadcast during the four-night celebration: Lakoff to apply his highly developed talent for linguistic analysis to the right-leaning rhetoric, Powell to massage his overnight insights into prose. The results of each night’s speechifying were posted by noon the following day, providing readers with a nuanced context for understanding what they’d already heard, and to help them better understand what they’d be hearing again until the convention’s close.

All four postings are still online, beginning with Lakoff’s analysis of the convention’s opening night, at www.berkeley.edu/news/media/releases/2004/08/31_lakoff_gop1.shtml. Links to his musings on the remaining three nights of the convention are located there as well. In the following excerpt, from his analysis of the convention’s second night, Lakoff points out how several of the evening’s speeches conformed to his analytical model of the “strict father” as central to the conservative worldview.

The second night of the Republican convention, billed as “People of Compassion,” was an attempt to frame Republicans as “compassionate.”... The idea was to take away the Democrats’ strong suit — caring about people and doing something about it. The Republicans were there to show they do it differently and better....

How compassionate conservatism and its programs differ from Democrats’ can be summarized by two sentences taken from Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist’s speech: “Our opponents have a way of confusing compassion with dependency. We believe true compassion encourages and empowers Americans to be responsible and take control of their own lives.”

This sentiment — and the many others like it expressed — come straight out of the strict-father model I described in Moral Politics. In short: In the conservative worldview, the world is ... a competitive environment in which there will always be winners and losers. The father’s job, and by extension the government’s, is to protect and support the family, and it is his moral duty to teach his children right from wrong, using physical discipline when necessary, so that they will gain the internal discipline to do right rather than just “what feels good.” Such discipline also allows people to pursue their self-interest to become self-reliant and prosperous....

The basic assumption of conservatism is that there is a hierarchy of merit, and that merit is based on whether you are disciplined enough to succeed. So, social programs are immoral because they give people things that they haven’t earned and therefore make them dependent. If you don’t make it, it’s your own fault; the idea of cycles of poverty does not exist. Only people who can make it are in the frame — people like Arnold Schwarzenegger:

“If you believe that government should be accountable to the people, not the people to the government, then you are a Republican! If you believe a person should be treated as an individual, not as a member of an interest group, then you are a Republican! If you believe your family knows how to spend your money better than the government does, then you are a Republican! If you believe our educational system should be held accountable for the progress of our children, then you are a Republican! If you believe this country, not the United Nations, is the best hope of democracy in the world, then you are a Republican! And, ladies and gentlemen, if you believe we must be fierce and relentless and terminate terrorism, then you are a Republican!

“There is another way you can tell you’re a Republican. You have faith in free enterprise, faith in the resourcefulness of the American people, and faith in the U.S. economy. To those critics who are so pessimistic about our economy, I say: ‘Don’t be economic girlie men!’”

— California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, addressing the Republican National Convention on August 31

These principles hold only for cases that fit the conservative frame that is being built up here. Let’s parse this Republican rallying cry sentence by sentence:

Government should be accountable to the people, not the people to the government: Now, he doesn’t really mean that Dick Cheney should be accountable to the people — say, by revealing the notes of his secret conferences about energy policy. What Schwarzenegger is invoking is the traditional conservative preference for smaller government, less regulation … except, that is, when the strict-father worldview requires bigger government, as in a larger military and a new Department of Homeland Security, and more regulation, like the Patriot Act. The principle holds for the cases that fit conservative values.

A person should be treated as an individual, not as a member of an interest group: “Interest group” has become code for groups that have traditionally been disempowered and now want more rights, such as women, gays, the disabled, and minorities. Of course there are all sorts of interest groups that conservatives don’t mind, including the military establishment, conservative Christians, seniors, agribusiness, pharmaceutical companies, and investors in oil companies. But they are outside the frame.

You believe your family knows how to spend your money better than the government does: Code for lower taxes. Outside the frame is that your family doesn’t know how to build its own army, highways, and Internet, not to mention things that your family business might depend on, such as a trustworthy banking system, court systems to adjudicate corporate disputes, and skilled employees trained at public universities paid for by taxes. The idea of taxation as wise public investment that only government can carry out doesn’t fit the conservative frame and so is not mentioned.

That our educational system should be held accountable for the progress of our children: Essentially says that if schools are inadequate we should cut off their funds as punishment. Notice that he is not saying that the community or the country should be held accountable for the money being given to the education system. The Bush administration cut off the funding for the “No Child Left Behind” program, which has disastrously weakened public schools. But only the schools, not the funders of the schools, are in the frame.

This country, not the United Nations, is the best hope of democracy in the world: Notice the contrast — it’s either us or the United Nations; nothing about working together. The sentence is about maintaining U.S. sovereignty and the idea that the U.S. is the pre-eminent moral authority in the world. We know what’s right and wrong, and the developing and underdeveloped “children” countries that largely make up the U.N. should go along with what we say.

We must be fierce and relentless and terminate terrorism: That’s invoking his Terminator image, saying that we have to go after the terrorists with weapons and kill them. What is left out of the frame is the fact, corroborated by the 9/11 Commission, that such an approach does not address the root causes of terrorism and thus only recruits more terrorists.

You have faith in free enterprise, faith in the resourcefulness of the American people, and faith in the U.S. economy: So, now it’s time to abandon government accountability in favor of a faith-based economy, with nothing about what the economic policies are going to be. The implication is that free enterprise just works by itself as long as you trust the market. But there’s no such thing as a purely free market. It’s a myth. It’s constructed in certain people’s favor with tax loopholes, incentives, and subsidies, and it’s regulated by government bodies such as the SEC and the Fed. But that’s outside the frame.

To those critics who are so pessimistic about our economy, I say: “Don’t be economic girlie men!”: Liberals are wimps. Conservatives are the real men — the real strict fathers. The critics he’s referring to are indeed pessimistic, but about Bush’s handling of the economy, his tax policy, and his deficit, not about the U.S. economy itself.

There is little that is “moderate” about Arnold. He is a conservative through and through. But Arnold is great theater, a master of great frame construction. All most people see is what is in his frame, not what is outside it.