Defining Conservatism

Linguist George Lakoff has a definition of conservatism:

Conservatives really want to change the basis of American life, to make America run according to the conservative moral worldview in all areas of life.

In the 2008 campaign, candidate Obama accurately described the basis of American democracy: Empathy — citizens caring for each other, both social and personal responsibility — acting on that care, and an ethic of excellence. From these, our freedoms and our way of life follow, as does the role of government: to protect and empower everyone equally. Protection includes safety, health, the environment, pensions and empowerment starts with education and infrastructure. No one can be free without these, and without a commitment to care and act on that care by one’s fellow citizens.

The conservative worldview rejects all of that.

Conservatives believe in individual responsibility alone, not social responsibility. They don’t think government should help its citizens. That is, they don’t think citizens should help each other. The part of government they want to cut is not the military (we have 174 bases around the world), not government subsidies to corporations, not the aspect of government that fits their worldview. They want to cut the part that helps people. Why? Because that violates individual responsibility.

But where does that view of individual responsibility alone come from?

The way to understand the conservative moral system is to consider a strict father family. The father is The Decider, the ultimate moral authority in the family. His authority must not be challenged. His job is to protect the family, to support the family (by winning competitions in the marketplace), and to teach his kids right from wrong by disciplining them physically when they do wrong. The use of force is necessary and required. Only then will children develop the internal discipline to become moral beings. And only with such discipline will they be able to prosper. And what of people who are not prosperous? They don’t have discipline, and without discipline they cannot be moral, so they deserve their poverty. The good people are hence the prosperous people. Helping others takes away their discipline, and hence makes them both unable to prosper on their own and function morally.

I’ve never been a big fan of Lakoff and it’s not because he’s a liberal.  I always get the feeling that Lakoff sits in some office at some university reading all he can on the conservative movement without ever meeting an actual person that might be conservative.  To kind of use what he’s known for, he frames conservatives as something “other” something that is out to destroy all that is good and righteous about American society.

I will admit there are a lot of problems with conservatives which Lakoff touches on.  But the thing is, conservatives are more complex than the cartoon strawman he describes.

Of course, I know of conservatives that describe liberals in the same way that Lakoff describes conservatives and I find that just as appalling.

I think it’s sad: conservatives and liberals are more and more living in such secluded worlds away from each other that we no longer no how to see each other not as monsters, but as fellow human beings.

h/t: Scott McKnight

2 thoughts on “Defining Conservatism

  1. steve

    This is a perfect example of why it is so hard to have an intelligent discussion about issues. Both sides tend to read their own stereo-typed versions of each other creating a vicious cycle of name calling.

    “Conservatives really want to change the basis of American life”
    As a linguist you’d think he would have understood the definition of conserve~ to retain something, not to change it.


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