Why George Lakoff Is Wrong About Democracy

11/03/2016 10:11 pm ET Updated Nov 04, 2016

George Lakoff, Professor Emeritus of Cognitive Sciences at the University of California Berkeley, regularly proclaims his marginality. “You will probably not read what I have to say in the New York Times nor hear it from your favorite political commentators,” he wrote in his Huffington Post column, “Understanding Trump,” last July 22. “You will also not hear it from Democratic candidates or party strategists.”

In his post-mortem of the Democratic defeat in 2014, Lakoff outlined his view of democracy and what he sees as the myopia of Democratic politicians. The problem with his approach is not his use of frames, or metaphors — people think in metaphors which help us process the world and its constant flow of information. The problem is the ones he uses, parental figures of father and mother embodied in government. There is a third political metaphor threaded through American history, an empowered, self-reliant citizenry. In this view, people are adults, not children, and government is a partner, neither a savior nor a nurturing mother.

“Progressives and conservatives have very different understandings of democracy,” he proposed in “Democratic Strategies Lost Big.” Lakoff advanced a framework that lifts up government as nurturing parent as the way to frame Democratic policies. “For progressives, empathy is at the center of the very idea of democracy…a governing system in which citizens care about their fellow citizens and work through government to provide public resources for all.”

Lakoff contrasts government as “nurturing parent” or “nurturing mother” with “you’re own your own” conservatism, which he also ascribes to evangelicals (he seems to have a special animus against evangelicals). This conservative framework he describes as the “strict father” view. He says that there is a profound moral divide between the two camps. “In the strict father family father knows best,” he argued in “Understanding Trump.” The strict father “knows right from wrong and has the ultimate authority to make sure his children and his spouse do what he says.”

The strict father view leads to conservatives’ view of success. “Responsibility is taken to be personal responsibility not social responsibility. What you become is only up to you; society has nothing to do with it. You are responsible for yourself not for others.”

Lakoff’s popularity belies his posture of modesty. He had 36 thousand “likes” on Facebook for the column “Understanding Trump” on Huffington Post last July. Most to the point is the adoption of his framework, “government as nurturing parent,” by Democrats across the board.

Lakoff’s approach has become the leading framework of progressive politics. As Yuval Levin noted, speakers at the 2012 Democratic convention talked as if they were reading from his books. “Government is the one thing we all belong to,” as the opening video put it. Rep. Barney Frank proposed that “there are things that a civilized society needs that we can only do when we do them together, and when we do them together that’s called government.”

The progressive chorus includes Hillary Clinton much of this campaign. “Hillary Clinton’s Fought for Children and Families Her Entire Career,” is her closing argument, highlighted on her website. Her themes of “stronger together have been largely undeveloped.

The problem with Lakoff’s view is that he slights the heart and soul of democracy.

When the French observer Alexis de Tocqueville travelled America in the 1830s he found an alternative meaning of democracy, much like the meaning of democracy for the Greeks, alive in the vibrant associations which Americans created. In contrast to France, where people petitioned the King to solve problems like alcoholism, in America people organized to solve problems themselves, sometimes with government as a partner. “In democratic peoples, associations must take the place of the powerful particular persons,” he wrote in the classic, Democracy in America. Tocqueville argued that collaboration among citizens “is the mother science; the progress of all the others depends on the progress of that one.”

Democracy in its vibrant moments has been something created by the people. Elections and political leaders are important in civic terms. They are partners, resources, and catalysts for citizen action. This is a far cry from either government as strict father or as nurturing mother. This view shaped the 1930s, as Lisbeth Cohen conveys in Making a New Deal. I also learned this understanding of democracy in the freedom movement which shaped me as a young man working for the citizenship schools of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, headed by Martin Luther King. Septima Clark, architect of the schools, articulated their purpose as “broadening the scope of democracy to include everyone and deepening the concept to include every relationship.”

Alain Locke, the African American philosopher whom Martin Luther King likened to Plato and Aristotle, architect of the Harlem Renaissance, argued that, "If we are going to have effective democracy in America, we must have the democratic spirit." That required "more social and more economic democracy in order to have or keep political democracy."

Vincent Harding, a close friend and speechwriter for Martin Luther King, argued similarly. “The civil rights movement was in fact a powerful outcropping of the continuing struggle for the expansion of democracy in the United States,” he wrote. “It demonstrates…the deep yearning for a democratic experience that is far more than periodic voting.”

Democrats – as well as Independents and Republicans – are not going to get very far in addressing the challenges and crises of a divided nation until we remember that democracy is not mainly electing politicians to save or nurture us. It is the everyday work of us all between elections as well as at the voting booth.

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