Lakoff, Metaphors, and 08 campaign oh my

A brief explanation, and probably incorrect application, of George Lakoff’s cognitive linguistic approach to politics using metaphors: A two part series.

The books:

The Metaphors:

Lakoff offers the basic argument that their are two different metaphors through which people view politics. The first is the strict father metaphor. In this Lakoff that some people are raised with a philosophy that equals to something like a family with a strong dominating father which must discipline children into becoming good strict fathers in their turn. This is really a metaphor for conservatives. They view the government as father and the citizens as children. Some of the morals that come to mind when someone pictures a strict father such as financially responsible, pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, and the strong authority figure; are how conservatives normally view the world.

Liberals However look at politics through the nurturing parent metaphor. This metaphor suggests that mothers and fathers try to stop children from being corrupted. In this metaphor government acts as both mother and father with the children again as citizens. The liberal morality is defined through this metaphor with the parents trying to keep their children (the citizens) out of trouble and helping when they are down. Crime, poverty, global warming, welfare, universal health care, etc. are all part of what parents try to help their children with in this metaphor.

Lakoff argues that this is the place where current political debate lies. Lakoff also argues that the reason why conservatives have been so successful in recent presidential elections is because they framed the debate as the strict father debate. With that framing, or without an equally convincing framing, coming from liberals then liberals have little chance of winning presidential elections.

In the following video Lakoff offers a complete explanation of this theory and some of how it is applied to the current presidential debate.


From the current perspective it easy to use hindsight and see how this was true not only for Reagan Bush  1 and Bush 2 but also for Clinton. Clinton framed his presidency in this way with an emphasis on welfare reform and economic reform. NAFTA is a prime example of Clinton using these ideas to further the economic goals he had set for his presidency. If you want to trade thats okay as long as everybody is trading fairly. “Pay-Go” is a good example of Clinton pushing the same philosophy on congress. If you want to have a new toy (program) find out where you can make or save money to pay for it.

During the current presidential campaign the distinction is deeper. Today we can see the very hardline Strict father model in both McCain and Palin. Palin attempts to portray the strict father role much as McCain does. They both argue that their moral views are the right ones and that the laws should be changed to reflect this.

Obama seems to be trying to re-frame the debate by focusing n the future. He seems to use more of the nurturing parent model. He rails against the current administration and Washington Politics but seems to do so from a position which allows for people to find their own way. It has almost become a joke, his use of the word hope. However it is exactly that word which is drawing so many moderates and the liberal bas to him. The word hope can be perceived as a word pertaining to both metaphors. In the strict father model, hope may be something to have but not rely upon. In the nurturing parent model hope is something to always hold close. Hope in the strict father model could be seen as something to have but achievable through hard work and the do it yourself con do spirit that people “remember” from the 40’s and 50’s. Hope in the nurturing parent model is something to always hold dear.
In the second of this two part series we will answer questions from this one and look deeper into the Lakoff metaphor as it pertains to the 2008 elections.



Filed under Democratic Party, McCain, Media, Obama, Republican

3 responses to “Lakoff, Metaphors, and 08 campaign oh my

  1. Tony Robinson

    I think this is Nathan’s post? Please add a byline after the title, so I know whose ideas I am reading.

    I enjoyed and learned a good deal from this sophisticated summary and review of Lakoff’s thinking. Lakoff has had tremendous intellectual impact on Democratic thinkers, so I appreciate you providing some education of your own on what Lakoff argues. It is certainly true that the Obama/McCain race fits into the nurturing parent/Dem vs. Strict Father/Rep model that Lakoff lays out there.

    A lot of people love Lakoff–but I’ve never really been that fired up over him. I just don’t but the heart of his argument ath great political debates are essentially about words/frames/values. Lakoff argues that if Dems could just frame things differently, or say things a little differently, then they would start winning elections. But the real debates are not about frames–they are about fundamental policies. I don’t think framing Dem ideas better is the solution. the solution is to advance a better set of populist/progressive policies and ideas–a set that can inspire and motivate alienated poor, young and non-white people to actually believe in teh Dems and to vote. These people are not going to turn up in droves and help the Dems fundamentally restructure our economy simply because the Dems use a better frame for their speeches. Dems have to stand for something specific and advance those policies with courage and pride. I think Lakoff is too focused on words and values–and does to focus enough on the policy debate and how Dems can win by mobilizing alienated people through a serious ground campaign.

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  3. Stephen Noriega

    To put this in context, Chris Matthews talked about the mood of the voters and the viability of the candidates. He said that John McCain related to voter anger and that was not the correct connection with the voters. He said the voters were afraid. They were not afraid of terrorists, a fear combated by the father. They were afraid of losing things, jobs, money and respect. Those things fall i the mother category. Right now we need our mom more than our dad and the liberals have that down better.

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