Lakoff says conservatives campaign on “family” metaphor

By Dennis Gruending

george_lakoff.jpgPolicy wonks may think that elections are about issues but linguist and political commentator George Lakoff says they’re all about cultural metaphors and stereotypes. The Republicans are proven masters at shifting focus away from issues and toward potent metaphors framed in a conservative way and with “family values” at their centre. In Canada, Stephen Harper’s steely resolve turns dreamy when he dons a sweater vest and muses to the camera about how great it is to be a dad.

Lakoff, an American, says that the incumbent Republicans would have much to lose by focussing on issues – a sinking economy, a mortgage crisis, rising energy prices, a record and staggering government deficit, and a war in Iraq. Stephen Harper has an unpopular war of his own to defend, not to mention a hollowing out of Canada’s manufacturing sector and his lack of action on global warming.

The Republicans know that Ronald Reagan and George W Bush won by running on values, authenticity, trust and identity rather than on issues. Lakoff says that Republicans specialize in placing their family values into an authoritarian frame, then applying it via metaphorical thought to the nation: good vs. evil, authority, the use of force, toughness and discipline, individual (versus social) responsibility, and tough love. Enter Sarah Palin, John McCain’s vice-presidential running mate who burst onto the Republican stage as a gun-loving religious fundamentalist and mother of five, a self-styled hockey mom and a “pit bull with lipstick.” Her job was to personify what Lakoff calls “the mother in a strict father family, upholding conservative values.”

Lakoff warns that those who criticize or belittle Palin for her extremism or her lack of national experience are missing the point. While the criticisms may be true, Lakoff says, they are largely irrelevant to this campaign. “Conservative theorists win [people] over in two ways: Inventing and promulgating the idea of a ‘liberal elite’ and focussing campaigns on social and family issues.” Palin has been recruited for both roles. In her acceptance speech, she heaped scorn on Obama as an elitist liberal intellectual, even though he arose from modest circumstances while McCain is a millionaire who can’t remember how many houses and condominiums he owns. Palin’s pit bull attacks on Obama leave McCain free to take the high road as warrior and strict father figure of the family and nation.

The Conservatives are attempting something similar in Canada, although the strict father role doesn’t rest as comfortably on apple-cheeked Stephen Harper as it does on the older and craggy McCain. Conservative ads and campaign events portray Harper as a decisive and firm leader, a tax cutter – and an ardent family man. Tellingly, he was unenthused when a reporter asked him if Stéphane Dion isn’t just as much of a family man. Harper has no corner on that market — Jack Layton, Elizabeth May and Gilles Duceppe also have credentials as good family people.

On the pit bull side, the Conservatives ran advertisements all summer attacking Dion as a pin-headed intellectual and bookish ditherer. Then, two days into the campaign came the puffin flying over Dion and pooping on his shoulder. Dion, by the way, is shown in that ad standing in front of a blackboard containing the words: “Hello class, my name is Professor Dion.” This denigration of teacher and intellectual contains parallels to Palin’s putdown of Obama for being a community organizer – as though being a community worker or teacher is not a real or useful job.

In fact, Harper is as much a policy wonk as is Dion, although the latter has the more impressive academic credentials. Dion has spent much of his life teaching at a university while Harper, other than a stint leading the right wing National Citizens Coalition, spent most of his time in the backrooms of the Reform Party or in the House of Commons. As for the manly man, Harper may have shed his paunch but on a cross-country ski trail Dion would likely win the race.

There are important issues at play in both the Canadian and American elections. It does matter who wins and who governs. Dion, Layton, and May each has national policy prescriptions to offer but they, especially Dion, cannot afford to ignore the political marketing of the Conservatives. They will have to blend reality with symbols, running on character and values, authenticity and trust as well as on the issues.

Note: George Lakoff will be the resource person for a seminar called Persuading to Win to be held near Toronto on Nov.
14-15, 2008.

One thought on “Lakoff says conservatives campaign on “family” metaphor

  1. Dennis,

    This is a good addition to political commentary. I use Lakoff’s book Metaphors We Live By in my course. It draws attention to the way in which we accept metaphorical language unthinkingly–it becomes natural to us. He points out that we consistently associate the spacial descriptor “up” with something positive and “down” with negative. There is no intrinsic reason why. It is good to see how he uses his theoretical framework to hone in on political use of metaphors. You have, in effect, deconstructed conservative political rhetoric. Metaphors are two-eged; they can illuminate but if taken as authoritative they can be grossly misleading as your column shows. If anything, your words should make people conscious of metaphors, asking always how much truth they reveal and how significant is the subversion of and distraction from important truths.

    Thank you.


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