The Democrats And “Values”

As Thanksgiving approaches one of the things I’m thankful for is that, despite my perceived apostasy, I have not been abandoned by all of my old liberal friends. One of them, you hardy long-time readers my recall, had strongly recommended a book by George Lakoff, a linguist at Berkeley, Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think. I didn’t read the book, but I did read two long interviews with him, with some trepidation sent my response to my friend (who is still a friend, a testament to his tolerance), and posted an edited version of this long response here last New Year’s Day.

Alas, Lakoff is back, and I encourage you to read my earlier comments about him before proceeding, since much of what he says here is the same thing he said there and I’m not repeating my earlier criticisms.

Liberals like Lakoff have been badly stung by the accusation that they (“the 55 million progressives who came together in this election, voted for Kerry and rejected the Bush agenda,” as Lakoff puts it) lost the election because they lack values. Here is his current argument in a nutshell (I’m tempted to say literally in a nutshell, but will resist the temptation…):

We came together because of our moral values: care and responsibility, fairness and equality, freedom and courage, fulfillment in life, opportunity and community, cooperation and trust, honesty and openness. [Italics in original] We united behind political principles: equality, equity (if you work for a living, you should earn a living) and government for the people–all the people.

These are traditional American values and principles, what we are proudest of in this country. The Democrats’ failure was a failure to put forth our moral vision, celebrate our values and principles, and shout them out loud.

We must immediately convince our leaders to unite behind these values, express our common moral vision and hold the line against the Bush agenda because it is immoral! Bush will call them obstructionists. They must frame themselves as heading in the right direction, going forward not backward, defending the greatest of American ideals and moral principles, working against a radical right agenda that would lead our country to disaster and speaking for more than 55 million highly moral, patriotic Americans.

If we communicate our values clearly, most people will recognize them as their own, personally more authentic and more deeply American than those put forth by conservatives. At the very least they will see progressives as having deeply held, traditional American principles. This would be a huge step forward from the present state, in which conservatives are seen as having a monopoly on “values” and progressives are framed as the party of “if it feels good, do it,” with no higher principles.

I will refrain from repeating my criticism of the Lakovian mantra that “Progressive values are the values of a responsible nurturant family” and, concomitantly, that conservatives are uncaring, unempathetic, authoritarian brutes. Nor will I pursue the question of why Lakoff thinks it necessary to “convince” liberal “leaders” to unite behind such apple pie “values” as fairness, equality,freedom, trust, honesty, etc. And rather than respond to Lakoff’s simple-minded caricature of conservatives, I actually would like to see his article widely distributed and read, especially among swing voters. His supercilious assumption of moral superiority would send them scurrying to the conservatives faster than just about anything else I’ve read.

What I would like to emphasize here, since it did not come up in my earlier criticism, is Lakoff’s insistence that his values are “more authentic and more deeply American than those put forth by conservatives,” that only poor communication by liberals has prevented “most people” from seeing “progressives as having deeply held, traditional American principles,” and that “The only way to trump their [conservative] moral values is with our own [liberal] more traditional and more patriotic moral values.”

So, not only are liberal values more authentically, deeply, traditionally, morally American, but conservative values, at least as embodied in “the Bush agenda,” are “immoral.” It’s hard to pass up responding to this, but let it go. But here’s one thing I don’t want to let go: Lakoff conveniently defines, somewhat, what he means by equality:

Equality means full political and social equality, without regard to wealth, race, religion or gender. [Emphasis added]

Wow! Lakoff endorses the “without regard” principle of neutral, color-, gender-, and race-blind equality! This, I’m sure, will come as a big surprise to most of his fellow racial preference supporting liberal friends, and probably to Lakoff himself if he ever stops to consider the implications of what he asserts here.

It just goes to show that some American principles are in fact so deeply rooted and traditional that even liberals repeat them if they’re not careful.


A little over a week ago I wrote the following (here):

I have long thought, and reasonably often written, that the Democrats’ main problem is not that they reject the religious values of many (most?) Americans but that they do not honor what most Americans think of as American values, primary among them the principle that every individual (not group) has a right to be judged without regard to race, religion, or ethnicity.

If liberals would begin, again, to practice what Lakoff preaches here about the “without regard” principle, they would go a long way toward re-establishing their affinity with traditional American principles, principles that in the equality arena they are quite properly seen as having abandoned.

UPDATE [28 Nov. 1:55PM]

Someone else notices Lakoff’s, er, idiosyncratic analytical style. In his Washington Post column today, after reprising some of the studies showing the overwhelming preponderance of liberals/Democrats on college campuses (and the near-extinction level numbers of Republicans), George Will writes the following:

But George Lakoff, a linguistics professor at Berkeley, denies that academic institutions are biased against conservatives. The disparity in hiring, he explains, occurs because conservatives are not as interested as liberals in academic careers. Why does he think liberals are like that? “Unlike conservatives, they believe in working for the public good and social justice.” That clears that up.

In Lakoff’s partial defense, I suppose it could be said that at least he wasn’t quite as smug as a number of administrators and academics at Duke (discussed and quoted here) when presented with the ideological imbalance numbers there, most striking of which (though it was a close call) was probably the remark of Robert Brandon, chair of the Philosophy Dept.:

We try to hire the best, smartest people available. If, as John Stuart Mill said, stupid people are generally conservative, then there are lots of conservatives we will never hire.

UPDATE II [30 Nov.]

Reader Rick Palmer points out a set of hilarious (but nevertheless revealing) letters to the San Francisco Chronicle about George Will’s criticism of the ideological one-sidedness of academia, referred to above.

Here are some of the high(which is to say, low)lights:

  • Steve Dumford (I did not make up this name) of Scotts Valley explains the absence of conservatives in academia by the fact that conservatism ” has demonstrated little regard for the welfare of the whole of society,” and by the fact that “liberals, if not necessarily more intelligent than conservatives, are, at the very least, better informed.”
  • Paul Springer of San Rafael says Wills’s piece “stinks of bad, superficial journalism,” in part because he “does not define the terms ‘liberal and ‘conservative.'” These definitions, however, are clear to Springer: ” Given the dimensions of the presidential election, the terms ‘rational’ and ‘Neanderthal’ might be more appropriate.” Conservatives, moreover, don’t apply to graduate school for “fear of exposure to smart people and the lack of profit-making opportunities….” In short, there are no conservatives in academia “because Neanderthals have an innate aversion to it.”
  • Pier Sircello of San Francisco explains that there are few academic conservatives because “fascism and academia just don’t go well together.”
  • Gunther Steinberg of Portola Valley relies on an article from the Economist that purports to show different brain functions between people who delay gratification and those who don’t. In the delayers, “brain activity was concentrated in “thinking” regions such as the prefrontal cortex.” Thus, Steinberg concludes (obviously receiving immediate gratification), “Bush voters were swayed by emotion, which certainly includes religious beliefs. Those who voted to replace Bush did so on a rational basis….”

Well! (as George Will would say). “That clears that up,” as he did say.

Say What? (9)

  1. LTEC November 24, 2004 at 4:34 pm | | Reply

    It is hard to criticize one part of Lakoff’s incredible remarks without feeling negligent for ignoring another part. For example, his confusing of slogans with content is horrific. But for now, I just want to point out that if voting for Democrats merely means one is opposing the Radical Right Agenda, then it does not say very much about what one is supporting, and it is ridiculous to assume that all such people are “highly moral” and “patriotic”, or that they have anything much in common at all.

  2. John from OK November 24, 2004 at 8:43 pm | | Reply


    “…working against a radical right agenda that would lead our country to disaster….”

    If the Dems want to win in 2008, they should explain to swing voters the specifics of the aforementioned “disaster”. If the swing voters don’t buy it, then maybe they should STFU about “disasters”, and present their program with more civility.

  3. linsee November 25, 2004 at 2:27 pm | | Reply

    Well, it would be nice if Lakoff meant what you assume he does by “full political and social equality” but in fact what he is agitating for here is equality of outcomes, not equality of opportunity.

    Still, it’s useful for quote mining.

  4. John Rosenberg November 26, 2004 at 12:46 am | | Reply

    linsee – It doesn’t make any sense to talk about equality “without regard” to race etc. if you mean equality of outcomes, which require counting by race to make sure the result is in fact proportional.

  5. John Anderson November 27, 2004 at 6:56 am | | Reply

    “… speaking for more than 55 million highly moral, patriotic Americans.”

    So, the other 57 million of us are immoral and unpatriotic? And what of those who did not vote? If you want to convince me of anything, it is fairly asinine to start by accusing me of being the spawn of the Devil.

    Yes, I agree with some “liberal” positions. Yes, I disagree with some “conservative” positions. But in a Republican forum, I can air my views and try to sway others: Dems used to be able to do that, too. I was worried a few years ago when it looked like Newt G’s bunch were going to take over the Republicans. I am appalled that the Chomsky-Moore wing appears to have succeeded in moulding the Dems.

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