Cognitive Linguist George Lakoff writes that the progressive alternative to the right’s Strict Father morality is the Nurturant Parent. But nurturing assumes a power relationship that progressives should not take as a given. (More)

Strictly Right, Part III: The Power of Partnership (Non-Cynical Saturday)

This week Morning Feature looks at the conservative moral worldview of strict authority and obedience. Thursday we began with Ebola and the conservative rationale for mandatory quarantines. Yesterday we saw the conservative arguments for parental violence at home and police violence on our streets. Today we conclude with the progressive case for nurturing and partnership over punishment.

The Nurturant Parent

In Moral Politics, cognitive linguist George Lakoff writes that our first experiences of rules, roles, rewards, and consequences happen in childhood. From this he theorizes that our impressions and expectations of government are forever framed by familial models, and he proposes that conservative and progressive political views are grounded in our different, family-based models of morality.

Psychologist Robert Altemeyer developed the concept of right wing authoritarianism and summarized that research in his 2006 book The Authoritarians. His findings largely fit other research, such as psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory and – as we discussed Thursday and Friday – support Dr. Lakoff’s argument that the Strict Father moral model links many threads of conservative ideology.

The progressive alternative, Dr. Lakoff argues, is the Nurturant Parent model, where the parent’s role is to provide a safe, instructive space where children can explore and learn. Parents must intervene to stop hurtful or unsafe behaviors, but the Nurturant Parent model suggests that learning is most effective when children learn from natural consequences (e.g.: if you spill your milk, you have to clean up the mess). In this model, discipline is about respect and compassion for others and parents must teach it by example.

As applied to government, he writes, the Nurturant Parent model fosters ideals of equal opportunity, public education and other infrastructure that help us explore and achieve our goals, laws and regulations that protect us from both crime and economic predation, and a strong safety net for those in need.

The Four-Pane Power Window

As a parent I favor nurturing, but I’m not entirely comfortable with Dr. Lakoff’s presumption of Government As Parent. Like the Strict Father model, the Nurturant Parent model presumes an inequality of power. Whether wayward children who need a strict hand, or curious children who need nurturing as we explore and learn, both models frame citizens as children.

For me, the progressive worldview shows citizens more respect than that, and to understand it we need to explore the concept of power:

 photo PowerWindow2.jpg

This diagram presents two dimensions of power:

  • Equal or Unequal? – In equal power relationships, disputes are resolved through competition or negotiated cooperation, but without a permanent ‘winner.’ Ann may get more of what she wants this time, but Beth may get more of what she wants the next, and often they may work together to achieve a outcomes that are better for both. In unequal power relationships, the less powerful party may request but the more powerful party always decides.
  • Power Over/Against or Power To/With? – In a Power Over/Against frame, the key question is whether you can make others act. In a Power To/With frame, the key question is whether you can act. In the Power Over/Against frame, if Carol wants a turkey sandwich she may expect the entire family to eat turkey sandwiches, or even expect Dianne to make the sandwich for her. In the Power To/With frame, it’s enough that Carol can make a turkey sandwich for herself.

Competition toward Dominance, or toward Partnership?

In the Four-Pane model, Dr. Lakoff’s conservative morality fits in the upper right box of Dominance, and his progressive morality in the lower right box of Nurturing. But most adult interactions are more nuanced, including many of our interactions with government. We may want someone to help us do This – or not stop us from doing That – but we may also have other alternatives. We can do This without help or find help elsewhere, but it may be more difficult. We can do That and accept the consequences: upset a colleague or friend, leave a job, pay a traffic ticket, etc.

In trying to do This or That, we may resolve disputes with amicable negotiations (more partnership) or the talks may get more heated (more competition). If we still can’t agree, we may take the dispute to a binding forum such as a courtroom, or a public or committee vote (definitely competition).

But while disputes often have a ‘winner’ and a ‘loser,’ that power inequality need not apply beyond that decision … unless you insist on competing-toward-dominance (“I won, you lost, now do what I say!”). You could instead compete-toward-partnership (“This is the decision, so how can we make it work together?”).

The Advantages of Partnership

In this more nuanced view of power, the differences in progressive and conservative morality aren’t about Dominance vs. Nurturing – a choice between Strict or Benevolent Despots – but about Dominance vs. Partnership. Yes, we’ll have disputes. Yes, some of those disputes will get competitive. But is our goal to settle the pecking order, once and for all … or to reach the best decision we can and make it work together? In that light, progressive morality offers clear advantages.

Yes, a Dominant person or group can make decisions more quickly. But no person or group is perfect and establishing a Dominant group – once and for all – casts their weaknesses in concrete. Innovation comes only at their indulgence, and ideas they can’t accept are shut out.

Partnership can be slow and messy, but it keeps ideas and new solutions flowing. Networks are more innovative than hierarchies, and the “controlled chaos” of flatter hierarchies spurs creativity even within individuals. A progressive society that offers more opportunities for more people – and buffers the risks of individual failure – is not simply about justice, though it is that. It’s also about enabling a robust creativity that helps us adapt to new challenges.

Yes, progressives prefer Nurturing over Dominance, if those are the only options. But we don’t cast citizens as lifelong children of Government As Parent, and our moral framework looks beyond Nurturing … to Partnership.


Happy Friday!