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What conservatives really want

George Lakoff, professor emeritus of linguistics | February 22, 2011

— Dedicated to the peaceful protesters in Wisconsin, February 19, 2011

The central issue in our political life is not being discussed. At stake is the moral basis of American democracy.

The individual issues are all too real: assaults on unions, public employees, women’s rights, immigrants, the environment, health care, voting rights, food safety, pensions, prenatal care, science, public broadcasting, and on and on.

Budget deficits are a ruse, as we’ve seen in Wisconsin, where the Governor turned a surplus into a deficit by providing corporate tax breaks, and then used the deficit as a ploy to break the unions, not just in Wisconsin, but seeking to be the first domino in a nationwide conservative movement.

Deficits can be addressed by raising revenue, plugging tax loopholes, putting people to work, and developing the economy long-term in all the ways the President has discussed. But deficits are not what really matters to conservatives.

Conservatives really want to change the basis of American life, to make America run according to the conservative moral worldview in all areas of life.

In the 2008 campaign, candidate Obama accurately described the basis of American democracy: Empathy — citizens caring for each other, both social and personal responsibility—acting on that care, and an ethic of excellence. From these, our freedoms and our way of life follow, as does the role of government: to protect and empower everyone equally. Protection includes safety, health, the environment, pensions and empowerment starts with education and infrastructure. No one can be free without these, and without a commitment to care and act on that care by one’s fellow citizens.

The conservative worldview rejects all of that.

Conservatives believe in individual responsibility alone, not social responsibility. They don’t think government should help its citizens. That is, they don’t think citizens should help each other. The part of government they want to cut is not the military (we have 174 bases around the world), not government subsidies to corporations, not the aspect of government that fits their worldview. They want to cut the part that helps people. Why? Because that violates individual responsibility.

But where does that view of individual responsibility alone come from?

The way to understand the conservative moral system is to consider a strict father family. The father is The Decider, the ultimate moral authority in the family. His authority must not be challenged. His job is to protect the family, to support the family (by winning competitions in the marketplace), and to teach his kids right from wrong by disciplining them physically when they do wrong. The use of force is necessary and required. Only then will children develop the internal discipline to become moral beings. And only with such discipline will they be able to prosper. And what of people who are not prosperous? They don’t have discipline, and without discipline they cannot be moral, so they deserve their poverty. The good people are hence the prosperous people. Helping others takes away their discipline, and hence makes them both unable to prosper on their own and function morally.

The market itself is seen in this way. The slogan, “Let the market decide” assumes the market itself is The Decider. The market is seen as both natural (since it is assumed that people naturally seek their self-interest) and moral (if everyone seeks their own profit, the profit of all will be maximized by the invisible hand). As the ultimate moral authority, there should be no power higher than the market that might go against market values.

Thus the government can spend money to protect the market and promote market values, but should not rule over it either through (1) regulation, (2) taxation, (3) unions and worker rights, (4) environmental protection or food safety laws, and (5) tort cases.

Moreover, government should not do public service. The market has service industries for that. Thus, it would be wrong for the government to provide health care, education, public broadcasting, public parks, and so on. The very idea of these things is at odds with the conservative moral system. No one should be paying for anyone else. It is individual responsibility in all arenas. Taxation is thus seen as taking money away from those who have earned it and giving it to people who don’t deserve it. Taxation cannot be seen as providing the necessities of life, a civilized society, and as necessary for business to prosper.

In conservative family life, the strict father rules. Fathers and husbands should have control over reproduction; hence, parental and spousal notification laws and opposition to abortion. In conservative religion, God is seen as the strict father, the Lord, who rewards and punishes according to individual responsibility in following his Biblical word.

Above all, the authority of conservatism itself must be maintained. The country should be ruled by conservative values, and progressive values are seen as evil. Science should have authority over the market, and so the science of global warming and evolution must be denied. Facts that are inconsistent with the authority of conservatism must be ignored or denied or explained away. To protect and extend conservative values themselves, the devil’s own means can be used again conservatism’s immoral enemies, whether lies, intimidation, torture, or even death, say, for women’s doctors.

Freedom is defined as being your own strict father — with individual not social responsibility, and without any government authority telling you what you can and cannot do. To defend that freedom as an individual, you will of course need a gun.

This is the America that conservatives really want. Budget deficits are convenient ruses for destroying American democracy and replacing it with conservative rule in all areas of life.

What is saddest of all is to see Democrats helping them.

Democrats help radical conservatives by accepting the deficit frame and arguing about what to cut. Even arguing against specific “cuts” is working within the conservative frame. What is the alternative? Pointing out what conservatives really want. Point out that there is plenty of money in America, and in Wisconsin. It is at the top. The disparity in financial assets is un-American — the top one percent has more financial assets than the bottom 95 percent. Middle class wages have been flat for 30 years, while the wealth has floated to the top. This fits the conservative way of life, but not the American way of life.

Democrats help conservatives by not shouting out loud over and over that it was conservative values that caused the global economic collapse: lack of regulation and a greed-is-good ethic.

Democrats also help conservatives by what a friend has called Democratic Communication Disorder. Republican conservatives have constructed a vast and effective communication system, with think tanks, framing experts, training institutes, a system of trained speakers, vast holdings of media, and booking agents. Eighty percent of the talking heads on TV are conservatives. Talk matters because language heard over and over changes brains. Democrats have not built the communication system they need, and many are relatively clueless about how to frame their deepest values and complex truths.

And Democrats help conservatives when they function as policy wonks — talking policy without communicating the moral values behind the policies. They help conservatives when they neglect to remind us that pensions are deferred payments for work done. “Benefits” are pay for work, not a handout. Pensions and benefits are arranged by contract. If there is not enough money for them, it is because the contracted funds have been taken by conservative officials and given to wealthy people and corporations instead of to the people who have earned them.

Democrats help conservatives when they use conservative words like “entitlements” instead of “earnings” and speak of government as providing “services” instead of “necessities.”

Is there hope?

I see it in Wisconsin, where tens of thousands citizens see through the conservative frames and are willing to flood the streets of their capital to stand up for their rights. They understand that democracy is about citizens uniting to take care of each other, about social responsibility as well as individual responsibility, and about work — not just for your own profit, but to help create a civilized society. They appreciate their teachers, nurses, firemen, police, and other public servants. They are flooding the streets to demand real democracy — the democracy of caring, of social responsibility, and of excellence, where prosperity is to be shared by those who work and those who serve.

George Lakoff is the author of The Political Mind. His website is

Comments to “What conservatives really want

  1. Conservatives believe in individual responsibility until there is Chinese drywall in their new houses – then that needs to be regulated. And until there is a flood – then that needs to be taken care of, etc, etc. You are right about Democrats – they have no “left wing sound machine” and have been losing the battle for hearts and minds since the avuncular Ronald Reagan convinced lunch bucket Democrats that government was the problem.

    Karl Rove and his cohorts have done a brilliant job of reducing everything to catchy digestible sound bites “no new taxes”, “death taxes”, “death panels”, etc. Why is it that the SAME PEOPLE who worship guns and have their “These colors don’t run” bumper stickers are so afraid of everything including their fellow Americans??

    • I empathize with the statements of Prof. George Lakoff. It is plain and simple to understand what the conservatives wants, and democrats for that matter — protecting their own individual interests at the expense of the public interest. This is true worldwide, for wherever they copied capitalistic governance except from America. But I admire Wisconsin citizens for going out the street announcing their protests to demand the government to protect and empower all equally. All should follow your example and flood the streets to fight for our rights.
      Bob Swindell

  2. I see Mr. Lakoff you fashion your self as a “framer” of issues and conservatives. When I think of framers I think of the founding fathers. The “framers” of the Declaration of Independence and our Constitution.
    The framers of this nation have and did supply “What Conservatives Really Want” and that is liberty!

    What the framers of this nation put forth for all of us was liberty Mr. Lakoff. A word that is impossible to find anywhere in this article, because the closest you came to this word was “freedom” and then proceeded to frame it as a strict father, how absurd!
    Liberty is a frame and inside that frame you will find the framers discourse and quotes as to what it is and how to maintain it. One of the things you will find inside the frame work of liberty is “virtue” and virtue covers so many character traits for the individual to use to maintain liberty I can only mention a few and one main virtue is “charity.” That is how the framers of this nation and conservatives take care of the needy Mr. Lakoff which you conveniently left out!
    The ultimate authority over conservatives as framed by the founding fathers Mr. Lakoff is “religion” and it was so important to the framers that it was in the first amendment along with freedom of speech. Which we will see if you still uphold Mr. Lakoff by seeing that these comments get posted to this article.
    I could go on and on about your frame job on conservatives but I won’t… but I will leave you with a few quotes from our “strict” founding fathers:

     “I predict future happiness for Americans if they can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them.”(Thomas Jefferson)
     “It will be found an unjust and unwise jealousy to deprive a man of his natural liberty upon the supposition he may abuse it.” (George Washington)
     Abuse of words has been the great instrument of sophistry and chicanery, of party, faction, and division of society. (John Adams)
     Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other. (John Adams)
     “Guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism.” (George Washington)
     “Government is not reason, it is not eloquence, it is force; like fire, a troublesome servant and a fearful master. Never for a moment should it be left to irresponsible action.” (George Washington)

    The founders of this nation left behind a Declaration and a Constitution with quotes and words of wisdom that were and still are so mind-boggling prophetic and true of human nature that they make today’s intellectuals as your self Mr. Lakoff look like kids playing with matches.

  3. You make some points that I would agree with, but mostly you seem interested in making inflammatory statements and arbitrary generalizations that are obviously designed to illicit some type of equally impassioned response from your readership.

    “Conservatives believe in individual responsibility alone, not social responsibility. They don’t think government should help its citizens. That is, they don’t think citizens should help each other.”

    You only got part of this right. The rest, you twisted to fit your view of things. FISCAL conservatives do believe in individual responsibility and personal freedom above all other things. The last part of that little ditty, however, is complete and utter nonsense. I’m a fiscal conservative, and I believe that citizens should help one another. I help my fellow man every chance I get. You’ll have to take my word for that, though. The point is, that statement is a generalization. A stereotype. Something you liberals are always clamoring for less of.

    True fiscal conservatives believe in personal responsibility. We believe that people should help one another of their own free will, and not have the fruits of our labors stolen from us by our own government and redistributed by witless, careless bureaucrats.

    I agree that military spending could also be cut by bringing all of our troops home where thy might adequately defend our country. I also disagree with corporate welfare. On those points we can agree.

    The rest, I’m afraid, falls very short of a well reasoned, rational argument against conservatism. I’ll keep hoping for this country to come to its senses and realize that we’ve departed from the intended path that our founding fathers laid before us, while you (and others like you) keep trying to force a totalitarian Utopia on the rest of us.

    Thanks for the effort.
    The Sound and Fury

  4. Dear George, I just finished reading your recent article — What Conservatives Really Want — and I would ask you to go just a little further and please describe what America, or the World for that matter, would be like, look like and feel like if they did get what they want. I’m a lowly artist and graphic designer living in Oakland and when I extrapolate the desires of right and what my life would be like ten years in – I come up with one word: Slave.

    My rights as a woman would be gone, as a poor person I would work for the wealthy for a paltry fee, as an artist I’m sure my voice would be restricted and as a human I would have no recourse to affect the politics and policy of my state or nation — as it would take the massive monies of corporations to sway a vote or make a law…
    I know I’m being a little melodramatic — but I’m tired and I’m broke and It’s been a long day already.

    I do hope your writings change the hearts and minds of folks who have been asleep for far too long.

    Thanks Very Much –

  5. Fred–your words would carry more weight if you could construct a simple, declarative statement. And you are wrong in every important way: The poor are not Republicans; the top 1% does not contribute more to the DNC than to the RNC; there is virtually NO left-wing media; and those of us in academia believe passionately in a variety of things, not the least of which is that if we do our jobs right, our students will grow up and be able to articulate their point of view with more clarity than you seem able to do. You, alas, are one of our failures.

  6. I have thought considerably the last few years of what drives conservatives, as opposed to republicans, in relation to progressives.

    I generally agree with your comparison but I would term it more as animal to human. I would point out the social compact, based on the Constitution, as humanistic or a circle. I would then point out the economy, which conservatives want to act through, as a hierarchy or triangle. One could also think of it as animalism or tribal. Conservatives want to restore a pecking order as the main element of their organized society. They look human but are really animals. I think it ironic that Charlton Heston played the human in planet of the apes.

  7. Thank you, Dr. Lakoff, for the thought provoking commentary. I wonder how long the press can avoid the elephant in the room? Half a world away, people are standing up for their right to determine their futures and here, most American’s seem to be happy with the strict father model. We broke away from England only to end up in the same place.

  8. I don’t see what’s so empathetic or nice about wanting more of other peoples’ money (like public service unions…)

    And anyway, this is not exactly an objective opinion coming from a public worker himself.

  9. “Science should have authority over the market, and so the science of global warming and evolution must be denied”

    Should say “Science should not …”

    • I have evolved (still evolving) as a political thinker. I used to be just as ignorant as the next American, and perhaps this remains so. But through my education and learning through my environment, that is several variables (friends, peers, teachers, next of kin, John Doe on the street); I have begun to develop specific political beliefs.

      My present-day mindset is that Liberal’s and democrats alike, are gutless. It just seems that they allow these assertive conservative thinkers to simply walk all over their political planks. This is a total advantage to conservatives and republicans alike and in the world of political competition one must seize these advantages. I feel liberals NEED to voice their opinion(s) more directly. Liberal thinkers need to DEFEND themselves more often.

      What Todd has stated below and what Dr. Lakoff has expressed in his post is more or less Social Darwinism. The strong survive the weak die off naturally within society. Radical Conservatives seem to reinforce this ideal. Keep the wealthy rich, keep the poor poverished. I do like how Todd has pointed out the notions of nepotism and whatever environment one is born into. This at times, can be true. But accepting ONE side of beliefs is not the answer for this nation.

      Ultimately, I believe in unity. Bipartisanship. A blending of BOTH sides “In order to form a more perfect Union”. I defend Liberals, but I do not disagree with Conservative ways. The question at hand is how can we develop a common ground between one another?

  10. Nice article Dr. Lakoff – a good summary of your book “Moral Politics”, which I enjoyed. However, you didn’t explain why the conservati­ve world view is necessaril­y “wrong”. As with any model of how the world should work, the conservati­ve world view makes assumption­s and the fact that these assumption­s are false is why, in my opinion, we should work against the conservati­ve movement.

    The key assumption among conservati­ves is that everyone is born equal and that one’s success in life is strictly a function of how hard one works. If this assumption were true, the conservati­ve world view would be much more valid. Hard workers would succeed (and hard work should be rewarded). Laziness would lead to failure (and lazy people should not be helped). However, clearly everyone is not born equal. Many people who work hard don’t ever ‘succeed’ and many people who are ‘successfu­l’ are pretty lazy. Does anyone believe that Bush Jr. became president because he was one of the hardest working people? One’s success in life clearly is also a function of the family one is born into.

    Furthermor­e, people KNOW that their lot in life is not a function of how hard they work. If one is born into poverty, why work hard if one’s chances of success are slim?

    The goal of progressiv­e policies are not (or at least should not) be to reward laziness and punish hard work (as conservati­ves believe), but to balance inherent inequities and give everyone a chance to succeed,

  11. Atheist do not have morals ( Most in academia believe in nothing), I have yet to read a book in which they have a set of complex criteria for morality via atheism. The unemployment rate continues to remain at dangerously high levels. Right wing blogs have relentless video of poor conservative being bullied and beat-up ( Leftwing media are silent, yet as always). You sound in your writing that all Republicans ( most of the poor in America) are all bad for society and frankly evil. Therefore, I cannot and many others like me do not believe a word you preach. Most of the top 1% of the rich in America contribute tons more to the DNC, this has been evident for two decades. Can you blog a athist moral book, that would be helpful. Just blaming and blaming wins you no converts. 😉

  12. Prof. Lakoff, in one word, what we must achieve first and foremost is for everyone to COOPERATE, at least in America to serve as a model for the rest of the world, or we shall most certainly destroy our own species the way things are headed today with nothing but destructive Us/Them divisions.

    Not one of our institutional leaderships are making that happen. We have no political or intellectual groups that are focused on anything but maximizing personal wealth and power because that’s all any of them are achieving.

    This absolute truth has been stated by many of our wisest, but not nearly enough of us care to heed the warnings, much less do anything about them. Linus Pauling tried to be an academic and scientific role model leader for promoting world peace but even he was marginalized after having won two of the greatest Nobel Prizes in history.

    Our worldwide web is the most powerful communications device in history, but it is full of rhetorical exercises and not one of our institutions is actually dedicated to achieving acceptable quality of life for future generations because they aren’t even saving us from environmental and political destruction we are experiencing today.

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