Thinking of the nation as a family | As It Turns Out | March

Ever wonder about the difference between conservatives and liberals? I have, many times.

I recently read a Nicholas Kristof op-ed article that led indirectly to an answer that might just be plausible. Kristof wrote of research done by two political scientists — “Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics,” by Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler. They draw a direct connection between family discipline and voting patterns.

One particular point made was that spanking is more likely to be a conservative act, while usingtimeouts is more likely to be a liberal act.

“Spankers tend to see the world in stark, black and white terms, perceive the social order as vulnerable or under attack, tend to make strong distinctions between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ and emphasize order and muscular responses to threats. Parents favoring time outs feel more comfortable with ambiguities, sense less threat, embrace minority groups…,” Kristof wrote.

I then found myself once again back with George Lakoff, cognitive linguistics professor at University of California Berkley, to whom I referred in my last column.

Lakoff, in his book “Don’t Think of an Elephant,” states his theory of American politics is that conservatives and liberals choose opposing political sides gauged by their view of the ideal family. He says this makes a natural metaphor because we usually “understand large social groups, like nations, in terms of small ones, like families or communities.”

Lakoff states he has come to believe that we use a “nation as a family” metaphor with two opposing sides:

First, a “Strict Father” family, where conservatives view life as absolute good and absolute evil, and place utmost importance on discipline, loyalty and self-interest.

Conservatives believe “morality is obedience to an authority- assumed to be a legitimate authority that is inherently good, knows right from wrong, functions to protect us from evil in the world, and has both the right and duty to use force to command obedience and fight evil.”

Second, a “Nurturant Parent” family, where liberals view life more in shades of gray and place their importance on fairness, prevention of harm and responsibility. Liberals have “ethics of care” and believe “children become responsible, self-disciplined and self-reliant through being cared for, respected, and caring for others, both in their family and in their community… The obedience of children comes out of their love and respect for their parents and their community, not out of the fear of punishment.”

The two differing views of the family, it follows, coincides with two highly competitive views of our government:

First, conservatives view the government’s function as allowing citizens to be self-reliant and self-disciplined. Military war budgets are increased because these are seen as protection – even though many feel this ends up leaving the country more vulnerable. Conservative do not like regulatory agencies that protect the public, like consumer and environmental protection.

Second, liberals view the government’s function as an aid to help people in need through protection and support social programs. Liberals want nothing to do with what they see as unnecessary war. They feel Americans can best benefit from the protection of consumer, environmental and workers’ protection – even though they cause jobs to sometimes suffer due to environmental concerns.

One political side is totally baffled, it appears, by the other political side. This not-so-grand political canyon isn’t getting any narrower as Americans migrate into segregated locales and groups that want the same things. It’s getting much harder for many of us to read op-eds or listen to political talking heads of contrasting opinions.

Kristof suggests, tongue-in-cheek, we should have “tax breaks for liberals who watch Bill O’Reilly or conservatives who watch Keith Olbermann.”

My question: Is there a tax break large enough?

Comments are welcome at