Strict fathers, nurturant parents, and how the Republican Party got metaphored to death

Metaphors and frames play an important role in how we talk–and think–about the world. Here’s what you need to know to read an essay on how this relates to the 2016 American presidential campaign by one of the world’s most famous linguists.

George Lakoff may be the most heavily cited linguist in the world–way more than Chomsky, believe it or not.  (I checked their citation counts on Google Scholar.)  He revolutionized the study of metaphor in his books Metaphors we live by (written with Mark Johnson) and Women, fire and dangerous things.  Lately he’s been writing about how metaphors shape the world-views of both liberals and conservatives, and his book Moral politics on that subject is amazing.  (The title comes from his view that political stances are, at their roots, moral stances, and that liberals and conservatives have different takes on morality.  There’s a third edition due out in September, so don’t rush out and buy it just yet.)

Here’s Lakoff’s take on the unexpected rise of Trump and Trumpism in the Republican party.  It’s a good (if rather sloppily edited) and much-shorter-than-book-length) picture of how he explains the relationship between metaphor and political thought, with specific reference to the Trump phenomenon.

Lakoff often makes reference to the concept of framing in this essay, without ever defining it.  Here’s the definition of framing from Wikipedia:

The framing effect is an example of cognitive bias, in which people react to a particular choice in different ways depending on how it is presented; e.g. as a loss or as a gain.[1]

Framing is an important concept in cognitive science, linguistics, and computer science (especially artificial intelligence). Here’s an example of a frame related to commerce, from a linguistic perspective:

Screenshot 2016-07-24 09.28.04
Screenshot of a FrameNet entry. Source:

You can talk about that frame in English using a variety of words:

  • Abby bought a car from Robin for $5,000.
  • Robin sold a car to Abby for $5,000.
  • Abby paid Robin $5,000 for a car.

Same frame, same event, multiple perspectives: what Abby did, what Robin did, and the price that was paid.

Here’s an example of how framing can work out in language in a political context: refer to something as a baby, and it’s tough to be pro-choice.  Refer to it as a fetus, and it’s tough to support the anti-choice position.  Framing can interact with metaphor in very powerful ways: talk about a nation in terms of being a family–in American English terms, our founding fathers, the homeland where we all live, the sons and daughters that we send to war–and you trigger conceptions of very particular kinds of relationships between parent and child.  From the conservative perspective (quoted from the Wikipedia article on Lakoff):

Conservatives would subscribe more strongly and more often to a model that he calls the “strict father model” and has a family structured around a strong, dominant “father” (government), and assumes that the “children” (citizens) need to be disciplined to be made into responsible “adults” (morality, self-financing). Once the “children” are “adults”, though, the “father” should not interfere with their lives: the government should stay out of the business of those in society who have proved their responsibility.

From the liberal perspective:

In contrast, Lakoff argues that liberals place more support in a model of the family, which he calls the “nurturant parent model“, based on “nurturant values”, where both “mothers” and “fathers” work to keep the essentially good “children” away from “corrupting influences” (pollution, social injustice, poverty, etc.).

I’ve read Lakoff’s book–the Wikipedia article reflects it pretty accurately.

Now that we understand the basic concepts of framing and have some examples of the metaphors, here’s Lakoff’s article on Trump and how he’s managed to get the Republican party nomination by appealing to various and sundry aspects of the (American) conservative world-view:

Understanding Trump

An excellent interview with Lakoff, in which he develops and expands on these ideas better than he did in the article that I link to just above, appeared yesterday (January 17th, 2016).  Here‘s the link…and in this one, he’s talking about how the Democratic party got metaphored to death.

Language notes: English and French

English: metaphor is not a verb.  I used the form metaphored “for effect.”

to rush out and do something: to do something immediately. From the post: Don’t rush out and buy it just yet.  Note that this meaning is specific to the construction rush out (and verb).  You can also rush out of a location, e.g. She rushed out of the house in a panic, jumped on her bike, yelled, “Say hi to your mom for me!” and disappeared down the drive.  (Source: here.)  You can also rush out a product, e.g. Microsoft rushed out a fix for a serious vulnerability in the way Windows handled the Windows Meta File image format.  (Source: here.)

French: here’s the French Wikipedia article on framing.  We’ll go through some of the vocabulary in a minute:

En psychologie du raisonnement et de la décision ainsi qu’en psychologie sociale, le cadrage est l’action de présenter un « cadre cognitif » comme approprié pour réfléchir sur un sujet. Ce cadrage peut avoir un effet sur le raisonnement et conduire à des choix différents en fonction de la façon dont le problème a été formulé.

le raisonnement: reasoning, argumentation.

le cadrage: framing.

le cadre: framework, among other things.  I like to say cadre juridique, “legal framework.”  I have no idea–it just sounds cool to me.

approprier: to adapt.  Warning: the reflexive or pronominal version, s’approprier, means to appropriate or to seize.

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