Back in 1996, cognitive scientist George Lakoff wrote "Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think", one of the most enlightening treatises on the motivating factors that polarize the political spectrum of thinking. A professor of linguistics, Lakoff is a senior fellow of the Rockridge Institute, the renowned liberal think tank that concentrates in part on helping Democratic candidates and politicians with re-framing political metaphors. His latest book focuses on just one word - freedom - and how the concept has been interpreted by the two parties in exclusive, intractable ways.
Having been absorbed by "Moral Politics" and the slim follow-up published in the 2004 election year, "Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate--The Essential Guide for Progressives", I have to admit I am a bit disappointed with the self-inflicted limitations of his new tome and how Lakoff basically recycles much of the groundbreaking material he introduced in the first book. He again argues that conservatives believe in a "strict father" morality in which the male parent has complete authority over dependent children. Liberals, on the other hand, believe in the "nurturant parent" model, in which a less hierarchical parental authority allows for greater empathy and less intimidation. Given this foundation, Lakoff, asserts, these two philosophies lead their adherents toward very different conclusions on what freedom means.
The father figure is the only source of freedom for conservatives, and the concept rests completely on morality and order, so much so that any hint of chaos and libertine behavior forces freedom to collapse. Consequently, it is a given that abortion and gay marriage are threatening forces to the accepted father figure. Freedom from the progressive perspective translated into an expansion of rights and opportunities. According to the author, it is a positive life force, but given his nebulous definition, his suggestions about how liberals can reclaim freedom lack an actionable sense to supersede the conservative domination. Lakoff wants individual progressives to aspire to a higher rationality than facts and figures and ultimately replicate the conservative mindset in pushing their agenda, but I was hoping for something more substantive than a "if you can't fight them..." response. He really doesn't provide any guidance on how to help progressives win the 2008 election with the realization of his action steps. Instead, the author encourages liberals to use more values-based arguments to tackle the populist values and elitist policies of the conservatives.
Lakoff's familiar views on framing come to play when he writes of progressives bringing greater prominence to their values in their speeches by using language that resonates with swing voters. He is at his best when he discusses framing, for example, when he dissects Bush's second inaugural address in 2004 and shows how the President's frequent and loquacious use of the term "freedom" actually pointed to the conservative conception of religion-based principles. The author falls a bit short when he becomes prescriptive with his thinking. He ultimately dilutes the concept of freedom by applying it to so many dimensions from democracy to heath to privacy. As he proves with "Moral Politics", Lakoff has the credentials to produce a treatise on the power of words and the resulting images that stay within the mind, but this may be a case where one concept, no matter how pervasive, may have been almost too limiting for him.