Red family, blue family: a prequel

I discovered that the “red family, blue family” meme (which I’ve blogged on here and here) is not brand new. Indeed, it was anticipated, in those exact terms, in February 2005 by Doug Mulder, who wrote quite a thought-provoking article about it (PDF version here).

Mulder, a self-described liberal (and apparently an academic in the social sciences; and/or perhaps a Unitarian minister, as some allusions hint) starts with the 2004 Presidential election, which left coastal liberals agog:

Some large number of Bush voters told the pollsters that they based their vote on “moral values.” Well, duh. When we’d voted against Bush – the reverse Robin Hood, the warmaker, the guy who kept hinting (against all evidence) that Saddam had been about to give nuclear weapons to al Qaeda – we’d voted our moral values too.

Trying to make sense of it, he resorted to a 1996 book:

George Lakoff’s friends are probably even more liberal than mine. He’s a professor at Berkeley, a cognitive scientist who started applying his work to political cognition in the mid-nineties. His 1996 book Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think still stands as the most complete analysis of the polarized worldviews of the American political scene.

And indeed, Lakoff’s work, which I don’t recall encountering before, is very interesting — and, as I recognized even before I read Mulder’s critique, deeply flawed.

Both liberals and conservatives use what he calls the Nation-As-Family metaphor. Both talk about the government as if it were a parent, and citizens as if they were siblings. The government defends, educates, rewards, and punishes its citizens – like parents with children.

The difference Lakoff found between liberal and conservative thinking, however, came from the frame each put on family. In other words: What is the stereotypic ideal family that the nation should be modeled on?

From conservative rhetoric, Lakoff constructed a frame he called the Strict Father family. (The red and blue boxed text comes from the Rockridge Institute website.) Liberals, on the other hand, seem to use a frame Lakoff called the Nurturant Parent family.

One of Lakoff’s big flaws is that his outline of the “Strict Father Family” sounds utterly attavistic. Armed with awareness of James Ault’s PBS documentary Born Again, and a much later book by the producer, finding that fundamentalist lives and Churches are not actually abhorrent in practice, Mulder tries to get behind what Lakoff found behind superficially similar “government as parent” metaphors — “behind the behind” if effect.

The families Ault found at [a Worcester, Massachusetts fundamentalist church] – extended families in which multiple generations remain deeply involved in each other’s lives – aren’t supposed to exist any more, especially not in a Massachusetts edge city like Worcester.

So Mulder tries to refine Lakoff’s “Strict Family” versus “Nurturant Family” into “Given Family” versus “Chosen Family” or, just a tad deeper still, “Inherited Obligation Family” versus “Negotiated Commitment Family.”

Holy smokes! We’re back, in gussied-up garb, to the old “from status to contract” theory in the sociology of law! Not that it was discredited, mind you. That it’s still being echoed suggests quite the opposite. And I’ve known for a long time that it forms one of the deep divides between what I would call “true conservatives” (think Wendell Berry and Front Porch Republic) and both liberals and the sort of faux conservatives who can’t stop babbling the praises of “capitalism’s creative destruction” and such.

This time, though Mulder is himself liberal, it’s the liberal iteration of family — the “Negotiated Commitment Family” — that sounds repulsive, while the “Inherited Obligation Family” seems real, and human, and durable. (Or is that just my conservative bias showing?)

Mulder steps out of his not-quite-neutral role to advise liberals on how to stop scaring conservative voters who, for instance, rejected John Kerry:

The truth about liberals – that we more often than not choose to commit ourselves to marriage, children, church, and most of the other things conservatives feel obligated to, and that we stick by those commitments every bit as faithfully, if not more so – easily gets lost…

Consider, for example, liberal parents. The Negotiated Commitment model offers them very little in exchange for the effort and expense that they put into parenting. They don’t have to do it, and they can’t demand that children reciprocate after they grow up. Most liberal parents understand the situation. But they volunteer to raise children anyway. Liberals join the Peace Corps, work in soup kitchens, and stand together with unpopular oppressed peoples rather than walking away from. Why? Because liberals are serious, committed people.

Our rhetoric needs to capture the seriousness of our beliefs and commitments. We should, for example, miss no opportunity to use words like commitment and principle.  Our principles should be stated clearly and we should return to them often, rather than moving towards a nebulous center whenever we are afraid of losing.

John Kerry didn’t lose because he was a liberal. He lost because people couldn’t figure out what he was. They couldn’t recite his principles or predict where he would come down on future issues. Republican slanders stuck to him because he projected no clear image of his own.

There is a lot to promote about liberalism and the Negotiated Commitment model behind it. We take people as they are, rather than demanding that they fit themselves into an increasingly outdated set of roles…

This is very rich and evocative stuff. it ramifies in a host of specific hot issues:

  • Abortion
  • Same-sex marriage
  • Social Programs
  • Freedom
  • Taxes
  • The gushing enthusiasm of Chamber of Commerce speakers like Richard Florida, who’s really keen on strip-mining smart kids from Hicksville and planting them in yeasty, creative urban settings (okay; maybe that’s a “pet peeve” instead of a “hot issue”).

You don’t have to be an egghead to engage Mulder, but you do need a modest block of time to read this rather long article, which richly rewards the effort.

But don’t forget my contribution: that in SAT terms:

inherited obligation is to status as negotiated commitment is to contract

Status versus contract is an idea whose time may again have come — though if Mulder is right (that contract will grow as a compelling political guiding principle because more and more people are living it daily), it may not work to the advantage of conservatism until we experience a great crackup that cures our hubris.