When It Comes To Our Politics, Family Matters

Sep 13, 2016
Originally published on September 27, 2017 2:21 pm

It can happen anywhere: that moment when you gaze at the people around you and realize you simply can't understand their politics.

How can these people – be they our friends, colleagues or, worst of all, our spouses – believe as they do, when facts and reason clearly point in the opposite direction? How can they support political candidates whose views are so antithetical to our definition of common sense?

They're questions voters across the country have been asking a lot this election season – voters like Kate Burkett of Indiana and Tom Barnes of Maryland.

Burkett is an English teacher in an Indianapolis high school. Many of her students are juggling not just their schoolwork, but more acute problems like hunger.

"The specific school that I teach at is a 73% free and reduced [price] lunch school. And also we are a minority majority school where we are 34% white students," she says.

Burkett's experience in this school has taught her the importance of a social safety net. She doesn't just think government-supported lunch programs are useful. She knows it.

"I know these kids. I've known them for years. And I see the good that they go on to do in the world. And It's worth it. It's worth the investment."

Six hundred miles to the east, Tom Barnes lives in Anne Arundel County, Maryland. Barnes is a farrier – he trims and shoes horses' hooves for a living. He believes in hard work, self-reliance and personal responsibility. And these qualities have shaped his political views, which he describes as "fiscally and internationally conservative, not hard right, but conservative."

Barnes would never take on too much household debt. And he wants his country to run like his home.

"I don't think people should take on more debt than they would be able to repay. And, if they can't, I think that there should be consequences for that. And I think the country is no different. We should not take on debt that we can't repay."

When he thinks of what ails America, he returns to a model of how a family should operate.

"America need stricter parents. I truly do feel that way."

Both Tom Barnes and Kate Burkett have good reasons to believe what they do. They are reasonable people with deeply held convictions.

But put millions of Toms and millions of Kates together, and what you see isn't reasonable disagreement. Increasingly, Democrats and Republicans can't comprehend the other's point of view.

It's not just the current campaign. Beyond the noise of the contest between Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton lies a gulf of distrust and misunderstanding.

How did we get to a divide that feels so...unbridgeable?

Here's one theory: our political preferences are driven by hidden moral frameworks we're not even aware of.

George Lakoff is a cognitive linguist and retired professor from the University of California, Berkeley. He noticed decades ago that politicians often used metaphors describing the nation as a family.

Was it possible, Lakoff wondered, that this metaphor of the country as a family lay beneath the mutual incomprehension that Democrats and Republicans feel toward one another? The moment this notion occurred to him, he started seeing examples everywhere.

"We have a metaphor that the nation is a family. We have Founding Fathers, we send our sons and daughters to war, we have homeland security, we don't want missiles in our backyard and so on and so on," he says. "And the idea that occurred to me is that if that's the case, if you have two different views of the nation, you may have two different views of the family. So I worked backwards. I took the two different views of the nation, worked backwards through the metaphor and out popped two different views of the family."

He describes the two models as "strict father" and "nurturant parent." In the former, he says, "the father knows best, the father knows right from wrong, and the job of the father is not just to support and protect the family but also, with respect to children, to teach them right from wrong so they have the right moral views."

Nurturant parents, by contrast, feel their job is to empathize with their child, to know what their child needs, and to have open two-way discussions with their child.

The real world, of course, is far more nuanced than these two models would suggest. Parents can, of course, be both strict and empathetic. Parents can disagree about the importance of rules and structure. But Lakoff argues that as we grow up, these models, based on love and the certainty that our way is the best way to raise kids, can shape the way we see the world.

Psychologist Marti Gonzales at the University of Minnesota decided to test whether these basic family models are, in fact, reflected in our politics.

She and her team analyzed all the presidential political ads that have played on daytime and prime time TV going back to 1980. She had research assistants listen to the ads and code them according to whether they had underlying metaphors that spoke to the idea of the strict parent and the nurturant or empathetic parent.

"The bottom line is Professor George Lakoff was right," she says. "Republicans were much more likely to rely on strict father ideas to make their points, to persuade voters. Democrats were much more likely to use nurturant parent ideas."

And when we draw on these moral frameworks, our political opponents and their views may become simply incomprehensible to us – although we may not realize how these hidden frameworks are shaping our opinions.

"The idea that we have alternative world views is not in our public discourse," says Lakoff.

So here's one way to think about the next two months of this political season. The nation is in the middle of a parenting dispute. Each feels the other is on the wrong path, and so much is at stake.

"Parents who adhere to one or another conception of the ideal family want what's good for their children, and they parent in ways that they believe firmly believe with love in their hearts that will most benefit children in this complex world," says Gonzales.

Like parents who can't get along, our political parties each believe they have the right answer to what the country needs. Partisans feel bewildered when policies that seem so self-evidently correct to them are rejected by the other side.

Understandably, we explain these differences by pointing fingers and questioning each other's motives. And yet perhaps what fuels our inflexible certainty isn't stupidity or callousness: It's love.

The Hidden Brain Podcast is hosted by Shankar Vedantam and produced by Tara Boyle, Maggie Penman, Chris Benderev, Jennifer Schmidt, Kara McGuirk-Allison and Renee Klahr. To subscribe to our newsletter, click here. You can also follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain, @taranoelleboyle, @maggiepenman, @jennyjennyschmi, @cbndrv, @karamcguirk and @reneeklahr. Listen for Hidden Brain stories every week on your local public radio station.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, HOST:

To many people, our election season sounds like this.

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DONALD TRUMP: You're losing so badly...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: You know, people are actually watching this at home.

TRUMP: ...You don't know what happening.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Gentlemen, gentlemen.

TED CRUZ: Well, if I'm going to ask them...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: We've got to stop this.

CRUZ: ...I've got to not be deducted when he's yelling at me.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Take control.

VEDANTAM: Cacophony and discord.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Hillary, Hillary, Hillary.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Unintelligible). Shut up.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: They are sitting in clusters of Bernie delegates and Hillary delegates.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: You cheated.

VEDANTAM: But beneath the rancor, something else is at work. Deep inside the brain, hidden assumptions and frames are shaping the way we think about politics. To understand these forces, we need to step away from the daily barrage of punches and a counter-punches. We begin 30 miles from the White House, on a small farm in Dunkirk, MD. Tom Bonds is finishing up for the day.

TOM BARNES: The was one horse I used to do named Refugee.

VEDANTAM: He's a farrier, which means he trims and shoes horses' hooves all day long.

BARNES: It's funny. It doesn't really look like a lot of work, but when you're under there (laughter)...

VEDANTAM: Tom likes to be outside, be his own boss, shape his own future. He believes in hardwork, self-reliance, personal responsibility. And these qualities have shaped his political views.

BARNES: Fiscally and internationally conservative - not hard right, but conservative.

VEDANTAM: Tom would never take on too much household debt, and he wants his country to run like his home.

BARNES: I'm real simple when it comes to these kinds of things, and I don't think people should take on more debt than they would be able to repay. And if they can't, I - you know, I think that there should be consequences for that. And I think that the country is no different - that we should not take on debt that we can't repay.

VEDANTAM: When he thinks of what ails America, Tom returns to a model of how a family should operate.

BARNES: It's something I've been saying for the last seven and a half years, is that America needs stricter parents. And I truly do feel that way. It goes back to my example earlier of the household budget not getting to a point where they can no longer service their debt. Well, as a country, it's the same type of values that we need to get back to. We need to start being stricter parents.

VEDANTAM: Hundreds of miles away, in an urban school district in Indiana, a young high school English teacher has a different perspective shaped by her own values.

KATE BURKETT: The school district that I'm in, the specific school that I teach at is a 73-percent free-and-reduced-lunch school. And also, we are a minority majority school, where we are 34 percent white students.

VEDANTAM: Kate Burkett doesn't just think government-supported lunch programs are useful, she knows it.

BURKETT: I think I've just seen what can be done with government money, kind of putting a face to - you know, you hear all these statistics about, oh, it's a free-and-reduced-lunch school, but I don't think about it like that. I know these kids, and I've known them for years. And I've seen the good that they go on to do in the world, and it's worth it. It's worth the investment.

VEDANTAM: Tom and Kate have good reasons to believe what they do. They're reasonable people with deeply held convictions. But put millions of Toms and millions of Kates together, and what you see isn't reasonable disagreement. Increasingly, Democrats and Republicans can't comprehend the other's point of view.

It's not just the current campaign. Beyond the noise of the contest between Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton lies a gulf of distrust and misunderstanding. How did we get to a divide that feels so unbridgeable? Here's one theory - what if a driving force behind our political preferences is something we're not even aware of?

MARTI GONZALES: They're like unconscious ideologies, in a way. That is, they're beliefs or convictions that we hold that are non-consciously held but nonetheless influence the way we interpret the world.

VEDANTAM: Today's show - the hidden moral frameworks that shape our politics. Stay with us.

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VEDANTAM: One night decades ago, George Lakoff began a quest. He was listening to speeches from a gathering of conservative politicians. They were blasting the idea that people who worked hard to earn more money should pay more in taxes.

GEORGE LAKOFF: And everybody there clapped and, you know - you know, waved their arms, waved their signs, et cetera.

VEDANTAM: The conservatives were making a moral argument. To George, it seems self-evidently wrong. But to the cheering conservatives, it seems self-evidently right. George asked himself how two people could look at the same issue and draw such radically different conclusions. In 1994, it happened again. George had a sense that the people on the other side of the aisle were from another planet. This time it was Republican Newt Gingrich talking.

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NEWT GINGRICH: Think of America as a giant family of 260 million people of extraordinarily diverse backgrounds riding in a huge car down the highway.

VEDANTAM: Newt Gingrich was hocking his Contract with America. He warned that the tires of the family car were blowing out.

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GINGRICH: America is in trouble and our trouble extends beyond the White House.

VEDANTAM: Newt Gingrich offered an ambitious package of policies that covered a range of traditional conservative issues. As he listened, George started thinking about the whole Republican platform. He decided it was an incoherent mess.

LAKOFF: What does the flat tax have to do with environmental regulations? What does that have to do with owning guns? You know, and what does the death penalty have to do with being pro-life? All of those things seemed strange to me.

VEDANTAM: Republicans looking at the Democratic platform might say the very same thing. George looked at his own bewilderment with curiosity. This feeling of utter incomprehension is an experience widely shared by people on both sides of the aisle.

How could it be, he asked himself, that millions of Americans firmly believe that the views of millions of other Americans are incoherent. As George tried to figure out what was going on, something popped in his head. It seemed tangential, but he thought it might be a clue. We heard it in something Newt Gingrich just said.

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GINGRICH: Think of America as a giant family of 260 million people.

VEDANTAM: That's a metaphor. George Lakoff, as it happens, is a cognitive linguist and an expert on metaphors. One of the things he's discovered is that metaphors are far more powerful than most people think. They aren't just figures of speech, but ways to organize how we see the world.

George started to wonder about this metaphor of the country as a family. Did it have something to do with the mutual incomprehension that Democrats and Republicans feel toward one another? The moment this notion occurred to him, he started seeing examples everywhere.

LAKOFF: We have a metaphor that the nation is a family. We have Founding Fathers. We send our sons and daughters to war. We have Homeland Security. We don't want missiles in our backyard - and so on and so on. And the idea then occurred to me that, if that's the case, if you have two different views of the nation, you may have two different views of the family. So I worked backwards. I took the two different views of the nation, worked backwards through the metaphor, and out popped two different views of the family.

VEDANTAM: In other words, if both Republicans and Democrats think of the nation as a kind of family but have very different assumptions on how a family ought to work, could those assumptions be behind our seemingly irreconcilable differences? On its surface, the idea that the way we think about family can shape the way we think about politics is crazy. This is where George Lakoff's earlier work on metaphors comes in. Metaphors are powerful precisely because they operate on a largely unconscious level. They are the lens through which we see the world, but most of the time we don't realize they're even there. Think again about our farrier, Tom Barnes, and what he wants for the country.

BARNES: America needs stricter parents.

GONZALES: They're like unconscious ideologies, in a way. That is, they're beliefs or convictions that we hold that are non-consciously held but nonetheless influence the way we interpret the world.

VEDANTAM: This is Marti Gonzales. She's a psychologist who's done her own research on George Lakoff's theories about how the way we think about families can shape our political views. George and Marti think that most Americans embrace one of two different models of family. Now, these are generalizations, and they have lots of exceptions, but let's start with the basic models. One is what they call the strict-father model.

GONZALES: The strict-father family, the parents in that family tend to view the world as a really complex and dangerous and unfriendly place.

LAKOFF: It's tough love. In the strict-father family, the father knows best. The father knows right from wrong. And the job of the father is not just to support and protect the family, but also, with respect to children, is to teach them right from wrong so that they have the right moral views.

GONZALES: Competition, of course, is a good thing from the point of view of strict-father families because success at competition rewards people for the strength and the tenacity, the self-discipline and the self-reliance that enabled a person to succeed.

VEDANTAM: Now, I think the term strict father feels a little outdated. I might call it a strict-parent family since one or both parents might have this parenting style. Strict parents who love their children believe it would be wrong to send them out into a dangerous world unprepared for what it has in store for them. Strict parents believe they need to make their children tough and self-reliant.

GONZALES: So the central metaphor of the strict-father family is what is good is what is strong.

VEDANTAM: Again, our farrier, Tom Barnes.

BARNES: I'm a firm believer that, when America is strong, the world is a safe place. And I don't think in the last seven and a half years we've - we've really stood by that. I think we've tried to be more of one of the gang than someone that our allies can count on and that our enemies respect. And I don't want to see that go any further than it already has.

VEDANTAM: There is another model of how to be a good parent. George and Marti call the style nurturant. I think of these parents as empathetic parents. They believe that nurture, empathy and trust, these are the tools that help children grow into their fullest selves. The goal of this kind of parent...

GONZALES: Is to rear children who are happy and self-fulfilled.

LAKOFF: Their job is to empathize with their child, to know what their child needs, to have open, two-way discussions with their child.

GONZALES: They have to develop a set of kind of values along the way or beliefs along the way, among them that we, as a society, benefit when people are willing to care for, support and nurture other people.

VEDANTAM: Our teacher, Kate Burkett, exemplifies this thinking when it comes to the children in her care.

BURKETT: I think it's the right thing to take care of people. I just do. I don't - maybe that's the Catholic upbringing in me, but just that's - it's right to take care of people that need it.

VEDANTAM: We'll get to the evidence for George and Marti's theory about how our views of the family can shape our political outlook, but I have to say, this idea has immense intuitive appeal. The earliest experience all of us have with authority and leadership is within the family.

LAKOFF: You are first governed in your family. And so we arise - arrive at metaphors in which we - and they're unconscious metaphors - in which governing institutions are families.

VEDANTAM: This was a pivotal moment in George's search for understanding. If people see families as governing bodies and governing bodies playing the role of parents, isn't it possible they use their own family and upbringing as an unconscious model of how government ought to work? Marti decided to test George's hypothesis that unconscious parenting models show up all the time in our nation's politics.

She and her team analyzed all the presidential political ads that have played on daytime and primetime TV, going all the way back to 1980. She had research assistants listen to the ads and code them according to whether they had underlying metaphors that spoke to the idea of the strict parent and the empathetic parent.

BURKETT: The bottom line is, Professor George Lakoff was right (laughter).

VEDANTAM: Now, to be clear, lots of the ads were simply one candidate attacking the other. Many of them talked about issues in the news. But a significant number made appeals to voters' unconscious moral frameworks, drawing on the themes of the strict and empathetic parent.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Jimmy Carter still doesn't know that it takes strong leadership to keep the peace.

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FORMER PRES GEORGE W. BUSH: I believe we need to encourage personal responsibility so people are accountable for their actions.

BURKETT: Republicans were much more likely to rely on strict-father ideas to make their points to persuade voters. Democrats were much more likely to use nurturant-parent ideas.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: I don't think Reagan showed enough compassion for the people of California.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Told the insurance company don't do this. Don't cut this child's coverage.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Al Gore got the Malone family the help they needed.

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FORMER VICE PRES WALTER MONDALE: We believe in a solid, just, compassionate, hopeful future.

VEDANTAM: Now, these are broad archetypes, of course. Parents can be both strict and empathetic. Parents can disagree with one another about the importance of rules and structure. But as we grow up, these models, both based on love, both based on the certainty that this is the best way to raise kids, shape the way many of us see the world.

From the moment George and Marti described how Republicans and Democrats draw on different parenting models, I started to see examples of this everywhere. Here's an ad from the Trump campaign, featuring the voice of his son, Donald Trump Jr.

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DONALD TRUMP, JR.: Well, a lot of people think of my father as a tough guy. And in many respects, he is. Growing up, my brother, sister and I had to really know what we were talking about before bringing him any kind of proposal. He may be a little less tough on his grandchildren right now, but it's that toughness that I want renegotiating trade deals with China and Mexico. It's that toughness that I want keeping me and my family and your family safe. My father will make an incredible president.

VEDANTAM: And here's an ad from Hillary Clinton.

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HILLARY CLINTON: When I think about why I'm doing this, I think about my mother, Dorothy. She was abandoned by her parents at the age of 8, sent from Chicago to LA to live with grandparents who didn't want her. But people showed her kindness, gave her a chance, like the teacher who saw my mother had no money for food and started bringing her extra from home, whispering, you know, Dorothy, I just brought too much food today.

She went to work in somebody else's home at age 14, and it opened her eyes. For the first time, she saw parents who loved and cared for their children. And that's the kind of loving family she provided for us. When she needed a champion, someone was there. I think about all the Dorothys all over America who fight for their families, who never give up. That's why I'm doing this. That's why I've always done this - for all the Dorothys.

VEDANTAM: Are you feeling a lump in your throat? If so, it might be because you have an empathetic model of parenting at the back of your head. On the other hand, if the ad sounded like sentimental coddling and you are drawn more to the Trump ad, it might be because your model of the family is built around the idea of a strict parent.

I asked Marti to play a little game with me and imagine how people who disagree with Trump and Clinton might see an ad put out by the other side. How would a strict parent view that Clinton ad about her mother?

GONZALES: Here's all this mushy stuff about feelings and taking care of people. And when you take care of people, of course, you know, you're undermining their self-reliance, and you're not doing them any good. And in this dangerous world, we don't need a person who can empathize with our enemies or find common ground with our enemies. We need someone strong enough to stand up and protect us from them.

VEDANTAM: And here's a hypothetical voter with the empathetic parent model on the trumpet.

GONZALES: Well, if Donald Trump thinks that, to govern, the only thing he needs is toughness and strength, we're in for a bumpy ride. Once people start governing, being tough isn't going to be enough. You need to be open to new ideas. You need to be open to the idea of cooperating with people across the aisle.

VEDANTAM: It's interesting that this is the cartoon version that each side has of the other, that each side - separate from Clinton and Trump - sort of the division - the partisan division that we have in the country is very much this division where many progressives think of conservatives as being heartless, cruel people.

GONZALES: If not Neanderthals, you know?

VEDANTAM: Yeah, and many conservatives think of progressives as just being brain dead.

GONZALES: (Laughter). Right, right. And the sad thing is these kinds of ads get people riled up and more willing to embrace more strongly the moral foundations of their political ideology, such that when elections are over and the process of governing begins, you have citizens on the one hand who still can't pull together, you know, across the ideological divide. And you certainly have mandates from these citizens to send their representatives to Washington not to negotiate, not to give in to the silly strict-father or the silly nurturant-parent orientations of our elected leaders.

VEDANTAM: When people draw on moral frameworks that we don't share, what they say can seem incomprehensible.

LAKOFF: And what happens when you hear things that don't make sense - there are various things you can do about it. One, you can just not hear it. It doesn't make any sense. You can ignore it. You can ridicule it, saying, hey, this doesn't make any sense. They're stupid people. They're dumb. They're mean. They're cruel - whatever. Or you can - if it's threatening, you can attack them.

And very often there's an attack. So all of those things are happening in our politics right now, and they're normal. You would expect them to happen, given the way that people's brains work and given the fact that we have alternative worldviews. But the idea that we have alternative worldviews is not in our public discourse.

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VEDANTAM: To be sure, there are plenty of exceptions to this model of how we come to our political views. Race, religion, immigration, class, gender all play a role in shaping our politics. George Lakoff and Marti Gonzalez's ideas don't displace everything else we know about how politics works, but it's a point of view you might not have considered. Even within this theory, there's room for nuance and complexity.

A person may have both strict and empathetic parenting models to guide them. They can follow one model at home and another at work. You can certainly find Republican ads that feature empathy and Democratic ads that project strength. Unconscious moral frameworks don't explain everything, but they do explain some things that otherwise seem inexplicable.

LAKOFF: How you understand your world and what you're supposed to be doing and who you respect and who you don't respect and what you want to do in your life and so on - and how you understand everything around you.

VEDANTAM: So here's one way to think about this political season - the nation is in the middle of a parenting dispute. Each side feels the other is on the wrong path, and so much is at stake.

GONZALES: Parents who adhere to one or another conception of the ideal family want what's good for their children, and they parent in ways that they believe - firmly believe, with love in their hearts - that will most benefit their children in this complex world.

VEDANTAM: Like two parents who love their child but can get along with each other, our political parties each believe they have the right answer to what the country needs. All of us feel bewildered that policies that seem so self-evidently correct to us are rejected by the other side. Understandably, we explain these differences by pointing fingers and questioning each other's motives. The truth is much harder. What fuels our inflexible certainty isn't stupidity or callousness. It's love.

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VEDANTAM: This episode of HIDDEN BRAIN was produced by Jenny Schmidt, Maggie Penman and Chris Benderev. It was edited by Tara Boyle. We had original music from Ramtin Arablouei. You can find more HIDDEN BRAIN on Facebook and Twitter and listen to my stories each week on your local public radio station. If you liked this episode, please give us a review. It helps others find the show. I'm Shankar Vedantam, and this is NPR.

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VEDANTAM: If you enjoyed today's show, check out the NPR Politics Podcast. It's where NPR's political reporters talk to you like they talk to each other. Check out their roundup of the week's political news, out every Thursday, and nightly recaps of the upcoming presidential debates and fresh episodes whenever there's big news.

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