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Friday, August 18, 2017

Reprinted with permission from Alternet.

Progressives are stumped. They keep asking the same two questions over and over again on social media, TV, and radio:

1. Why don’t Trump supporters turn against Trump even though he is doing things that hurt them (like taking away their health care)?

2. Why do Republicans hate the Affordable Care Act and why are they so transparently acting to give wealthy people a tax break by making health care unaffordable?

Here is the short answer: All politics is moral. Supporting Trump, and gutting public health care resources in order to provide tax cuts for the wealthy, fits perfectly within the strict conservative moral worldview, which is hierarchical in nature. Voters don’t vote their self-interest. They vote their values.

The longer answer requires a deeper explanation. Let’s start with the place where all ideas and questions originate: the brain.

Most thought (as much as 98% by some accounts) is unconscious. It is carried out by neural circuitry in our brains. We have no conscious access to this circuitry, but it’s there. This is basic neuroscience. When it comes to politics, progressives and conservatives essentially have different brains. The unconscious beliefs conditioned in their brains are nearly exact opposites.

Here are two statements you will almost certainly agree with if you’re a progressive:

1. In Lincoln’s words, the American government should be a government of, by and for the people.
2. Citizens care about other citizens, and work through their government to provide public resources for all—resources required for the well-being and freedom of all.

These imply just about all of progressive policies.

With a government OF the people, those in the government are not separated from those outside. There is two-way communication and transparency, and response to the people’s concerns.

With a government BY the people, those in the government have the same basic experiences as those outside. The government therefore responds with empathy to the basic needs of its citizens.

A government FOR the people cares for its citizens and gives necessary help as a matter of course. There is no democracy without care.

The second principle—the need for public resources—has been essential to American democracy from the start. From the beginning, the private depended upon public resources.

Public resources—including roads and bridges, public education, a national bank, a patent office, courts for business cases, interstate commerce support, and the criminal justice system—are necessary to have private enterprise. These public resources include protection; not just a military and police, but protection from harm by unscrupulous corporations either by poisoning products, the air or the water by unscrupulous banks, mortgage holders and investors. These protections are carried out by “regulations”—protective laws and agencies.

Over time, those resources have included sewers, water and electricity, research universities and research support, and technologies like computers and satellite phones.

Private enterprise and private life utterly depend on public resources. These public resources provide freedom: freedom to start and run a business, and freedom in private life.

You’re not free if you are not educated, because your possibilities in life are limited.

You’re not free if you have cancer and no health insurance.

You’re not free if you have no income or not enough for basic needs.

And if you work for a large company, you may not be free without a union. Unions free you from corporate servitude. They free you to have a living wage, safety on the job, regular working hours, a pension, health benefits, dignity.

If you’re a progressive, you most likely agree with these ideas. If you’re a conservative, you may be apoplectic by now.

It should be clear that most progressive policies follow from these basic, largely implicit and unconscious principles. When we state them consciously and overtly, we can see where questions 1) and 2) come from.

Why should Trump voters support him when his government does not supply necessary care, when it can hurt them deeply, threatening their health and possibly their lives by, say, taking away their health care? Why should Republicans—who are Americans, after all—hate the Affordable Care Act, which was for the people, and which supplies care of the most essential kind for tens of millions of Americans?

From a progressive point a view, questions 1) and 2) are mysterious, especially when you ask them together. What do they have to do with each other — support for a Trump who harms them and hate for government care?

One Answer to Both Questions: Moral Politics

All politics is moral. Progressives and conservatives have opposing moral worldviews. When a political leader proposes a policy, the assumption is that the policy is right, not wrong or morally irrelevant. No political leader says, “Do what I say because it’s evil. It’s the devil’s work, but do it!” Nor will a political leader say, “My policy proposal is morally irrelevant. It’s neither right nor wrong. It doesn’t really matter. Just do it.”

Everyone likes to think of him or herself as a good person. That means your moral system is a major part of your identity. To vote against your moral identity would be to reject your self.

What Are Conservative Moral Values?

In my 1996 book, Moral Politics, I examined how political values tend to arise from the fact that we are all first governed in our families. The way your ideal family is governed is a model for the ideal form of government. This is often a matter of how your real family is governed, though some people rebel and adopt an opposite ideal.

Conservative moral values arise from what I call the strict father family.

In this family model, father knows best. He decides right and wrong. He has the ultimate authority to make sure his children and his spouse do what he says, because what he says is right. Many conservative spouses accept this worldview, uphold the father’s authority, and are strict in those realms of family life that they control.

In this moral worldview, it is the father’s moral duty to punish his children painfully when they disobey. Harsh punishment is necessary to ensure that they will obey him and do what is right, not just what feels good. Through physical discipline they are supposed to become disciplined, internally strong and able to prosper in the external world.

What if they don’t prosper? That means they are not disciplined, and therefore cannot be moral, and so deserve their poverty. In this conservative view, the poor are seen as lazy and undeserving while the rich deserve their wealth. Responsibility is thus taken to be personal responsibility, not social responsibility.

What you become is only up to you, not society. You are responsible for yourself, not for others.

The Conservative Moral Hierarchy

The strict father logic extends further. The basic idea is that authority is justified by morality (the strict father version), and that, in a world ordered by nature, there should be (and traditionally has been) a moral hierarchy in which those who have traditionally dominated should dominate.

Why do conservatives love Trump (who harms them) and hate health care (which helps them)? It makes more sense when you consider the conservative moral hierarchy.

The conservative moral hierarchy:

  • God above man
  • Man above nature
  • The disciplined (the strong) above the undisciplined (the weak)
  • The rich above the poor
  • Employers above employees
  • Adults above children
  • Western culture above other cultures
  • America above other countries
  • Men above women
  • Whites above nonwhites
  • Christians above non-Christians
  • Straights above gays

Sound familiar?

On the whole, conservative policies flow from the strict father worldview and this hierarchy. Trump is an extreme case (he wants to be the ultimate strict father), though very much in line with conservative policies of the Republican party.

(Bear in mind that many, if not most conservatives are bi-conceptual, that is, “moderates” in that they have a strict father major worldview together with a nurturant minor worldview on some issues or other. Those moderating issues vary from person to person. But in their major worldview, they fit the strict father pattern.)

The Two Questions

1. Why don’t Trump supporters turn against Trump even though he is doing things that hurt them (like taking away their health care)?

Most Trump supporters have strict father morality. It determines their sense of right and wrong. They see Trump as bringing America back to their values in a powerful way, making their values respectable and in line with the way the country is being run. Trump’s presidency has given them self-respect. Their self-respect is more important than the details of his policies, even if some of those policies hurt them. On the whole, they like the way he has restructured the government and what he is doing throughout the government.

2. Why do Republicans hate the Affordable Care Act, and why are they so transparently acting to give wealthy people a tax break by making health care unaffordable?

Strict father morality insists on a particular notion of self-responsibility. Being taken care of by the “government” is seen as immoral because it gives the government an authority above strict father principles. The care given by the Affordable Care Act itself violates the moral sense and the very identity of conservatives, even those who benefit greatly from it.

Moreover, the Affordable Care Act has attempted to help people lower on the conservative moral hierarchy: the poor, African Americans and other minorities, women, and so on.

The mandate to buy insurance went directly against self-responsibility overall, giving Americans responsibility for their fellow Americans. It also went against the laissez-faire market ideology because it put constraints on insurance companies.

And why do conservatives love tax breaks for the rich? Because in the conservative moral hierarchy, the rich are better than the poor. The poor deserve their poverty. The rich deserve their wealth.

Conservative hatred of the Affordable Care Act makes sense when you understand the mechanics of their moral worldview.

At a time when the country is tearing itself apart, when progressives and conservatives each see the other as immoral and un-American and as attacking what is right, we must begin to understand why this is happening.

We won’t be able to address the problem until we do.

To learn more, read A Minority President: Why the Polls Failed and What the Majority Can Do.

 

George Lakoff is Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics Emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley. His most recent book is The All New Don’t Think of an Elephant! (Chelsea Green Publishing). 

This article was made possible by the readers and supporters of AlterNet.