good vs. evil

The American populace is split, nearly right down the middle, on critical issues: abortion, capital punishment, gun control, mandated health care, immigration, national debt, education, social support programs–the list goes on, and on, and on.

In his 1996 book Moral Politics, George Lakoff describes how different views of family structure and morality underlie this split. He claims the idea of a strong, authoritative father underlies conservative views whereas the concept of empathetic, nurturing parents underlies liberal views. While many families exhibit characteristics of both structures, the two world views exert a strong influence on American politics.

Fiscal FarceThe authoritative family structure presumes that life is difficult and the world is fundamentally dangerous. Life is seen in terms of a war between good and evil, which must be fought ruthlessly. The views of the adversary cannot be respected: evil deserves to be attacked, not respected. Moral authority has the highest priority: good parents set standards, good children obey their parents; disobedient children are bad children, good parents punish disobedient children; punishment makes disobedient (bad) children into obedient (good) children, and parents who don’t punish are bad parents because they produce bad children by not punishing them. In broader society, replace “parents” with “government” and “children” with “the populace.”

But a “meddling” parent who improperly asserts authority–when the person subject to authority knows his or her best interests better than the authority figure, or the authority is not acting in his or her best interest–violates the proper moral order and resentment and resistance are not only appropriate but obligatory. This logic is often applied to government or governmental programs.

The nurturing family structure sees external evils, dangers, and hardships. One must be strong to confront them and protect oneself and the family. Strength comes not through self-denial and discipline, but through exercise of nurturance.  The virtues to be taught–the moral strengths–are the opposites of internal evils: social responsibility, respect for the values of others, open-mindedness, aesthetic sensitivity, inquisitiveness, honesty, cooperativeness, self-respect.

In this worldview moral authority is not the ability and responsibility to set rules, but trust that the leader will communicate effectively, arrange for participation, be honest, and have the wisdom, experience, and strength to succeed in helping. Instead of the prohibition or requirement of specific actions, the nurturing structure prohibits actions with anti-nurturing consequences.

American government has a top-to-bottom chain of command. It also has a judicial structure with clerks and administrators deciding claims brought by citizens. American government is conceptualized as a business to be run efficiently and not lose money. But there is also an unavoidable moral component. Many parts of government have functions that are not morally neutral, functions that cannot be done equally well by private industry. The so-called “public goods”–including public health and welfare, education, roads, research and development, national and domestic security, and a clean environment–are not reduced by their consumption or use by an individual and would not be produced in the appropriate amount based solely on fees charged to users. Furthermore, for people whose primary moral principles come from family-based concepts like those described above, there is no higher set of principles. If personal values are all-encompassing, then those values ought not to be kept out of politics.

Politicians have drawn voting boundaries to create “safe districts” with overwhelmingly conservative or overwhelmingly liberal residents. The consequences are obvious in Congress, where voting the “hard line” without compromise enhances the likelihood of reelection in such districts. In addition, some politicians claim they don’t care about reelection, they were elected to achieve certain goals and they are not interested in anything else. Period.

This split is also manifest at the state level, where conservative rural counties have active movements to secede, not from the union, but from state government in Colorado, California, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. Similarly, some in Tucson would like to break away from conservative Arizona.

Americans are split by competing and incompatible values that are reflected in our representative democracy. There is no reason to expect this to change as long as politicians can derive their support from groups with well-defined, morally defended, positions. This will probably hold until politicians can no longer define voting districts, no longer gerrymander “safe districts.” It is difficult to imagine politicians giving up the ability to select voters that assure their election or the election of politicians sharing their values.

Our democratic institutions do an excellent job of representing our electorate. As long as citizens remain deeply divided and unwilling to compromise on fundamental moral questions, and as long as gerrymandering permits candidates to select voters rather than voters select candidates, we can expect dysfunctional government.

That may be a long time.

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Image: Fiscal Farce: Our leaders are approaching the Fiscal Cliff: John Boehner, Jon Kyl, Mitch McConnell, Harry Reid, Dick Durbin, Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi and Eric Cantor by DonkeyHotey from his flickr photo stream and used under a creative commons license. Apologies: The story originally posted with a feature image that we were unable to find attribution until alert Dew reader Trevor Irvin advised us is was an image by Atlanta illustrator B.B. Sams. We apologize for using it without permission.
Rob Coppock

Rob Coppock

After many years as an environmental policy researcher in this country and abroad, Rob Coppock spent 10 years as a free-lance science writer followed by 7 years teaching high school mathematics. He won the National Research Council individual performance award and the group he led the group performance award for the study “Policy Implications of Greenhouse Warming” in 1991. He directed the international “2050 Project” sponsored by World Resources Institute, The Brookings Institution, and the Santa Fe Institute examining global sustainability and later served as Deputy Director and Head of the Washington Office for the German-American Academic Council. After contributing to several publications of the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine, he became a high school mathematics teacher in Fairfax County, Virginia. Coppock’s current work focuses on education policy and electronic interactive teaching of mathematics. He is retired and divides his time between Washington, DC and Baker, WV.