Sunday, September 9, 2012

Old Wine in Old Bottles: The Republican Party’s Ideas

Economism claims to be up-to-date, scientific economics when in actuality it’s warmed-over religion—and not even today’s religion, but the religion of the 18th and 19th centuries. How powerful a hold the doctrine of economism has on its devotees is well illustrated by Gov. Chris Christie’s keynote address at the recent Republican convention in Tampa (

Christie’s speech reflects two things in particular. First, it shows the persistence of the beliefs of 19th century English evangelicalism, one of the historical roots of economism, in today’s far-right political thinking. Second, as a bit of an added bonus, it illustrates the correctness of George Lakoff’s notion of the basic political “frames” of today’s liberals and conservatives, as explained in his excellent book, Moral Politics (

Christie’s mother, the governor explained in his speech, taught him that it is better to be respected than to be loved, which he took to mean that in government, “we have become paralyzed, paralyzed by our desire to be loved.” This shows once again how out of touch the Republicans are. Gov. Christie obviously never applied for Medicaid. If you ask any recipient of any welfare-type program what it was like to jump through all the hoops that we require before we’ll given them any of the assistance that the law provides for them, they would not say that the people in charge were so desperate to be loved that they were paralyzed. They were probably paralyzed by all the bureaucratic barriers we erect to show the poor that they are worth less than other folks, but not by a desire to be loved.

So where does this tough-love mantra come from? This is simply a reincarnation of 19th-century English evangelicalism—as I explain in The Golden Calf, the belief system that caused a quarter of the Irish population to be starved during the great potato famine. On this belief, everything in the world down to the smallest detail is designed by God for his purposes. Everyone is born a miserable sinner destined for everlasting hellfire, so a benevolent God wants each person to be saved, which can come only through a deep and abiding faith in Christ as savior. God has designed the world to prick everyone’s conscience to prompt them to accept Christ’s salvation. The poor, apparently, need more pricking than the rest of us, so God designed the world to prick them really hard.

Wishing to be loved, weak-minded liberal types try to help the poor by creating programs of charity and government assistance in this world. In Christie’s words, they think “people need to be coddled by big government.” But these silly liberals thereby try to undermine God’s will, since the real rewards are in the next world, not this one. Their “loving” interference cannot help the poor; it can only condemn more of the poor to hell. Much better to let the poor suffer in this world so that they’ll find everlasting salvation through faith in Christ.

In a nutshell, economism teaches us that any government policies that extend a helping hand to those in need are bad. If you want to, you can see this as divinely inspired truth. If you don’t like that approach you can see this as hard-headed economic science. What matters is not God or science, but the overwhelming sense of certainty—which we can see reflected in every sentence Christie and others uttered at the convention. Wanting to be loved leads us to ruin; being tough is the only way to run things.

Back to linguist and social critic George Lakoff. He looked at a lot of research and decided that liberals and conservatives think differently because they tend to employ two radically different “frames,” ways of organizing how they see the world. Both frames, he decided, are open to criticism because they are ultimately based on the family, and you can make an excellent case that running government like you treat your own family is simply a dumb idea no matter what your view of what the family should be. But be that as it may, Americans of all political stripes seem hopelessly wedded to the idea that the family and the government are somehow analogous.

The similarity ends, however, with liberals’ and conservatives’ respective visions of the ideal family. Lakoff characterizes the liberal view as the nurturing parent and the conservative view as the stern father.

To conservatives, the answer to anything that happens within the family is rigid, unyielding discipline. Parents who think that at least some of the time you ought to be nice to your children, and support them emotionally as they grow, are derided by conservatives for their “coddling” behavior and for “needing to be loved.” Conservatives are quite sure that the world will come to an end if the father-figure (note the gender bias) deviates one single hair’s breadth from strict discipline.

Lakoff, while he’s reviewing the large body of psychological literature related to views of the family, adds a point that may or may not mean anything about government, but certainly means something about the family. He states that the pros and cons of the two styles of parenting have been thoroughly investigated and the results are in. If you want to raise decent, responsible kids, the nurturing parent wins hands down over the stern father. 

If you think Lakoff knows what he’s talking about, then conservatives make two blunders. The first is assuming that we should run the Federal government like a dad running the family. The second is thinking that they actually know how to run the family.

So, in the keynote address that the Republican Party scripted to tell the American people what they believe in 2012, we see two sorts of old wine in old bottles. One is that any time government tries to assist anyone with life’s hardships, these people are being “coddled” in a way that must be bad for their souls. The second is that if you show any sense of compassion for people who are facing misfortune, then you are falling short of the stern father who demands respect above all else, and falling into the trap of “wanting to be loved.”

Gov. Christie said that we should vote Republican because of the strength of their ideas. Well, here is the strength of their ideas. If we vote for this, we get what we deserve.

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