For decades, Republicans have claimed “family values” as their brand. Playing voters with slick nonsense, they’ve created a fictional narrative of moral superiority. It’s time to set this twisted story straight.
Since the early seventies, right-wing think tanks have organized and hunkered down, determined to disable the sixties’ surge of civil rights causes and progressive movement.
What this cunning crew figured out was that the game of electoral politics, like the world of selling consumer goods, could be won with superior marketing techniques.
Following the gospel of Madison Avenue, they found their strategy:
First you tap into a desire or concoct a need by evoking longing, insecurity or fear. Then you claim to meet that need. This becomes your story, your brand, your identity.
It doesn’t matter if the story is complete nonsense. If told often enough, hogwash turns into brainwash, and the contrived story becomes “real.” Next, you sell your brand with slogans that associate the product (party, candidate, or platform) with your story in as few words as possible. Bam. Bam. Bam. A new reality is hammered home.
The Moral Majority.
Any way these sound bites are sliced, right wing-ideologues have cornered the market on our most precious concerns. And in doing so, they built a brand identity that’s been hard to beat—the party of family values.
George Lakoff, cognitive linguist and author of several influential books on the use of moral values framing in politics, has astutely identified the right-wing strategy and noted:
“Supporting the family values brand is a story that portrays conservatives as heroes in a culture war against liberals whose amoral values will hurt children, families and society.”
It’s a narrative arc that hooks and holds, right down to the formulation of good guys and bad guys. Which side voters “should” take has been written into the script.
Gotcha Dems… you’ve been framed.
And America?… You’ve been duped.
“Strict father” vs. “Nurturing mother.” Who would you rather be raised by?
Lakoff discovered that underlying the “family values” frame are conservative values associated with an authoritarian, “strict father” paradigm. This paradigm dictates that the means to a moral society is through control and obedience, (old testament, patriarchal values), ultimately through the legislation of biblical beliefs.
Progressive values, on the other hand, are associated with a “softer” nurturing paradigm working from a humanistic viewpoint of empathy, compassion, interconnection, equality, and respect for individual freedom. For progressives, this is the means to a moral society and the basis for legislation.
While conservatives have hijacked the notion that family values, morality, and allegiance to American tradition belongs to them, the facts of the matter suggest a different reality.
Let’s take a look at some critical points, never before articulated. Hang on to your hats, folks. This may blow your mind.
1) Progressive’s “Nurturing Paradigm” Is the Essence of Healthy, Functional Family Life.
…and conversely, key aspects of the “strict father paradigm“ have been shown to undermine optimal family life and human development, including moral development.
As experts in the field of family studies have determined, functional family life is based on patterns of interaction that boil down to the emotional quality of relationships within a democratically organized family system.
Key qualities include empathy, attunement to emotional needs, equality between spouses, authoritative leadership (as opposed to authoritarian), and sound emotional connection among family members that meets the need for belonging while respecting the need for autonomy and individuality. These qualities are the antithesis of patriarchal values.
Likewise, classic studies on parenting styles by developmental psychologist Diana Baumrind point to authoritative (nurturing) not authoritarian (controlling) qualities as the ideal, raising children with greater self-motivation, confidence, cooperation, sense of responsibility and leadership skills, among other positive traits.
Well, I’ll be…Progressive values are the basis of healthy family life and optimal parenting? Sounds like there’s been a little mix-up in the rhetoric department, now doesn’t it?
2) Progressive’s Have a More Highly Developed Sense of Moral Judgment than Conservatives
Yes, you heard that right.
One of the biggest rallying cries is that “traditional family values” are critical for raising moral children and creating a moral society. How, pray tell? Through strict obedience and submission of will to authority figures, religious dogma and God, the highest authority of all.
But, au contraire.
Renowned psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg’s classic model of moral development has determined six progressive stages dependent upon cognitive maturation. This model points to the capacity for abstract reasoning (rather than the simplistic ability to follow black and white rules) being necessary for ethical stances and high-level moral functioning.
In Kohlberg’s first, most primitive stage of development, behavior is motivated by the desire to obey in order to avoid punishment and reap rewards. Fear is the driving force for “being good,” while conformity to convention and authoritarian rule provides a feeling of safety. Moral behavior is driven by self-serving needs and desires, and is not determined in a relational context involving the needs of someone else.
This very basic approach to morality is the be-all and end-all of the religious right’s “strict father” view of morality. Obey God’s orders, or be punished in hell. Be good, and go to heaven, where pearly gates await. Sounds like a fantastical story a child could understand, doesn’t it?
This is precisely the problem. Do we really want a government and society built on the rudimentary moral development of children on a playground?
I didn’t think so.
Fast forward to the most advanced stage of moral development, where ethics and moral judgment are based on grand, overarching humanistic principles vs. black and white rules. At this pinnacle of moral development, individuals operate from an interest in the universal rights and needs of others.
Yep. Sounds a lot like progressive values to me.
This sophisticated level of moral functioning involves courage, strength of character, and judgment determined by one’s inner moral compass and sensibilities–a solid source of guidance impervious to manipulation by external pressures or outside controls.
Isn’t this what constitutes upstanding citizenry? Standing up for what’s “right” even in the absence of personal reward or benefit? A selfless act that requires empathy and compassion?
I think so.
Culture warriors, listen up…The real problem with the “strict father” paradigm (religious dogma and authoritarianism), as the way to instill moral values, is this:
Embracing any kind of ideology or kowtowing to authoritarian rule actually results in the obliteration of personal choice and responsibility since there is no room to think and act in accordance with one’s internal moral compass.
Think about it. Do you want to raise kids who…
- Submit to peer pressure?
- Mindlessly “follow the leader,” who might be various shades of questionable?
- Can’t grasp the nuances of “right and wrong” when life throws a pitch they’ve never seen before, and there aren’t any “rules” to go by?
I didn’t think so.
Internal moral faculties are critical for the optimal functioning of a democracy like America, a system that values freedom and self-governance on all levels—political, social, and personal.
So it seems that the progressive view of morality might not be so amoral after all.
But it gets even better…
3) Progressive Moral Values Are More “Jesus-like” Than the Family Values Crusaders of the Religious Right.
Jesus was on a rebel’s path challenging the traditional values of his time–preaching humanistic, “nurturing values” of love and compassion over the authoritarian, “strict father,” God-fearing laws based on judgment and punishment.
Yep. You heard that right. Jesus was preaching against the moral precepts on which social conservatives base their world view. Seems like progressives do, indeed, have quite a moral yardstick, the same yardstick that Jesus used.
Well, I’ll be…
4) American Values Are Progressive to the Core
There’s nothing traditional about America–not its spirit, not its charter, and not its moral foundation.
The founding fathers were anything but obedient worshippers of tradition. They were revolutionaries rebelling against the “divine right” of kings and ruling aristocracies, inspiring the very creation of our nation. Doesn’t seem like they were bowing to power or established tradition, now does it?
Nope. Quite the contrary.
They bucked tradition all the way across the Atlantic, pursuing “Novus ordo seclorum,” a “new order for the ages.” These freethinkers envisioned a new nation that embraced the will of the people, the rights of the individual, and religious freedom through a secular government.
They set out to protect human rights by creating a new paradigm—a government of the people, by the people and for the people.
Sounds downright progressive to me.
And within the democratic system that our founders created, it was made very clear that personal responsibility was the key to a well-functioning democracy, not government controls.
In Goals for Americans, a government report published in 1960 during the Eisenhower administration, the importance of personal responsibility was brought to center stage and re-emphasized as crucial to our country’s well-being.
“In the end, of course, the fate of American democracy rests in the minds and hearts of men rather than in political machinery or social conditions. …The solutions to most problems of American democracy is personal rather than institutional.” (p.75)
“The Declaration (of Independence) put the individual squarely at the center, as of supreme importance. It completely reversed the age-old order; it defined government as the servant of the individual, not his master.” (p.36)
Social conservatives want to make government the master with laws limiting personal freedoms–restricting same-sex marriage, abortion, contraception, sex education, divorce, and the list goes on.
While social conservatives claim “traditional American values” are their guiding light, this is a grave misrepresentation. The “tradition” they are guided by are not American values. They’re biblical values, a highly ironic fact given that America is based on a secular governing system.
Well, I’ll be. A few backward flips in logic, going on with republican branding, wouldn’t you say? It’s amazing what kinds of truths can be found, when all the fancy rhetoric is stripped away.
So, Who Are the Protagonists in the Culture War?
Based on the above, we can see how progressives have a sound moral footing, and are in greater alignment with true American, Christian and functional family values than social conservatives, by far.
Then, how in the world did progressives become positioned as “amoral,” and “non-patriotic?”
Because right wing conservatives have been light years ahead of progressives in the framing and rhetoric department.
As Lakoff points out, they realized a long time ago that voters are driven by what’s meaningful to them–not policy, not wonky-wonk talk, but personal values. And the dearest value of all? Family. This ingenious insight became the strategic basis for their branding and running narrative.
Progressives, on the other hand, have been the party of: No brand. No story. No slogans that stick. No coherent vision or overarching mission that pulls their various causes together.
Many strategists on the left have lamented that progressives have failed to identify the moral values framework that guides them. They’re stance-less. Message-less. Colorless. They’re the plain brown box on the store shelf that simply says “Cereal” with bullet-pointed ingredients that you should intuitively know are good for you…and that you’ll hopefully buy.
“While portrayed as the moral villains, progressives embrace the types of values jiving with Jesus, our founding fathers, and healthy family functioning.”
In “Don’t Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate,” Lakoff has asserted that progressives need to put forth their moral vision, celebrate their values, connect them to their principles, and shout them out loud. He declared a need for progressives to reframe the family values debate with a conceptual overhaul.
This is where I come in.
I start by redefining family values based on principles of human development and family relations.
As it turns out, the very values that create strong families, moral children and a sound society lie at the heart of the progressive cause.
My aim is to strip family values rhetoric of its power to fool voters, so we as a nation can move forward with the facts necessary to make sound decisions in true alignment with our goals, both in our homes and at the polls.
Americans deserve much more than slogans that dupe and politicians that duke over family values for electoral gain. We deserve an honest analysis of the problems at hand.
If we ever hope to get on the right track and actually solve critical issues in the home and in society, we need to become smarter, delve deeper, and look anew at this fictional narrative that’s taken hold, a contorted conventional wisdom that is anything but wise.
Standby, a new, nonfiction narrative is on the way.
What do you think? Become a Truthsayer by sharing your comments below.
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