Why are people conservatives or liberals?

I’ve long suspected that many political debates boil down to a relatively small number dimensions or core value judgments. And I believe these values often are rooted in basic personality.

George Lakoff tries to put some meat on these bones. In a nutshell, he sees conservatives as siding with a “Strict Father” model, and liberals as siding with a “Nurturant Mother” model.

Lakoff writes:

My findings indicate that the family and morality are central to both worldviews…What we have here are two different forms of family-based morality. What links them to politics is a common understanding of the nation as a family, with the government as parent. Thus, it is natural for liberals to see it as the function of the government to help people in need and hence to support social programs, while it is equally natural for conservatives to see the function of the government as requiring citizens to be self-disciplined and self-reliant and, therefore, to help themselves.

The linked essay presents the hypothesis in more detail. For more detail, buy Lakoff’s fascinating book, Moral Politics. Note, however, that he definitely sides with the liberal point of view. I would argue, in contrast, that liberals misapply what is good family policy to larger polities, where a stricter and more impersonal approach is appropriate.

My take: I’ve never met an intelligent person who couldn’t come up at least five good objections to Lakoff’s thesis. But Lakoff’s writings make more progress on a difficult topic than anything else I have read to date. They also explain, in my view, why libertarianism, in practice usually ends up closer to the right wing than to the left. “Individual responsibility” is a core moral intuition for most libertarians, and this puts them closer to conservatives, despite the considerable differences.

That all being said, let’s say you realized that your political views followed from your core personality. Let’s say also that personality is something that, in large part, you do not choose. Either you are born with it, or your upbringing shapes you from an early age. Shouldn’t that make you less rather than more confident of your political views? After all, it would be a mere genetic accident that conservative or liberal politics should feel as right to you as they do.


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