Why does a person become a liberal or a conservative? What factors contribute to the choice of a worldview? As I searched for the answers to this question, I found myself wallowing around in neuroscience, anthropology, genetics, and cognitive linguistics as well as history and philosophy. And as I perused these disparate fields, I found information in each that managed in some way to connect to the others.
John Dean’s book Conservatives Without Conscience brought to my attention the work of Dr. Robert Altemeyer, a psychology professor at the University of Manitoba who is a noted expert on authoritarianism - a name given to a set of traits exhibited by people who are most likely to comply unquestioningly with those in authority. This in turn led me to the first serious study of the authoritarian personality, Adorno et al., which in the aftermath of World War II, a group of social scientists headed up by Theodor W. Adorno undertook at the University of California, Berkeley to see if what happened in Nazi Germany could happen in America. It is estimated by Dr. Altemeyer that 23-25% of the population are authoritarian followers.
Another perspective came from Dr. George Lakoff at UC Berkeley, a cognitive linguist and social scientist who has written about ‘framing’. Cognitive science says that every person conceptualizes the world through mental structures that people use to process and understand reality called frames. We interpret and make sense of the world through these frames. The frames hold within them certain metaphors or associations between two separate concepts. Dr. Lakoff gives as an example the “well-being is wealth” metaphor, sometimes referred to as the Moral Accounting metaphor:
For example, if I do you a favor, you say, “I owe you one” or “I’m in your debt.” Doing something good for someone is metaphorically like giving him money. He “owes” you something. And he says, “How can I ever repay you?”
Americans view their government through a nation-as-family frame. We have Founding Fathers and Daughters of the American Revolution. We have Uncle Sam. We send our sons and daughters off to war. We view everything in our nation in a familial sense.
Dr. Lakoff uses two models to define the family: the Strict Father and the Nurturant Parent. The two represent the conservative and liberal views, respectively. The Strict Father model is hierarchical and authoritarian in nature. Life is seen as fundamentally difficult and the world as fundamentally dangerous. Evil is conceptualized as a force in the world, and it is the father's job to support his family and protect it from evils – both external and internal. Order – God over man, people over animals, men over women – and obedience are seen as the most important values in this frame, without which society would collapse entirely. Fear (of punishment, of harm) is an important part of the Strict Father frame. If a person is not afraid of being punished – by parents, by the law, by society, by God – then there is no way that person can ever be “moral” or “good.”
In the Nurturant Parent family, the highest moral values are empathy and responsibility. Effective nurturing requires empathy, which is feeling what someone else feels – parents have to figure out what their baby's cries mean in order to take care of him or her. Being responsible to others (not for others) and oneself requires cooperation. In society, nurturant morality is expressed as social responsibility that requires cooperation rather than competition, as well as a recognition of interdependence. The main tenets of progressive morality of empathy and responsibility are the same values that motivate liberal political issues.