The Family, Brexit and the Right Wing: George Lakoff’s ‘Moral Politics’ applied to Brexit


In this post, I want to summarise the key points of the book ‘Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives think’ by George Lakoff (1996). (Don’t worry, I’ll leave enough out to justify you buying the book.) In it, Lakoff explains how differences of perspective on the family can go a long way to explaining both the differences between the political Right and Left, as well as explaining some of the clusters of ideas that seem contradictory to the other side.

This model ― of a politics described by family structure and values ― can then go on to explain some of the values being discussed around Brexit, why it seems to be so strongly a Right-wing idea with Right-wing support and outright contradictions people are happy to champion in its defence.

The division between the Right and Left

There is a disconnect between the Right and Left wing that runs deep, as deep as family values. Clusters of ideas that define the Right Wing seem completely contradictory to the Left Wing but make sense to the Right Wing. The same is true of the Left Wing. In 1996, George Lakoff attempted to articulate that disconnect: that both sides have different models of what politics should look like.

Each side has a moral idea of what politics should look like, and both arrived at it in the same way, and yet they came out with opposing answers. They seem to agree on implicit and deep down models of morality and the family, and that those models apply to governments. Lakoff argues that people think metaphorically about their country as a family, and therefore think their country should follow the same moral ideas as a family ‘should’. But they disagree on how a family should function.

For the purposes of this post, I am going to continue to talk about ‘two sides’, however Lakoff spends chapters adding complexity to the idea of ‘two sides’, by introducing ‘prototypical’ examples and ‘radial categories’. In short, either of the two sides can be said to be a broad church, deviating in defined ways in any parameter that would otherwise define a ‘prototypical’ Right Winger or Left Winger.

Why a new model of the difference is important

Lakoff looks to develop a new explanation for the difference between the Right and Left because other explanations (‘small government’, ‘traditional values’) still leave a number of puzzles. For example, how can the ‘Right Wing’ be for family values and for taking children away from single mothers on welfare? Similarly, why does the ‘Right’ tend to be against abortion and yet also against providing prenatal care that might lower America’s high infant mortality rate? As Lakoff puts it “It appears to liberals that “pro-life” conservatives do want to prevent the death of those fetuses whose mothers do not want them…, but do not want to prevent the deaths of fetuses whose mothers do want them” (pg 25). These clusters of ideas on the ‘Right’ that appear contradictory abound: right-to-life vs capital punishment; bigger government when it comes to the military and prisons vs smaller government in terms of protective regulation etc.

Equally, on the other side, why aren’t compassion for a victim of crime contradictory to defending the rights of criminals? Or, how isn’t abortion contradictory to the rights of children? Environmental restrictions vs pro labour? Progressive income tax vs achieving the American dream?

The ‘Family model’ of the difference

Strict fathers and the Right Wing

Lakoff argues that the Right wing of politics is a metaphorical instantiation of a model of the family he calls ‘Strict Father’. The 2019, #metoo, version of this might be ‘Strict masculine parent’. It champions as moral imperatives: discipline, self-reliance, restraint, respect for authority. By extension, it abhors as moral failings, laziness, dependence, flamboyance and flouting of legitimate rules or undermining of legitimate authority.

Self-discipline and restraint, interestingly, should amount to being able to overcome internal and external temptation and “evil”, so things like social causes of crime are ignored because a disciplined individual would have overcome those factors. This means that criminality or any other flouting of the ‘strict father’ rules are a sign of an individual’s moral weakness or corruption.

The idea is that a strict parent ― Lakoff does not deny that a woman can take that role, but points out the importance of a father taking that role in traditional settings ― is that legitimate authority and instills those values in their children, through harsh punishments and fair rewards.

The important next step is to imagine the state as a family, and the government as a parent. And so, the citizenry should be encouraged to be self-reliant, disciplined, restrained and respectful of authority: they should be rewarded when they use these traits to achieve (and so are against progressive tax); they should not be coddled or ‘rewarded’ when they fail (and so are against social programs and welfare). In the same way that social factors are ignored when looking at crime ― making the individual sole focus of moral condemnation ― so, too, are social factors ignored when assessing success ― and so the successful individual is deemed not only to have succeeded all on their own, but that this is a triumph of moral strength and uprightness.

(This is often reinforced through stereotypes and exemplar narratives. So, a successful business person who had to struggle at the start is deemed to have shown discipline, restraint and self-reliance, and so is an example of financial success being the same as moral upstandingness.)

In practice, this explains the puzzles listed above. ‘Orphanages’ for children who still have a mother ― albeit a single mother, on welfare ― are a beacon of ‘Family values’ because they are places to learn discipline, restraint and how to go without; in turn, this leads to hard times that grow a child in moral strength. That is good. By contrast, a single mother on welfare ― so the Right Wing myth goes ― is being coddled, learning by example that “rewards” (welfare) do not have to be earned, hard work is not necessary (as a lack of financial success is deemed ‘not working hard’, which is akin to ‘not being moral’). That is bad.

Sex when you do not want ― or might refuse to raise ― a child is considered a lack of disciple. And so, refusing to have a child ― should you fall pregnant ― is deemed flouting of rules or a lack of discipline (i.e. you made this choice, stick with it). It is this strict family family model that makes an individual’s abortion appear like a disregard for responsibility. On top of that, the mere existence of ‘abortion services’ is seen as an acceptance of the lack of self-control that leads to unwanted pregnancies in the first place. (This is enforced through stereotypes, where many Right Wingers will believe that only two types of women ever want an abortion: teens who lacked the restraint not to have sex, and ‘business women’ who lack the selfless restraint to put the fetus before their careers. These appear to be inaccurate and callous stereotypes, but they fit the narrative so well, that the Right Wing doesn’t shake them off.)

And yet, prenatal programs ― as with all social programs ― are seen as ‘unearned rewards’ or coddling. These ‘spoil’ people by removing the urgency to ‘work hard’ and ‘earn’ prenatal care, by paying for it themselves.

If Lakoff is right, the terms “pro-life” is a misnomer and the title “anti-abortion” is more accurate, because the “pro-life” title won’t hold. Capital punishment is deemed appropriate to some crimes, as a harsh punishment is necessary; severe crimes were both a crime against legitimate authority and a sign of moral weakness (and perhaps even moral ‘rot’) in the individual. Guns are a right, not because the Constitution says so, but because they are a key part in being self-reliant against others.

It appears to me ― editorialising Lakoff’s work a little here ― that the Right Wing family-centred moral politics is based heavily on myths that wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny: that money is always earned; that poverty correlates to a lack of effort; that all effort is moral effort and all moral effort results in money. Money, here, is just a proxy for self-reliance. But it is also a practical reality, and when put in those stark terms, the falsity of the myths stands out heavily. At least, to me it does.

Nurturing parents and the Left Wing

The next step of this post is to explain some of the rhetoric around Brexit in terms of the model put forward by Lakoff. As that rhetoric is predominantly Right Wing, we don’t need to spend any time on the Left Wing at all. However, it is interesting and so we shall take a brief look.

The model of the family that is important here is to do with nurturing, not discipline. It is worth pointing out ahead of time that the Left Wing family is not devoid of discipline, and the Right Wing family is not devoid of nurture. It’s just that the two are placed in the opposite priority order. The Right Wing family focuses on disciplining children so that they can go on to nurture themselves (self-reliance through restraint and discipline); whereas the Left Wing family nurtures their children so that they can go on to nurture others, which in turn relies on self-reliance and discipline. Lakoff puts it better than me, so:

“Love, empathy, and nurturance are primary, and children become responsible, self-disciplined and self-reliant through being cared for, respected, and caring for others, both in their family and in their community. Support and protection are part of nurturance, and they require strength and courage on the part of the parents.” (pg 33)

And so, parents have to instill that courage and strength in their children, so that they can go on to do the same for their children. Obedience, then, is predicated on love and respect, not fear.

Although the parent is the legitimate authority, questioning that authority is not seen as a punishable undermining of that authority, but as a learning opportunity; the most important thing is not self-reliance and discipline, instead those are just tools to foster empathy, social ties and community responsibility.

And so what puzzles the Right Wing about the Left Wing is solved by seeing the Left Wing position in this light, as the community ties and empathy. When the family has the responsibility to see that other family members are nurtured, then one can have empathy for both a victim of crime and a victim of circumstance (the criminal). One does not treat them the same way, and there is a whole concept of moral accounting (in the book, that I am skipping over entirely) that helps focus on how we treat each person. But a community member who is a criminal should be nurtured (rehabilitated) and the community member who is a victim should also be nurtured (comforted, made ‘whole’ from their loss).

Although there is a use of language here that is important ― language that distinguishes between a non-viable, non-recognisable “embryo” against generalised emotive terms like “baby ― (skipped over here, discussed in the book), the abortion of a fetus is acceptable for all sorts of reasons. Moral self-nurturance, the idea that you cannot care for others (a moral imperative) if you don’t care for yourself; the understanding of sexual desires as a healthy part of nurturing relationships, and not a lack of self-control and therefore not a moral failing of itself; having an unwanted pregnancy means you are in trouble and it is its own punishment, what an empathetic person should do at this point is offer help; she isn’t yet ready to be a mother (or a mother of more children) and so carrying to term hinders self-development.)

Groups of ideas held together, that shock or confuse the other side, are coherent when seen in this political family model.

Brexit and the family

The Brexit positions of Leave and Remain do not perfectly overlap with the political Left and Right. There is such a thing as ‘Lexit’, which is the Left Wing defence of Brexit. It should be a moot point, because everything is being arranged by a Right Wing government, but the idea is that the EU places too many restriction on how the UK can ‘nurture’ its people through social programs and state aid.

But, the common arguments for and against Brexit line up better with the family model of politics than they do with the Right and Left. This might partly be because the UK political system isn’t as neatly separable as the US system was in the 1990s. But it is interesting to see how the family model of politics can explain the Brexit divide.

Strict Fathers and the puzzle of Hard Brexit

Perhaps one of the most bizarre elements of the Brexit arguments, to Remain, is the use of certain rhetoric. The idea that “we’ll be alright” or “we survived the war, we’ll survive Brexit” seems callous to the Remainer. Not only did many people die in the war, the war was fought for something, and ‘survival’ falls so short of the ‘flourishing’ that should be available to a developed country like the UK. How can being “alright” and doing no more than “survive” be the goals of the Brexiter?

The answer is ‘independence’, or ‘self-reliance’. It’s obviously a myth that can be debunked with some immediacy: the UK is still looking to have trade deals, it will still have to import essential foods and medicines, and industry will still be international; those trade deals will dictate the quality the UK imports and produces. But to ‘steel man’ their argument ― the opposite of the ‘straw man’, make the strongest version of the argument ― it is about the terms of that trade and imports being decided by the UK.

The idea is a Strict Father version of politics: the UK shouldn’t be coddled by the EU. If the UK wants to create protective regulation, the UK will make that decision itself, not borrow it from the EU; if the UK wants a trade deal, it won’t borrow in the EU’s influence, it will use it’s own influence. This is a question of morality to the Brexit argument: using influence from the EU for your trade deal is immoral because it is a reward that is not earned; it is making life easier than it ‘should’ be, and therefore not teaching the UK moral strength.

Perhaps the most striking example of this moral attitude comes from a BBC Vox Pop, where a man argued that claims of food shortages were “scaremongering” but, more importantly that “it would do the country good to go without for a little while. Make them appreciate what they’ve had” (Evans 2019). This seems intellectually confused, in that to be both scaremongering and what will actually happen appears to be a contradiction; and morally confused, as the Left Wing cannot see how intentionally being worse off would be good.

And yet, this idea seems mainstream, as a majority of Brexit supporters think damage to the economy is worthwhile to secure ‘Brexit’ (Gillett 2017). And it happens precisely because Brexit has some moral value that is greater than the value of an economy, jobs or nurturing a population ― according to the Right Wing. And that value is ‘independence’. If the UK has an economy and jobs that are dependent on being coddled by the EU, then it is an immoral excess that fails to teach the UK moral strength. It is better to ‘tighten ones belt’ and be independent and self-reliant than it is to enjoy excesses through dependence.

Moral authority

That contradiction between “scaremongering” and belief that it will happen and be good are explained, too. There is a language of Brexit supporters about Remainers being “metropolitan liberal elites”. All the sarcasm clearly lands on the word “elite”; it is about where legitimate authority lies, and more specifically, that ― as far as the Right Wing are concerned ― legitimate authority doesn’t lie in the hands of people who might coddle and ‘spoil’ this country by allowing it to enjoy fruits it didn’t earn. And so, anything the “liberal elites” claim is illegitimate because they have no moral authority.

Authority is earned, in family models, by instantiating models that support the ‘right’ family model. So, the liberals with their ‘empathy’ are illegitimate to the Right Wing; but the harsh conservatives are illegitimate to the Left Wing. The UK normally has democratic legitimacy to gloss over this divide, but Brexit doesn’t belong to an elected party or Parliament and so it cannot rest on that. The glossing over of the divide simply isn’t possible.

Remain and Nurture

The Remainers are also guilty of things that appear like complete puzzles to the Brexiters. How can Remainers claim to care strongly about people and their jobs and economic security while also undermining how those people voted? Such infantilising is overbearing and obnoxious.

But Remainers take a society wide view, with community ties. They want to nurture the country ― not put it through hard times to learn something about self-restraint ― and they want to do this with broader political aims that just Brexit for its own purposes. They believe that proper nurturance, through ending austerity and ensuring workers rights and fair in work pay, will lead to properly nurturing people. And people who are nurtured will show respect and discipline.

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Cited Material

Evans, Greg. 2019. “Brexit Supporter Tells BBC News It ‘Will Do the Country Good to Go without Food.’” indy100. indy100. January 29, 2019.

Lakoff, George. 1996. Moral Politics: What Conservatives Know That Liberals Don’t. University of Chicago Press.

2 thoughts on “The Family, Brexit and the Right Wing: George Lakoff’s ‘Moral Politics’ applied to Brexit”

  1. I think the authors characterizations are fine as far as they go. Standing up to strict examination is not appropriate as we are talking about where people’s “feelings” come from and such sources are always vague (IMHO of course).

    I have always felt that there are contradictions that are not resolvable and this characterization may actually help us get closer together (at least to better understanding). I use as an example that Americans think “competition” is always good. If that were the case, then why do we not have our kids compete at school to see who gets to eat in the evening? (Alright, who did better on their test? Susie? Good. Not the rest of you go to bed without supper and think about applying yourself better at school.)

    Competition is not something we do “in family.” (Ignore siblings competing at Fortnite for now.) In family the operative principle is collaboration. With outsiders, then we compete, because competition is a win-lose system and we do not want our family members to lose, ever.

    So, in a family-based analogy as described above, one way to control who gets the collaboration and who gets the competition is to delineate who gets to be on your team. Those on the Left seem to be very generous about opening up the family to include “others.” Those on the Right, tend to exclude first. If you don’t look like my family, you are automatically an “other.” In extreme forms, this fuels racism, religious bigotry, etc. On the Left are people who are looking for reasons to include. On the Right there are people looking for reasons to exclude.

    There are studies that characterize these attributes as “openness to new experience” etc. and there are clear differences in quantities of these attributes in those on the Left and Right of politics.

    Conservatives have a vested interest in the status quo with regard to institutions and traditions. But as change becomes faster and faster, they find themselves hitting the brakes harder and harder. Finally, conservatism in the US has gone so far off of the rails that George Will, for example, has left the Republican Party.

    If we had reasonable people, I am sure we could find some middle ground. But the current state of things has resulted in unreasonable people getting elected, people for whom the word compromise is the work of the devil. Working to understand people to get along is one thing. Working to understand people in order to be able to manipulate them is another. We have painted ourselves into the corner of a very large, windowless room.

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