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Republicans: “Take Away the Car Keys”

Conservative ideologues looking to punish workers and the American middle class for auto industry failures are driven by an authoritarian worldview George Lakoff calls the strict parent model.

Senate Republicans see their opposition to the rescue of Detroit as whipping the children. They are not that different from the failed father who thinks his follies can be overcome by beating the wife and kids. Politically, they seek to avoid responsibility for the nation’s economic woes. It’s not the strict authority who’s at fault. It’s the misbehaving children. Conservatives think they must take away the keys to the car.

The strict parent worldview is not now and never has been compatible with democracy or economic egalitarianism. But it’s always been part of American culture, and most of us carry at least some residual consequence of its cognitive gene. We may be committed democrats, but we laugh along when a boss at work quips, "This is not a democracy." Or we raise our children in a traditional strict model fashion. Lakoff calls this "biconceptualism." We use the strict model in some parts of our lives, and it’s opposite, the nurturant or shared responsibility model,  in others.

The authoritarian model has been culturally conserved by shrewd neo-Calvinist religious manipulators and free market extremists who recognize that wealth and power trickle up. Both models go way back. According to Hannah Arendt, Jan Patocka and other philosopher/historians, it was with the emergence of the polis from the household and the birth of Greek democracy that family organizational models were metaphorically mapped onto larger social and political groupings. (It’s also true that the influence is reciprocal, as feminist theorists correctly point out. Patriarchal social organization leads to patriarchal families, and vise versa.)

I agree with anthropologists like Christopher Boehm, who date the birth of democracy and its ethic of shared responsibility as far back as the Paleolithic, 10,000 years ago, when hunter gatherers organized together to limit abusive authority. You can read much more about this in my series, "The Promise of Popular Democracy," at OpenLeft, Part I, Part II, Part III.

As Lakoff says, these models are wired into our brains. They are not bodiless, weightless, free-floating ideas we can take or leave. John Dewey recognized them as habits of thinking. When Republicans carefully frame issues around blame, punishment and authority, their frames are understood. Even people who consider themselves liberal democrats can sometimes be persuaded with these frames, since, as I said, they are likely to use the strict model in some part of their lives.

While it is important to get the facts of the auto manufacturers’ woes right and to point out the dire consequences to millions of Americans of the failure to rescue the industry, it is not enough. People aren’t computers who reason through the facts to perfect solutions. We see things through our emotionally laden worldviews.

We have to contest the strict model metaphors and values – out loud. It’s the only way to activate the value system and worldview of shared responsibility.

The automobile industry is a shared, collective endeavor. What do we, the American family, want to make of it? We want affordable, safe, fuel-efficient, environmentally sound cars built by committed workers who are rewarded for undertaking this task on our behalf.

Framed this way, the financial rescue of Detroit can be seen as the moral endeavor of citizens taking responsibility for ourselves. Blame and punishment become less relevant. Current auto industry leadership might or might not need replacing. Certainly, punishing workers is insane. If we must lend our tax dollars to the effort, so be it. In return, the industry must agree to morally sound practices.

This is an opportunity to shape the manufacture of American automobiles. Conservative efforts to exploit the issue for political gain can be seen as irresponsible and craven.

But unless we articulate progressive values, we are at a disadvantage with conservatives who don’t hesitate to argue punishment and authority. If the strict, authoritarian worldview is activated by conservatives, and the progressive worldview of shared responsibility is not, how can we hope to prevail? We remain in the backseat of a car we don’t like, a car very likely to be driven over a cliff by a strict parent who demands the wheel while denying any responsibility for where we go.

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Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith