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Our view of authority – what it means for politics and where it came from

Posted by Chance on October 16, 2007

Although I would call myself a limited-government conservative, to me, mainstream conservative somewhat makes sense. Although the term “mainstream conservatism” is somewhat up for grabs, in short, I would define it as this: a view that government should have a say in moral affairs and be more hands-off in economic matters. This is why it makes sense. In general, authority figures have a role in saying what is right and wrong; examples include the church, our parents, schools, etc…

But…I am overlooking something. Let’s go back to the parents example. Parents tell us what is right and wrong, but they also provide for us. They nurture us and they try to provide a somewhat safe environment.

So, for some reason, when I think of authority, I immediately think of a type of moral authority, some guide telling me what to do and what not to do. Others, however, may think of a more nurturing, provisional figure. It’s not that we neglect on facet of authority, we may just tend to emphasize one side in our minds.

So this makes me think, do our political views come from our view of authority in general? In fact, do our political views have something to do with our family structure, or at least, our view of it?

Think of a conservative’s view of government. The government lays down the (moral) law, protects us from bad guys, and tells us to go out and get a job. Sounds like your stereotypical Dad.

Think of a liberal’s view of government. Here, the government makes sure we have what we need and is a little more permissive concerning what we do and don’t do. Does this sound like a Mom?

Stay with me here. This has nothing to do with if conservatives are manly men and liberals are girly girls or anything like that. I’m just saying that, for some reason, conservatives tend to view their ideal government as some type of father figure, whereas liberals see the government as a more nurturing mother figure.

So do our political views have anything to do with our family structure? Does the dominant parental figure affect our views?

This is just a theory, but I really don’t have anything to back it up. I consider myself a cultural conservative, but I didn’t have a strong father figure until later in my life. If I asked conservatives and liberals I knew about their family life, I don’t know if their stories would indicate any correlation between political views and dominant parental figure.

So how would libertarians figure into the equation. It’s hard to say because, unlike conservatives and liberals, their whole philosophy requires more of a compartmentalization between the institution of government and other institutions, so their experience with authority in the family structure may be less likely to affect their view of government. Or, has their experience with familial authority initiated their limited government views in the first place?

But maybe I am limiting my scope and need to expand it to other areas of authority in our life. What about the church? There is a high correlation between religious people and conservative thought, but there is also a growing number of Christian liberals, so who knows?

So am I onto something here, or am I way off?

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10 Responses to “Our view of authority – what it means for politics and where it came from”

  1. Michael Westmoreland-White said

    Actually, you are onto something. George Lakeoff, the linguist who has talked about political “framing,” says that the contrast is between the “stern father” image and the “nurturing parent” image. (In our culture either parent can be nurturing, but the “stern father” 1950s style drives the conservative ideology.)

    I’m not sure I want a parental view of govt. at all, but these images do fit in with some conservative and liberal stereotypes–however harmful they are to both family life and civic life.

  2. Dan Trabue said

    Michael beat me to it. I was going to mention Lakoff, too. Here’s a fella restating Lakoff’s position…

    Lakoff’s central premise is that warriors with radically different worldviews fight the war over freedom. To conservatives, their authoritarian freedom seems the only natural road to human fulfillment. People are born bad, and will remain bad and “unfree” without discipline, punishment, hierarchy, and authority. To progressives, justifying authority in the name of freedom seems little more than a transparently hypocritical justification of elite privilege and control.

    As described by Lakoff, progressives believe freedom means the opportunity for individuals to set and achieve their own goals, and the recognition that freedom is impossible unless we accept responsibility for ourselves and for others.

  3. Michael Westmoreland-White said

    Before I ever heard of Lakoff, I wrote in the early ’90s that we were drifting into a society that longed for a “strong man.” We wanted strong fathers that ruled the house, strong [male] pastors that rule churches (whereas my tradition had formerly emphasized lay leadership), and strong presidents that will be father figures and defend us from enemies.

    It may be that such a view begins by wanting a limited government that refrains from doing too much for citizens because, Chance, it wants us to “get a job.” But such “strong father” longings often end up with a creeping facism in which the executive branch gets far too much authority, becomes an “elected monarchy” every 4 years and treats Congress as little more than a privy council, rather than a separate and equal branch of government.

    The “nurturing parent” model also has its dark side. It can begin with just wanting to give citizens what they need to flourish as individuals but it can create overdependence. There is some justification for the conservative charge that welfare democracies are “nanny states.”

    This is why I am not sure I like parental images for government at all. After all, I want citizens, not children.

  4. Chance said

    “ut such “strong father” longings often end up with a creeping facism in which the executive branch gets far too much authority, becomes an “elected monarchy” every 4 years and treats Congress as little more than a privy council, rather than a separate and equal branch of government.”

    I would agree, and I think the idea that the president has waaaayyyy too much power is an idea that anyone from any party or viewpoint can appreciate. Unfortunately, it seems that society is moving the other way, where we expect the President to solve each and every everyday problem we have.

  5. Michael Westmoreland-White said

    Well, Chance, I hope we liberals can count on your support, then, in curbing presidential power by–restoring the need for individual warrants before FISA courts for domestic spying; restoring Habeas corpus; insisting that any attack on another nation (e.g., Iran) requires a congressional declaration of war; insisting that “signing statements” that amount to refusing to obey the law are as unconstitutional as the line item veto; denying that the president can classify anyone an ‘enemy combatant’ that he chooses; denying that presidents can unilaterally “unsign” ratified treaties; insisting that the VP is a member of the executive branch; insisting that presidents must comply with congressional subpoenas, etc.

  6. Chance said

    Michael,
    Most of that sounds pretty good to me. I’ve never actually looked at the constitutionality of the line item veto, and I’ve never really examined if the VP is indeed a member of the executive branch, I’ve have to brush up on my constitution there. But I think the rest of those sound pretty good to me.

    The thing with Bush is that he sees it almost as his sole duty to protect the safety of the U.S. (although it is more of a team role, not just his), and while that is important, I believe an equally important role is protecting the Constitution, and therefore, our freedom.

    I think Bush has done some good things in keeping us safe, where you guys would probably disagree, but I disagree on actions that surpass the bounds of the Constitution.

  7. Michael Westmoreland-White said

    The line item veto went to the Supreme Court and was ruled unconstitutional. In fact, Guiliani is bragging that he took it to the Supreme Court (even though most GOP folks like it).

    Article II of the Constitution is the Executive Branch. The VP is mentioned there and only there. Until Cheney used the fact that the VP breaks ties in the Senate as an excuse to refuse Congressional subpoenas, no one in the history of the nation EVER suggested that the VP was anything other than a member of the Executive Branch. (Constitutionally, the VP is a MINOR Executive player, too.)

  8. Michael Westmoreland-White said

    Oh, and Bush’s actions have made us LESS safe–as several studies, including ones by the Pentagon, make clear.

    But Bush’s lawlessness (or, as he would see it, his huge power as a “unitary executive”) predated 9/11. He cannot use that as an excuse. He began “unsigning treaties” and ignoring Congressional subpoenas months before 9/11.

    Even his installation as president violated the Constitution. The Supreme Court is the ONLY branch of government which the Constitution grants ZERO role in deciding presidential elections. If the Florida recount couldn’t decide who won the Electoral vote, the CONSTITUTIONAL remedy was to throw the decision to the House of Reps.

    So, he began his entire presidency by showing absolute contempt for the Constitution–on a scale never dreamed of by Richard Nixon. It will take us decades to recover domestically and abroad.

  9. Chance said

    “Even his installation as president violated the Constitution. The Supreme Court is the ONLY branch of government which the Constitution grants ZERO role in deciding presidential elections. If the Florida recount couldn’t decide who won the Electoral vote, the CONSTITUTIONAL remedy was to throw the decision to the House of Reps.

    So, he began his entire presidency by showing absolute contempt for the Constitution–“

    I could be wrong, but didn’t Gore originally bring the case to the Supreme Court? http://law.fsu.edu/library/election/2808/2808.html

  10. […] An earlier post on how conservatives see government as a father figure, and liberals a mother figure. […]

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