The Strict Father Is at the Core of Conservative Ideology and Values

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Liberals tend not to understand conservatives, and their confusion is showing. On the one hand liberals see conservatives in disarray and react with glee at the fragmentation: the Tea Party vs. Libertarians vs. Neocons vs. Wall Street. Eric Cantor, the Republican Majority Leader, brought down by a Tea Party unknown. John Boehner unable to control his majority in the House. Republican primary challenges everywhere.

On the other hand, liberals are scared stiff of the Koch brothers and other wealthy Republicans bankrolling Republican candidates at every level all over the country. They are scared of a Republican takeover. And they should be.

Which is it?

There are real splits, disputes, dislikes, even hatreds among conservatives. Is it tearing conservatism apart?

Many say yes. The tearing-apart theory is easy to understand and constantly discussed.

On the other hand, it is also possible that the divisions form a system that welds the diverse parts together. And this may be making conservatives stronger at the nexus points, where views are shared, not weaker.

The welding-together theory has not been considered, but it is quite possible that this is what is happening among conservatives, at the systems level. Consider the uniformity of opinion among conservatives on everything from Obamacare to abortion to the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision. It is strong, and there are many instances where conservatives of all stripes are fervently against all liberals and all liberal positions. Where they have found common ground fits consistently within their overriding moral framework, and where they have found common ground, their resolve strengthens.

And if it is true that the divisions among conservatives make them stronger, not weaker, then progressives had better be aware of it.

No matter what progressives believe about conservative fragmentation, though, they need to understand who conservatives are and what they want, both group by group and on the whole.

At the heart of conservatism is strict father morality, as we have seen. But strict father morality has complexities and natural variations. What liberals don’t see is that the diversity can give conservatism as a whole considerable strength.

Different versions of conservatisms are defined by particular domains of interest. Strict father morality applies to all the domains—individual liberty and self-interest, world power, business, and society. These domains of interest characterize libertarian, neocon, financial, and Tea Party conservatives.

Domain of Interest

Type of Conservative

Individual liberty


World Power



Wall Street

Society and Religion

Tea Party

They have the same general strict father morality, but apply it to the domains that they care about most in different ways. The split is not in the moral theory, but in the domains of interest. With complementary differences, they stand together as one.

A focus on unimpeded pursuit of self-interest—and with it, extreme limits on state power over the individual—defines the libertarian strain of right-wing thought.

Neocons believe in the unbridled use of power (including state power) to extend the reign of strict father values and ideas into every domain, domestic and especially international. They are concerned with global financial and military power, and the use of power at home. They sometimes run up against libertarians, who object to the use of governmental power and to global involvements that require the buildup and use of state power.

Wall Street conservatives are primarily concerned with the acquisition of wealth via the corporate world. They include CEOs and upper management of wealthy corporations, investment bankers, venture capitalists, private asset managers, hedge fund managers, and anyone whose income primarily comes from investments. Such conservatives have many political concerns: tax policy, economic treaties, import-export policy, protection of foreign investments, government contracts, access to minerals on government lands, protection of patents and copyrights, property rights versus environmental rights, energy supplies, control of markets, privatization of public resources, and so on. They tend to work through lobbyists, advertising, and control of the media and public discourse.

Finally, there are Tea Party conservatives—social and religious culture warriors, who want to act aggressively on every front in the culture war against liberals and progressives.

On the whole, the right wing is attempting to impose a strict father ideology on America and, ultimately, the rest of the world. Although the details vary with conservative areas of concern, there are general tendencies. Many progressives underestimate just how radical an ideology this is.

Here is an account of what the radical right seems to have in mind.

God. Many conservatives start with a view of God that makes conservative ideology seem both natural and good. God is the ultimate strict father—all good and all powerful, at the top of a natural hierarchy in which morality is linked with power. God wants good people to be in charge. Virtue is to be rewarded—with power. God therefore wants a hierarchical society in which there are moral authorities who should be obeyed in each domain: individual power, global power, financial power, social power.

God makes laws—commandments—defining right and wrong. One must have discipline to follow God’s commandments. God is punitive: He punishes those who do not follow his commandments, and rewards those who do. Following God’s laws takes discipline. Those who are disciplined enough to be moral are disciplined enough to become prosperous and powerful.

Christ, as savior, gives sinners a second chance—a chance to be born again and be obedient to God’s commandments this time around.

The moral order. Traditional power relations are taken as defining a natural moral order: God above man, man above nature, adults above children, Western culture above non-Western culture, America above other nations. The moral order is all too often extended to men above women, whites above nonwhites, Christians above non-Christians, straights above gays.

Morality. Preserving and extending the conservative moral system (strict father morality) is the highest priority.

Morality comes in the form of rules, or commandments, made by a moral authority. To be moral is to be obedient to that authority. It requires internal discipline to control one’s natural desires and instead follow a moral authority. What that authority is depends on your domain of interest: the individual, governing institutions—both public and private, Wall Street, conservative society.

Discipline is learned in childhood primarily through punishment for wrongdoing. Morality can be maintained only through a system of rewards and punishments.

Economics. Competition for scarce resources also imposes discipline, and hence serves morality. The discipline required to be moral is the same discipline required to win competitions and prosper.

The wealthy people tend to be the good people, a natural elite. The poor remain poor because they lack the discipline needed to prosper. The poor, therefore, deserve to be poor and serve the wealthy. The wealthy need and deserve poor people to serve them. The vast and increasing gap between rich and poor is thus seen to be both natural and good.

To the extent that markets are “free,” they are a mechanism for the disciplined (stereotypically good) people to use their discipline to accumulate wealth. Free markets are moral: If everyone pursues his own profit, the profit of all will be maximized. Competition is good; it produces optimal use of resources and disciplined people, and hence serves morality. Regulation is bad; it gets in the way of the free pursuit of profit. Wealthy people serve society by investing and giving jobs to poorer people. Such a division of wealth ultimately serves the public good, which is to reward the disciplined and let the undisciplined be forced to learn discipline or struggle.

Government. Social programs are immoral. By giving people things they haven’t earned, social programs remove the incentive to be disciplined, which is necessary for both morality and prosperity. Social programs should be eliminated. Anything that could be done by the private sphere should be. Government does have certain proper roles: to protect the lives and the private property of Americans, to make profit-seeking as easy as possible for worthy Americans (the disciplined ones), and to promote conservative morality (strict father morality), along with conservative social culture and religion.

Education. Since preserving and extending conservative morality is the highest goal, education should serve that goal. Schools should teach conservative values. Conservatives should gain control of school boards to guarantee this. Teachers should be strict, not nurturant, in the example they set for students and in the content they teach. Education should therefore promote discipline, and undisciplined students should face punishment. Unruly students should face physical punishment (for instance, paddling), and intellectually undisciplined students should not be coddled but should be shamed and punished by not being promoted. Uniform testing should test the level of discipline. There are right and wrong answers, and they should be tested for. Testing defines fairness: Those who pass are rewarded; those not disciplined enough to pass are punished.

Because immoral, undisciplined children can lead moral, disciplined children astray, parents should be able to choose to which schools they send their children. Government funding should be taken from public schools and given to parents in the form of vouchers. This will help wealthier (more disciplined and moral) citizens send their children to private or religious schools that teach conservative values and impose appropriate discipline. The vouchers given to poorer (less disciplined and less worthy) people will not be sufficient to allow them to get their children into the better private and religious schools. Schools will thus come to reflect the natural divisions of wealth in society. Of course, students who show exceptional discipline and talent should be given scholarships to the better schools. This will help maintain the social elite as a natural elite.

Health care. It is the responsibility of parents to take care of their children. To the extent that they cannot, they are not living up to their individual responsibility. No one has the responsibility of doing other people’s jobs for them. Thus prenatal care, postnatal care, health care for children, and care for the aged and infirm are matters of individual responsibility. They are not the responsibility of taxpayers.

Same-sex marriage and abortion. Same-sex marriage does not fit the strict father model of the family; it goes squarely against it. A lesbian marriage has no father. A gay marriage has “fathers” who are taken to be less than real men. Since preserving and extending the strict father model is the highest moral value for conservatives, same-sex marriage constitutes an attack on the conservative value system as a whole, and on those whose very identity depends on their having strict father values.

Abortion works similarly. There are two stereotypical cases where women need abortions: unmarried teenagers who have been having “illicit” sex, and older women who want to delay child rearing to pursue a career. Both of these fly in the face of the strict father model. Pregnant teenagers have violated the commandments of the strict father. Career women challenge the power and authority of the strict father. Both should be punished by bearing the child; neither should be able to avoid the consequences of their actions, which would violate the strict father model’s idea that morality depends on punishment. Since conservative values in general are versions of strict father values, abortion stands as a threat to conservative values and to one’s identity as a conservative.

Conservatives who are “pro-life” are mostly, as we have seen, against prenatal care, postnatal care, and health care for children, all of which have major causal effects on the life of a child. Thus they are not really pro-life in any broad sense. Conservatives for the most part are using the idea of terminating a pregnancy as part of a cultural-war strategy to gain and maintain political power.

Both same-sex marriage and abortion are stand-ins for the general strict father values that define for millions of people their identities as conservatives. That is the reason why these are such hot-button issues for conservatives.

To understand this is not to ignore the real pain and difficulty involved in decisions made by individual women to terminate a pregnancy. For those truly concerned with the lives and health of children, the decision to end a pregnancy for whatever reason is always painful and anything but simple. It is this pain that conservatives are exploiting when they use ending pregnancy as a wedge issue in the cultural civil war they have been promoting.

There are also those who are genuinely pro-life, who believe that life begins with conception, that life is the ultimate value, and who therefore support prenatal care, postnatal care, health insurance for poor children, and early childhood education, and who oppose the death penalty, war, and so on. They also recognize that any woman choosing to end a pregnancy is making a painful decision, and empathize with such women and treat them without a negative judgment. These are pro-life progressives—often liberal Catholics. They are not conservatives who use the question of ending pregnancy as a political wedge to gain support for a broader moral and political agenda.

Nature. God has given man dominion over nature. Nature is a resource for prosperity. It is there to be used for human profit.

Corporations. Corporations exist to provide people with goods and services, and to maximize profits for investors and upper management. They work most “efficiently” when they do maximize their profits. When corporations profit, society profits.

Regulation. Government regulation stands in the way of free enterprise, and should be minimized.

Rights. Rights must be consistent with morality. Strict father morality defines the limits of what is to count as a “right.”

Thus there is no right to an abortion, no right to same-sex marriage, no right to health care (or any other government assistance), no right to know how the administration decides policy, no right to a living wage, and so on. However, there is a right to owning guns—especially conservatives owning guns—since guns provide a form of authority to those who possess them.

Democracy. A strict father democracy is an institutional democracy operating under strict father values. It counts as a democracy in that it has elections, a tripartite government, civilian control of the military, free markets, basic civil liberties, and widely accessible media. But strict father values are seen as central to democracy—to the empowerment of individuals to change their lives and their society by pursuing their individual interests.

Foreign policy. America is the world’s moral authority. It is a superpower because it deserves to be. Its values—the right values—are defined by strict father morality. If there is to be a moral order in the world, American sovereignty, wealth, power, and hegemony must be maintained and American values—conservative family values, the free market, privatization, elimination of social programs, domination of man over nature, and so on—spread throughout the world.

The culture war. Strict father morality defines what a good society is. The very idea of a conservatively defined good society is threatened by liberal and progressive ideas and programs. That threat must be fought at all costs. The very fabric of society is at stake.

Those are the basics. Those are the ideas and values that the right wing wants to establish, nothing less than a radical revolution in how America and the rest of the world functions. That the vehemence of the culture war is provoked and maintained by conservatives is no accident. For strict father morality to gain and maintain political power, disunity is required. First, there is economic disunity, the two-tier economy with the “unworthy” poor remaining poor and serving the “deserving” rich. But to stay in power, conservatives need the support of the conservative poor. That is, they need a significant percentage of the poor and middle class to vote against their economic interests and for their individual, social, and religious interests. This means that what appears to be a division among conservatives on the basis of domains of interest actually constitutes strength for conservatism on the whole. Conservatism in all those domains of interest is required for conservatism to reign.

This has been achieved through the recognition that many working people and evangelical Protestants have a strict father morality in their families or religious lives. Conservative intellectuals have realized that these are the same values that drive political conservatism. They have also realized that people vote their values and their identities more than their economic self-interests. What they have done is to create, via framing and language, a link between strict father morality in the family and religion on the one hand and conservative politics and business on the other. This conceptual link must be so emotionally strong in those who are not wealthy that it can overcome economic self-interest.

Their method for achieving this has been the cultural civil war—a civil war carried out with everything short of live ammunition—
pitting Americans with strict father morality (called conservatives) against Americans with nurturant parent morality (the hated liberals), who are portrayed as threatening the way of life and the cultural, religious, and personal identities of conservatives.

Conservative political and intellectual leaders faced a challenge in carrying out their goals. They represented an economic and political elite, but they were seeking the votes of middle- and lower-class working people. They needed, therefore, to identify conservative ideas as populist and liberal or progressive ideas as elitist—even though the reverse was true. They faced a massive framing problem, a problem that required a change in everyday language and thought. But strict father morality gave them an important advantage: It suggests that the wealthy have earned their wealth, that they are good people who deserve it—and that those who govern, both in the public and private sphere, should maintain the right moral order in society. It is a kind of conservative social contract.

Through the work of their think tank intellectuals, their language professionals, their writers and ad agencies, and their media specialists, conservatives have worked a revolution in thought and language over forty to fifty years. Through language they have branded liberals (whose policies are populist) as effete elitists, unpatriotic spendthrifts—using terms like limousine liberals, latte liberals, tax-and-spend liberals, Hollywood liberals, East Coast liberals, the liberal elite, wishy-washy liberals, and so on. At the same time they have branded conservatives (whose policies favor the economic elite) as populists—again through language, including body language. From Ronald Reagan’s down-home folksiness to George W. Bush’s John Wayne–style “Bubbaisms,” the language, dialects, body language, and narrative forms have been those of rural populists. Their radio talk show hosts—warriors all—have adopted the style of hellfire preachers. But the message is the same: The hated liberals are threatening American culture and values, and have to be fought vigorously and continuously on every front. It is a threat to the very security of the nation, as well as morality, religion, the family, and everything real Americans hold dear. Their positions on wedge issues—guns, babies, taxes, same-sex marriage, the flag, school prayer—reveal the “treachery” of liberals. The wedge issues are not important in themselves, but are vital in what they represent: a strict father attitude to the world.

Without the mutually supportive relationships among the domains of interest—individual, governing, business, and social—conservatism as an overarching moral system cannot flourish. What appears to liberals to be fragmentation and disunity could be a mutually reinforcing structure that is powerful and threatening to progressive values and American democracy.

The prevailing wisdom of progressives, on the other hand, is that ideological divisions are tearing conservatism apart. But we had better consider both possibilities.

Copyright 2014 by George Lakoff. Not to be reprinted without permission of the publisher, Cheslea Green Publishing.