Marginalizing the “strict-father” camp

In two recent posts, Craig Morris shed light on US linguist George Lakoff’s proposal for environmentalists to frame their issues properly. Today, he sums up why framing is too America-centric. He wishes everyone would copy Germany’s Vergangenheitsbewältigung – a faithfulness to the truth in combating alt-facts. And if you ever wondered how feminism benefits men, read on.

stolpersteine - memorial to the victims of Nazi regime

“Stumbling stones” are tiny monuments marking places where people, mostly Jews, lived at the onset of the Holocaust. Vergangenheitsbewältigung: facing the past unflinchingly (Photo by Holger Weinandt, edited, CC BY-SA 3.0)

My first experience with strict-father “diplomacy” came over a decade ago at a wind power meeting in a US consulate in Germany. “The Nazis took this building from a Jewish family,” one American diplomat opened the meeting. The Germans were used to it, but I was young and naïve – and stunned. (I thought at the time: imagine a foreign diplomat stating on a White House visit, “in this house built by slaves…”)

The US diplomats had started the meeting by putting the Germans in their place. As linguist George Lakoff explains, the place of foreign countries when modern-day Republicans (not to be confused with conservatives – see below) are in power is the child’s seat. He bases this claim on the writings of influential conservative writer James Dobson, who has called for a “strict-father” policy for the past four decades:

  • Fathers don’t ask; they tell. Communication is one-way. Authority is not to be challenged.
  • Discipline trumps nurturing. Social programs – from welfare to development aide – are held to be an incentive for sloth. Like children, the poor need to be punished so they will improve themselves.
  • Other people (environmentalists, the government, etc.) shouldn’t tell you what to do; they don’t know better. Hence, small government is always best.
  • Wealth is a sign of goodness – a reward from God himself. So if you have money, you can’t be bad.

All this adds up to the current Republican strategy, which is bigger than single issues. Case in point: Republican Grover Norquist pressures politicians into pledging to never raise taxes. Talk show host Jon Stewart asked him in 2012 what kind of sense that made, but the interrogation focused on the specific issue: aren’t deficits worse, etc. What Democrats in the US (including the author of this article about that show) fail to see, Lakoff explains, is that Republicans are playing a strategic game. “The left does not think strategically. We think issue by issue,” he warns.

By reducing taxes and thereby ensuring a budget deficit, Republicans limit the ability of the government to bolster the welfare state even when the Democrats win elections. The state lacks money whoever is in office, so small-government Republicans always win. Democrats tell the public – issue by issue – why taxes are needed, but the Republican pitch targets values, not facts: the poor should get a job, not take entitlements from hard-working people like you.

“Map this onto foreign policy,” Lakoff adds, “and {the strict-father policy} says that… the United States, being the best and most powerful country – a moral authority – knows the right thing to do. We should not be asking anybody else.” This is the attitude I described above, and we can expect it from the new administration abroad: other countries are children, not equals.

In foreign policy, the Germans are careful not to treat their own ideas as applicable to others. They hardly pitch the Energiewende as something replicable elsewhere; it’s not father knows best, but you know best. Most Germans would even balk at my notion that the world should learn something from Germany. At a recent meeting of Energiewende experts in Berlin, the Germans criticized themselves for not learning enough from other countries. A recent article on foreign relations focused on the German push for global aid donors to transition “from patronizing to partnering.” Patron is Latin for father. So in foreign policy, the Germans are currently working to move beyond the strict-father model.

Don’t like a thing? Frame it as “death”

Lakoff describes strict-father thinking well, and many of his proposals are good – if you face that ideology. His main proposal – framing – is to pitch issues in terms that your audience can relate to. For instance, you would pitch the Energiewende to a group of climate change deniers as the freedom to make your own energy (they can relate to freedom, and you don’t waste time trying to change their mind about the climate). But overall, Lakoff’s proposals might be problematic abroad because conservatives outside the US don’t necessarily use manipulative frames like Republicans do.

The pitfall of Lakoff’s suggestions, which his colleague Elisabeth Wehling fell into, is that everyone might drop to the Republican level by playing their framing game. If we are not careful, everyone will call a thing by a different name. Lakoff fights Republicans who call the inheritance tax a death tax. When the state is to provide healthcare for everyone, Republicans who oppose the idea speak of death panels. German conservatives don’t twist words.

What we need is to reach a consensus on terminology acceptable to everyone and then move on to talk about substance. We can learn that from the Germans. My political opponents in Germany will nail me to the wall – with facts – if I go into an argument with them unprepared.

The opposite of strict father is nurturing

The Germans tested a form of the strict-father concept in 1933. They found it left much to be desired. They have since been working on the concept Lakoff calls nurturing: a focus on helping each other. No German party currently in parliament simplistically wants government to be small by default or misrepresents welfare as a disincentive for the poor, who need disciplining. Instead, there is a reasoned debate about 1) the point at which welfare and unemployment benefits are so high as to disincentivize work and 2) how high the minimum wage can be before it leads to job losses – two issues that will never be settled for good because the underlying facts (wage levels, consumer prices, etc.) keep changing.

My regular readers may think what I like best about Germany is the Energiewende, but it’s not: by far, it’s Vergangenheitsbewältigung – the way Germans face their past unflinchingly. (Since Vergangenheitsbewältigung brought about the Energiewende, my ranking should be no surprise.) For instance, Berlin is home to a prominently placed holocaust monument. In January, a party leader of the populist Alternative for Germany, Björn Höcke, stated that the Germans are the “only people in the world to plant a monument of shame in the heart of its capital.” Strict fathers never have to say they are sorry. Germany’s Vice-Chancellor Sigmal Gabriel (Social Democrats) used the occasion to attack Höcke’s strict-father statement: “Baiting the helpless to promote yourself is weakness.” To understand how marginalized the strict-father camp is in Germany, consider that the Christian Democrat party whip called Höcke’s comments “repulsively unhinged.” But Höcke is right about one thing: only the Germans openly display shameful parts of their past.

In the US, we stop short of unpleasant facts and just hear the frame. Here’s a conservative explanation about why US leftists are to blame for some Louisiana teenagers calling themselves “white nationalists”: “They’re tired of being told that white males are what’s wrong with the world.” Yet, these Americans probably don’t know a tenth of these facts. White America does not know its shameful past and only hears “blame game” if you try to tell them. What America – indeed, the world – needs now is thus not better frames, but a renewed commitment to facts, especially unpleasant ones.

Debates in Germany are honest, civil, and productive because the Germans move beyond frames.

Fight for sharing!

Of course, many Americans – a majority, in fact – are nurturers. For now, they are in the political opposition. They are looking for answers during this crisis, and Lakoff’s framing model is one – but my view from Germany suggests it falls short. Progressives in the US need to seek out German-style conservatives and fertilize their common ground. Feminists will speak of smashing the patriarchy, and nurturing men will join them in this fight against the strict-father model, which we find utterly amoral.

With nurturing conservatives, I find a lot of common ground. They speak of building community, like I do. And just listen to the values listed by Louisiana-based renewable energy campaigner Simon Mahan:

“The variability (some would say ‘intermittency’) of renewable energy provides an opportunity for humanity to exercise temperance, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility with nature. Faithful Catholics may recognize the juxtaposition of mortal sins versus holy virtues.”

Simon sounds like a German conservative. And there are lots of Americans who would sign off on his statement. Too few of them are Republican leaders. Working with them to take the Republican party back from strict-father ideologues should be our focus now. Lakoff’s framing will not get us there alone. His suggestion to think strategically will be more effective. A German-style faithfulness to the truth will be most effective.

“The word conservative is not necessarily about conserving anything. It is about strict father morality,” Lakoff writes – and no passage in his book better illustrates that his analysis is of limited use for Germany, where conservatives have been at the forefront of the environmental movement and Energiewende forever. Conserv- is the stem of conservative and conservation!

I close with the final sentence of a poem by the late Leonard Nemoy (aka Spock); it makes for a great battle cry for the nurturing camp: “The miracle is this: the more we share, the more we have.”

Craig Morris (@PPchef) is the lead author of Global Energy Transition. He is co-author of Energy Democracy, the first history of Germany’s Energiewende, and is currently Senior Fellow at the IASS.


Craig Morris (@PPchef) is co-author of Energy Democracy, the first history of Germany’s Energiewende.


  1. jovada says

    Quite an amazing article. Thanks for this little detour!

  2. heinbloed says

    Well written, Craig!

    I recommend the books and Essays from Arno Gruen:

    I don’t know if it was published in English but “Der Fremde in uns” by A.G. probably explains a lot on “fathering” – where it comes from and where it leads to, it’s consequences.

  3. In economic policy, Germany does impose a “strict father” policy of shaming and austerity: ask the Greeks and Spaniards. Even Craig does not think Germany’s export subsidies, determination to run trade surpluses in all weathers, and pursuit of zero rather than moderate inflation immoral and selfish, which they are. “Acting better than US Republicans” is a ridiculously low ethical bar.
    Also, coal.

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