Are conservatives mean, greedy, and stupid? Or just different? A response to Lakoff

In a recent article The “New Centrism” and Its Discontents, George Lakoff wrote

Progressives have to get over the idea that conservatives are either stupid, or mean, or greedy – or all three. Conservatives are mostly people who have a different moral system from progressives.

That statement irked me, because it seems to me that there are plenty of powerful, mean, and greedy conservatives, and plenty of uninformed and gullible — if not stupid — voters.

For example, how about the infamous Koch brothers? Aren’t they greedy? And how about wealthy Senators pushing for tax cuts for the rich? (See this page.) Plenty of rich corporations and individuals (e.g., insurance company executives and even doctors) donate handsomely to conservative causes partly in hope of keeping taxes and regulations low. Surely, that’s based largely on greed. Military contractors who support (neo)conservative policies are another example.

Whether these people are mean is harder to say. I’m sure many conservatives are loving parents. George Bush is probably a likable fellow in person. And the vast majority of middle and lower class conservatives are good people too, I’m sure.

But, damn, it sure seems that sending young men to fight and die for lies is mean. Actively deceiving the populace and the Congress about the evidence for going to war is about as mean as you can get. Same with supporting torture. (See Defenders of Torture Unite.) Cutting taxes for the super-rich when millions of people are struggling to survive and the country is in debt sure seems mean. Conservative corruption, privatization, and indifference to corporate malfeasance (e.g., toxic pollution) are also mean. Perhaps the meanness is impersonal and bureaucratic — banal, in Hannah Arendt’s verbiage. But it’s still mean.

So, it’s a gross simplification to say that conservatives aren’t greedy and mean, in my opinion.

Perhaps some conservatives actually think they’re doing the right thing for the nation and the world. No excuse. They’re still mean.

As for the whether conservatives are stupid, I admit: rich conservatives aren’t usually stupid. They’re smart enough to protect their own interests. Karl Rove wasn’t stupid.

The conservatives who appear to be stupid are the middle and lower class people who vote against their own (economic) self-interest by supporting candidates who will ship their jobs overseas, send their sons off to immoral wars, slash government services, defund their pensions (including Social Security), and cut taxes and regulations on the rich.

It’s unwise and elitist to call such voters “stupid”. (In fact, calling people whose support we need “stupid” is pretty darn stupid.) But the point remains, why are people voting against their own self-interest? Are they dupes?

Perhaps some of them sincerely value the wedge issues (guns, gays, abortion, and religion) more than they value their economic well-being. In that case, they’re not stupid, they just have different values, right?


But perhaps some of these people need to be trained to have the right values and beliefs. (Yeah, call me elitist.) Like valuing peace and empathy and non-violence. And believing in more science and less superstition.

On this issue, Lakoff argues that conservatives’ values are based on a strict paternal morality, while progressives’ values are based on a morality of ethics (“maternal morality”, I presume, though Lakoff didn’t use that phrase). In fact, I think it’s a sexist to say that men are inherently and significantly less empathetic than women, but it’s an informative generalization nonetheless.

Lakoff states his standard case about not using conservative language and talking points. “If you start adopting conservative language and/or positions, you become conservative-lite, or worse. ” Lakoff criticizes President Obama for often using conservative language, and (implicitly) for being too centrist:

Obama’s message in his warm-up video to his supporters said that the economy can be rebuilt only if we put aside our differences, work together, find common ground, and so on. It’s the E Pluribus Unum message – no red states or blue states, just red, white, and blue states message. It’s a message that resonates with a majority of Americans. And so his poll numbers have risen.

Such centrism will be the death of the New Deal.

As Lakoff says, “A well funded and tightly organized right wing has been pulling American politics to the right for three decades now. And with a few instructive exceptions, Democrats who respond by calling for a new centrism are just acting as the right’s enablers.”

I think that by insisting that conservatives are neither mean, greedy, or stupid, Lakoff too is enabling the right.

If Democrats and progressives don’t fight the right, we’re screwed. The best defense is a good offense. Right now, the right is kicking our butts.

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