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Universal Mother, Authoritarian Father

— January 21, 2019

Our two American political and cultural tribes hold to two diametrically opposing worldviews. We’ve tried the Patriarch. It’s time for the Universal Mother.

In his 1996 book Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, author (and cognitive linguist) George Lakoff posits that the two major American political tribes have fundamentally different worldviews, and that this is what prevents them from coming to much agreement, or even being able to effectively communicate with each other. Both sides imagine the country as a family, but differ in belief about the best way to structure that family. Conservatives, say Lakoff, follow an “authoritarian father” model, where the patriarch maintains order, builds character through struggle, and punishes transgressions. Liberals, however, embrace a “nurturing parent” model where caregivers act like a Universal Mother: sharing, caring, yet allowed to question. The clash between these archetypes is alive and contributes to our political and cultural debates today.

Economically speaking, Lakoff’s models still work. Hard-dealing Capitalism is the strict patriarch, awarding success for perceived hard work (or, perhaps, fortunate choice of birth parents). Socialism’s more equitable distribution and safety net are the universal mother, caring for all the children. The wisest among us know that we need both systems in tandem to get us where we need to go. Few will put in the work if they don’t get the reward, whether it’s profit or, at least, the social capital that accrues to the mighty hunter. Without some level of redistribution, though, the system goes bust, as we learned in 1929, and Gilded Age levels of power and economic inequality aren’t terribly effective at maintaining widespread prosperity either. The wheels come off the cart unless balance is restored.

A serious looking Donald Trump scowls in front of a display of the American Flag and the White House.
Official Portrait of President Donald J. Trump. Public domain, courtesy of the Department of State’s Flickr archive.

The 2016 Presidential contest appeared, on the surface, to be a match between the two archetypes, albeit in odd costumes. On one side of the ring, a patriarch in a pantsuit, the woman who was certain to coddle Wall Street and feed the war machine. On the other, a con in a comb-over who promised to lift up the forgotten and flown-over. But Donald Trump is no Universal Mother, and in the post-election ruins of his inept leadership and outright lies, that need hasn’t gone away. As the fiscal liberals in Congress guard our collective treasure from the amoral authoritarian’s vanity wall boondoggle, the Trump tantrum shutdown punishes us, making hostages of furloughed workers facing eviction and capitalism’s castoffs sent to bed without SNAP benefits. Who will nurture us?

Enter AOC. Stepping into the void created by American culture’s dismissal of the Universal Mother, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is the nurturer we need. True, her Green New Deal doesn’t come close to the level of change and shared sacrifice necessary to avert disaster, but at least she’s talking about defending our home. Pushing for a 70% marginal tax rate on income above $10 million turns the muscle of capitalism towards humanitarian ends. As Umair Haque opines,  “[We have] too many authoritarian fathers — and not enough universal mothers: figures who are focused on renewal, on creation, on nurturing, on nourishment… AOC has turned the tables, seduced conservatives with their own most primal, buried desires — not with sex, not by being a pretty trophy, but by offering genuine nourishment, nurturing, dignity, respect, belonging, meaning, purpose… She is the universal mother, beckoning all into her arms.” Even if all she does is buy time and cover for more moderate Democrats like Elizabeth Warren to implement needed changes, she’s serving as the fierce, protective Mama we’ve so desperately missed.

Late stage capitalism has been, let’s face it, hard on our menfolk. Traditional male-dominated jobs like mining and manufacturing have been diminished or moved overseas. Years after the Great Recession, men still aren’t employed in the numbers they once were. The softer skills required for today’s jobs are often a better fit for (perhaps cheaper) female employees. Discussions of the unhealthy aspects of toxic masculinity on men themselves (and, for that matter, a razor commercial that discourages harassment and bullying) have been framed as attacks on traditional manhood. It’s easy to understand the urge to double down on the Authoritarian Father archetype in order to reassert the value of masculinity in the market of ideas, but frankly, we’re drowning in the results, and doing the same thing over and over, hoping for something different, is unproductive. To restore the balance, restore the Universal Mother. Our daughters, and especially our sons, need her today, perhaps more than we have for decades.

Related: Who’s Right, the IPCC Report or Trump?


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Lakoff, G. (2002). Moral politics: How liberals and conservatives think. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

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