When the Father’s Day/Mother’s Day Council announced it was naming Chris Christie “Father of the Year” (along with shoe designer Vince Camuto), MSNBC’s Alex Wagner had the pitch-perfect response:
Wagner’s response was brilliantly pointed: Ignoring his children? Father of the Year? But it was clearly at odds with the last remaining shreds of conventional wisdom on Christie. His choice as “father of the year” reflects a long-running media/punditocracy consensus which is clearly still intact, even as the rest of the conventional wisdom on Christie has been ripped to pieces.
Even NJ.com, which has carried its share of Christie-critical coverage these past few months, ran a harmless piece on the honor, noting that “Christie often uses his interactions as the father of four children as speech-fodder in his public appearances.” But as the interchange that Wagner highlighted shows, that doesn’t necessarily redound to Christie’s credit as an ideal parent. Instead, it reveals an ugly truth about conservative parenting. Sure, teenagers need to hear “no” from their parents, often when they least want to hear it. But there’s an enormous difference between hearing “no” from a parent who hears you in the first place, and hearing “no” from a parent who’s not even listening — and damn proud of it, to boot!
This is not just an idle qubble over Christie’s parenting style. As cognitive linguist George Lakoff argued in “Moral Politics” 18 years ago (my review), parenting models lie at the core of the liberal/conservative divide in American politics, helping to explain how positions on disparate subjects, from abortion to taxes to foreign policy, all hang together as parts of a coherent whole, and offering significant insight into their hidden dynamics.
Lakoff explained the workings of cognitive metaphors, developed in earlier works, such as “Metaphors We Live By,” co-authored with philosopher Mark Johnson. That 1980 book illuminated a variety of ways in which relatively familiar, concrete experiential realms (source domains) are systematically mapped onto relatively less familiar, more abstract realms (target domains). “Moral Politics” sprang from two additional insights. First, the realization that family life can serve as a common-sense source domain for how we think about the target domain of national politics — reflecting in phrases like “founding fathers,” “shared inheritance,” “legacy for our children,” etc. Second, Lakoff realized that liberals and conservatives used two different family models for fleshing out these mappings in greater detail.
Conservatives follow the “strict father” model, one that sets strict rules and expects them to be followed — no questions asked. Liberals follow the “nurturant parent” model, one that’s far more interactive and responsive to children’s growing autonomy — though quite distinct and different from the stereotypes of indulgent or permissive parenting that conservatives mistakenly see as the only alternative to their parenting style.
This wasn’t just an arbitrary claim on Lakoff’s part. His framework for discussing parenting styles was a multi-decade research project, originally pioneered by Diana Baumrind, beginning in 1966-67, and built on by others. Baumrind identified two key polarities in shaping parenting styles: responsive vs. unresponsive and demanding vs. undemanding. What Baumdind calls “authoritarian parenting” and Lakoff calls the “strict father” style is demanding and unresponsive — not listening to the children, just as Christie described himself. What Baumrind calls “authoritative parenting” and Lakoff calls the “nurturant parent” style is demanding and responsive” — not only listening to children, but adjusting to their growing capacity for autonomy and self-knowledge, creating a graduated environment for developing from childhood to adulthood.
The conservative boogeyman of “permissive” or “indulgent” parenting represents a third style, which Baumrind identified as responsive and undemanding. A fourth style, identified by Maccoby and Martin in 1983, is neglectful parenting — undemanding and unresponsive. Conservatives conveniently assume that permissive or neglectful parenting are the only alternatives to their approach, but they are mistaken. The crucial difference between liberals and conservatives does not revolve around the existence of high standards, but around responsiveness to children in the process of meeting them.
Pretending that it’s all a matter of standards, nothing more, lies close to the heart of all conservatives. For social conservatives, those standards are conventional morality. For religious conservatives, they come from God. For more secular conservatives, they derive from the struggle to survive, either in the marketplace for economic conservatives, or on the battlefield for foreign policy conservatives.
But saying that standards alone don’t capture everything is profoundly threatening to their simplified worldview. They are already afraid of the unknown, of complexity, and of having to make morally challenging choices. Explicitly adding the dimension of responsiveness is more threatening still — not least because responsiveness in political terms is the hallmark of liberal political theory, and modern, secular, democratic governance, the most basic foundations of the modern liberal world, which conservatives have been in rebellion against since the time of Burke and de Maistre.
Conservatives may fight among themselves, but they all agree that some sort of absolute standards are key — and they all see liberals trying to tear those standards down. Economic conservatives’ defense of unlimited inequality and the 1 percent, casting hundreds of millions of Americans as losers, parasites, “takers,” is but the most recent fashion in conservative thought along these lines. And Christie’s defense of inequality has been expressed in strikingly down-t0-earth family terms.
Speaking to the Economic Club of Chicago, Chris Christie said:
I think that the problem we have is an opportunity gap, not an income equality gap. And I think that one of the big discussions in conversations over the course of the next two years in national politics is going to be, do you want mediocrity or do you want greatness? You want income equality? That’s mediocrity. Everybody can have an equal mediocre salary. That’s what we can afford. Or do you want the opportunity for greatness?
Of course, this statement flies directly in the face of several centuries of economic history. The U.S. had unprecedented broad prosperity — minorities excepted, of course — during the New Deal heyday of income equality, when the 1 percent’s share of income dropped to historic lows and stayed there for decades. This contrasted dramatically with the income inequality that preceded it, stretching all the way back to the Gilded Age. But mere facts never matter in conservative land. What matters is affirming some form of their key belief in hierarchy, and that’s how Christie carried on, with a neat segue into his “father of the year” territory:
Greatness is going to be based on your intellect, your hard work, your creativity. And government can play a role in helping to create that opportunity. But not in being the perpetual referee of what sounds like a fight between my 13-year-old son and my 10-year-old daughter: “You did this for him, that’s not fair. Well, that’s not fair, I want this to be fair.” I grew up in an America that said, “Life isn’t fair.”
That’s Christie’s message to his kids: “Life isn’t fair” — and neither am I, dammit! And that’s the conservative message to America in a nutshell, too.
No wonder many Republicans yet hope he can somehow still be president! Until then, “Father of the Year” will have to do. Just be thankful he’s not yours.