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Conservative and Liberal Governing Psychology


We're hearing a lot these days about the role of emotions in the financial meltdown. Even former Fed chief Alan Greenspan said he "made a mistake in presuming" that rational self-interest would prevail in the markets. But nowhere are psychodynamics more in play than in the hot debate on what Washington's role should be.

Is the government your daddy? In a way. Our widely different reactions to the idea of Washington as problem-solver, disciplinarian, or caretaker—as surrogate parent, in other words—reflect more than ideology. To some extent they reflect our attitudes toward our real (or wished-for) parents.

George Lakoff, a cognitive linguist at the University of California at Berkeley, identified an aspect of this phenomenon in his groundbreaking work some years ago on the "strict father model" of American conservatism and the "nurturant parent model" of American liberalism. But the effect goes beyond these cultural metaphors (and a historical aversion to Big Government that dates back to our founders). It reaches into the relationships we formed with parents and other authorities. Our early perception of these figures—as benevolent or punitive, welcomed or foisted upon us—can feed into our assessments of government as a fundamentally good force or as basically bad.

Take the issue of dependency. A child who was made to feel ashamed when asking for help may be more likely as an adult to oppose government programs than a kid allowed to feel comfortable in his dependency—or for whom empathy carried a bigger premium at home than self-reliance.

So while nobody relishes paying taxes, those who unconsciously view government as a "good parent" may be more sanguine about forking over money to support federal agencies and programs.

Of course, there's no psychological formula for determining the political attitudes that might arise from parent-child dynamics. Some people do unto others what was done to them as children. Others react by doing the opposite. Finally, there's the tendency we all have just to adopt the stated views of our parents—political and otherwise.

Kerry J. Sulkowicz, M.D., a psychoanalyst and founder of the Boswell Group, advises CEOs on psychological aspects of business. Send him questions at analyzethis@businessweek.com

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