Political mommies and daddies

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Kevin Cirilli, "TV pundits split on Obama's convention speech", Politico 9/6/2012, quotes James Carville discussing Obama's speech:

“This was probably not the best speech of the convention,” he said on CNN. “But what I’m struck by is the muscular tone and attitude in both the vice president and president tonight. This is not the mommy party on show here. This is the daddy party.”

Carville's "daddy party" seems to evoke the concept of patriarchal interpersonal dominance, as in the common slang expression "Who's your daddy?". This is one version of the "mommy party" vs. "daddy party" opposition that has become a cliché in political discourse.  I've assumed without thinking about it that this started with the best-known of George Lakoff's political "frames", as originally expressed in his 1996 book Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think. He put it this way in  "Framing the Dems", The American Prospect 8/20/2003:

[T]here are distinct conservative and progressive worldviews. The two groups simply see the world in different ways. […] [T]hese political worldviews can be understood as opposing models of an ideal family — a strict father family and a nurturant parent family. These family models come with moral systems, which in turn provide the deep framing of all political issues.

But looking into the history a bit, I discovered that Mommy party vs. Daddy party labels were already a cliché in political discourse by the time Lakoff first published his take on the concept.  Here's Maureen Dowd on Dole/Kemp vs. Clinton/Gore — "Plowshares Into Pacifiers", NYT 8/15/1996:

I am put in mind of a Dorothy Parker phrase, as I watch the Republicans nurture, cuddle, swaddle and practically lactate on prime time. It makes me want to fwow up.

This encounter session called a convention is so gauzy and feminized, with treacly videos and speeches featuring women, kids and a rainbow of ethnic groups, it makes the Olympics look like Al Bundy territory.

Historically, the Republicans have always been the Daddy party, thundering about national defense and Communists and making money. And the Democrats have been the Mommy party, domestic caregivers clucking over women and children and health and the less fortunate.

But in this campaign, the parties are gender-swapping or cross-dressing or maybe just lying.

And the back cover of J. Neil Schulman, Self Control Not Gun Control, 1995:

…though Schulman's take on Political Mommy is more Nanny-state Nag than Nurturant Parent:

We do, after all, live in a country where the two major parties are the Mommy Party (Eat your spinach!) and the Daddy Party (Sit Up Straight and Respect Your Mother!).

Thanks to Andy Averill in the comments, we can find Jude Winninski in 1992 quoting Chris Matthews in 1991 (MediaGuide: A Critical Review of the Media's Recent Coverage of the World Political Economy):

Gerard Alexander echoes this attribution ("The Other American Exceptionalism", The Claremont Review, Fall 2005):

In sum, American conservatives of nearly every stripe agree that the world is a complex and competitive place in which human nature and its limitations play pervasive roles. In such a world, good people are wise to cultivate individual skills and character traits, to limit centralizing power (especially government), to confront rather than duck serious challenges, and to get incentives right, especially for predators, with an eye toward encouraging virtue, and at least restraint.

Different terms have been invoked to distinguish these conservative operating assumptions from their main alternatives. Television personality Chris Matthews is sometimes credited with the notion that Republicans and Democrats are, respectively, the "daddy" and "mommy" parties. Daddy tries to toughen citizens to cope with life's ordeals, while mommy tries to shield them from its harshness. U.C. Berkeley linguistics professor (and Democratic consultant) George Lakoff tweaks this to say that conservatives advocate the "strict father" model for America while progressives are "nurturant parents." The discerning journalist Michael Barone distinguishes between "hard" and "soft" America, representing, respectively, contemporary conservatism and liberalism.

Anyhow, the Mommy/Daddy opposition has certainly become a punditricious commonplace. Thus Robin Toner, "Women Wage Key Campaigns for Democrats", NYT 3/24/2006:

If the Democrats have their way, the 2006 Congressional elections will be the revenge of the mommy party.

Maureen Dowd, "Drapes of Wrath", 11/11/2006:

The new Democratic sweep conjures up an ancient image: Furies swooping down to punish bullies.

Angry winged goddesses with dog heads, serpent hair and blood eyes, unmoved by tears, prayer, sacrifice or nasty campaign ads, avenging offenses by insolent transgressors.

This will be known as the year macho politics failed — mainly because it was macho politics by marshmallow men. Voters were sick of phony swaggering, blustering and bellicosity, absent competency and accountability. They were ready to trade in the deadbeat Daddy party for the sheltering Mommy party.

Patrick Healey, "A Mom Running to Lead the Mommy Party", NYT 5/14/2007:

Mrs. Clinton is, in essence, a mom running to lead the Mommy Party for all the other mommies (and daddies, too, to be fair), proposing policies that flow from her own insights on how the government does and does not help families.

A more extensive gendered-parent discussion of the Republican side of the current election can be found in James Bennett, "Is Paul Ryan your Mommy AND your Daddy?", The Atlantic 8/29/2012:

Political players and journalists have long described the Democrats as the Mommy party and the Republicans as the Daddy party. The Democrats were the party of the hearth — the warm and fuzzy ones who cared about kids and schools and health care — and the Republicans were the party of the workplace — the stern and sinewy ones who brought home the bacon and kept everyone safe.  […]

The clearest presentation of the two-track convention came Tuesday night, when Ann Romney sweetly declared, "I want to talk to you about love" right before Chris Christie thundered that love was overrated: "I believe we have become paralyzed, paralyzed by our desire to be loved." Then the governor shouted a bunch of stuff about how we need to grow up and make tough choices.

The effect was a little disorienting, like being hugged by mom and told everything was going to be OK, right before you get spanked by dad and told to pull yourself together. […]

But apparently the Republicans really ARE both my mommy and my daddy. "She did the mommy part about the dad, and he did the daddy part about the mom," Frank Luntz, the Republican pollster, explained to me. While Ann Romney talked about her husband, Christie talked about his mother. "The irony was so rich — just dripping," Luntz said. "One used a man to illustrate traits to appeal to women, the other used a woman to illustrate traits that appeal to men."

At some point, it would be nice to see some evidence about what in fact appeals how much to whom…

Other LLOG posts on political framing: "It's about ideas, not words", 7/23/2004; "Frames and messages", 9/4/2004; "More on Lakoff on framing", 9/6/2004; "The NYT updates the framing wars", 7/17/2005;  "Forget framing — It's hypnosis!", 10/28/2008;  "Framing a poll", 12/20/2009.


  1. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 7, 2012 @ 9:32 am

    Maybe it was a dog whistle and I don't have the right ears for it, but I'm not following how Carville's use of the "daddy party" / "mommy party" contrast evokes the "who's your daddy?" idiom. Surely there are enough different idioms / cliches / metaphors out there using fathers that using one of them shouldn't automatically evoke every other one? I admit that I may be handicapped by being vaguely aware of the "who's your daddy?" idiom but not really using it or moving in circles where it is frequently used.

    [(myl) All I meant here is that the "muscular tone and attitude" part associates "daddy party" with patriarchal interpersonal dominance rather than with paternal strictness.]

    I'm not sure how accurate the wiki article is in sourcing the form of words to "Time of the Season," but I'm pretty highly confident that whether or not that's part of the prehistory the phrase is NOT used in that song in the later-developed idiomatic sense. (I.e., the answer to the singer's question is not "me, I myself am your "daddy" in a metaphorical sense involving domination." Rather, the singer is just doing a version of the typical pitch by a guy to a teenage girl he wishes to seduce that she should disregard her own actual father's warnings/concerns about getting involved with a guy like the one making the pitch.)

  2. Andy Averill said,

    September 7, 2012 @ 10:24 am

    In The Next Hurrah: The Communications Revolution in National Politics (1988) by Richard Armstrong, we have:

    In the traditonal nuclear family, for example, Daddy decided that the family was going to move to Denver, but it was up to Mommy to explain the move to the children, solicit their help with packing boxes, hire the moving company, pick out the new house, and so on. You could say that the national parties used to act like Mommy, and now they act like Daddy.

    But the current version of the metaphor may have originated in an article by Chris Matthews in the 2/10/1991 edition of the L.A. Times, as quoted by Jude Wanniski in The 1992 Mediaguide: A Critical Review of the Media's Recent Coverage of the World Political Economy:

    [Matthews] loses his grip on his analogy in a silly "The Daddy and Mommy Parties" Los Angeles Times 2-10, dividing Republicans and Democrats along the lines of fathers and mothers respectively in 1950s sitcoms: "Daddy brings home the bacon; Mommy makes sure everybody gets a decent slice. Daddy can be partial; Mommy battles for justice. Daddy can be tough; [end of snippet]"

    (The original article doesn't seem to be available online.)

  3. Robert Coren said,

    September 7, 2012 @ 10:25 am

    (Quoting Maureen Dowd)
    But in this campaign, the parties are gender-swapping or cross-dressing or maybe just lying.

    The last is almost always a safe bet.

    I also want to express my admiration for the word punditricious.

  4. Acilius said,

    September 7, 2012 @ 10:31 am

    The feminist in me would like to inform James Carville that my mommy could kick his ass any day.

  5. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 7, 2012 @ 11:34 am

    Again, maybe I'm misunderstanding because the "who's your daddy?" idiom is not really integrated into my own idiolect, but I take its boasting claim of dominance to be prototypically directed at the "you." Whoever is being addressed is being at least mildly put down by the implication that they are subordinate to the speaker in some sort of dominance hierarchy (esp. if as in what I take to be the prototypical case both the boaster and addressee are adult males). In the "Daddy party" metaphor, by contrast, it seems more that the toughness and "muscularity" is not being deployed to subordinate the voters being courted (that wouldn't be very politically appealing) but is rather going to be deployed to *protect* those voters against external threats (Daddy is tough on the Communist threat whereas the Mommy party naively thinks the Commies are misguided rather than evil and thus can be negotiated with) or domestic threats (populist rhetoric now more common on the Democratic side about standing up to Wall St. and "powerful corporations"). To the extent the "Daddy party" is a stricter disciplinarian than the "Mommy party" (which frankly may reflect a seriously outdated sociology of parental discipline, at least in terms of my own anecdotal observations, which are obviously skewed by geography, social class, etc.), the political appeal is not primarily to the voter who thinks he himself is going to get in trouble under a strict regime – it's to the voter whose (perhaps naive) self-image is that he's of course going to be the productive/honest/rule-following one but is worried that Mommy is going to be too soft-hearted toward criminals/slackers/welfare bums, just as she always half-heartedly threatens to take away the misbehaving sibling's dessert but then doesn't follow through.

  6. GeorgeW said,

    September 7, 2012 @ 1:03 pm

    I have never understood the 'who's-your-daddy?' expression. I thought it was either questioning the paternity of someone or challenging their ability to defend themselves without parental assistance.

    FWIW, I have wondered about Lakoff's 'strict father' vs. 'nurturant parent' metaphors for some time. The former is conceptualized as a male while the latter could also be a male. This seems to preclude the concept of a 'strict mother.'

    Also, I would note that 'mommy' and 'daddy' parties also imply an adult-child relationship in addition to gender. Otherwise, we would say 'mother' and 'father' parties.

    [(myl) The feminine version of (inappropriately) strict governmental oversight is popularly identified as the "Nanny State". So the context of a strict adult female overseeing child-citizens is certainly Out There…]

  7. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 7, 2012 @ 2:47 pm

    GeorgeW: as I understand it, Lakoff in his various published works on political rhetoric tries to overtly distinguish between when he is speaking as a dispassionate empirical scholar and when he is speaking as a partisan advocate convinced of the superiority of one side (and/or offering tactical advice to his side on how to "frame" their policies so as to be more persuasive to the voters), but not everyone agrees that he is drawing the line where he thinks he is, and the strict father / nuturant parent contrast might be viewed as an example where he has chosen rather loaded-sounding labels to apply to his descriptive analysis (not just in the asymmetry of father v. parent but in that "strict" has a more pejorative undertow than "nurturant"). Just in terms of the age of those expressions (which admittedly are a little bit more scholarly sounding than "daddy party" and "mommy party"), it sounds from wikipedia as if Lakoff's 2003 article quoted above by myl may have simply echoed the jargon he had earlier employed in a 1996 book and for all I know he had done some earlier work that was rolled into that book.

    As to GeorgeW's last point, the reason that "paternalistic" and "nanny-state" are both used as pejoratives in American political discourse is that many voters strongly dislike that adult-child "frame" for the relationship between government and citizen. (I have a college friend who is by no means a Republican or right-winger who nonetheless likes to say "the government is not my mother.") I assume part of the practical implementation of Lakoff's framing analysis is figuring out how paternalistic/nanny-statish policies might be rebranded in a more marketable way. The Thaler/Sunstein book from a few years ago titled Nudge is an attempt to justify what is seemingly-oxymoronically described as "libertarian paternalism" (with some perhaps interesting/thoughtful points made along the way), but since no one really likes being nudged, they still need some help on the branding/marketing/framing part.

  8. GeorgeW said,

    September 7, 2012 @ 7:06 pm

    @J.W. Brewer: I read Lakoff's 1996 book "Moral Politics" where he laid out this 'strict father-nurturant parent' model. Although he clearly stated that he was personally liberal, it was not an argument for his positions. He demonstrates that both sides arrive at their positions based on principled values. In fact, it could distress some liberals who think that conservatives are just selfish Neanderthals.

  9. John Walden said,

    September 8, 2012 @ 1:47 am

    The shared etymology of "paternal" "patria" "patriarch" and "patriot" suggest that this is an old idea, as is seeing a country as either a fatherland or a motherland. While a whole country is not a political party it is in a sense its government and administration, so the imagery is not that far removed. And there's the country as uncle, which is another way of looking at it.

  10. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 10, 2012 @ 9:43 am

    GeorgeW: I haven't read the '96 book and am happy to accept arguendo your characterization of it. My point is merely that ironically or otherwise even if he's characterized the "strict father" model of parenting accurately or at least in good faith, Lakoff assigned it a label that puts it at a rhetorical disadvantage to the nurturant parent model, which might not be a big deal unless you were someone who thought that labeling decisions were crucial because of the framing effects they drive. If you were a defender of that model (as a desirable model for family structure and childrearing, w/o getting into whether it's a good metaphor for public policy), you would call it something else. I might note by way of a parallel that in certain debates in some segments of American Christianity on sex roles, one side's position is self-described as "egalitarianism" while their opponents were smart enough to not allow themselves to be framed as inegalitarian or anti-egalitarian and therefore call their position (i.e. the side of the debate that puts more stress on the importance of distinct male and female roles in the church and family and society) "complementarianism."

  11. John Walden said,

    September 10, 2012 @ 2:23 pm

    That post two up that has been dutifully answered is a cut-and-paste paragraph from an earlier post by GeorgeW:

    "I have wondered about Lakoff's 'strict father' vs. 'nurturant parent' metaphors for some time. The former is conceptualized as a male while the latter could also be a male. This seems to preclude the concept of a 'strict mother.' "

    Supposed to send you to the second poster's web-site, I imagine.

    [(myl) Thanks — that comment has now been Unapproved and banished to the spam bucket where it belongs.]

  12. chris said,

    September 10, 2012 @ 3:48 pm

    If you were a defender of that model (as a desirable model for family structure and childrearing, w/o getting into whether it's a good metaphor for public policy), you would call it something else.

    I disagree — if you were genuinely a defender of strictness in parenting, you wouldn't find that a pejorative description in the first place, because you would naturally believe that parenting darn well ought to involve some strictness.

  13. This Week’s Language Blog Roundup: Political speech, feck, Shakespeare, and more | Wordnik said,

    September 21, 2012 @ 10:40 am

    […] politics and advertising; Victor Mair examined censorship in China; and Mark Liberman delved into mommy and daddy parties and euphemisms and The New York Times. At Lingua Franca, William Germano interpreted signage in the […]

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