Father George? Brother John? The Familial Metaphor in Presidential Campaign Discourse

by John Adams, Visiting Professor of Rhetoric and Communications, Hamilton College

How do you want to be related to your next president? Would you prefer the parent-child relationship entailed by George Bush’s familial position as a father? Or would you prefer the sibling relationship, suggested by John Kerry’s familial position as brother? And where does Ralph Nader reside in this family tree?

As we try to make sense of our experiences and life’s uncertainties, we take comfort in the categories we use to simplify life’s unfolding drama. When we categorize a person, we set up expectations and follow cultural scripts concerning what we do – to, with or for them.

These categories invoke relative relationships that position people differently according to the category’s charge. For example, Columnist Ellen Goodman last month wrote that George Bush “offers himself as the father who knows best. . . . Bush speaks in the language of a father figure. Meanwhile, John Kerry talks about the wartime experience of a ‘band of brothers.’ “

Goodman usesthese familial categories to characterize their leadership styles. Since “father” and “brother” are cultural categories with no finally fixed, ultimate or essential identities, their significance rests in what we bring to them from our own experiences of being literal fathers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters; or from what we imagine it would be like to be a brother or sister if we do not have literal siblings.

The fundamental difference between the father image and the brother image is that in the father image, constituents will inevitably be characterized as children – as sons and daughters. As Goodman points out, “father” implies hierarchy and “brother” does not.

Notice how powerful these metaphoric modes of categorization are – if accepted, they set up criteria for making judgments about Bush and Kerry from a relational perspective that is far more powerful than that of Republicans or Democrats. They arouse emotions and serve interests rooted in contexts of human experience. This metaphoric employment enables these emotions to carry over to the field of politics.

A quick,off-the-top-of-my-head review of history reveals that brotherhood has always trumped father-child relationships as a metaphoric mode of democratic social order. Brotherhood just seems more democratic – or does it stretch out too far to the left? It surely has been a term that political and social activists have used; and many labor unions are constituted as brotherhoods. Nevertheless, if we must be a family, brotherhood is probably a more apt a way of being together under our Constitution than constructing ourselves as children under a patriarch.

The problem with brotherhood, however, is its failure to include our sisters – this is where the familial image begins to break down on the side of sibling relationships. Not everybody has them. Kerry’s war experiences put him in a “man’s world” precisely because women were not permitted to participate in combat during the Vietnam War. If they had been, Kerry’s boat would’ve floated brothers and sisters. It is not his fault that it didn’t, but if it did, we would have a different image – an image more apt to mobilize an even deeper interest in non-hierarchical inclusiveness. Unfortunately, though, it is just not this simple.

The terms of familial connection are far more deeply charged with life’s concrete practical quandaries, moral dilemmas and emotional tones than abstract relationships such as those between the president and U.S. citizens.

What’s the point?The familial metaphor is a powerful way of politically organizing people. It opens and forecloses prospects for being together. So, what does all this add up to? Let’s try a familial image experiment.

Picture this: Let’s try and put Ralph Nader into the family scene. There can only be one father, right? That’s George – he’s already got that one in the bag. So Ralph’s out of the running for father. Clearly, it would be politically wrong to pit brothers against each other. We don’t need the sort of fratricidal weirdness connected to civil wars. So Ralph’s out as brother. What to do with Ralph? I’ve got it! Let’s rhetorically pronounce him “Uncle Ralph.”

Now for the proof of metaphor’s power to help you decide: Father George; Brother John; Uncle Ralph. Who gets your vote?

John Adams, a visiting professor of rhetoric and communications at Hamilton College, spent 10 years as a professor at Syracuse University and also taught at Empire State College; specializing in the history and philosophy of rhetoric, Adams has written extensively on the intersection of rhetoric, religion and education.

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