War on Metaphorical War

I would like to declare war on the war metaphor. Right now Democrats refer to their opponents’ policies as a “Republican war on women,” but we’ve also had a war on poverty, war on crime, war on drugs, war on cancer and of course, a war on terror. The war metaphor is deployed for political purposes and it has long since done more harm than good.

Political scientist Deborah Stone writes in Policy Paradox, “Political reasoning is reasoning by metaphor and analogy. It is trying to get others to see a situation as one thing rather than another.” So I don’t expect to win my war on the war metaphor or even achieve a temporary cease-fire.

For a good discussion of the political power of the war metaphor see “Traumatic Ideas: The War on Terror” in George Lakoff, The Political Mind. Lakoff writes that “Literal wars, unlike metaphorical ones, are conducted against armies of other nations. They end when armies are defeated militarily and a peace treaty is signed.”

Let me try to use some of what Lakoff says to analyze the problem with the “war on women” metaphor. First, thankfully no one has taken up arms, either against women or Republicans. No one will be defeated militarily. Unthankfully, a peace treaty is unlikely.

It seems odd that in the most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, President Obama would be leading Mitt Romney among women voters by 53%-38%. What is up with those 38%? In a New York Times op-ed on May 19 titled The Campaign Against Women  the Times lists four specific areas that state and national Republicans are “attacking women’s rights.” One governor is singled out twice, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer. Shouldn’t she be taking up arms and not her bill-signing pen?

The war metaphor sets us up to regard Americans who differ with us politically as our implacable enemies, to be killed (metaphorically only). We can be excused from trying to understand why others might take the positions they do. In fact, making an effort to comprehend the other side might be seen as traitorous.

In a section titled “Neuroscience and the ‘War on Terror’” Lakoff says that when a phrase like “war on terror” becomes fixed in the brain, “you tend to use it reflexively, not reflectively.”  “Part of the power of political language is that the ideas expressed are processed reflexively.” Our efforts to wade through the real differences Americans have on the four issues the Times focused upon – abortion, health care access, equal pay, and domestic violence – would be enhanced by abandoning the idea that we are at war with those with whom we disagree.

Perhaps I shouldn’t ban the use of metaphor in war, though. A war was once won with metaphors, or so argues historian James M. McPherson in “How Lincoln Won the War with Metaphors.” But then Abraham Lincoln once recognized the end of a real war with the words “With malice toward none, with charity for all . . .”



About Maurice T. Cunningham

Maurice T. Cunningham is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. He teaches courses in American government including Massachusetts Politics, The American Presidency, Catholics in Political Life, The Political Thought of Abraham Lincoln, American Political Thought, and Public Policy. His book Maximization, Whatever the Cost: Race, Redistricting and the Department of Justice examines the role of the DOJ in requiring states to maximize minority voting districts in the Nineties. He has published articles dealing with the role of the Catholic Church in Massachusetts politics and on party politics in the state. His research interests focus upon the changing political culture of Massachusetts.
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