Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Conservative Mindset, pt. II

¡Hola! Everybody...
Every once in a while, the online/ offline mewling from the right compels me to post the following.

Edmund Burke promoted the worldview that informed modern conservatism: That people are essentially evil and need a strong controlling force to prevent them from acting out their evil nature (that is, unless you’re rich). Such a force, continued Burke, should (appropriately) come from those have inherited wealth or lawfully obtained wealth, religious, or political power. In addition, Burke believed that a permanent underclass with little power and a permanent power elite with great power would produce the greatest social good because it will ensure social stability. Conservatives want to conserve the status quo. Or as that fabulous racist, William J. Buckley, once implied: conservatives “sit athwart history.”

My observation is that no one is fully conservative or liberal. We tend to fluctuate according to different situations. However, conservatism comes from somewhere -- it is founded on a certain worldview encompassing notions of the origins of human nature. What follows is an attempt to peek behind the curtain.

* * *

-=[ The Conservative Mindset, pt. II ]=-

“Contempt is not a thing to be despised.”

-- Edmund Burke (1729–1797) “Father” of conservatism

In 2003, a group of researchers published a paper in a peer-reviewed journal (Jost, Glaser, Kruglanski, & Sulloway, 2003) that caused an immediate shit storm. Because some government grants were involved in funding the research, conservatives, who at the time controlled all branches of the US government, took an immediate and unfriendly “interest” in the paper. It would seem that they did not particularly care for the results of the research, and threats were made about preventing further “waste of government money” to fund research into the conservative mindset.

[Note: The papers are posted on the internet: click here and here to access PDF versions]

The study was “biased” against conservatives, they insisted! As usual, right-wingers went into their feces-flinging act, outraged that anyone would dare quantify the obvious and actually show they are an emotionally unstable group. ::grin::

Well, it’s not as if we didn’t suspect all along that something was wrong with the likes of Dick Cheney, Glenn Beck, Lush Rimbaugh, that Michelle Bachmann twat, Sarah Palin and the rest of the Flock of Fools.

The study, funded jointly by the National Science Foundation (NSF), and National Institute of Mental Health at the National Institute of Health (NIH), examined a mindset that the authors were polite enough to refer to as political conservatism. What they were really studying were the right wing wackos who had taken over the GOP and in the process threatening to turn America into a third-rate fascist state (stuff like torture, shredding of the Constitution, spying on US citizens, etc.).

Sensing that their study might cause a slight discomfort among the more sensitive of our conservative brethren (really: they lit up like rabid chimps going ape on considerate neighbors) went to great lengths to reassure one and all that they weren’t calling right wingers a bunch of psychotic, destructive nuts. Obviously, they weren’t studying the right-wingers we see most often on the internets. Essentially, the researchers culled through 50 years of research literature on the psychology of conservatism and reported that at the core of political conservatism is resistance to change and a tolerance for inequality, and that some of the common psychological factors linked to political conservatism include:

  • Fear and aggression
  • Dogmatism and intolerance of ambiguity
  • Uncertainty avoidance
  • Need for cognitive closure
  • Terror management

The authors wrote, “Our first assumption, too, is that conservative ideologies -- like virtually all other belief systems -- are adopted in part because they satisfy some psychological needs. This does not mean that conservatism is pathological or that conservative beliefs are necessarily false, irrational, or unprincipled.”

Still, that didn’t stop right-wingers from losing their minds and screaming for the scalps of the researchers. Right-wing radio hosts howled and frothed at the mouth, demanding an immediate investigation into the funding streams, and they were accused, with no regard to rhyme nor reason, of being anti-American and anti-Christian and probably for gay rights, killing babies, and gun control to boot.

OK, let’s try to forget Beck and Lush Rimbaugh for a moment. Sure, there are conservatives who aren’t sadistic amoral sociopaths. Shit, in real life, I know some. I even have conservative friends, although I did warn my sister not to marry my former brother-in-law.

On a serious note, what the researchers were looking at were what could be termed “political fundamentalists.” They tend to be reactionary, paranoid, authoritarian, intolerant, and contemptuous of rules that don’t suit them. While there are left-wing examples, the authors found that they generally gravitate toward fascism and call it conservatism, even though it’s usually better described as radical reactionaries. In any case, the researchers found that left-wingers are less likely to exhibit these traits.

The authors define the two core principles of conservatism as resistance to change, and acceptance of social inequality. Conservatives, they argue, cling tightly to a status quo (“traditional values”), real or imagined, and regard society as hierarchical. Not unsurprisingly, they tend to believe they have inherited and/or merited preferential positions in this hierarchy.

The authors address what they call the “conservative paradox” of radical reactionarism (e.g., Hitler, Mussolini) by pointing out that their calls for extreme inequality in the social order were superimposed with promises to lead the country back to an ideal past, one in which “traditional” values and morality reigned It occurs to me that our present-day right-wing reactionaries continuously evoke a traditional America that never existed: where everyone was a god-fearing generic protestant, people with accents lived in the poor part of town and never bothered folks except to mow their lawn, and women and blacks knew their place. The code for this is embedded in the current caterwauling from teabaggers who want to take their country back.

This goes with what I believe is a hallmark of the fundamentalist mindset: the ability to subsume a philosophy to suit personal needs. In Christianity and Islam, for example, you have religions that place high premiums on respect for fellow humans, peace, and personal integrity. Yet fundamentalists are frequently the most violent, dishonest, and intolerant people around. Furthermore, they often use their religion to rationalize their repulsive behavior. In conservatism, you see people who champion the Bill of Rights, “small government,” and a laissez faire approach to economics, while loudly cheering for a gross militarism and tax structures that have been shown to benefit only the richest five percent of the population.

This emotional and intellectual contradiction is how conservatives are able to condemn what they perceive as dishonest and immoral behavior on Obama’s part (i.e., “tax cheats”) while at the same time accepting that Bush lied his way into a needless and foolish war while declaring that he was “fighting a war on terrorism.” It’s how Republicans can damn Democrats as being fiscally irresponsible even while they ignored Bush’s disastrous conservative fiscal policies that drove the global economy to an economic collapse the likes of which has never been seen. One need only point out conservatives’ vilification of Obama for a deficit that he didn’t cause while ignoring Bush’s reckless tax cuts to see this paradox at work.

One of the more interesting issues in the paper is “The Theory of RWA ,” in which the authors consider the Authoritarian Personality. They state, “harsh parenting styles brought on by economic hardship led entire generations to repress hostility toward authority figures and to replace it with an exaggerated deference and idealization of authority and tendencies to blame society scapegoats and punish deviants.”

Angry, repressed, passive-aggressive, with an overwhelming desire to punish those who don’t conform.

Yup, sounds like our boys!

This may not stop people from growing up to be right-wingers. Many people can no more choose to be conservative than they can choose their sexual orientation. But hey, you can't say I didn't try.

Coming up next are treatments on black conservatives, and the genetic foundations of personality and political affiliations.


Jost, J. T., Glaser, J., Kruglanski, A. W., & Sulloway, F. J. (2003). Political conservatism as motivated social cognition. Psychological Bulletin, 129(3), 339-375.

Jost, J. T., Glaser, J., Kruglanski, A. W., & Sulloway, F. J. (2003 ). Exceptions that prove the rule -- using a theory of motivated social cognition to account for ideological incongruities and political anomalies: Reply to Greenberg and Jonas (2003). Psychological Bulletin, 129(3), 383-393.


  1. Eddie, we're certainly a long, long way from Eisenhower/Goldwater conservatism, which was the closest thing to a morally/ethically acceptable form of the sociopolitical philosophy most of us have ever seen.

    Nowadays, those who pass for 'conservatives' genuinely hate America, as I mentioned over on my own site the other day.   I'm doubting Goldwater couldn't get nominated, nor could Eisenhower, Reagan, or even Nixon, much less get elected by these people.

    It's probably important at some level to remember that the core-cadre are the 'political fundamentalists' your author speaks of.  However, this is meaningless in a situation where the rest are lemmings and sheep; going along with whatever the rabid wolverines are saying.

  2. Will, You know that, for the most part, we agree with on this issue. The one thing I would nitpick is that I believe there ARE Eisenhower-type conservatives today but they're called "democrats," "socialists," or whatever happens to be the the "othering" tag du jour of the day.

    Clinton and Obama both are Eisenhower conservtives, IMO. I believe the real political crisis of today is that the landscape has shifted so far to the right that any sane political discussion is impossible. IOW, the political dialog is warped, demented.

  3. "In the future, conservatives will be called liberals, and liberals conservatives."

           --  Barry Goldwater; 1971

    Your comment about Eisenhower/Goldwater conservatives now being democrats/progressive liberals is not a nitpick, and is well-taken. 

    Clinton and Nixon will have a hard time being remembered well -- Nixon was inches from promoting a universal healthcare system when Watergate broke, and Clinton's domestic agenda will be a footnote in history because he couldn't keep his pants zipped.

    (For that matter, if Benedict Arnold had died at Saratoga rather than having a horse shot out from under him, he would be remembered in the same light as Nathan Hale, Washington, and most of the other early heroes of the Revolution.)

    History is funny like that.

  4. I'll be honest and admit that I never liked the 1960s Goldwater, but later on, I had to admire him for his brutal honesty. It goes to show that in his later years, Goldwater was shunned by Reagan-era conservatives, and while I can't say I liked Goldwater's full agenda, he made some critical changes in his stances, and championed issues that today make him a pariah among neoconservatives. I mean, how can you not like someone (especially a conservative!) who said, “I think every good Christian ought to kick Falwell right in the ass.” Or his take on homosexuality and the military, "<span>You don't have to be straight to be in the military; you just have to be able to shoot straight."</span>

    Most of all, I admired the man's honesty if not all of his political stances.

  5. LiberalsAreLiarsandNutsApril 23, 2010 at 8:46 AM

    An acclaimed, veteran psychiatrist is making the case that the ideology motivating Liberals is actually a mental disorder.
    "Based on strikingly irrational beliefs and emotions, modern liberals relentlessly undermine the most important principles on which our freedoms were founded," says Dr. Lyle Rossiter, author of the new book, "The Liberal Mind: The Psychological Causes of Political Madness." "Like spoiled, angry children, they rebel against the normal responsibilities of adulthood and demand that a parental government meet their needs from cradle to grave."
    "A social scientist who understands human nature will not dismiss the vital roles of free choice, voluntary cooperation and moral integrity - as liberals do," he says. "A political leader who understands human nature will not ignore individual differences in talent, drive, personal appeal and work ethic, and then try to impose economic and social equality on the population - as liberals do. And a legislator who understands human nature will not create an environment of rules which over-regulates and over-taxes the nation's citizens, corrupts their character and reduces them to wards of the state - as liberals do."
    Dr. Rossiter says the liberal agenda preys on weakness and feelings of inferiority in the population by:
    creating and reinforcing perceptions of victimization;satisfying infantile claims to entitlement, indulgence and compensation;augmenting primitive feelings of envy;rejecting the sovereignty of the individual, subordinating him to the will of the government.

    "The roots of liberalism - and its associated madness - can be clearly identified by understanding how children develop from infancy to adulthood and how distorted development produces the irrational beliefs of the liberal mind," he says. "When the modern liberal mind whines about imaginary victims, rages against imaginary villains and seeks above all else to run the lives of persons competent to run their own lives, the neurosis of the liberal mind becomes painfully obvious.

  6. One book by a an "accalaimed, veteran" psychiatrist?


    First, the studies I highlighted here are peer-reviewed meta-analyses of research done over 50 years and encompassing research done in over 80 countries. anyo9ne calling a whole group a people "mad" because of political beliefs is so stupid as to defy description. Of course, all you do is regurgitate the points of this joke of a book without mentioning its methodology, or whether this "acclaimed" individual has ever been published in a peer-reviewed journal. Like a consiervative, you merely parrot its rather dubious points. As someone with more than a passing acquaintance with sopcial psyschology, I can safely say you're quoting a quack.

    BUT! I would like to thank you for posting here and provoing beyond a doubt the essential point of the studies I summarized here: <span>at the core of political conservatism is resistance to change and a tolerance for inequality, and that some of the common psychological factors linked to political conservatism include:</span>
    Fear and aggressionDogmatism and intolerance of ambiguityUncertainty avoidanceNeed for cognitive closureTerror management

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