Monday, August 27, 2012

The Conservative Mindset

¡Hola! Everybody...
Modern contemporary conservatism can be directly traced to Edmund Burke who promoted the (very conservative) idea 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 asserted: conservatives “sit athwart history.”

My observation is that no one is fully conservative or liberal. Human beings tend to place themselves into various locations on the political continuum 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

A Conservative is a fellow who is standing athwart history yelling 'Stop!
-- William F. Buckely, Jr. a conservative that opposed the Civil Rights movement

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.

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, Michelle Bachmann, Sarah Palin, and the rest of the current cast of 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 condoning torture, the 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 sociopahtic, 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 researcher's 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 Rush Limbaugh for the 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.

Seriously, what the researchers were investigating was what could be termed “political fundamentalism.” 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, though it’s usually more correctly 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 conservatives 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 often find 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 President Obama’s part (i.e., “tax cheats”) while at the same time accepting an economic philosophy responsible for the most atrocious financial meltdown since the Great Depression. It’s how Republicans can damn Democrats as being fiscally irresponsible even whileevery modern republican president has bith grown the government and left us with record-breaking deficits.

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 to the status quo or who disagree with them.
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.


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