I’ve argued in the past that support for George W. Bush is rooted in fear. Now I’m coming around to the idea that fearfulness is the foundation of political conservatism.
For example, I’ve noticed that whether one enjoys or is frightened by foreign places and cultures is a nearly sure-fire predictor of whether one is a liberal or a conservative. Further, conservatives are clearly more frightened of terrorism than we liberals are (they think we’re naive; we think they’re weenies).
I wrote awhile back in “Patriotism v. Paranoia” (we’re the patriots; they’re the paranoids) that according to some guys at Berkeley, 50 years of research literature reveal these common psychological factors linked to political conservatism:
* Fear and aggression
* Dogmatism and intolerance of ambiguity
* Uncertainty avoidance
* Need for cognitive closure
* Terror management
Now we’ve got a new study that says whiny, insecure children are more likely to grow up to be righties. According to Kurt Kleiner of the Toronto Star,
In the 1960s Jack Block and his wife and fellow professor Jeanne Block (now deceased) began tracking more than 100 nursery school kids as part of a general study of personality. The kids’ personalities were rated at the time by teachers and assistants who had known them for months. There’s no reason to think political bias skewed the ratings â€” the investigators were not looking at political orientation back then. Even if they had been, it’s unlikely that 3- and 4-year-olds would have had much idea about their political leanings.
A few decades later, Block followed up with more surveys, looking again at personality, and this time at politics, too. The whiny kids tended to grow up conservative, and turned into rigid young adults who hewed closely to traditional gender roles and were uncomfortable with ambiguity.
The confident kids turned out liberal and were still hanging loose, turning into bright, non-conforming adults with wide interests. The girls were still outgoing, but the young men tended to turn a little introspective.
Block admits in his paper that liberal Berkeley is not representative of the whole country. But within his sample, he says, the results hold. He reasons that insecure kids look for the reassurance provided by tradition and authority, and find it in conservative politics. The more confident kids are eager to explore alternatives to the way things are, and find liberal politics more congenial.
This explains a lot.
You can tie this back to Philip Agre’s great essay “What Is Conservatism and What Is Wrong With It.” Agre defines conservatism as “the domination of society by an aristocracy.” (Note: Please read the essay before you argue with me that he’s wrong.) People willingly cling to authoritarianism out of fear. This is true of people who feel they might lose wealth, power and privilege if society gets too egalitarian. But this can also be true of people who have little wealth, power and privilege to lose. Unprivileged people can sometimes identify with the privileged group or think that the privileged group deserves to be privileged (a variation on Stockholm Syndrome?).
And there’s also a connection to Eric Fromm’s proposition in Escape from Freedom that people who feel alone and powerless try to “escape” by, for example, following a powerful and charismatic leader.
Rightie projection, denial, bullying, and never-ending resentments are all about defending themselves from whatever it is they fear. Instead of trying to reason with them, maybe it would be easier to just get them on some meds.
Update: Sorta kinda related — see today’s Dan Froomkin column on Bush’s Orwellian use of language.