This Explains a Lot

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 — 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.

13 thoughts on “This Explains a Lot

  1. “The whiny kids tended to grow up conservative….”

    I didn’t need an academic study to tell me that, but I appreciate the reinforcement. And the chuckle.

  2. It takes courage to encounter risk and every time you consider something new, you run the risk that you will not recognize or understand the world you thought you knew. In that sense, I am pretty conservative. I try and minimize risk by buying insurance, living within my means and saving a bit for the proverbial rainy day. I also yearn for the more traditional days of the past when made in the USA meant quality and made in Japan meant junk, when jobs paid enough to live on even if unemployment was too high especially among minorities and you could debate politics without being labeled unpatriotic or a traitor. My point is that while I would characterize myself as a moderate–I think the government should regulate markets not take them over, should help make life better for its citizens, but not try and tell folks how to lead their lives etc.– it is a mistake to call Republicans conservatives or to look at those studies as indicating anything more than maladjusted children tending to grow up to be maladjusted adults. Right now the GOP tends to be the party where these people have found a home. Certainly, in the past the same could be said about the Democratic party. These folks may call themselves conservative, tradition bound etc, but they are simply paranoid, insecure, xenophobic bullies. And no I was not a whiny child although I might be a whiny adult if I thought it would do me any good.

  3. I thought of you, Maha, when I read this article. I’m glad you spotted it!

    My instincts tell me there’s more than a grain of truth to this theory…I shudder to think what our neighbours’ 6 year-old is going to grow up to be (both his parents are bankers, doesn’t help!).

  4. I live in California and am surrounded by really strange and I feel often brave weirdos. I agree most strongly with this idea and have for years seen Democrats/liberals and the GOP/conservatives (generally) in this light. My lot to be a weirdo, but I love the payoff of living on the edge. Thanks Maha.

    To Terry, It’s okay to minimize risk and save money and you can even stay out of the tin hat parade and still belong to the Democratic Party. Just vote please.

  5. All praise for looking in the right direction. It is not easy; but in fact it is harder than you think.

    First, there is one easy bit. Stop calling it conservatism, which it is not, and call it by its right name., which is totalitarianism.

    Second, while it may to some extent be a pathology, it is also to some extent a choice.

    Third–and this is where it gets very hard indeed–, you have entirely overlooked the role of sadism, which actually dwarfs all of the other factors. This must be faced, even though its implications are huge and extremely unpleasant.

    I understand completely that you are not trying to make excuses, but that is the inevitable flip side of pathologizing. Do not fall into the trap. Excuses cannot and must not be made. If there is a way out, it will require much clearer sight and much greater ruthlessness than any of us can muster.

  6. Thanks for the FAB link to Agre…great essay – and answers several questions about what’s wrong with Conservatism (some issues can pinpointed in a head-slapping obvious way – as in “Of Course I see that now.”- others are more subtle).

    But it also answers why splitting into the Independents or Libertarians (who I think are mostly conservatives really) or some other third party only exacerbates the ability of conservatives to win.

    Great Job on this one.


  7. Oops, I must be a liberal….my heart goes out to whiny insecure kids……
    I have been known to crouch down and whisper a secret to a whiny kid, “Guess what…this is sort of a secret, but I will tell you anyway……adults pretend that they are perfect, but really adults are too chicken to admit their faults.. Kids have to sort of get along with those big adults, cause they feed you and take care of you. But, just between you and me, this is our secret……sometimes when big people act like you aren’t ok, it’s because they don’t feel ok about themselves. Now you know this secret….so sometimes when they act like you’re not ok….you think about this…..yeah, you have to obey the big person, but you never have to believe them about whether you are ok. As a little kid, you naturally know how to love them even if they have faults……even if they forget how to love you that way.”

    One of my favorite lines of poetry [I do not know the full poem or the source] goes like this:
    ‘Child, I would cherish you, not for myself but for your own…
    I would not smother you with anxious care, but be nearby when life becomes too quiveringly real, I would that life should hurt you, and you be unafraid of pain….’

    I think little kids, if given even a tiny iota of truth [adults aren’t perfect, life involves pain, etc]to work with as they develop their psyches, can be magnificently resilient. Kids who suffer from authoritarian parents’ promotion of perfection [perfection often measured against ‘others’] grow up substituting image for truth. Sounds like the Bushies….image trumping truth.

  8. Yeah, I agree support for Bush is rooted in fear but it’s fertilized with ignorance and lies.

  9. Importantly, many aspects of behavior (that subsequently lead to conservatism in adulthood), are the result of the childrearing technique/philosophy. Thus, conservatives tend to raise conservatives and liberals raise liberals – NOT (or not as much) thought direct teaching, or even by modelling, but by building an environment in which fear and hierarchy are the norm (or what Lakoff would call “strictfathering”) or in which empathy, personal responsibility and creativity are the norm (“nurturant parenting”).

    Of course, fear breeds sadism, and conservative psychology expresses itself in totalitarian politics. That is why we should keep calling it conservatism and turn that word into a bad word (jusy like “liberal” is a dirty word right now) – as it is a word describing a psychopathology.

  10. For all their tough talk and flag waving, Republicans are turning out to be Yellow Cowards. The enlistment rates keep dropping so low they are no longer reported. To put it simply, they talk a good fight.

  11. Having been exposed to conservatives far more than I’d like to in the last twenty or so years, I’ve long personally observed the points in this post + comments to be oh so true. I’m glad you linked the Agre article – I’ve included this in many coments to very appreciative readers. Many more need to see this.

    I second comment 5 – the notion of sadism – which is one of the things that fuels this pathology and makes it hard to eradicate. Bullies must be confronted. It can be confounding to people who are open minded that conservatives don’t play by the same rules – it took me years to grasp this and to come up with effective countermeasures. When this happens en masse, that’s when the tide will finally turn on conservativism, when the culture as a whole refuses to be bullied any more.

    In talking with conservatives, I don’t know how you get them to see and admit to the root of their worldview – fear – but this is where any discussion must go to be fruitful, otherwise you’re just dealing with surface issues that come and go like the clouds in the sky. This is especially hard because fear closes their minds to new data, and to introspection and to the questioning of their core assumptions. In many ways these people are so unconscious, thuggish, and deserving of the epithet “troglodyte”. They refuse to face their fears, and instead project them outward.

  12. fear rules the foreign policy of Bush and Cheney. I think they both realized in October 2001 that their administration was known for two things: making the rich richer and being in charge on 9/11. Anything else in the former column was going to bring down the whole house of cards and ruin both of their professional reputations. They were scared to death. . .not that terrorists would strike America again, but that terrorists would strike again and they would be blamed for it.

    So began their mindless response. And they’ve managed to ruin their “professional” reputations in ways they don’t even know.

    And they are still afraid.

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