We tend to think of conservatism as being an ideology in the conventional sense, in the same way that liberalism, communism, socialism, and centrism are ideologies. But is this really true? This diary will argue that modern conservatism is no longer an ideology with concrete policy goals so much as it is a psychological state of mind. This is true of all ideologies to some extent, but I will argue that it is especially true of today's conservatives and the major political party they have captured (the GOP).
One of the things that prompted me to write this diary was something I've been noticing about conservatives with increasing frequency in recent years. I've observed that they have become increasing malleable and incoherent in their actual concrete policy goals. It's no longer really a given what a conservative will really believe on quite a wide range of issues where that wasn't the case in the past. They have a few issues (abortion, taxes) where they are usually strongly orthodox, but they change their positions all the time in many other areas. For example, Republicans used to usually be supporters of government infrastructure spending, or other "market based" public-private hybrid approaches to solving problems (for example, in health care). This is why President Obama has repeatedly tried to seek common ground with them in these areas. But Republicans have responded with nothing but contempt and abandonment of their own past positions, as if they are now "tainted" by Obama's support for them. They seem increasingly subordinate policy objectives to the goal of winning and consolidating power at all costs.
So why is this? I would argue that the reason is that modern conservatism is no longer a coherent policy ideology with a set of associated policy goals. Instead, it is more like a psychological mindset, with an extreme, cult-like focus on purity and achieving dominance over competing systems of thought. As many have said in the past, this is a key hallmark of extreme authoritarian ideologies both historically and today. So how did the modern Republican Party reach this tipping point where they've begun to transitition from honest participation in democratic political debate towards destroying all democratic institutions that do not work to grant them the power they crave? It's all in the psychology of the right.
Today's conservative movement is dominated by authoritarians. This is familiar ground, with many authors having explored this topic in detail. A few well-known examples are Bob Altemeyer's "The Authoritarians"; John Dean's Conservatives Without Conscience; Eric Hoffer's The True Believer, and even Robert Paxton's journal article The Five Stages of Fascism. I'm not going to try to cover all the ground that these authors cover, all of which I think is quite relevant to understanding the mentality of the conservative movement today. Instead, I'm going to discuss a few more specific aspects of conservative psychology that I've observed in recent years and how they relate to some of their specific policy positions and beliefs.
- Just World Fallacy - Conservatives usually believe that the universe is a "just" place, down to the very core of their being. This aspect of their thinking pervades their entire world view, and entire books could be written just about this. But basically, they believe that people "get what they deserve", and "deserve what they get". The rich are rich because they are virtuous, moral, intelligent, enterprising, and attractive people; this just seems self-evident to the conservative mind. On the flip side, they believe that the poor are poor because of a lack of virtue, a lack of morality, a lack of intelligence, or a lack of hard work. Hence, conservatives tend to oppose the social safety net, because they view it taking from the virtuous to give to the undeserving. They believe in the death penalty and all of America's wars because they believe that these things are just. They simply flatly do not consider the possibility that the whole of society contains systematic injustice, corruption, and evil, or that this might contribute to the plight of those less well-off in our society. Instead, they merely attribute failure to moral failings, and anything else wrong to the opponents of conservatism.
- Intellectual Laziness - Broadening from the Just World Fallacy, conservatism fundamentally involves a rosy-eyed oversimplification of how the real world works. It simply ignores or discounts inconvenient facts (such as the existence of poverty, or inborn homosexuality, or whatever else conflicts with how they would like to believe things work) that would require conservatives to modify their overly simplistic moral and theoretical models of how the world works. They don't investigate things like the claims that conservative politicians make about the economy, or the roots of unemployment, or the causes of our national debt, because doing so might require them to put in the intellectual work to modify their mental model. They find it easier to just accept claims from authority figures they trust at face value. They prefer being wrong and not knowing it to the cognitive dissonance associated with learning new things and engaging in intellectual growth. As pgm 01 pointed out in one of the comments that inspired me to write this diary, "the evidence of the failure of their ideology is all around them". They don't notice or acknowledge this, because they are intellectually lazy and prefer the certainty of conservatism even when it is wrong and laughably simplistic.
Conservative theories are appealing to them because they distill things down into an easily understood package that doesn't take much intellectual effort to understand. This is also why conservative politicians have an easier time with messaging: it's less effort for their side because their side doesn't care about the relationship of their message with reality. So they can focus purely on making things sound appealing, rather than coming up with workable policies. Their base will believe anything they say, and doesn't put in the effort to check on what they actually DO when in office. So they can just say whatever they want to get elected and then go right back to doing whatever they please once they have power. Just look at the Bush Administration: they stuck by him despite betrayal after betrayal of conservative principles on such issues as fiscal solvency, regime change, torture, and even domestic spending. Contrast this against the anger Obama has received from his own base over perceived disloyalty.
- Moral Cowardice - Strongly related to intellectual laziness, but distinct in my mind, is the moral cowardice that characterizes conservatism. Conservatives tend to simply view the consequences of their policies as abstract, rather than as things that impact real people negatively. And when they do acknowledge harm, they can explain it away as somehow justified because of the Just World Fallacy. Rather than fight against the evil that human beings constantly perpetrate against one another, they are content to simply sit back and view this as inevitable or natural, and casually support abstract ideas that worsen the situation. Moral cowardice is necessary to justify views such as total opposition to environmental laws, opposition to the social safety net, and opposition to humanitarian or disaster aid. Again, conservatives prefer that evil exist in the world and go unchallenged to having to actually DO something about it that might inconvenience them personally or make them uncomfortable. The Just World Fallacy conveniently allows them to blame the victims of evil so that they don't even have to feel bad about being moral cowards.
- Purity Cultism - Conservatives place a strong value on purity in all things. Their regressive views on sexual freedom and equality are very much related to this aspect of their thinking. They hate the things that their taboos and system of morality have branded as dirty or impure, especially anything and anyone that dares to challenge those purity taboos. This goes much further than just sex, though: it's a whole mode of thinking that they attach to many of the things they oppose. I believe that it is related to the emotional roots of racism and xenophobia: they hate the idea of different races or cultures coexisting simultaneously because it offends their taboo-driven idea of purity. Their hatred of gays is similarly based on what they view as disregard for the purity of strict heteronormative gender roles. They hate atheists, non-fundamentalist religious people, and other non-religious or religiously moderate people because they dare to question what they view as the "purity of belief" contained in a very fundamentalist church.
Such impure behavior or impure people are actually viewed as something akin to a disease by authoritarian conservatives; an invasion or corruption of the holy sanctums of our society that conservatives believe are fundamental to its continued existence and success. The quest for purity has become something of a cult for this type of conservative, and it explains much of their hatred for those who disagree with them: it's actually driven by something akin to the physical revulsion that we might feel at seeing a decaying animal corpse in the road. And the desire to purge corruption (in the sense of impurity) from society has also been a major element of most fascist movements in history, including most notably the Nazis, who were preoccupied with the idea that Germany lost WWI because their soldiers were "stabbed in the back" by Jews, liberals, communists, and other homefront "corruption" of society. I would also argue that this is what Tea Partiers are trying to say when they talk about "taking our country back": they blame us for America's failures, because they are unwilling to examine the true causes of our problems.
- Fear - If the Just World Fallacy is the cornerstone of modern conservative thought, I would argue that Fear is the cornerstone of modern conservative emotion. It drives all the other aspects of their thought, and strengthens conservatives in their resolve. They are literally terrified of foreigners, minorities, liberals, young people, atheists, Muslims, "union thugs", ACORN, and a whole other range of real and imagined threats to them and their families. But most of all, they are afraid that they might be wrong about what they believe. And because authoritarians exhibit strong all-or-nothing thinking, they fear that being wrong about ANYTHING might mean that they are wrong about EVERYTHING. This is why they can't face their fears: they cannot tolerate the cognitive dissonance that would be associated with rebuilding their worldview, which they fear would collapse.
So where does all this fear come from? I think that this is an interesting question, and I have a few theories. First of all, I think it comes from uncertainty (economic, social, political). People simply are terrified in general because they don't know where we're headed. This uncertainty is related to the acceleration of the pace of everyday life in the United States: everyone is running around like rats trying to make ends meet, while technology and social norms change rapidly around us. The authoritarian conservative, who naturally fears dynamism and chaos, experiences severe anxiety as a result. Second, I think it's caused by a general erosion of faith in our major societal institutions. People simply do not trust that our politicians, court system, corporations, employers, doctors, scientists, religious leaders and on and on have their best interests in mind (with some justification). This is part of why authoritarianism and right-wing movements thrive in times of social and political upheaval. Finally, I think the end of the Cold War figures into this fear: because conservatives defined themselves in opposition to communism, they lost their traditional enemy that in many ways defined them. They've been lashing out at various other "enemies" ever since, because they cannot tolerate the replacement of the uncertainty of the bipolar Cold War world with an even more uncertain multipolar world. There was fear during the Cold War, but it could be focused on only a single enemy. So conservatives could make themselves feel better about it by supporting things things SDI, greater nuclear armament, and militarism. Since 9/11 in particular, they can't even cling to the idea that our huge and invincible military can protect us from all foreign threats.
Conservatives look to authorities who promise simple, easy answers because they feel like they're in the middle of a social hurricane. They're looking for a rock to cling to.
So how rational is the fear that conservatives feel? Actually, pretty rational in these uncertain times. I know that I have fears about many things that are going on in our society, too. What isn't rational, however, is believing that there are easy answers to our problems that can alleviate the fear. There are no simple solutions to our problems, and being afraid of facing that reality isn't going to make it any better and could make it far worse. But some of the fear has been created by a concerted right-wing propaganda campaign that's been going on for many decades now. Right-wing leaders have specifically been trying to instill fear because they know that it's a very powerful tool in the acquisition of power and blind loyalty. It's often a much strong political motivator than hope is.
I don't have any great answers for how we should combat this mentality, as it seems to be something that naturally flares up in times of uncertainty and upheaval like we are currently going through. I think the only thing we can really do is continue to fight the good fight. We just have to keep chipping away at creating social progress and a more just, more sustainable, more equitable, and more stable society. Authoritarians will always be with us, and we will always have to be vigilant about their encroachment on our politics. But they won't win elections unless other more moderate people buy into their fear-mongering and paranoia. So we just have to make sure that we and the politicians we support actually are on the right side in opposition to them. Actual social progress is the best antidote to right-wing authoritarianism as I've described it here.
(diary inspired in part by comments on chaunceydevega's excellent diary.)