Conservatism As Pathology

Are Bush supporters literally insane?

The people who were once radical are now reactionary. Though they speak today in the same aggrieved language of victimization, and though they face the same array of economic forces as their hard-bitten ancestors, today’s populists make demands that are precisely the opposite. Tear down the federal farm programs, they cry. Privatize the utilities. Repeal the progressive taxes. All that Kansas asks today is a little help nailing itself to that cross of gold.–Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter With Kansas?

The working class’s refusal to synchronize its politics with its economic interests is one of the enduring puzzles of the present age. Between 1989 and 1997, middle-income families (defined in this instance as the middle 20 percent) saw their share of the nation’s wealth fall from 4.8 percent to 4.4 percent. Yet Al Gore lost the white working class by a margin of 17 percentage points, and John Kerry lost it by a margin of 23 percentage points. As the GOP drifts further to the right, and becomes more starkly the party of the wealthy, it is gaining support among the working class.

I have never seen a wholly satisfactory explanation for this trend, which now spans two generations. It’s the decline of unions, says Thomas Frank. It’s values, says Tom Edsall. It’s testosterone, says Arlie Russell Hochschild. Each of these explanations seems plausible up to a point, but even when taken together, their magnitude doesn’t seem big enough. Republicans, of course, will argue that it’s simply the working man’s understanding that the GOP has the better argument, i.e., that the best way to help the working class is to shower the rich with tax breaks. But the Bush administration has been showering the rich with tax breaks for more than four years, and the working class has nothing to show for it.

Let’s consider another possibility, then: The working class, or at least a large segment of same, suffers from a psychological disorder.

We take for our text “Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition,” a study that ruffled conservative feathers a couple of years ago, especially after it was discovered that the research had been underwritten by the federal government to the tune of $1.2 million. The study’s authors (who include Frank Sulloway, the famous birth-order theoretician) assure readers that they are not out to prove that conservatives are crazy, or that conservatism is “necessarily false, irrational, or unprincipled.” Rather, “like virtually all other belief systems,” conservative beliefs are adopted “in part because they satisfy some psychological needs.” But the snotty use of the word “necessarily” gives the game away. The authors of the study plainly believe that conservatives have a screw loose, and they’re curious to find out why.

In the past, the authors write,

research and theory on conservatism in sociology, economics, and political science has often assumed that people adopt conservative ideologies out of self-interest….Although we grant that self-interest is one among many motives that are capable of influencing political attitudes and behavior…motives to overcome fear, threat, and uncertainty may be associated with increased conservatism, and some of these motives should be more pronounced among members of disadvantaged and low-status groups.

One particularly Dubya-ish psychological state identified by the authors is “intolerance of ambiguity.” This arises, at least one theorist has posited, “from an underlying emotional conflict involving feelings of hostility directed at one’s parents,” which of course instantly calls to mind Dubya’s famous 1972 confrontation with his father in which he drunkenly suggested that they go “mano a mano” and then, displaying the full magnitude of his defiance, told Dad that…he’d been accepted to Harvard Business School. The authors don’t cite this incident, but they do say that intolerance of ambiguity may “provide a psychological context” for Dubya’s declaration, at an international conference of world leaders, “I know what I believe and I believe what I believe is right.”

Then there’s “terror management theory,” which, as best I can make out, posits that an inordinate fear of death “engenders a defense of one’s cultural worldview” and therefore a resistance to outsiders and new ideas. Conservatives are also said to “score lower on measures of extraversion” and “general sensation seeking,” which I think is a polite way of saying that they don’t get enough sex.

The further you get into this line of thinking, I’m afraid, the more ridiculous it starts to sound. I’ve never observed, and I doubt you have either, that members of the working class demonstrate a greater tendency than people higher up the income scale to be more fearful, or more threatened, or more intolerant of ambiguity, or more irrationally fearful of death, or more inclined to pick fights with their parents, or more sex-deprived.

So I guess it’s back to the drawing board.