The Conservative Mindset, pt. II

¡Hola! Everybody…
As promised, today’s post attempts to look at the conservative mindset from a historical and empirical perspective.

Edmund Burke (1790, 1982)  promoted the worldview that informs many modern conservatives (such as Barry Goldwater and William F. Buckley, jr.): 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 most 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…

My observation is that no one is fully conservative or liberal. We tend to fluctuate 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.

It’s been a hectic day, so I apologize in advance for the sloppy or disjointed writing…

* * *

-=[ The Conservative Mindset, pt. II ]=-

“Contempt is not a thing to be despised.”

— Edmund Burke (1729–1797) “Father” of conservatism

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 both the United States Congress and Senate, 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, written mostly in clear, jargon-free language, 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. ::grin::

Well, it’s not as if we didn’t suspect all along that something was wrong with the likes of Glenn Beck, Lush Rimbaugh, that Michelle Bachmann twat, and the rest of the 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 whackos who had taken over the GOP and in the process threaten to turn America into a third-rate fascist state (stuff like torture, shredding 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 went up like rabid chimps going ape helpful neighbors) went to great lengths to reassure one and all that they weren’t calling right wingers a bunch of psychotic, destructive nuts. Obviously, they weren’t studying the right-wingers we see most often on the internets (<– Bushism). Essentially, the researchers culled through 50 years of research literature about 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 that an investigation should be made immediately into the funding these researchers get, and they were accused, with no regard to rhyme nor reason, of being anti-American and anti-Christian and probably for gay rights and gun control to boot.

OK, let’s try to forget O’Really and Ann Coulter for a moment. Sure, there are conservatives who aren’t sadistic amoral sociopaths. Shoot, in real life, I know some. I even have conservative friends, although I did warn my sister not to marry my former (or current) brother-in-law.

On a serious note, what the researchers were looking at were what could be termed “political fundamentalists.” 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, even though it’s usually better 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.

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 see people who champion the Bill of Rights, “small government,” and a laissez faire approach to economics while loudly cheering for the Patriot Act and the tariffs Bush placed on steel and timber.

This emotional and intellectual contradiction is how conservatives are able to condemn what they perceive as dishonest and immoral behavior on Obama’s part (i.e., tax cheats) while at the same time accepting that Bush lied his way into a needless and foolish war while declaring that he was “fighting a war on terrorism.” It’s how Republicans can damn Democrats as being fiscally irresponsible even while they ignored Bush’s disastrous fiscal policies that drove the global economy to an economic collapse the likes of which has never been seen. One need only point out conservatives’ vilification of Obama for a deficit that he didn’t cause while ignoring Bush’s reckless tax cuts to see this paradox at work.

One of the more interesting issues in the paper is “The Theory of RWA,” in which the authors consider 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.

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.


Burke, E. (1982). Reflections on the revolution in France. New York: Penguin Classics.

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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