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A lesson in how to spot a Conservative

Popular and well-known blogger Hillbilly Skeleton provides an entertaining synopsis on the recognisable traits of a Conservative.

Have you ever wondered what makes the conservative mind tick?

Come with me while we take that journey, through the cobwebs and fustiness, to what lies at their core. I would say, ‘at their heart’ but I wonder sometimes whether they have one! No, they do, it’s just that it seems that it is generally about the size of a currant. Why is that so? Let’s see, shall we?

I’m using as my touchstone for this exploration a paper from the ‘Psychological Bulletin of the American Psychological Association‘ Vol 129, No 3, 2003 entitled ‘Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition’ by Jost, Glaser et al. It makes for fascinating reading and if you are interested in reading all 37 pages of it it is here.

However, if you would like me to summarize, I would be glad to.

So, analyzing political conservatism as motivated social cognition (how people think about, process and make sense of the people and things in our world that form their views), the following traits have become apparent when looking at the political conservative.

Their personality favours authoritarianism, dogmatism and the intolerance of ambiguity. They have epistemic (to justify beliefs) and existential needs for closure, regulatory focus and terror management, and they manifest ideological rationalisations for specific types of social dominance and justification of certain social systems.

Meta analysis confirmed that several psychological variables predict political conservatism to varying degrees: death anxiety (possibly giving us an insight into why people become more conservative as they get older); system instability (could this explain why the Coalition relentlessly exploited the destabilised Labor Party government and sought to cause so much of it); dogmatism and intolerance of ambiguity (explaining perhaps why Shock Jocks, where black and white are the only colours they know and shades of grey just don’t come into their commentary, are so popular with conservatives); lack of openness to new experiences; inability to tolerate uncertainty; a strong need for order, structure and closure (remember how the Coalition used to bleat repeatedly about the ‘chaos and dysfunction at the heart of the Gillard/Rudd government’ and how the electorate fell for it hook, line and sinker, whilst at one and the same time that same government were legislating far more successfully than Tony Abbott has been able to); a low level of the ability to integrate complexity (3 word slogan, anyone?); a fear of threat and loss (the Conservative Howard and his fridge magnets as a constant reminder of the existential threat of terrorism); and a negative self-esteem (from which a wellspring erupts that sees a disproportionate number of conservatives, in my experience, drawn to such private proclivities as Bondage and Discipline, and Dominant/Submissive relationships, such as those found in hierarchical religious structures and even manifesting itself in the Coalition’s approach to Asylum Seekers).

The core ideology of conservatism stresses resistance to change and justification of inequality and is motivated by needs that vary situationally and dispositionally in order to manage all manner of uncertainty and threats which they perceive. A fact which, you may note, is taken advantage of by successful conservative politicians the world over.

‘Conservatism is a demanding mistress and is giving me a migraine.’

For more than half a century the hypothesis has been tracked that different psychological motives and tendencies underlie ideological differences between the political Left and the Right.

The specific study of the political Right began back in 1950 via Sanford’s landmark study of authoritarianism and the fascist potential in personality. This asymmetrical focus on right-wing authoritarianism (RWA) was criticised heavily on theoretical and methodological grounds by, among others, Eysenck, but it has withstood the relentless tests of time and empirical scrutiny. A voluminous literature has facilitated the comparison of cognitive (thinking) styles and motivational needs of political conservatives with those of moderates, liberals, radicals and left-wingers.

A distillation of a political conservative thus comes down to, to varying degrees of extremity, one who leans toward authoritarianism, dogmatism, and intolerance of ambiguity, uncertainty avoidance, need for cognitive closure(or certainty, or absolutes), and social dominance orientation (SDO)-or needing to be top dog.

Which is to say that a case can also be made to say that such asymmetrical (one-sided) study of the conservative may be dismissed as an illegitimate, value-laden attempt to correlate general psychological profiles with specific ideological beliefs.

On the other hand, you can also make the case, ‘Why not?’. Because it invites controversy does not mean it should be avoided.

However, what is also important to take into consideration is that you do not fall into the trap of conflating the personal(ity) and the political as the essential truth. Also, it needs to be considered how much the influence of external situational factors has on the expression of conservatism by a person. For example, could it not be the case that people’s innate fear of Climate Change is what is driving them to support doing nothing about it, for to acknowledge that we need to do something is to confront the existential threat to our relaxed and comfortable way of life which Global Warming threatens?

Which essentially guides us to a generally-agreed concept of what political conservatism is. Specifically, that people embrace political conservatism(at least in part) because it serves to reduce fear, anxiety, and uncertainty; allows them to avoid change, disruption and ambiguity: and to explain, order and justify inequality among groups and individuals. This provides the framework which is built upon and worked together in the mind of the conservative to reduce and manage fear and uncertainty.

Me? As a progressive, my motto is, ‘All is flux’ and thus you are best served, and you best serve others in your community, the nation, the world and our voiceless environment best by grabbing the tiger by the tail and riding it as best you can, based upon gathering together all the best evidence available as to how best to do so. I prefer the view from there, as opposed to that from having my head in the sand any day.

Hopefully, however, you may now have more insight into why people who are conservative prefer to chop the trees down, rather then make out the differences between the wood and the trees.

On the non-theoretical side, we must also include that dog in the conservative race, ‘Self Interest’.


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  1. mars08

    Low IQ & Conservative Beliefs Linked to Prejudice


    Study links low intelligence with right-wing beliefs


    Multiple Scientific Studies Confirm: Extreme Conservatism Linked to Racism, Low I.Q.

  2. Rob

    I think this article is lightweight and a kinda mish-mash and not up to the standards that this site generally maintains. I can’t discern the author’s name. But I can tell you this about the “Authoritarian Personality” which is a big book and which I read carefully and thoroughly. It was comissioned by a Jewish organisation in the early ‘fifties to try to make sense of how a very civilised society (Germany – Beetheven etc) spawned the Nazies and all then followed.

    Adorno et. all. (The Frankfort School) were behind it. It was, imho, a masterpiece. I’d thoroughly recommend it as a study into right-wing authoritarianism.

    In the early 60’s it was followed up by Rokeach in the “Open and Closed Mind” which wished to go further. The thesis here was that intolerance was not necessarily an exclusively Right-Wing phenomenon. That “Authoritarian Personality” was something that applied equally to left-wing movements too.

    (And the we had Marcuse’s “One Dimensional Man” and so on after that.)

    Back to the mentality of the current government and Abbott in particular:

    These people are sincere. They frighten me. They really believe in the things that they bang on about. I don’t think for a minute that they’re insincere. But they’re dickheads all the same. That’s the problem. How do we deal with well-intentioned dickheads?

    Dunno. As Rumpole said to HIlda’s question: “Why do you need to argue, argue, all the time?” he said: “What else is there to do?”

    Just don’t let these bastards get away with it.

  3. Kaye Lee

    If I was to generalise, I would say that conservatives are scared people – scared their way of life is under threat (asylum seekers); scared they may have to pay tax on what they earn; scared that public debt is a bad thing (even though they use private debt to their own advantage); scared of listening to different ideas (MMT); scared of disadvantaged people (the unwashed masses mentality); scared of an informed public (Operation I can’t tell you); scared of an educated populace (we can’t afford Gonski and only rich people should go to uni); scared of our Indigenous population (the “intervention”); scared to ask mining companies to share the wealth they accrue digging up our minerals (axe the mining tax); scared of people who fight to save our environment (loggers are the ultimate conservationists),……I could keep going except I just noticed it’s after my bedtime.

  4. Rob

    Of course they’re scared Kay..They’re scared most of all of not getting their way. You can tell a person’s character by when you say NO to what they really want. Say YES and they’re friendly and all that. Say No and… That’s how you evaluate where people are really coming from.

    I’m all for saying NO to this outfit.

  5. Rob

    Sorry to misspell your name Kaye. I like your contributions very much. R

  6. lawrencewinder

    I agree with KL….. they’re basically scared of anything outside of their blinkers. The childish vindictiveness they display when thwarted is only equalled by their lack empathy to a wider community.

  7. Peter

    It always amazes me that the first thing conservative governments in Australia do upon being elected is sink the boot into the unemployed. They then attack our egalitarian institutions such as healthcare ,then education. They then set about tearing down the funding models for the arts, the bedrock of our society. Finally, they shut down advocacy groups for the environment, particularly, and creepily, the forgotten people like the homeless. In other words, when they look for government savings, they go for those that can least afford . to bear the burden of cuts. It is noteworthy that it is only in the face of an obstructive Senate that they are starting to embrace Labor policies such as closing tax loopholes for multi-national companies.

  8. Kaye Lee

    Speaking of which…..

    “Malcolm Turnbull, Australia’s second-richest parliamentarian, has invested in a ”vulture fund” based in the tax haven Cayman Islands.

    Disclosure of what appears to be a $1 million stake in a New York-run fund targeting distressed and bankrupt companies sparked criticism from financial transparency campaigners on Thursday.

    They argue the Communications Minister has invested legally but in conflict with the Coalition’s current campaign against corporate tax dodging and the offshoring of profits.”

  9. mars08

    “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”
    ~Abraham Lincoln

    Problem is that Abbott could barely handle adversity…

  10. Anomander

    I agree that some conservatives are scared, but a lot are just downright greedy.

    They want all the benefits society provides but they don’t want to pay for anyone else to also have access to those benefits.

    This particular government is a combination of two contradictory elements, conservatism and libertarianism.

  11. Des Pensable

    Yep I think its a good summary of conservatives. Unfortunately there are a lot of them and as our democracy states they are allowed to vote they can sometimes make really bad decisions when faced with indecision. It seems that they are the ones too scared to act when there is a problem like Global Warming but of course their denialist attitudes tend to stop other from acting. They are the people standing on the deck of the Titanic as it approaches the iceberg saying the Captain knows what he is doing and even if he doesn’t then he has assured us the ship is unsinkable and if it does sink then god will save us. People die when this happens.
    see also

  12. Totaram

    This might be a good characterisation of the average conservative voter, but I don’t for a moment believe that the members of this government are actually “sincere”, in the way that let us say Pol Pot, Stalin and Hitler were sincere. These people are just paid hoodlums, who prefer to work for the rich and the powerful because the rewards are much better there.They may vaguely sympathise with “conservative” values, but basically they are carrying out the agenda of the ruling oligarchy as worked out by the IPA and operationalised by shadowy hirelings, Peta Credlin being the visible one. So it is no surprise that the moment they come into power and even when they are not in power, they demonise the weak and vulnerable. It is in their interest to have an “enemy” that people can focus on. They then show themselves as the strong people who protect the population from these enemies. This makes the population grateful. At the same time, it is useful to have a large pool of unemployed people, as well as a fear of becoming unemployed (reduce the safety net). Fearful people are easier to manipulate and they are less likely to make demands. As for selling off public assets, well, only the rich get to buy them. Public goods are converted to private goods, sometimes at throwaway prices to “repair” the budget.

    This is straight out of the fascist playbook and has been carried out regularly for over a century. In a so-called democracy, a little more finesse is required, but as you can see in any such country, especially the US, success has been quite spectacular – the top 1% have increased their wealth by leaps and bounds. And all this in spite of busts and recessions. In fact, recessions are the time when assets can be picked up cheap, especially where budgets need to be “repaired”. Until you smash the power of the oligarchs, nothing will change substantially. In fact, even the labor party is filled with “right-wingers” who remain chummy with the big end of town and subscribe to neo-liberal “economic rationalism”. Witness Wayne Swan declaring he will produce a surplus budget, as if this is the hallmark of good economic management. Intense propaganda over decades by the “think tanks” has made this the dominant metaphor. Now everyone uses the phrase “taxpayer funded” without thinking. You would not have heard this 50 years ago. In sum, whether it is Abbott or some other such hoodlum like Turnbull, the policies pursued by the coalition will not change. And if labor comes in and tries something too much disliked by the oligarchs (MRRT?) sh*t will happen. I think we underestimate the seriousness of the problem.

  13. Florence nee Fedup

    Little off topic. Excellent speech by shorten today in Melbourne. Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research

  14. Mario Napolitano

    …It seems that they are the ones too scared to act when there is a problem like Global Warming…

    But quite happy to act quickly in going to war, punishing innocent asylum seekers or attacking vulnerable welfare recipients. Why is that…?

  15. mikestasse

    death anxiety (possibly giving us an insight into why people become more conservative as they get older)

    I’m at odds with this one……. the older I get, the more at peace I am about dying, and the more left wing I get!

    Besides……. aren’t ‘conservatives’ mostly religious and believe they’ll go to heaven? Oh hang on….. they are such bastards, maybe they KNOW they’re going to hell, hence the anxiety!

  16. corvus boreus

    The consistent report of those who have put one foot into the ferry, then turned back, apart from the tunnel of light visual, is one of an extended, almost eternal, moment of recollection of the life of the individual, a full recount of the sum of all their deeds, their thoughts, intentions, words and actions and the consequences caused.
    How some folk must dread that final reflective moment before embarking into the unknown.

  17. Totaram

    Fedup: Tony Abbot made some wonderful speeches before he was elected. They had no relation to what he intended to do in government. Speeches are nice, but how do we know what they will do? I think we have a serious problem here. If labor and/or the progressive elements can solve this, we would have won a major victory.

  18. Florence nee Fedup

    I do not recall any speech of Abbott’s that included much content. In fact cannot recall any that were great speeches.

    With Shorten, it is not passion or delivery that I am talking about.It is content and facts.

  19. mars08

    “…as the Republican war on science intensifies, ignorance has started to become not only less of a handicap, but a point of pride. In the face of expertise and facts, being belligerently ignorant—and offended that anyone dare suggest ignorance is less desirable than knowledge—has become the go-to position for many conservative politicians and pundits. Sadly, it’s a strategy that’s working, making it harder every day for liberals to argue the value of evidence and reason over wishful thinking and unblinking prejudice.”

  20. Ray Butler

    The superiority complex is in all of us, and our society is not devoid of its impact either. Real Freedom is synonymous with self-control, but being subject to injurious ambition or allowing the mean spirit of others to make you a mean spirit also, these are not an expression of Freedom. The superiority complex is a problem in individuals, only when like-minded people unite they gain greater resources.

  21. cuppa

    A conservative is a man who just sits and thinks, mostly sits. ~Woodrow Wilson

  22. Aussie Pride

    There’s a whole lot of stupid in all sides of politics. True conservatives of Australia were closer to to the blue collar Menzies tradition, simply about home, family, building a business, paying your debts, keeping your know.. being decent.

    The current lot of COALitian is just greedy, nasty, corruption and a huge whack of delusional narcissm. The emporor has no clothes best describes them, they’re looons in an expensive suit. But do not underestimate the level of nasty they will go to. These types are seriously destructive. Exploitation is their middle name. If you’ve ever been high up in the corporate world you’d be well aware how it rolls, and how deep it goes. And how impossible it really is to change it. They view you as the little people, the nobodys, and to some extent they are right. You have little power, they have ALL the power.

    I think weve got bullocks chance of really setting things right unless the entire system crashes beyond resurrection on a global scale, and that won’t happen. But we can try to get things a little better.

    Alot of it is ignorance. The inability to see how all things are connected. Short sighted thinking, tunnel vision, and us v’s them mindset that breeds seperation not inclusiveness. But we are all guilty of that honestly in some ways. If you took away all their money and social business connections, you’d find them to be just like everybody else. This is about the corruption of power.

    I think Totarum is on the ticket. The big end of town couldn’t give one iota how many they crush under their boot, they do not respect you or democracy, and they will go to great legnths to protect their interests.

    And before you go on howling about how much better you are than them (in essence sounding just like them), let me assure you, given the same position, you’d find many of your mates turning into the very thing you dispise and acting just like they do. This isn’t about conservative, LNP, Labor, etc etc. It is about the corruption of power and the destruction of democracy. There are people behaving evilly all through our society and business and political areana’s, not just the LNP. But for a start, for christ sake i pray for the day we pummel these assh@les into the dirt of oblivion. :0)

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