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Tag Archives: right-wing authoritarianism

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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