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Understanding the Conservative Mind

Psychologist, Lissa Johnson (pictured above) has given us a revealing insight into the mind of the political conservative, in an article published in New Matilda. Lissa is a clinical psychologist interested in the psychology of ideology and politics, and the philosophy and politics of psychology.

“If the Abbott Government was an individual, he would be a psychopath,” she begins before giving a detailed description of the mindset that happily allows and promotes ultra-right wing extremism. The article should be compulsory reading for those of us who constantly struggle with certain aspects of the mainstream media.

Detailed studies into the difference between the psychological right and left have been going on in earnest for the past 20 plus years. The results are now in the public domain for all of us to examine and, I have to say, there is not much there that surprises me.

The conservative mind is indeed a curious animal and betrays itself through language and form. Johnson, in her article, sets about dissecting the Abbott government’s aversion to equality for all, their resistance to change and explains the reasoning behind their attitude to the unemployed, the disadvantaged and those on the lower levels of the socio-economic ladder.

They have an aversion to social and economic equality. They suffer from ‘Right Wing Authoritarianism’ which rejects openness and accountability. They are hierarchical in structure, anti-egalitarian which Johnson tells us, “correlates with conservatism but also with the ‘dark triad’ of personality: Narcissism, Machiavellianism and Psychopathy.”

But, conservatism comes in degrees and not all who vote conservative necessarily embody these characteristics. For those who enter politics, however, the stronger the psychological underpinning, the stronger the views.

For example, conservatives have a pressing need to arrive at fixed and firm answers to complex questions, described by psychologists as a need for cognitive closure. In other words, they need to keep things simple. One can only presume that they have a short attention span and this pressing need is for their benefit, rendering any further review unnecessary.

Their need for cognitive closure means they shun open mindedness, and they are suspicious of science and the arts and distrust foreign food and culture. Already we can see how this manifests in policies on boat people and climate change.

As I read Johnson’s article, I could not help comparing it with my own upbringing as a Catholic. The hierarchy, the inflexibility of rules, the dominance, inequality and resistance to change. The Catholic Church was able to maintain this inflexibility through relentless psychological pressure and trauma.

It makes me wonder if the Catholic contingent in the Abbott government’s ministry, is a reflection of an elite conservative mindset finding justification for its lack of compassion, humility and empathy toward the disadvantaged; a justification that allows them to keep it that way.

My own view is that conservative parties are only interested in governing for today. They have no vision for tomorrow, no grand plan. They would rather let tomorrow take care of itself. They will say what is necessary to win support, concealing their true intent. Their intent is being the government rather than actually governing.

Johnson says that a full and frank disclosure of their intent would render them unelectable. So they cleverly disguise their inner drive when addressing a predominantly egalitarian society by sugar-coating their aims and by ‘legitimising myths’ that reinforce fear and scarcity. They use the stereotype (poor people don’t have cars) or fear (budget emergency) to illustrate various myths.

The wearing of the Burqa is a classic example. So too, the uncertainty of debt and deficit, ‘age of entitlement’ and the like, all of which appeal to an elite which is itself uncertain and fearful and perceives these issues as a threat to its way of life.

And then there is the issue of prejudice, a conservative log jam that breeds racism and the belief that underprivileged minorities are responsible for their own circumstances; that sexual minorities and the unemployed, welfare recipients and single mothers threaten the good order and structure that society must uphold and maintain.

And so, after having gained power, conservative governments begin winding back the clock, repealing uncomfortable reforms that promote and support a more egalitarian society.

They conveniently forget or simply discard their pre-election sugar coating and engage in legitimising their myths to justify restructuring society back to the hierarchical, authoritarian model. They move on dissenting voices, invoke extreme and unnecessary legislation to ‘protect’ their prejudices and reinforce their two principal aversions: equality and change.

Johnson’s article quite neatly encapsulates what most of us on the left either already know or have long suspected. Not that we are without fault but at least we err on the side of compassion, empathy and fairness. But, by knowing how to identify the idiosyncratic oddities of the conservative mindset, we are better able to articulate a more socially responsible alternative.

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  1. Florence nee Fedup

    Johnson says that a full and frank disclosure of their intent would render them unelectable.”\

    Core of what is wrong with this government., They cannot afford to tell us.

    I suspect that nun standing behind the cardinal would have no respect for hi, Would not be backward in telling him so

  2. mars08

    The term “conservative”… like leftist … does not mean what it once did. How can we compare the ideology and policies of the current government to those of “Billy” McMahon or Malcolm Fraser?

    Tony Abbott and his goons are far from conservative….

  3. Roswell

    Mars, I think the modern conservative is far more to the right than they were 30 years ago.

    Perhaps someone will come up with a term to describe them. “Radical” fits.

  4. Rob031

    “Right-Wing Authoritarian”?

    “Crypto-Fascist Running-Dog Lackeys”!

  5. Roswell

    “Modern Fascist”.

  6. Jason


    True. Although Fraser has always maintained that he was in fact ‘Liberal’ and never ‘Conservative’. He also points to Menzies insisting on it being called the ‘Liberal Party’ and not the ‘Conservative Party’.

    @John Kelly

    Great article. The piece by Lissa was a fabulous read and I’ve seen it mentioned on other blogs today. It appears to have touched a nerve.

    The ‘Conservative’ type is an interesting beast to consider.

    The likes of Edmund Burke, an originator of ‘Conservative’ thought, actually had something meaningful and intelligent to say about ‘change’, or want of a better word, ‘progress’, and advocated incremental change as a way of avoiding the break down of society. Burke’s ‘Reflections on the French Revolution’ remains an interesting read, if read in its historical context of it being an extremely violent and uncertain period.

    But essentially Burke was anti-democratic, as indeed, Britain remained until after WW1.

    Whereas self-proclaimed ‘Conservative, the tabloid-blogger Andrew Bolt, adopts the self-descriptor of ‘Conservative’ as a way of legitimising his obstinate and smug world view. He relies on the ignorance of his readership for him to get away peddling his non-sense. He isn’t ‘Conservative’ but is very much a ‘radical’ who mourns the passing of a society that has the privileged white male at its apex. He is reacting petulantly in response to public institutions that serve to promote democracy, egalitarianism, and equality. (I’m sure the ABC would have greater ‘Conservative’ support if it just broadcast Wagner’s operas 24/7!)

    I have heard it said that ‘Western civilization’ is white patriarchy (as experienced in Europe as Catholic feudalism) and that we now actually live in a post-Western civilization world that is informed by multi-culturalism and feminism. (It’s worth noting that Kim Williams recently wrote of Rupert Murdoch running his newspaper business in a feudal manner.) It’s also curious to consider that so-called Islamic radicalism is in fact extreme religious conservatism that is also based within immense male insecurity.

    The Abbott agenda becomes quite clear when considered in this context, as does the viciousness against Australia’s first female, atheist, prime-minister.

  7. WendyJoy Smith

    please join the labor party marketing team

  8. Richard Knowles

    I suspect the militarisation of Australian society is also a mindset or DNA feature of the conversatives. Notice how many military/police people get to figure currently in the Federal government. Notice the pervasiveness of military language in current political discourse.

  9. mars08

    Richard Knowles:

    …Notice the pervasiveness of military language in current political discourse.

    Oh yeh… It’s right there… our valiant politicians reach for the military terminology at every opportunity. And it sounds very awkward, frivolous and shallow. No subtlety in the rush to prove how hair-chested they are.

    Even the ABC is launching a few salvos. When the gunman open fire in Ottawa last week… we had the news reader on ABC-TV telling us that he was “taken out” in a gunfight. Taken out?. Really? Who actually talks like that??

  10. Anthony d'Auvergne

    If it smells like Facism then it’s a Nazi Party, let’s not mince words it’s only the difference in degree that separates the LNP from the rise of the 3rd Reich.

  11. Bilal

    There is a growing awareness that the conservative label no longer belongs to what the “Liberal” Party has become. It has always had an undercurrent of extremism reflected in the 1938 respect for Hitler of R. G. Menzies. the father of the party and the nestling within its organs of people whose war records were Axis oriented e.g. NSW Liberal Party Migrant Advisory Committee of the early 1970s. Now we have long term “Liberal’ Party members like Barnardi who have had to be demoted for putting their extremist views on show, and the Prime Minister himself cuddling up with Alan Jones, Bolt and Grandaddy Murdoch. It is now The Tea Party with insane extremist policies so bad that their budget could not even get support from the Shorten gang.

  12. corvus boreus

    In the heat of verbal combat,(so to speak), truth is the first casualty.
    Um..Shit happens.

  13. Möbius Ecko

    The term “conservative”… like leftist … does not mean what it once did. How can we compare the ideology and policies of the current government to those of “Billy” McMahon or Malcolm Fraser?

    Tony Abbott and his goons are far from conservative….

    @mars08 read a tweet recently that led to a short conversation that stated there are now progressives, conservatives and regressives. The Abbott government belongs to an ideology of regression as a means of control and power.

  14. Roswell

    In other words, Mo, fascism.

  15. stephentardrew

    John the problem is these charters do not quite step into full blown evaluation of psychotic dysfunction they are more on the cusp as borderline personality disorders with a lashings of psychotic indices on axes of DSM5, however, though they are close to the boundary, they avoid exhibiting aberrant behavior on the whole battery of tests that would push them over the borderline into full blown psychosis. In fact this is a truly dangerous area because often borderline personality disorders do not get the required attention that those with full blown psychosis do. We all know crazy people who are in the community yet not captured by mental health because they are not extreme enough. Nevertheless they can, and do, cause untold damage. Here is the rub. If your religion or ideology supports what are demonstrably irrational illogical ideas of self-interest and narcissistic greed then they can simply wave the “its my belief” flag while ignoring claims of immoral and unethical corruption by deferring to God and ideology. They are in fact irrational greed infested borderline personalities with little or no social conscience. Research demonstrates that the amygdala (fear center) in conservatives is larger, and therefore more prone to fear and paranoia, than in progressives.

    In my last several posts I have pointed out that the banks, financial sector and corptocracy, with the complicity of bought off politicians, allowed one of the biggest financial crimes of our time to go unpunished. Let the kids into the hen house give them the keys to the egg cupboard and tickle them when they steal all the eggs.

    They have been given approval to commit large devastating crimes so the little jabs at social justice and inequity are just side menus to the main game. They have already won the liar wars and main game. “Too big to fail”. It makes me sick when Democrats defer to barbaric members of the GOP as my friends on the other side. These people are not our friends and the sooner we realise it the better. We have been conned into being civil to the uncivilized in the name of maturity. Good heavens we need a thorough re-evaluation of propositional logic on the left. We are continually forced to play their game within the constraints of their narrative while the country goes to hell in a hand basked. Meanwhile Labor continues its Machiavellian knives in the dark factional infighting.

    John we have a bunch of dysfunctional criminals gaining immense power control and huge financial returns from the crisis they caused without any punishment or prison time. Meanwhile they just want more and more. Am I an over emotional fool or are these facts tha tare of incredible concern.

    We are being ruled by a class of elitist liar criminals willing to do anything to entrench their power. They don’t give a shit about democracy it is just a damn annoyance they are forced to deal with.

    The criminals have stolen democracy and replaced it with a global corptocracy while the rest of the population were deflected by Fox news and the global warming cover game and big bad Julia.

    This frigin country owes her one hell of an apology.

    Damn the errors I just can’t read this shit again.

  16. corvus boreus

    Battlelines 2.
    Shirt-front or pollie-punch?
    How to be the best and fairest.

  17. Wayne Turner

    The sad part is how so many people,are so gullible to believe these Libs LIES.

  18. Möbius Ecko

    Haha Iain Hall saying he puts lefties in their place. Always had tickets on himself way beyond his actual capabilities.

  19. Kaye Lee

    I have always found Iain amusing. From his leftie putdown….

    “Call us old fashioned but its a conservative virtue that we think that any change should do what is claimed for it and secondly we think that a Prime Minster should do what they promise.”

    So when Tony Abbott tells us we need a GP co-payment to fix Labor’s “debt and deficit disaster” am I to assume the money will be going towards paying off our debt? Oh no…that’s right…it’s going towards gifts to big pharmaceutical companies.

    You think a PM should do what they promise? Then you must be REALLY disappointed with Tony Abbott. Have a read of this and get back to me Iain.

    “This election is all about trust.”

  20. Bizzaro

    Stephentadrew nailed it.

  21. Wayne Turner

    “Always had tickets on himself way beyond his actual capabilities.” – Iain and Abbott.

  22. John Lord

    And with the help of the evangelical Christian Right the GOP look like taking the Senate in the US mid term elections.

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