Intuitive Conservatism & Analytical Liberalism

I had two related thoughts.

First, I was considering the actual meaning of liberalism and conservatism. I noticed someone mention that conservatives rarely are interested in conserving and liberals are rarely interested in liberating. Actually, in the US, liberals are generally more interested in conserving than conservatives, but certainly conservatives aren’t more interested in liberating.

Second, I keep pondering what conservatism actually is about. Liberalism is more straightforward in some ways. Liberals may not put as much priority as left-wingers in liberating people, but liberals aren’t against liberating people. Liberalism more is about an attitude of openness which can express both in a desire to liberate from what is bad or conserve what is good. Conservatism, however, plays out on two levels where symbolism simultaneously represents and hides the deeper issues of meaning and values. For this reason, conservatism often can’t be taken at face-value.

These two thoughts relate in the data I’ve shared before about how most Americans self-identify as conservatives and yet support liberal policies. So, Americans tend to only find conservative principles attractive in the abstract, but what conservatives (and Americans in general) seek to conserve on the practical level are the achievements of the liberal movement, specifically the policies of the Progressive Era of the first half of the 20th century and the policies of Liberal Era around the middle of the 20th century.

How is symbolic thinking so powerful when it doesn’t seem to relate to concrete issues? The tricky part is that for conservatives the concrete conservative issues are the symbolic form of conservative values. So, conservative issues are never concrete even when or especially when they appear to be. For example, the conservative moral order grounded in in the conservative vision of family values is very compelling to many Americans. This gets expressed in concrete issues such as abortion, but when you get down to practical details conservatives don’t directly care about abortion, in terms of the gritty details of factual data. Liberal policies have proven themselves to decrease more abortions by decreasing unwanted pregnancies which is accomplished by better sex education, better availability of contraceptives, better women’s health services, etc. Conservatives won’t agree to liberal practices simply because they are more effective for the issue of abortions is symbolic, not practical.

The power of conservative symbolic thinking is that it conflates the symbolic with the concrete, the subjective with the objective, the metaphorical with the literal. This can be seen in religious fundamentalism where stories are so compelling because they are taken as real, even when there is no evidence of their reality. It is the refusal to submit to objective evidence that gives such symbolic stories their objective-seeming reality.

Liberals, on the other hand, seek to disempower such symbolic-minded conflation. This is why liberals speak more directly. When a liberal speaks about the issue of abortions, they are more genuinely concerned about the practical issue of decreasing abortions, among other concerns. Even religious liberals will tend to more clearly demarcate the symbolic and historical aspects of religion, sometimes even going so far as refusing to apologetically argue over historicity of religious figures. This is why liberals are greater defenders of analytical thinking and the scientific method. This is also why liberals aren’t as effective with political rhetoric. In undoing the conflation, liberals undo the very power of the conflation. Liberals love symbolic thinking taken on its own terms of symbolism such as with art, but symbols only have power as a political force when they become identified with concrete and social realities.

This creates quite the dilemma for liberals. Conservatives can never admit to their own way of symbolic thinking, can never admit that the superficial political issues are mere symbols. Conservatives intuitively understand that their effectiveness as a movement and that the compelling nature of their abstract principles necessitate never admitting this fundamental truth. For many of them, they can’t even admit it to themselves. Symbolic conflation can only work if there is no overt awareness of how it works, at least among average conservatives, although there are cynical conservative leaders (SDOs – Social Dominance Orientation types) who understand this and use it to manipulate the conservative movement (the relationship is very interesting between SDO leaders and Authoritarian followers).

Liberals seek to increase self-awareness, but this very kind of liberal self-awareness is the Achille’s heel of the conservative mind. Conservatives don’t want to question and analyze, not in this psychological introspective sense. They want to take action and create results. There is pragmatism in the conservative method, despite its apparent disregard of pragmatic details that get in the way of political ends.

There is a polar opposition between understanding and effectiveness. Liberals have better psychological understanding which ends up being the very reason they are politically ineffective, although it makes liberals into helpful therapists and service workers. This is a seemingly impossible situation. Liberals put so much emphasis on education and journalism because they understand liberalism can only operate effectively to the degree the conservative method is undermined, by way of undoing the conservative conflation that originates from anti-analytical intuitive thinking. In a world where rhetoric rules over facts, liberals will never win. Liberal ideals can never compete with the power of fundamentalist religion combined with right-wing think tanks. This is a major aspect of the pathetic weakness of liberalism. By its nature, liberalism is incapable of fighting dirty in this way. The moment liberals try to meet conservatives on the playing field of rhetoric, liberals are out-matched. Some liberals like Lakoff are trying to teach liberals to be able to play this kind of game better, but it’s not clear that liberals are capable of coming even close to competing with conservatives on this level.

The only hope liberals have is that which can be found in the younger generations. Kids growing up these days are more well educated relative to past generations, especially about the difference between religion and science. More importantly, kid these days are raised from a young age in the worldview of psychological understanding. Slowly over time, psychology and the social sciences in general have seeped into mainstream culture. This will eventually give liberals the advantage they need, but it isn’t clear that even this advantage will be enough.

I don’t wish to just criticize conservatism, but the conservative style of symbolic conflation is one of the most dangerous issues we face as a society. Liberals need to be criticized as well in that liberals aren’t well-equipped in dealing with the power presented by such conflation. Most liberals can’t even comprehend the conservative mindset or why their rhetoric is so persuasive. Liberals, despite their desire to understand, too often are clueless. Liberal values of mutual understanding are impotent in face of this conservative force that hits below the belt, that hits with an emotional punch that can’t be comprehended rationally. Liberals are barely even coming to terms with the problem, much less figuring out solutions.

In their desperation, liberals just cling tighter to their Enlightenment values. Liberals just don’t undersand why throwing more facts at the problem doesn’t persuade the public, why no matter how strong the scientific consensus a large part of the population will go on denying evolution and global warming. Liberals assume that there eventually has to be a breaking point where facts win over beliefs. This liberal faith in rationality is admirable, but maybe ill-advised. Time will tell.

I should add that in describing conservatives I have a basic sense of respect. They understand one thing about human nature seemingly better than liberals. They may not have a broader understanding, but this one thing they understand very very well.

In being so effective, conservatives could be argued to prove they are correct about human nature. Unlike liberals, conservatives don’t believe humans are primarily rational in this broad sense. Conservatives, instead, believe that humans only act responsibly (in a moral and social sense) for reasons of emotion: fear, shame, guilt, etc. It’s the punishment/reward model of both fundamentalism and capitalism. Conservatives are certainly correct in terms of it being easier to influence and/or manipulate people through negative emotions.

It makes me wonder. What does this say about human nature. Are liberals truly wrong about their faith in Enlightenment values and ideals? If so, where does that leave liberalism? If rationality will continue to fail or continue to not suceed to any great extent, then what value should we place on rationality? Should we all just accept the conservative assumption about human nature?

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19 thoughts on “Intuitive Conservatism & Analytical Liberalism

  1. I was pondering this post. Specifically, what I was pondering is whether I was being fair to conservatives. I wanted to clarify at least one issue.

    I didn’t mean to imply all or even most conservatives were authoritarians. However, I’m convinced by the argument of Hetherington and Weiler that authoritarianism has become merged with the conservative movement because conservative leadership has spent several decades focused on issues that are particularly enticing to authoritarians. So, it isn’t necessarily to blame average conservatives who aren’t authoritarians, but intentionally or unintentionally everyone within the conservative movement ends up being complicit.

    Even so, I don’t think the conflation I speak of with conservative thinking can be blamed on this influx of authoritarians. My personal observations of normal non-authoritarian conservatives seems to demonstrate this thinking style.

    I should also clarify a basic issue that I feel compelled to clarify every time I write posts like this. I’m obviously generalizing. Not all conservatives would fit my description (and neither would all liberals). Even among average conservatives, individuals would be more analytical about some issues than about others (just like how certain individual liberals would be more intuitively symbolic about some issues, thus conflating in the manner that I argue is more typical of conservatives). The conflation of symbolism tends to occur with specific issues that are particularly grounded in emotional values (and I would assume that there are liberal issues that might be more prone to this conflation of symbolism). I picked abortion because it is an obvious example and because it is the example that first led me to understand this thinking style.

    In my criticisms, I’m not even arguing that conservatives are entirely wrong for thinking this way. It definitely hits upon a truth of human nature. Conservatives aren’t being dishonest in what I perceive as their conflations. That is how they genuinely perceive those issues. It is their reality. It is their sense of truth.

    I don’t judge conservatives primarily on moral grounds, rather from the perspective of the real world danger that such thinking can lead to. It isn’t the symbolic conflation in itself that is dangerous. Instead, what concerns me is the resulting increase of disinformation, anti-intellectualism, and partisan polarization. It leads to very black/white thinking and zero sum games. It doesn’t lead to shared understanding and cooperation toward pragmatic solutions.

    This all, of course, comes from my biased view. I’m strongly liberal-minded and so my distrust of conservatism is innate. Still, I think my basic observation of conflated thinking is true, even if my interpretation and understanding is imperfect.

  2. These are wise distinctions. It’s much more difficult to see these kind of broad distinctions between liberals and conservatives here in California, which is why I’m wandering around the country all the time, trying to catch perspectives from many conservatives and more moderate liberals.

    The notion of conservative dependence and emphasis on symbolism the way you discuss as the key outgrowth of their stronger dependence on their nonconscious mind- there is little direct interest in practical improvements because the negative motivational aspects- punishment, shame, peer pressure- are assumed to be useful enough, pure, enough, direct enough to enact practical, lasting change. This is a projection on their part, as negative motivations are no doubt a powerful incentive for conservatives to do good, in keeping with their social natures, their significantly higher Conscientiousness and higher Agreeableness. Because of their emphasis on the in-group, on the pertinent team, practical steps to, say, reduce the amount and negative effects of abortion through means outside castigation are not particularly relevant- viewed by some as vaguely nice, perhaps, for someone else to work, someone who isn’t engaged in the real moral work of life- but not essential. Viewed by others as a mildly negative distraction from the good work. Viewed by yet others as a strong negative because it short-circuits the desperate need for negative motivators to enact the Real Change, because such liberal improvement ‘techniques’ implicitly or explicitly allow abortion in the first place- violating the rules of a sacred symbolism. Good results obtained through moral compromise can be taken to be evil.

    But the lack of interest in a topic is often not an outright rejection. More broadly, I see lack of interest as an important, undervalued factor on both sides. Many conservatives aren’t interested in campaign reform to the same extent as liberals, despite its potential usefulness to their causes, because it’s tangential to the symbolism that guides them currently (some, of course, are against it because of mistrust of the masses, but I think they are a minority). Liberals are less interested in the power of supporting the nuclear family, or religion, despite the statistical usefulness of such support, because they view these causes as tangential, or maybe vaguely in opposition to liberal values. I see the portions of the spectrum where there is little interest on the other sides as particularly rich areas for improvement, for creative framing to improve society.

    • “These are wise distinctions.”

      In case you’re interested, I think the distinction I made here also relates to some other posts of mine in which I grappled with the conservative thinking style:

      https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2010/06/11/conservative-mistrust-ideological-certainty/

      https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2010/06/14/conservative-mistrust-ideological-certainty-part-2/

      In those posts, I discuss the conservative desire for fundamental truths. If they are religious, these fundamental truths will be theological doctrine. If they are secular, these fundamental truths will instead be considered as self-evident axioms or something along those lines.

      Whether religious or secular, it is the same belief mentality which I’m sure relates to the symbolic conflation. The belief and the symbolism go hand in hand, both presenting a combined force against the leftist tendency of placing rationality and science as the penultimate values.

      “It’s much more difficult to see these kind of broad distinctions between liberals and conservatives here in California, which is why I’m wandering around the country all the time, trying to catch perspectives from many conservatives and more moderate liberals.”

      California is one of the many states that I have no personal experience of. The only West Coast state I’ve visited is Oregon. I have lived in or traveled in numerous states, but I can’t claim to have a perfect comprehension of all the regional cultures of this overly large country. My clearest sense is in the differences between Northern and Southern cultures in the Eastern half of the country. But within that realm, most of my familiarity is with the Lower Midwest and the Deep South. I do have some experience of Appalachia and the Upper Midwest, although I have no direct experience of the pure unadulterated Yankiedom of the Northeast Coast.

      I’m a Midwesterner at heart. It’s because my liberalism is Midwestern that I stopped calling myself liberal at all. Midwestern liberals are a different breed from liberals on either of the coasts.

      The liberals of the Lower Midwest are moderate to the extent that they are apparently the last of the traditional conservatives left in America. In arguing for liberal values such as gay marriage, Lower Midwest Liberals will even use ‘conservative’ arguments.

      The liberals of the Upper Midwest come from a more radical tradition. Maybe its because, unlike the Lower Midwest, the Upper Midwest hasn’t been influenced by Appalachian culture. Also, it has to do with there just being more Germans as you go further North. Even as radicals, Upper Midwest liberals aren’t like West Coast radicals. Instead of radical individualism, they tend toward radical community-orientation such that the Upper Midwest is the only place that socialism ever took hold in America.

      I’m more of a Lower Midwestern liberal in some ways, but being in Iowa is different than the other Lower Midwestern states. Iowa doesn’t border Appalachia. Instead, Iowa borders the Upper Midwest. Iowa also has quite a few New England style college towns and so, like the Upper Midwest, there is an influence of Yankee culture here. It’s in such a college town that I grew up in and now live. Furthermore, unlike the rest of the Lower Midwest, Iowa never experienced as much industrialization and so we aren’t part of the Rust Belt.

    • “Because of their emphasis on the in-group, on the pertinent team, practical steps to, say, reduce the amount and negative effects of abortion through means outside castigation are not particularly relevant- viewed by some as vaguely nice, perhaps, for someone else to work, someone who isn’t engaged in the real moral work of life- but not essential. Viewed by others as a mildly negative distraction from the good work. Viewed by yet others as a strong negative because it short-circuits the desperate need for negative motivators to enact the Real Change, because such liberal improvement ‘techniques’ implicitly or explicitly allow abortion in the first place- violating the rules of a sacred symbolism. Good results obtained through moral compromise can be taken to be evil.”

      Yep, I’d agree. Our views seem to be in alignment.

      It’s not that conservatives don’t want to solve problems but that they see different problems. For the conservative, all problems that are significant are moral problems rather than practical problems. The practical is important and yet secondary, the effect rather than the cause. As such, all moral problems go back to social problems. Defending the group identity and group norms is the only thing that matters for that is where the root of the problem is seen.

      Conservatives assume that, if they could somehow dominate all of society with their rules and authority, then all the practical problems as symptoms of the social problem would disappear. The fact that these supposed symptoms don’t disappear no matter how much power conservatives gain simply gets blamed on liberals mucking up the works.

      A liberal could point out that abortions still happen in the most conservative of societies such as theocracies. The difference is just that women have to get abortions illegally or do it themselves illegally, either way it being dangerous to the woman and if the pregnancy goes to term the baby. Many a baby has been born mutilated or mentally disabled because of a botched abortion, even when abortions are illegal and conservatives hold power absolutely in a society.

      This liberal argument simply can’t faze a conservative. I assume that most conservatives think that such arguments are just liberal rhetoric. Any fact that disagrees with their view is liberal rhetoric. The conservative worldview is so powerful because it allows one to dismiss any fact for no fact is ever perceived as having moral authority over a collective belief. It is almost impossible to have a rational discussion with a right-winger (and, in many cases, even with the average conservative) for the very standard of rationality in this sense is a liberal standard.

      It’s not that conservatives and right-wingers never can be rational. It’s just that they never can be rational about any issue that involves one of their fundamental beliefs. It’s also not that liberals don’t have fundamental beliefs. It’s just that liberals hold onto beliefs less tightly.

      As research shows, this distinction I’m making is at least true for political issues. I would point out that such issues are politicized for the very reason they are perceived as moral issues and they are perceived as moral for the reason they touch upon fundamental beliefs. Politics can never escape this moral mire and hence politics forever is a game that conservatives almost always dominate, at least in terms of symbolic rhetoric.

      Fortunately, liberals are able to dominate in another way. Where conservatives dominate with negative emotions, liberals dominate with positive emotions. The only way conservative issues become interesting is through portraying them as some grand conflict such as the collapse of civilization, a conspiracy to destroy white culture, war of good and evil, etc. Such negative emotions get tiresome after awhile. Liberals have the advantage of being able to influence people on a more mundane level.

      Liberalism, for this reason, dominates the entertainment media. It’s not that liberals are conspiring to control the entertainment media. They are just better at it. Conservatism might sell politics and wars, but liberalism sells products. That is the funny part about the conservative support of capitalism. Even the Fox channel run by the right-wing Murdoch is forced to make liberal entertainment because that is what makes money.

    • “But the lack of interest in a topic is often not an outright rejection. More broadly, I see lack of interest as an important, undervalued factor on both sides.”

      It’s because of this that I’m more of a left-winger than a liberal. I sympathize with liberals because I’m liberal-minded. From my perspective, their hearts are in the right place. Sadly, though, too many liberals are clueless as conservatives. It’s true that liberals are less misinformed than conservatives about political issues, but that isn’t to say the average liberal is all that informed, especially not about issues that left-wingers would consider important.

      “Many conservatives aren’t interested in campaign reform to the same extent as liberals, despite its potential usefulness to their causes, because it’s tangential to the symbolism that guides them currently (some, of course, are against it because of mistrust of the masses, but I think they are a minority). Liberals are less interested in the power of supporting the nuclear family, or religion, despite the statistical usefulness of such support, because they view these causes as tangential, or maybe vaguely in opposition to liberal values.”

      I think you have to differentiate the average conservative and liberal from the political elites who call themselves or are designated by others as conservative or liberal. The average conservative probably doesn’t mistrust the masses, but the conservative leadership and conservative activists do mistrust the masses. The average liberal probably does support the nuclear family and religion, but the liberal leadership and liberal activists don’t.

      Even though I know plenty of moderate conservatives and I know plenty of religious liberals, you wouldn’t know that from watching the mainstream news. There is a vast disconnect between the average American and the elite, whether the elite in politics or the elite in the media.

      “I see the portions of the spectrum where there is little interest on the other sides as particularly rich areas for improvement, for creative framing to improve society.”

      To go back to my previous point, it seems to me that there is plenty of interest on both sides. The problem is that we have a political system that isn’t very democratic in that it disenfranchises and/or dispirits the average American who lacks the power and resources to influence through money, lobbying and media.

      If your curious about what most Americans value and believe in, what most Americans seek from their government and from society in general, then check out a very long post of mine where I analyzed a ton of data:

      https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2010/01/23/us-demographics-increasing-progressivism/

  3. The other point about your article that strikes me is your speculation that the problems are ‘less abstract’ now, which I read as ‘worse’. My own take on that is related to that degradation of religious interest you highlighted: there is a circling-the-wagons effect that has been going on in conservatism for about 40 years now, as liberalism’s inroads against sacred conservative values are inexorably successful. The environmental interdependence of modern life, defaulting to secularism, the rise of government as a percentage of GNP, the information flattening, career transience, odd family structures, and globalism are all very alarming for almost all conservatives. Conservatives are being forced into a bit of a panic mode as things go against them, and their unshakable symbolic emphasis has no out other than to protest more and more vociferously, and to, here and there, become quite illogical in the service of their truths. Seen in this light, the radicalization of conservative politics makes eminent sense to me, as does the continued support by large numbers of Americans: we are, by virtue of our geography, natural resources and history, privileged to be iconoclastic and isolationist- capable of mentally staving off the uncomfortable implications of these changes much longer than anyone else in the world. We mourn the inconvenience of these changes, the loss of the independent pioneer archetype, to the point where we simply refuse to allow it. No mere fact can assail, for instance, the fundamental need to not be interdependent climatically.

    In a mature conservatism- a Burkean vision, say- wrenching change is eventually accommodated, though the short- and medium-term injustices may be horrendous to a liberal. We will not see that view embraced by conservatives for a long time in this country. I recall the most-definitely right-wing blogger Frum (arguably Burkean) saying that he was recently voted the second most hated public persona in a survey on a right-wing site. That makes eminent sense, in this light: he is a traitor to symbolism’s primacy, another apologist for ideas it’s still possible to reject, all while claiming to wear the robes of conservatism.

    • “as liberalism’s inroads against sacred conservative values are inexorably successful. The environmental interdependence of modern life, defaulting to secularism, the rise of government as a percentage of GNP, the information flattening, career transience, odd family structures, and globalism are all very alarming for almost all conservatives.”

      I think it is a lot more complicated than that.

      Liberals are ‘winning’ in some cultural ways by way of having a more attractive vision for the entertainment business and for consumerist advertising, but this is a very shallow influence and not absolute. A lot of the media has been obsessed with the conservative worldview of conspiracy and war. For example, the noir vision of the recent Batman movies is pure conservatism and is one of the most compelling portrayals of American society.

      Certainly, liberals aren’t ‘winning’ politically, maybe holding some of the ground won in the past such as weakly protected abortion rights but not making any new victories. Obama’s health insurance bill was primarily just a giveaway to the insurance companies. Most Americans wanted either single payer or public option, but neither of those were considered. The actual bill passed with its mandate was originally a Republican proposal from the 1990s. Because of conservative victories: the plutocratic elite can give endless cash to campaigns, corporations are considered legal persons, tax cuts for the rich can’t be touched, already in place regulations can’t be enforced, bailouts to banks has become the status quo, growing poverty and economic inequality, war on drugs, war on poverty, war on terror, growing military-industrial complex and growing prison-industrial complex, etc. This isn’t liberal politics, rather right-wing corporatist politics.

      It seems that liberals are misunderstood in America. Most American liberals, like most Americans in general, are to varying degrees religious and so don’t want to default to secularism. They just don’t want to default to religion, or rather don’t want the government to default to religious authority and certainly don’t want the theocracy that some right-wing fundies want. Also, most American liberals don’t support or at least don’t go out of their way to promote the rise of government as a percentage of GNP, career transience, odd family structures, and globalism. Some of the biggest critics of particularly many of these issues are found on the left, anarchism and socialism having a long shared history.

      All that I know is that liberals are some of the least happy Americans. The more ‘mainstream’ upper middle class liberals may be happy, but as a demogrpahic they aren’t particularly liberal, certainly neither progressive nor leftist, more just defenders of the status quo and the status quo isn’t extremely liberal considering the average ‘conservative’ American is more liberal than the mainstream media and mainstream politics.

      “Conservatives are being forced into a bit of a panic mode as things go against them, and their unshakable symbolic emphasis has no out other than to protest more and more vociferously, and to, here and there, become quite illogical in the service of their truths.”

      What conservatives are in a panic about is change itself but not any specific change, per se. The growing empowerment of corporations and capitalism should make them happy, but it doesn’t. Conservatives don’t know what they want. All the know is that they fear change and fear anything that is new, unusual or different.

      So, it isn’t about the change being liberal. The reason why liberals are less vocal is simply that liberals are better adapted psychologically to deal with change. Even though they don’t particularly like the changes happening, liberals are more optimistic by nature and are less afraid of the future.

    • “In a mature conservatism- a Burkean vision, say- wrenching change is eventually accommodated, though the short- and medium-term injustices may be horrendous to a liberal.”

      I know the claims of a different kind of conservatism. Of course, conservatives are all the time going on about some mythical “true conservatism”. I used to and still sometimes refer to a traditional conservatism which might have some similarities to the Burkean vision. More recently, I’ve increasingly questioned the idea that there is some other version of conservatism:

      https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2011/10/12/conservatism-the-reactionary-mind-some-thoughts/

      Corey Robins discusses Burke in terms of modern American conservatism. He sees a lot more similarity than dissimilarity. I’m not entirely decided, but he makes a very strong argument in his book.

      I do think there are some conservatives who are more moderate. Such people probably just have lower levels of the psychological predispositions that lead to conservative-mindedness, and with most personality traits the average person isn’t found at the extremes of the spectrum. Some of the more moderate Republicans of the past often highly praised liberalism and so the idea of an earlier moderate conservatism is questionable. It’s just that the Republican Party used to be a mix of conservative and liberal tendencies. So, I sometimes suspect the only way you create a moderate conservatism is by adding liberalism to it or at least by adding liberal-mindedness to it.

      “We will not see that view embraced by conservatives for a long time in this country. I recall the most-definitely right-wing blogger Frum (arguably Burkean) saying that he was recently voted the second most hated public persona in a survey on a right-wing site. That makes eminent sense, in this light: he is a traitor to symbolism’s primacy, another apologist for ideas it’s still possible to reject, all while claiming to wear the robes of conservatism.”

      It’s confusing. I’m not always sure the relationship between conservatism and conservative-mindedness. What goes for conservatism these days has a lot of RWA and SDO added to it (Right-Wing Authoritarianism and Social Dominance Orientation). The more moderate conservatives I’ve personally known have been rather liberal-minded on many issues. The labels people identify with can be rather arbirtray at times.

      I could certainly deal with the more liberal-minded conservatism of someone like Frum. If that is Burkean, then I support the conservative movement in becoming more Burkean.

      • >Certainly, liberals aren’t ‘winning’ politically

        Very late with this, sorry. Thanks for the responses. Have been bothered that my below:

        “as liberalism’s inroads against sacred conservative values are inexorably successful. The environmental interdependence of modern life, defaulting to secularism, the rise of government as a percentage of GNP, the information flattening, career transience, odd family structures, and globalism are all very alarming for almost all conservatives.”

        seemed to be misinterpreted. I was partial in my explanation, and will try again.

        The above list of uncomfortable changes are topics that liberals are much better prepared to address. Not just because we handle change with less fear, but also because these various wrenching changes to modern life are occurring in line with our world view. Conservatives, on the other hand, are having to admit for the first time historically that the very basic liberal emphasis on interdependency and inter-relatedness is being proven to be the primary principle of our age, both within America and in a globalism sense. I see increased polarization and some of the more silly reactionary stances we see now, like embracing drastic inequality as an inherent good, as a strong psychological compensation, a denial of that inexorable, historical change we’re all a part of. The individualist/pioneer/isolationist/iconoclastic impetus, that key part of the American experience and world view, is embedded deeply in the conservative mindset. That vision is being upended in very basic ways as the middle class erodes, our various imperialistic wars don’t work out, our jobs are being passed on to lower bidders and/or higher quality workers by our own conservative businesses, and environmentalism a la the EPA, and regulation in general, have had to become more of a given.

        As this interdependency becomes more and more inherent, we will continue to have a hearkening back to a reality that was quite believable even 30 years ago (Reagan era), and certainly 50 years ago (Kennedy/Eisenhower), a vision in which American ingenuity and economic primacy allows us the same miraculous, wealth-driven isolation/imperialism and independence we saw after WWII. Using this relatively recent past as a reference permits various fantasies to be seen as reasonable that deny interdependence. There’s a patriotism to that kind of loyalty to the Marlboro man vision. To give up on it merely because of facts is to acquiesce to an unamerican weakness and leveling across mankind, which is an unacceptable abandonment of vision,

        You seemed to think I was saying that liberals are ‘winning’ politically, but that’s not my point at all. Winning for both is an ebb and flow, as a center of sorts floats around to accommodate societal tensions. I’m trying to tease out the psychic origins of the reactionary elements that are particularly irrational, and that in some ways (Tea Party, nomination of Paul Ryan) are increasingly so. I’m contending that the intensity of reactionary political thought and its appeal to broad swaths of America is a somewhat panicked psychic reaction to the failure of their world view to accommodate very rapid, grinding, modern historical trends. Behind the strength of their reaction is a historically high level of confusion and dissonance, in brains that are designed to operate only within high levels of certainty, safety, and consistency. The two tormenting questions that are being asked within them are “How do I let go of the American Dream?”, and “What is replacing it?”. The only even somewhat psychically acceptable answers to those questions are found embedded within liberal ideals that cannot be acknowledged as containing truth. Hence the kicking against the pricks, the rage against the dying of the light.

        • I get what you’re saying. We seem to be on the same page about all of this. Here is how I’d put it.

          Liberals are simultaneously both winning and losing. Liberals have lost power in Washington as the corporations have gained power in Washington. So, in this sense, liberals are losing many key political battles. On the other hand, polls show liberals are winning the hearts and minds of The American public, conservatives included. In the long run, winning hearts and minds is more important. Liberals may be losing battles, but they are winning the war.

          I actually have a lot of sympathy for conservatives. I think it ultimately is more difficult being a conservative than a liberal. Conservatives face the simple problem that they can’t stop the progress of civilization and so they are constantly finding themselves on the wrong side of history.

          My sympathy has a personal component as well. My parents are conservatives. Like many other conservatives, they try to be good people. They aren’t naturally inclined to extremism, but this past decade has radicalized them. And this makes them profoundly unhappy.

          I think you are correct that this a reactionary response. They are defensive and frustrated because they know they are losing ground and they know they can do nothing to stop it. This plays into the polarization and it brings out the worst in conservatives. It makes them act cold-hearted and vicious. They are like a cornered animal and should be treated a such.

          However, I’ve noticed the harsh reaction is already beginning to soften. Even a cornered animal stops fighting after a while, especially omce it realizes no one is trying to hurt it. Conservatives realize the fear response can be empowering, but eventually it becomes too draining. Conservatives end up defeating themselves with their own fear-mongering.

          I can see how this combative attitude is beginning to tire my parents. Righteous anger becomes dispiriting. Even conservatives ultimately want to contribute to a better future, instead of complaining all the time.

          There is an awakening happening right now within the conservative movement. Many of their central beliefs have proven false or been severely challenged. This has shaken many conservatives down to their core. Conservatives don’t like rethinking their own beliefs, but they’re coming to realize that this is unavoidable.

  4. I was just now thinking about a particular weakness within the conservative movement. I suspect it is based on a division with within the conservative psyche. This leads to an inconsistency in their thinking and behavior.

    Two basic aspects to conservatism is moral absolutism and pragmatic relativism. It is because of their moral absolutism that they love wars of ideology, earlier against godless communism and now against Islamic terrorism. However, in the name of their ideological wars, they embrace pragmatic relativism in their realpolitik tactics. As a different example, conservatives support free trade with communist China, but since the Chinese people aren’t free there can’t be free trade by definition. The realpolitik policy undermines the moral justification.

    Liberals are less comfortable with such realpolitik which is ironic since hey get accused of moral relativism. Methinks conservatives are projecting in making such an accusation. It is because conservatives are so morally absolutist in their rhetoric that their actions so rarely coincide witht their principles. No one can live up to such moral absolutism, not even the most diehard right-wingers.

    This issue of realpolitik explains an important difference. Conservatives embrace realpolitik and so are good at winning political battles. Liberals are wary of realpolitik and so are less talented at winning political battles. However, it is realpolitik that causes conservatives to lose touch with their own moral vision and so eventually they find themselves not able to as easily connect to the average citizen.

    I’m always reminded of how conservatives, in particular in the Bush administration, dismissed liberals and journalists as being a part of the reality-based community. Conservatives don’t submit to reality. They create reality. This is the essence of realpolitik conservatism.

    This became clear to me again listening to the radio last night. There was a discussion panel on NPR that included a spectrum of guests, including a hardcore Republican loyalist who worked for some organization or another. At one point, this Republican was defending the party platform by arguing it represented the average American. He was being very emphatic and was obviously trapped within a reality tunnel of talking points. Listening to him, I got the sense that he was trying harder to convince himself that the American public agreed with him than to convince the American people that they should agree with him.

    That relates to the same realpolitik attitude. There is this notion that belief, if held strongly enough, will become reality. Conservatives think the best way to persuade people is to always act confidently certain, righteous even, and never admit a moment of doubt. To a liberal, however, the ability to doubt oneself is the very sign of morality. These are two entirely opposing worldviews.

    • I was wondering what was the thread of my thought. I see a connection that I was making without fully realizing the connection.

      The moral absolutism of conservatives directly ties into their symbolic conflation. Moral absolutism has no pragmatic application and so is purely symbolic, but it is through the symbolic conflation that the conservative seeks to create reality.

      The realpolitik is just the ugly side of this process.

      • Yes- agreed. Realpolitik is justified easily through symbolic conflation. And that moral absolutism has no pragmatic application is also technically true I think, though that fact would be quite lost on most of us engaged in strong beliefs.

    • Yes, we seem on the same page in general. It’s nice to discuss this with someone who has interacted a lot with close conservatives, and who lives among them.

      I think your above regarding moral absolutism and pragmatic relativism is very astute. I find it helpful. The example with communist China plays into another dimension of the issue as well, that is, the larger difference between the ingroup and outgroups: pragmatic relativism is made easier if one’s moral outlook is focused on the safety and success of one’s ingroup.

      A less nice way of saying it is that there’s a greater predilection toward allowing an end to justify the means on the right. I do believe this is true because of the genetic and socially-generated biases created when we desire relatively strongly to eliminate uncertainty and dissonance. Of course, the left is full of such behavior as well, particularly within politics itself, so it’s quite easy to obfuscate our own sin- and it’s a complicated subject.

      ———–

      I do think it’s a bit of an overstatement to say that the ability to doubt ourselves is a key consideration for liberals: in that sense, I experience us instead as essentially merely less conservative- less obsessed with safety/consistency/certainty, and so less prone to the same tendency. There is a fashionable appearance of openness we crave and expect among ourselves, yes; but even that is usually a kind of cafeteria-style interest in different liberal issues, a dillettante-like approach to openness, one that doesn’t touch conservative ideas. Conservative concepts are viewed as off limits often; we give ourselves a giant waiver on openness when it comes to their ideas, them being evil and stupid and all.

      Maybe I’m pessimistic, maybe I’m experienced, maybe I’m Californian, but I can’t see us as truly open the way you stated. Had to say something.

      Thanks for the good thoughts. -S.

      • It is kind of odd that I perceive myself as liberal-minded and yet spend so much time thinking about how conservatives think. I suppose it makes sense to some extent considering I was raised by conservatives. It’s not like I’m obsessing over something foreign to me.

        It is rather a personal issue for me. I inherted aspects of my cognitive style from my parents. And it was my dad who taught me to think intellectually.

        It makes me wonder how my parents could have turned out differently under different circumstances. Or for that matter, how I could’ve turned out differently.

        When I was a kid, my parents were going through a liberal phase. They were still conservatives, but it was a less polarized time and so their conservatism was very moderate. This allowed them to be very open to liberal values and beliefs. They ended up raising me in one of the most liberal churches imaginable. So, my conservative parents are largely to blame in making me liberal-minded.

        For much of my life, I didn’t see an absolute distinction and opposition between liberalism and conservatism, at least not in their moderate forms. It wasn’t until the latter 1990s that I began to see the more extreme forms of the left and right manifesting in such things as talk radio.

        My parents did change along with the change of the times, but I changed as well. It was only when I started to politically self-educate myself in my twenties that my thinking began to diverge more fully from that of my parents. With new sources of knowledge, conservative views made less and less sense to me.

        Most interestingly, a major divergence in my thinking came with my listening to Art Bell of Coast to Coast AM and then a little bit of Alex Jones. I was initiated into the world of the right-wing and conspiracy theories. I’m not sure what kept me from becoming a right-winger. For some reason, liberal-mindedness took hold. It seems to me that I probably was liberal-minded my entire life or had the predisposition, but it took certain conditions for it to more fully manifest.

        Nonetheless, I maintain a fondness for moderate conservatism. I wish conservatives like my parents could return to a more moderate attitude. If conservatives had never become so radicalized, my liberal-mindedness may never have become differentiated from my parents’ former moderate conservatism.

      • The doubt thing is complex. There is a difference, but I wouldn’t claim absolute certainty about what the precise difference may be. Is it just a difference of degree? Or is there a more fundamental difference of kind?

        All I can do is point to the reearch. Chris Mooney describes it in his book. Basically, liberals were more willing and able to change their minds to accomodate new info about nuclear power whereas conservatives were less willing or able in regards to global warming. This seems to imply liberals were more open to accepting doubt about their own strong views. But maybe there is another explanation.

        Putting that issue aside, there is obvious a massive difference between West Coast liberals and Midwest liberals. We have different social contexts for thinking about liberalism. It is always difficult to generalize.

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