Convoluted Conservative-Mindedness

The conservative-minded are a unique species with their high conscientiousness, thick boundaries, love of orderliness, and narrow focus; weakness for authority, submission to fear, and disgust toward impurity. They have a preference for the known, certain, familiar, and acceptable; although with an odd relationship to the larger world — their literalist beliefs often set against scientific facts and their simplistic nostalgia often set against any genuine historical accounting. That is a quick summary from a biased liberal perspective, but this isn’t far from their own self-descriptions.

From a study in 1980, conservative (and presumably W.E.I.R.D.) high school students “regarded themselves as more conventional, responsible, dependable, orderly, neat, organized, successful, and ambitious.” No doubt this self-assessment is fairly accurate, as many studies have shown in comparing conservatives with liberals. The trait conscientiousness is the hinge upon which the conservative mind swings, combined with the trait openness being locked down. When considered in the fuller context, this disposition can lead to mixed results as demonstrated by the sometimes convoluted thinking of the conservative mind. If there isn’t a rule, norm, guideline, direction, law, protocol, or authority to tell them what to do and not to do, the strongly conservative-minded can become confused and frozen in inaction. Helpless as little children.

The liberal, on the other hand, gets in trouble for not simply doing what told or expected to do with very real consequences such as higher rates of addiction. Because the law says not to use an addictive drug that might be all the more reason to try drugs to find out for oneself — Nancy Reagan’s message “Just Say No” sounds like a challenge. It’s similar to why, shortly after my mother told me as a child to not stick anything in outlets, I stuck a paperclip into an outlet. It was a shocking lesson about electricity that forever emblazoned on my young psyche the wisdom of maternal authority, not that it caused my foolhardy liberal personality to be any more obedient. This might explain why I’m such a liberal loser for surely I’d be more successful in life if I just could do what I was told.

Liberals learn from experience and sometimes suffer and die from experience. But at least liberals are more likely figure it out for themselves and maybe discover something new in the process. Not helpless children, although one might see high openness and low conscientiousness as being differently abled. Anyway, it’s more fun and exciting to learn through experience. When my young nephew asked my brother if he could shove a matchbox car up his butt, I like to think my nephew was just being a good liberal trying to think outside the box. It is a valid question he asked. When you start to think about it, there are all kinds of places a matchbox car could be shoved, limited only by the openness of one’s imagination. And who knows what might happen until you try. After all, speaking of butts, as Sarah Silverman asked, how is “the next milk” supposed to be discovered?

Conservatives simply take things on faith and act accordingly. They are less likely to do illegal drugs because they are illegal. They are less likely to stick something into an outlet (or into their butt) when told not to by a parent. Such thoughts would likely never cross their minds in the first place. They will be good citizens, good workers, good Christians, good Nazis, or whatever else is upheld by social norms. High conscientious conservatives will be effective and efficient, industrious and hard-working, ambitious and successful… that is within the constraints of the social order. Outside of those constraints, though, they are lost sheep looking for the herd.

At times, there can be a refreshing directness to conservative thought. But that isn’t always the case. Because of reactionary tendencies, the conservative mind can wind around in strange machinations and rationalizations, such as seen with conservative political correctness. It’s the “Faceless Men” aspect of the reactionary mind that never can be straightforward about what it is about, and I’ve come to suspect this exists within every conservative. Even in the more moderate variety, the conservative mind can go round and round. I must admit I find it fascinating.

One doesn’t have too look at the extreme examples such as evangelicals justifying their support of Donald Trump. Let me describe a situation involving my mother, an old school conservative who is no fan of Trump. But before I get to that, let me explain exactly what is represented by her conservatism.

My mother is conventional in thought and behavior, just wanting to go along to get along. Even if there was an authoritarian takeover of the country, she wouldn’t join the freedom fighters but instead would simply keep her head down, although she might also try to do the morally right thing in small ways as long as it didn’t bring her any negative scrutiny or otherwise threaten her life and lifesyle. She means well and genuinely acts accordingly, but it simply isn’t in her to defy authority or to act foolhardy, not aspiring to be the next Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The moral acts she does such as volunteering are motivated by their being part of a system of hierarchical authority, in this case a Christian church, telling her that is what she is supposed to do. I suppose that, if she belonged to an evangelical church instead of a mainline church and if everyone she knew including the preacher supported Trump, she likely would have gotten in line to vote for Trump no matter her personal opinion. After all, she strongly defended Sarah Palin and it is a small step from that to where the GOP is now.

My father, less traditionally conservative, almost voted for Trump just to spite Hillary Clinton. What ultimately stopped him from voting Trump and so maybe stopped him from swaying my mother to follow suit was the sense of social judgment that would follow, as most of his immediate family and many of his friends, church members, etc aren’t Trump supporters — even if that imagined social judgment was limited to the confines of his own mind. They now live in this liberal college town where the conservatives here are likewise more liberal-minded. But if they had remained in the conservative Deep South and had still been attending a highly conservative church, my parents might have voted for Trump because that is what so many people around them would have been doing.

Social situation means everything to the conservative sensibility, in their sensitivity to social pressure and persuasion. My parents achingly long to fit in, to belong, to be accepted, to conform. Because of this, they are highly malleable in their views, depending on the community they happen to be living in at any given period of their lives. When younger, they became surrounded by liberals and went through an extreme liberal phase (my father claims my mother used to be pro-life). This left a permanent imprint on their children, my brothers and I who span from liberal to left-wing, not having changed over our lifetimes. Yet my parents’ have swung back and forth from outwardly conservative to outwardly liberal, as their social group shifted. This happened multiple times for my parents as they moved to diverse kinds of communities.

That is perfectly normal behavior for the conservative-minded. If my parents had spent their entire lives in a liberal community, in submitting to local social order and conforming to the local social norms, they simply would have always identified as liberal and would have never known otherwise. I suspect many self-identified liberals (along with many self-identified ‘centrists’ and ‘moderates’), specifically partisan Clinton Democrats, would measure higher on conscientiousness and lower on openness (as compared to voters who are independents, third partiers, left-liberals, progressives, etc), which is how the Democrats have become the new conservative party since the GOP went full hog reactionary right-wing. Conservative-mindedness, like many psychological tendencies, is relative and context-dependent, existing as it does along a spectrum within a particular place and time. No one, however low they might measure, is entirely lacking in conscientiousness (or openness) without being severely dysfunctional. That is how most traits operate, in serving some necessary or useful function, typically being problematic only at the extremes of either end.

With that wordy introduction out of the way, let me get to the recent situation with my mother (for background, see two earlier examples: here & here). It really amused me because it was one of those moments I could see the gears moving in her conservative mind.

The context at present is this liberal college town where recycling for many liberals might be genuine environmental concern or might be mere virtue signalling but for my parents it is simply an act of conforming to local social standards. All of their neighbors weekly put out their recycling bins along the street and my parents might be embarrassed to be the only people in the neighborhood to not do so. Recycling is what good liberals do in a good liberal town and, to that extent, my parents play the locally expected social role of the good liberal. It’s the conservative-minded thing to do. But at times the socially expected behavior isn’t entirely clear, making the conservative uncomfortable and distressed.

The city government picks up some recyclable material but not all. Since Iowa has a five cent refund on cans, my parents collect those in separate bags to take back to the store. This past week, they took the cans with them when they went shopping. For some reason, the machine that takes returns wouldn’t take a certain brand and my mother couldn’t find on the label where it showed they have a refund value. This really bothered my mother and she didn’t know what to do. It didn’t seem so complicated to me. I honestly don’t care about the refund and, after all, they were mostly my cans that I paid for. I gave mother some suggestions, such as putting them by a dumpster and letting a homeless person take care of it, but she said that it was illegal to put things in a dumpster that isn’t yours. That is true and yet, to my liberal mind, irrelevant.

Here was this situation where the normal rules, processes, and laws didn’t allow a straightforward course of action. So, my mom brought the cans home and fretted over the situation. She was about ready to throw them in the trash because, to her conservative mind, that would be a more appropriate response than the less conventional options I suggested. I eventually solved the problem for her in a way that isn’t relevant for my telling this anecdote. The solution wasn’t complicated and the cans got recycled.

How my mother and I perceived this situation had everything to do with conservative-mindedness versus liberal-mindedness. The reason my mother has never stuck anything inappropriate in an outlet or in her butt, as far as I know, is the same reason she couldn’t resolve this seemingly minor conflict. To her conservative mind, this was about appropriate behavior and there were no guidelines to follow. But to my liberal mind, the possible options were multitudinous. I’ll worry about what is illegal when there is good reason to worry such as a cop driving by, no different than my only having been concerned about what happens by sticking something into an outlet after I got shocked.

There can be a simplicity about liberal-mindedness, not that it always lead to happy and beneficial results, as I can attest. In comparison, the obsessive and excessive worrying of conservatives can seem perplexing, at least to the liberal, but it makes perfect sense to the conservative mind.

Live and Let Live, Until I Die

There are positives and negatives to about everything, but it goes without saying that not all things are equal. This is particularly true when certain things are combined which can lead to results that are a real doozy.

Some examples of factors came to mind.

I first thought of pain thresholds. I have a very high pain threshold. I once stabbed a knife several inches into my leg and didn’t even flinch. The downside of having a high pain threshold is that, according to research, it tends to lead to on average shorter lives. This means not easily feeling discomfort or else more easily ignoring discomfort. Because of this, such a person may not shift their body when they should during sleep and may not pay attention to pains that are indicative of health problems. They can cause harm or let harm happen before they are forced to notice.

That is how I am to some extent, but so far no great harm has beset me. It is extremely rare that I get sick and usually not for very long. I also tend to heal quickly from injuries and wounds. I have an impressive immune system which I suspect comes from playing in filthy creeks and never cleaning cuts as a child. I’ve been lucky with health. I’m a tough fool that is hard to kill.

This seems related to conscientiousness. People who measure high on this trait, according to research, tend to live long lives because they do all the right things society tells them to do. They are the good citizens, the good workers and the good Nazis of the world. I’m low on conscientiousness. I’m a go with the flow kind of guy, wherever the flow takes me. I’ve tried fighting my own nature, but swimming against one’s own current sure can be tiring.

Now top all of this with a fine sauce of depression and sprinkle it with social anxiety. Then slather on introversion and serve it with a large side of easygoing liberal-mindedness.

That is just the way I am. I don’t know how to be otherwise, not for the lack of trying. So, I’ve come to accept it or be resigned to it. There are worse ways to go about life. As Popeye the sailor man once wisely opined, I yam what I yam.

All in all, I’m not what would be called pro-active. If anything, I spend much of my time somewhere between apathetic and fatalistic, held together with a Stoic attitude and a dark sense of humor. I probably won’t live a long life, but while I last I will be blessed with an independent-minded nature.

Live and let live, until I die.

Conservative-Minded Authoritarianism & Liberal-Minded Anarchism

Someone once made the argument to me that there was a particular bias in social science research. The argument was based on the anecdotal evidence of the research this person had come across I suppose by way of what was reported in the media and maybe the blogosphere. His observation was that researchers had focused their studies more on conservatism than liberalism.

It would be surprising if there weren’t any biases such as this or something similar. More social scientists and scientists in geneal identify as liberals than as conservatives (and I’m sure that even the conservatives in this field are relatively liberal-minded). It does make sense that liberals and the liberal-minded would be greatly curious about those so different from their own attitude and worldview, especially considering that liberal-mindedness strongly correlates to open-minded curiosity.

Nonetheless, I doubt that curiosity is a zero sum game. A curious-minded person would probably be just as interested in liberalism as conservatism. Besides, most research I’ve seen in this area tends to simultaneously test for both sides of the political spectrum. I suspect it is rare research that would only study conservatism while entirely ignoring liberalism.

The bias I might see along these lines is more in the media reporting. The right-wing has caught the public imagination since the homegrown right-wing terrorism made itself violently known in the 1990s and especially since 9/11 brought the foreign right-wing terrorism to the attention of Americans. During the Cold War, the media focused on left-wingers while ignoring right-wingers. But the Cold War has been over for more than two decades now. With fundamentalist terrorism, Americans are learning new respect for Godlessness, despite its former association with the Communist Threat.

There is a more direct bias that is pertinent to the original hypothesis. Ever since the world wars, social scientists have been obsessed with authoritarianism. That was the era when right-wing fascism came to power. Many people escaped fascism by coming to America. The social scientists among these refugees were quite intently focused on understanding right-wing authoritarianism in the hopes of preventing its return.

There is good reason that authoritarianism has become associated with the right-wing and from there associated with conservatism. Indeed, there is a correlation in the American population between these three. The question is whether this correlation implies a causal link or is it merely an issue of historical conditions. At least for decades now, conservatism has attracted right-wing authoritarians into its ranks, seemingly as an intentional seeking of alliances by movement conservatives and GOP strategists, whether or not they fully appreciated the psychological profile of their allies. Some (e.g., Corey Robin) theorize that this is more than a temporary and circumstantial connection.

Here is the key point for me.

An authoritarian type can be either right-wing or left-wing; the reason for this is because right-wing and left-wing are more about ideology (and rhetoric) than psychology. An authoritarian type can be a conservative or anyone who is conservative-minded, the commonality of social conservatism being a reason political alliance are so easy to form. An authoritarian can even be a liberal, just as long as they are fairly conservative-minded or not too strongly liberal-minded in all ways. I’m fairly sure the one thing an authoritarian can’t be is liberal-minded, pretty much by the very definition of liberal-minded traits (which have a strong correlation to liberalism itself)

This is where its important to clarify a point. Liberalism correlates to liberal-mindedness and conservatism correlates to conservative-mindedness. However, there are still a significant number of conservative-minded liberals (and left-wingers) along with liberal-minded conservatives (and right-wingers).

Another clarification needs to be made. Fascist statists are right-wingers and communist statists are left-wingers. This is a distinction of ideology (specifically economic ideology), but there is no clear distinction when it comes to their personalities. Both kinds of radical ideologues tend to be authoritarian and, more significantly, conservative-minded. When looking at authoritarian states, including communism, the thing that stands out to me is they are against all forms of social liberalism and liberal-mindedness (and all that leans in that direction or is conducive towards it): social democracy, multiculturalism, feminism, gay rights, free speech, free press, free intellectual inquiry, free artistic expression, freedom to assemble and protest, etc etc.

This points toward the knot of confusion and so we can now disentangle the most interesting strand of bias. With my explanation so far, I hope it is beginning to be clarified why mainstream notions of liberalism aren’t an equivalent category to mainstream notions of conservatism. To nail it down, let me offer a little refresher on traits theory.

Traits exist on a spectrum with most people being closer to the midpoint than to the extremes. The typical person has some range of comfort and ability that might include to some extent both sides of the spectrum, although there will tend to be a natural resting point that an individual returns to. The extreme cases remain important for they demonstrate traits in their purest form.

Two separate traits correlate to liberalism and conservatism. Respectively, they are Openness and Conscientiousness. They are completely separate traits and so how an individual tests on one measure has no effect on how they test on the other. This can create the not unusual situation of a person measuring high on both the liberal-minded trait and the conservative-minded trait or else low on both.

I propose this as an explanation for why liberal-mindedness hasn’t been studied as fully. Most scientists, academics, college students, activists, politicians, journalists and reporters who identify as liberal probably don’t measure extremely high on Openness while also measuring low on Conscientiousness. It is true that most self-identified liberals measure relatively higher on the liberal-minded trait of Openness, but those who are highly motivated and self-disciplined enough to go to college, pursue politics and/or succeed in a professional career wouldn’t measure low on the conservative-minded trait of Conscientiousness.

Based on this, one would assume that, in respectable mainstream society, there would be a disproportionately small percentage of extreme liberals or even just people who are consistently liberal across all traits. This is predictable based on how Conscientiosness is described in the research literature. Conscientiousness is the single greatest indicator of social success (i.e., success by other people’s standards and according to the status quo). This would explain why professionally established and economically successful artists tend to have higher ratings on Conscientiousness, despite this conservative-minded trait being low among art students. I would speculate that there is a connection to why the most innovative and genius (i.e., unconventional) artists often remain poor and unknown in their own lifetimes.

In an outwardly success-oriented society, conservative-minded conscientiousness is given central priority. However, at the same time, it makes for a bias in all aspects of such a society, including research on psychological traits:

http://www.siop.org/tip/backissues/tipoct98/4collins.aspx

“Let it not be misunderstood, conscientiousness is recognizably an important predictor of performance and many other organizational outcomes (e.g., Barrick & Mount, 1991; Ones & Viswesvaran, 1996). But is it possible that this continued and concentrated focus on the validity of conscientiousness may overshadow other perhaps stronger personality predictors of job performance? Could it be that a plateau has been reached, and the time has come to move beyond conscientiousness in search of other predictor discoveries?”

Those who are extremely liberal-minded tend to have lots of social issues. Along with lacking success-orientation, they tend to be less healthy and more prone to becoming criminals (i.e., breaking laws and generally not being obedient and subservient). However, there being seen as criminals by society is the very same reason they are less likely to commit immoral acts that are the norm for a society or demanded by authority figures. So, high conscientious conservative-minded types are more likely to do horrific things and be successful at it, just as long as it meets standards of social approval. High conscientiousness, for example, will lead one to make sure the trains run efficiently in order to bring the enemies of the state to the concentration camps.

This is what irritates me. The conservative-minded project onto the liberal-minded their own conservative-minded predilections. The strongly liberal-minded will never make for good authoritarians. They may be losers who are alcoholics, drug addicts, criminals, sexual deviants, etc. They may even be terrorists of the anarchistic variety. But they won’t be authoritarians or not very successful authoritarians.

The anarchism angle is what intrigues me most of all. That seems like the polar opposite of authoritarianism. Even conservatives seem to understand that. More than the over orderliness and oppression of authoritarians, what conservatives fear more than anything from liberals is that they will undermine conservative order by undermining moral authority and social hierarchy. Liberals will only ever be authoritarians to the degree they are or become conservative-minded.

I wish liberals would be criticized for their actual faults and weaknesses, instead of being blamed for what goes against their own nature. And to return to the original point of this post, I don’t know about researchers who are self-identified liberals, but I think it unfair to blame their supposed liberal-mindedness for their heavy focus on conservative-mindedness, assuming such a biased focus even exists. If anything, the conservative-mindedness (relatively higher conscientiousness) should be blamed for their having ignored the fullest and most extreme expressions of liberal-mindedness.

We’ve already had decades of extensive research on authoritarianism. Let us check out the polar opposite side of things. Definitely, I’d like to see some insightful research on anarchism.

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/per.795/abstract

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Honesty-Humility_Facet_of_the_HEXACO_Model_of_Personality

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0191886910001182

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0191886911005046

http://www.psycontent.com/content/r86104550w030g0l/

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/per.845/abstract?deniedAccessCustomisedMessage=&userIsAuthenticated=false

http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00224540903365364#.UY1v4Eqd6So

http://www2.uni-jena.de/svw/igc/SS_09/workshop%20Duckitt/supplementary%20readings/Duckitt%20&%20Sibley%20submitted.pdf

http://psycnet.apa.org/index.cfm?fa=buy.optionToBuy&id=2012-19403-001

http://www.jasoncollins.org/2011/06/the-evolution-of-conscientiousness/

http://www.academia.edu/153692/Evaluating_Five_Factor_Theory_and_social_investment_perspectives_on_personality_trait_development

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0092656611000997

Liberalism: Weaknesses & Failures

I often criticize conservatives for their tendency toward higher rates (relative to liberals) of motivated reasoning about political issues. It’s not that conservatives are generally less rational on all issues, rather primarily on political issues. It’s not even that conservatives are less informed, rather that they are more misinformed; in fact, the average conservative is more misinformed to the degree they are more informed, a fact that frustrates me endlessly. From global warming to sex ed, it seems impossible to have a straightforward discussion of the facts.

However, when pointing this all out, I want to be absolutely clear that I’m not denying the failures of liberalism, sadly the failures of liberalism being all too apparent to my liberal-minded sensibility. It’s also become clear to me that most people, especially conservatives, don’t understand the actual weaknesses and problems of liberalism. Liberals often get blamed for the problems of conservatism partly because many conservatives don’t want to take full responsibility for their own issues and also because liberals are prone to acting like conservatives, that latter point being one of the oddest aspects of the social science research.

Before I get into more complex factors, let me point out a simple example of liberal bias. There is one particular area where liberals are most strongly prone to motivated reasoning (Chris Mooney, The Republican Brain, Kindle Locations 6130-6132):

“In fact, although many of the psychology studies that I’ve surveyed seem to capture conservatives engaging in more intense motivated reasoning, liberals have been caught in the act too. I’ve shown that the best predictor of liberal bias, in a controlled motivated reasoning experiment, seems to be egalitarianism—e.g., liberals tend to be biased in favor of disadvantaged groups.”

Altemeyer has research showing authoritarians have higher rates of both social conservatism and hypocrisy. Some research confirms this and other research questions it. Part of the confusion might relate to the differences between hypocrisy and other types of biases. Are liberals also prone to their own version of hypocrisy? If so, how?

It is clear that liberals have biases they are prone to, but it isn’t clear that liberals are as predisposed to hypocrisy. It depends on how it is defined. Authoritarians are hypocritical in that they don’t apply the same standards to all people, and this makes perfect sense as authoritarians use criticism to defend their in-group which has nothing to do with the ideal of fairness. Authoritarians treat people differently when they should treat them the same. Liberals, however, have the opposite problem. Liberals treat people the same even when they maybe should treat people differently. Also, liberals in striving for an egalitarian balance of fairness can end up tipping the scale in the opposite direction. In this case, liberals could be judged as hypocritical in failing to achieve their own standard, instead just creating a different state of inegalitarian unfairness.

A real world result of this liberal failure can be found in affirmative action, what conservatives consider ‘reverse racism’. Going by liberal’s own standards of egalitarianism, many liberals have criticized the problems of affirmative action. What liberals criticize isn’t so much the intent as the result. If affirmative action achieved what it set out to achieve, then there would be no problem for liberals. Conservatives criticize it, instead, for its intent; but disagreeing with the intent doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with hypocrisy.

What interests me is less of how liberalism fails according to the conservative worldview and more how liberalism fails according to the very ideals, standards, and values held by liberals. There are certain attributes of liberal-mindedness that undermine liberalism. In some cases, the strengths are inseparable from the weaknesses. One strength of liberals is ‘openness’ (Jeffery J. Mondak, Personality and the Foundations of Political Behavior, Kindle Locations 1214-1221):

“Again, openness to experience partly represents the inverse of dogmatism. People high in openness to experience are not rigid in their own views nor in the expectations they hold for others. Consistent with this depiction, negative correlations have been observed between openness to experience and multiple aspects of prejudice and intolerance. In one recent study with data from the United States and Russia, low openness to experience in both nations corresponded with stigmatizing attitudes toward HIV/AIDS (McCrae et al. 2007). Similarly, other research has identified negative relationships between openness to experience and racial prejudice (Duriez and Soenens 2006; Flynn 2005) and white racial identity (Silvestri and Richardson 2001), authoritarianism (Stenner 2005) and right-wing authoritarianism (Butler 2000; Sibley and Duckitt 2008), political intolerance (Marcus et al. 1995), and homophobia (Cullen, Wright, and Alessandri 2002).”

The research on ‘openness’ fits my own sense of self. I must admit that I’m proud in being less dogmatic, rigid, prejudiced, intolerant, authoritarian, etc. Those all seem like good things to me and I suppose most people in a liberal democracy would at least agree to the merits of ‘openness’ on abstract theoretical grounds. However, liberal-mindedness is defined by other traits as well. For example, liberals measure low on ‘conscientiousness’, a trait like all traits with weaknesses and strengths, but in light of liberalism let me focus on certain strengths that conservatives have in this realm (Mondak, Kindle Locations 1232-1238):

“Unsurprisingly, strong links exist between conscientiousness and job performance. It would be rather odd, after all, for workers who are not dependable, punctual, and hardworking to be named “Employee of the Month” with any great regularity.45 In part, the positive impact of conscientiousness on work performance may reflect the impact of honesty and integrity. In an interesting laboratory study, Horn, Nelson, and Brannick (2004) show a strong correspondence between conscientiousness and honest behavior, whereas Ones, Viswesvaran, and Schmidt (1993) find that integrity is linked positively with job performance and negatively with undesirable work behaviors such as absenteeism and employee theft.”

It’s probably because of ‘conscientiousness’ that conservative values are associated with morality and liberal values with immorality or amorality. Conscientiousness will make someone be the best of whatever they value or idealize. This will make them be hardworking employees, obedient Christians, and dutiful spouses. But this will also make them efficient bureaucrats and lockstep authoritarians. On the liberal side, it is the combination of high ‘openness’ and low ‘conscientiousness’ that leads to what conservatives see as moral relativism. Liberals are flexible and open to change, and this can lead to problems with not seeing morality as black and white, thus potentially turning moral dilemmas into stumbling blocks. Conservatives would morally fail by not questioning rules and commands whereas liberals fail for constantly being in a state of doubt and questioning, plus general curiosity about what is forbidden.

It’s this combination of factors that probably makes liberals more open to alternative views and new info, hence less misinformed about political issues (liberals are maybe no less likely to either be smart or be idiots, but they are less often ‘smart idiots’ — see smart idiot effect). This probably also would be the reason behind liberals being less partisan and more willing to compromise. Liberals aren’t known for their loyalty, even to liberal ideology. Liberalism is anti-authoritarianism which means liberals have a harder time effectively organizing; as it has been described, like trying to herd cats. Liberals dislike rigid hierarchies and strict chains-of-command, dislike strong traditional authority figures. All this makes political activism a bit on the challenging side.

Compare the Tea Party movement to the Occupy movement. The Tea Party, even with in-fighting, had clear leadership take over the movement, what from the liberal perspective seemed like a coopting of grassroots activism, but it was effective. The Tea Party elected many politicians into power. The Occupy movement, on the other hand, spent as much or more time simply making sure every person’s voice was heard in an egalitarian democratic fashion. They created hand signals to ensure communication. They created a sense of true grassroots activism that wasn’t co-opted like the Tea Party. Precisely for these reasons, Occupy hasn’t become a force in Washington like the Tea Party, despite it’s mass support from the American public.

This is where the real problems begin for liberals, beyond the basic challenges of organizing. Liberals are so flexible and so willing to change that they end up being prone to undermine their own liberal nature. On the opposite end, conservatives are so much less flexible and less willing to change that they are more effective in resisting what liberalism offers. This liberal weakness and conservative strength makes liberalism an easy target of anti-liberal tactics such as emotional manipulation and propaganda, especially in terms of fear and disgust which are the foundations of the conservative predisposition and moralistic ideology. Basically, when liberals are overly stressed to the point of feeling overwhelmed, they turn into conservatives:

Political Ideology: Its Structure, Functions, and Elective Affinities
John T. Jost, Christopher M. Federico, & Jaime L. Napier

“Given that nearly everyone wants to achieve at least some degree of certainty, is it possible that conservatism possesses a natural psychological advantage over liberalism? Although answering this question is obviously fraught with challenges, several lines of research suggest that this might be the case. First, a series of experiments by Skitka et al. (2002) demonstrated that “the default attributional position is a conservative response,” insofar as both liberals and conservatives are quick to draw individualistic (rather than system-level) conclusions about the causes of poverty, unemployment, disease, and other negative outcomes, but only liberals correct their initial response, taking into account extenuating circumstances. When a distraction (or cognitive load) is introduced, making it difficult for liberals to engage in correction processes, they tend to blame individuals for their fate to the same degree that conservatives do. Skitka et al. (2002) therefore concluded, “It is much easier to get a liberal to behave like a conservative than it is to get a conservative to behave like a liberal” (p. 484; see also Kluegel & Smith 1986, Skitka 1999). Research by Crandall & Eidelman (2007) takes this general line of reasoning even further, showing that a host of everyday variables associated with increased cognitive load and/or increased need for cognitive closure, such as drinking alcohol, lead people to become more politically conservative. Both of these lines of research are consistent with the notion that conservative styles and opinions are generally simpler, more internally consistent, and less subject to ambiguity, in comparison with liberal styles and opinions (e.g., Tetlock 1983, 2007; Rokeach 1960; Tetlock 1983, 2007). A third reason to suggest that conservatism enjoys a psychological advantage over liberalism comes from research on system justification, which suggests that most people (including liberals) are motivated to adapt to and even rationalize aspects of the status quo, that is, to develop and maintain relatively favorable opinions about existing institutions and authorities and to dismiss or reject the possibility of change, especially in its more radical forms (Jost et al. 2004a). Studies show that justifying the status quo serves the palliative function of increasing positive affect, decreasing negative affect, and making people happier in general, but it also undermines support for social change and the redistribution of resources (Jost & Hunyady 2002, Napier & Jost 2008a, Wakslak et al. 2007).” [ . . . ]

“Although it is abundantly clear that processes associated with social identification, partisanship, and group interest can exert political influence in both liberal and conservative directions (e.g., Bartels 2000, Cohen 2003, Green et al. 2002), Jost et al. (2008a) speculated that—as with epistemic and existential motives—some relational motives could favor conservative outcomes in general. This is broadly consistent with the commonly held notion that conservatives are especially likely to value tradition, conformity, social order, and consensual adherence to rules, norms, and conventions (e.g., Altemeyer 1998, Conover & Feldman 1981, Feldman 2003, Haidt & Graham 2007, Jost 2006). It is also consistent with the assumption that it is generally easier to establish common ground with respect to the status quo than with respect to its many possible alternatives and to communicate effectively by transmitting messages that are relatively simple and unambiguous rather than reflecting the kind of complex, nuanced, and perhaps ambivalent cognitive and rhetorical styles that seem to be more common on the political left than the right (see Jost et al. 2008a).”

As a movement, liberalism rarely ever suffers from the condition of being too liberal for conditions have to be perfect for the liberal predisposition to fully manifest. Such perfect conditions don’t come around that often and they tend not to last very long. In moments of peace and prosperity, the general public can forget about possible threats and their emotional response becomes dampened, a contented optimism taking its place. Such a moment occurred after the Great Depression and once again after WWII, but after those brief moments conservatism ruled during the Cold War Era and into the post-9/11 Era. Liberals have at best hunkered down and at worst given their support to the conservative agenda (pushing deregulation, dismantling the welfare state, building up the military, going to war against Iraq, supporting the Patriot Act, maintaining Gitmo, empowering the executive branch, etc). Sadly, the liberal movement doesn’t make much of a worthy enemy for the conservative movement. Conservative leaders just have to say “Booh!” and liberal leaders run for cover.

One of the difficulties with liberalism is that liberal values are more dependent on higher abstract thinking while conservative values have an emotional punch that hits people in the guts. It’s because of the abstract nature of liberal values that many don’t even see them as being moral values at all or else only moral in their relation to conservative values. Conservatives are very good at political rhetoric, as Lakoff and others have noted. The results of this is that most Americans self-identify as conservatives, despite the fact that most Americans support liberal policies; both the public opinion polls and social science research support this conclusion — (another quote from the above linked Political Ideology paper):

“Since the time of the pioneering work of Free & Cantril (1967), scholars of public opinion have distinguished between symbolic and operational aspects of political ideology (Page & Shapiro 1992, Stimson 2004). According to this terminology, “symbolic” refers to general, abstract ideological labels, images, and categories, including acts of self-identification with the left or right. “Operational” ideology, by contrast, refers to more specific, concrete, issue-based opinions that may also be classified by observers as either left or right. Although this distinction may seem purely academic, evidence suggests that symbolic and operational forms of ideology do not coincide for many citizens of mass democracies. For example, Free & Cantril (1967) observed that many Americans were simultaneously “philosophical conservatives” and “operational liberals,” opposing “big government” in the abstract but supporting the individual programs comprising the New Deal welfare and regulatory state. More recent studies have obtained impressively similar results; Stimson (2004) found that more than two-thirds of American respondents who identify as symbolic conservatives are operational liberals with respect to the issues (see also Page & Shapiro 1992, Zaller 1992). However, rather than demonstrating that ideological belief systems are multidimensional in the sense of being irreducible to a single left-right continuum, these results indicate that, in the United States at least, leftist/liberal ideas are more popular when they are manifested in specific, concrete policy solutions than when they are offered as ideological abstractions. The notion that most people like to think of themselves as conservative despite the fact that they hold a number of liberal opinions on specific issues is broadly consistent with system-justification theory, which suggests that most people are motivated to look favorably upon the status quo in general and to reject major challenges to it (Jost et al. 2004a).”

This situation creates a major disadvantage for liberals. Many liberals don’t understand why it doesn’t work to rationally discuss the issues and objectively analyze the facts. Liberals haven’t yet learned (assuming they ever will learn)  how to use rhetoric as effectively as conservatives. Maybe there is something about the liberal predisposition that makes this a weakness. Maybe the intellectualizing tendencies of the ‘openness’ trait causes liberals to get stuck in abstract thinking and so they can’t really grasp gut-level symbolism. As explained by Marc J. Hetherington and Jonathan D. Weiler in their book, Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics (Kindle Locations 1275-1280):

“Many have observed over the past two decades that Democrats insist on fighting “on the issues” (Tomasky zoo4). But it is perhaps better to conceive this approach as emphasizing the programmatic dimension of issues, while Republicans have done battle on their symbolic aspects. Building on President Clinton’s record of military deployment in the 19gos, Vice President Al Gore proposed significantly larger defense budgets than did George W. Bush in their contest for the presidency in zooo. Bush notably articulated a foreign policy doctrine of restraint, including his oft-noted insistence that he was opposed to “nation-building.” But the public did not see this as evidence that the Democrats are “tough” on defense because the public was not forming judgments based on careful inspection of policy differences. Instead, it drew on symbolic understandings of the parties that had been developing over decades.”

Liberals are perceived as weak. This perception has less to do with actual policies or issues of character. Al Gore was even a veteran while George W. Bush was a draft-dodger. But none of that matters in terms of political rhetoric. Bush was seen as being strong on military simply because he had a more masculine persona whereas Al Gore seemed like a pansy intellectual. Despite the superficiality of this public perception, there is a truth behind it. On average, liberals are less decisive and conservatives more decisive. This is why liberal ‘opennesss’ is in such polar opposition to authoritarianism. As such, liberals are weak in that they aren’t domineering.

If Al Gore had been elected president, even with being strong on the military, he probably would’ve been less prone to start wars of aggression like Bush did. Bush attacking Iraq on false premises was both illegal and immoral, but nonetheless it was certainly decisive. Bush in playing the conservative role of being strong did indeed assert America’s military strength, although the wisdom of such an act is questionable… questionable that is to a liberal who would more likely stop to ask questions before acting, especially before acting out of blind rage and vengeance. A pansy intellectual veteran like Al Gore probably would have been a more wise commander-in-chief, not that the American people necessarily value wisdom all that much.

When you want action, conservatives are who you want. Conservatives will act quickly and they will follow through. This decisive strength comes from their low ‘openness’ and high ‘conscientiousness’. Sometimes that is precisely what is needed. If this past decade we had been fighting an authoritarian leader like Hitler, Bush might have made an awesome commander-in-chief. He would’ve sent in American troops to kick ass and take names. But conservatives aren’t well-equipped for less black-and-white situations as we now face where the enemy is hard to determine and even harder to find.

Still, I can’t exactly blame people for turning to conservatives for a clear sense of certainty and direction. It’s simply a fact that liberals aren’t overly talented in this department. Liberals typically do make weak leaders, especially during times of conflict and uncertainty. Obama, for example, has appeared weak because he acts weak, always begging his opponents for cooperation, always willing to compromise on every ideal he espouses and every promise he makes. The only advantage Obama has is that his pathetically weak liberal leadership is refreshing after the massive failures of the conservative style of strong leadership.

It’s this liberal weakness that makes liberalism so hard to understand. The trait ‘openness’ can lead to chameleon-like behavior. This is why it is easier for a liberal to act like a conservative than a conservative to act like a liberal. To a certain extent, when a liberal acts like a conservative for all intents and purposes he is actually being a conservative. It is confusing trying to figure out who is a liberal. I often say Obama isn’t a liberal. In terms of policies, he follows the examples of conservatives, even his health care reform is modeled after the plan developed by Republicans. Obama doesn’t even identify as a liberal and yet he is considered the figurehead of the liberal movement. However, in terms of personality, I have no doubt that Obama would measure higher on ‘openness’ than George W. Bush and lower on ‘conscientiousness’ than John McCain… and so, at least in that sense, Obama is relatively liberal-minded.

In practical terms, this chameleon-like behavior means there has probably never been a consistent application of liberal ideology at any point in history. You might say that most liberals are simply conservatives who sometimes don’t act like conservatives. The failure of liberalism, like the failure of much of the Left in general, is that it has never been fully attempted. Maybe liberalism by nature could never be entirely implemented. Liberalism is weak because it requires perfect conditions to manifest, a slight change in the weather and it wilts. Liberals talk a good game with their idealism, but the uninspiring disorganization of liberals can never compete with the authoritarian-leaning organizational skills of conservatives.

All that liberals are really good for is moderating the extremism of the Right, keeping it from going all the way over the edge to authoritarianism. This is where the misunderstanding is the greatest. Liberalism isn’t just a mirror image of conservatism, rather liberalism relates to conservatism at an angle. In terms of the Left-Right spectrum, liberalism is actually closer to the center between the extremes. It can play this moderating role because of its ability to more easily switch attitudes. Liberalism is less about a specific ideology. What liberalism does is focus on how things relate and thus playing the middle. There is a liminal quality in this, neither fully this nor that.

This is why strong ideologues, both left-wingers and right-wingers, so often strongly criticize liberalism. Liberals don’t want left-wing revolution and they don’t want right-wing counterrevolution. Liberals just want everyone to get along. This makes sense because liberals can only be themselves during times of peace and prosperity. The moment liberals feel threatened, they simply stop being liberals. The reason liberals promote such things as democracy is that they want to create a world where liberalism isn’t constantly under attack, but this ideal has never and may never come to be. The democracy we have is half-assed at best, constantly being undermined by illiberal and anti-liberal forces.

Liberalism is weak and liberals know it. Liberalism can never win through force and conservatives know it.