Our Life Among the Reactionary Right

The Left and the Right in Relationship

We find that, in our location and life circumstances, we are in contact with a variety of people across the ideological spectrum(s), along with across cultural differences. This diverse town is a major medical and research center centered around a liberal state college. The writers workshop here is the oldest of its kind. Though relatively small, the community draws people from all over the country and all over the world; and it’s situated amidst farmland, pulling in many residents and workers who grew up in rural communities and small towns as well; thus balancing out the middle class WEIRDness (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic). But our own bias is mostly that of a local yokel, if someone who at times has lived in other states and regions of the country. Most of our life has been in this town and, though without a college degree ourselves, we fit in just fine with our intellectuality, love of learning, and book obsession. All of that, of course, goes along with our liberal-mindedness.

Yet, as radically left-liberal as we might be, we were raised by conservative parents who are rightward socially, religiously, and economically, if they are somewhat moderate; and we spent our teen years in the conservative, nay right-wing authoritarian, Deep South. Even now in being surrounded by liberalism, for various reasons, we somehow end up spending much of our time talking with those on the right, some more reactionary than others: Republican partisans, fundamentalists, Tea Partiers, MAGA supporters, and alt-righters. Some are family, while others are friends and coworkers. They are a diverse bunch and so they wouldn’t agree on a number of issues, but among them there is a common disconnect that comes up again and again. It’s certainly frustrating, to a leftist, and often just plain strange and disconcerting.

We probably spend more time thinking about such people than they spend thinking about us, and so here we are. Let’s give an example. There is one guy we’ve personally known for a long time. He is an all around conservative Republican trapped in a right-wing media bubble and echo chamber. His views tend toward the conventional, though increasingly reactionary as he ages. He more or less fits the stereotypical profile of demographics and life experience that one might expect, though not relevant for our present purposes. Among our right-wing relationships and acquaintances, he is the one we talk to the most regularly and the most engagingly, for the simple reason we’re around each other a lot. So we are particularly familiar with his worldview and what motivates it. We are informed of his background and what has shaped his life.

He is smart and educated, as is the norm around here, and yet his understanding is so narrowly confined as to give him no larger perspective. Admittedly, he has physically seen more of the world than we have. Intellectually, though, he is less well traveled. Anything that disagrees with his beliefs and biases is often dismissed out of hand. Though retired from the educational field, he simply doesn’t have much curiosity outside of what he already knows or thinks he knows, and having been an expert in his field he is prone to the smart idiot effect, in believing he doesn’t have to research a topic for himself to have a relevant opinion that is to be taken seriously. When point blank given evidence that contradicts his views, he’ll typically refuse to look at it and just digs in further; the standard backfire effect that research shows is more common on the Right, and well-educated conservatives most of all (an interesting phenomenon we won’t discuss further here).

All evidence that doesn’t confirm his bias is asserted as having a liberal bias or is somehow wrong, faulty, or whatever; without any need to prove it (e.g., climatology science is false, manipulated, and corrupt because he read one right-wing book on the topic and so no further information is needed). He won’t offer counter-evidence, just assumes he is right until he is proven wrong, which is impossible to do in his own mind since he already knows he is right. How does one respond to that? Of course, when this anti-intellectualism is pointed out, he gets defensive and asserts that, as someone on the left, we’re just calling names. No, we’re not. We’d love to have a meaningful intellectual discussion with him about many topics, but his intellectual willingness in many cases is not up to match, though not for lacking general intelligence, far from it.

A Liberal Mind Amidst Right-Wing Media

If this otherwise nice fellow were merely stupid, we wouldn’t bother talking to him in the first place or at least we wouldn’t engage with him beyond casual chatter. Yet in having been bottle-fed on early Cold War propaganda, he lacks intellectual defenses against manipulative media. He tends to mindlessly repeat the rhetorical framings, narratives, and talking points he hears from right-wing media and political elites. Unlike us, his media consumption doesn’t extend very far, pretty much limited to sources that conform to the same basic set of scripts. He doesn’t have exposure to any left-wing media or even moderately liberal media, in the way we are constantly exposed to right-wing and conservative media. Part of the reason for this difference is that we have an uncontrollably driven sense of curiosity that ends up leading us all over the place, along with what we inadvertently pick up from the surrounding cultural and media milieu.

As a liberal-minded liberal, it’s hard for us to imagine not wanting to know other perspectives. Besides, even when trying to mind our own business, it’s impossible to ignore right-wing media when it’s constantly in our space, such as televisions playing in the background and newspapers laying about. Keep in mind that all corporate media has a right-wing bias, if only in terms of the capitalist realism and class war of the ownership class (i.e., the super-rich elite who own most of the corporate media that is concentrated in a few transnational corporations). Also, consider that, if you go anywhere in the United States, the most common channel to be playing in any place of business (restaurant, bar, hotel lobby, etc) is Fox News. This isn’t a right-wing country, at least not in terms of supermajority public opinion, but we are ruled by a right-wing elite, media and otherwise.

That is the thing. In our having liberal-minded thin psychic boundaries, it’s not part of our capacity to block out what is in the world around us, whether or not it would be our preference. We are hyper-attuned and sensitive like a staticky shirt picking up lint everywhere we go, the kind of cognitive tendency that comes up in studies on what distinguishes liberals and the liberal-minded. It’s an expression of high openness to experience, and it has other affects as well, in terms of the dual trait openness/intellectuality. Though we may be an extreme example in our roving curiosity, surveys show that liberals in general consume more conservative media and alternative media than do conservatives of liberal media and alternative media; partly because liberals are on average younger and spend more time on the media-diverse internet. Then again, it’s hard for a liberal to do otherwise, of any age group, as right-wing media is pervasive, while leftist media is mostly excluded from the ‘mainstream’.

Anyway, it’s just in the nature of liberals to be liberal-minded, that is to say motivated by intellectual curiosity and cognitive complexity, and so seeking out a greater variety of views and sources. One of the strengths and weaknesses of the liberal-minded personality trait openness is that the boundaries of the mind are thin and porous, that is to say the opposite of highly focused and narrowly confined. To the degree one is liberal-minded one would not be content and satisfied listening to the same set of opinions over and over, hearing talking points parroted. With wandering and sprawling minds, curiosity tends to get the better of liberals. We on the left are vulnerable to being drawn into the corporate-controlled media environment, just because we’re curious and that is mostly what is available. It takes a lot more conscious effort and intention to look for underfunded leftist media.

Let’s consider some specifics. For instance, according to audience data, a liberal is more likely to watch Fox News than a conservative is to listen to NPR, even though the former is much further right than the latter is to the left; as even NPR is mostly privately-funded (i.e., corporate-funded) and, according to one analysis, gives more airtime to right-wing think tanks (an analysis that was already biased in labeling centrist think tanks, to the right of the American public, as ‘liberal’). To find a leftist equivalent of the extremist rhetoric heard on Fox News, one would have to look even further left to alternative media, but such media territory is a complete blindspot for most conservatives, as well as for many liberals. It’s hard to imagine anyone in the United States who is not intimately aware of Fox News, what it spouts, and the effect it has. It’s strange considering most Americans, on most issues, are to the left of the political elites, including the DNC elite. Yet majoritarian left-liberal views are so silenced in ‘mainstream’ media, even supposed ‘liberal’ media, as to be treated as near non-existent.

This is part of a larger pattern of ideological divide. Similarly, someone on the left is more likely to be familiar with genetic determinism than someone on the right is to be equally familiar with epigenetics, and the same for numerous unequal disparities of knowledge: leftist knowledge of corporate capitalism versus rightist ignorance of Marxism and communism (or even ignorance of the anti-corporatist capitalism of the American founding generation), leftist knowledge of neoliberalism versus rightist ignorance of anarchosyndicalism (or any other similar variations of socioeconomic leftism), leftist knowledge of right-libertarianism versus rightist ignorance of left-libertarianism (despite left-libertarianism being the original meaning of ‘libertarianism’), leftist knowledge of fundamentalist apologetics versus rightist ignorance of pagan parallels in Abrahamic religions (the latter of which was written about by Thomas Paine, the main inspiration for the American Revolution), and endless other examples.

So, one side is always coming to the table with greater familiarity with the other side, but it is not mutual to an extreme degree. Instead of knowledge, right-wing rhetoric turns leftists into inane cartoon characters. In listening to Fox News, one lady we know is always saying how absurd and crazy is the political left, by which is typically meant the DNC elite. Indeed, if one were to mostly watch Fox News and little else, it would be hard to not be shocked by leftist politics that, as portrayed, makes absolutely no sense. But what doesn’t occur to the indoctrinated reactionary mind is that maybe it’s the media caricature, not the target of derision, that is absurd.

Getting to Know the Reactionary Right

Because of a lifetime of such a media environment, and because of being liberal-minded in our curiosity, we have become quite conversant not only with conservative ‘mainstream’ media like Fox News and The Wall Street Journal but also have gained long familiarity with more alternative stuff: Reason Magazine, Epoch Times, Imprimis, etc; along with the websites, blogs, and Youtube channels of religious apologists (e.g., Stephen J. Bedard), racists (e.g., Richard Lynn), white supremacists (e.g., Steve Sailer), genetic determinists (e.g., HBDchick), anarcho-capitalists (e.g., Stefan Molyneux ), and on and on; ad nauseum. Also outside the bounds of respectable society, we’ve listened to the likes of Alex Jones, Stephen Bannon, and Jordan Peterson long before most on the Right had even heard those names.

After seeing him in Richard Linklater’s movies in the early Aughts, it was from Alex Jones that we first learned of the concept of a false flag operation; that was when he had yet to go full Looney Tunes, if he was already teetering on the edge of sanity. As that decade ended, during the Obama administration, Stephen Bannon came out with a documentary on generations theory that we saw; and we quickly recognized it as propaganda. Our parents were watching a lot of Fox News at the time and Glenn Beck became a common presence in our life. On our own, around then or maybe earlier, we checked out the largely unknown Greg Gutfeld on his late show on Fox News, but found it boring; and now he is the new primetime comedian commentator to fill Beck’s absence. It was during that period when we first came across talk of Jordan Peterson, his not having been politicized back then and, instead, mostly known for his 1999 book Maps of Meaning. It was actually a Canadian liberal who introduced us to him; prior to his having embraced the alt-right, having become an IDW (intellectual dark web) figure, and having turned his life into political spectacle.

In the past, we used to actively seek out such interesting and intriguing, sometimes bizarre, stuff and would look into almost anything, as we felt morally obligated and intellectually compelled to understand what was going on in the world, including what was bubbling up in the reactionary mind. At times, depending on our mood, we could and still can be openly curious to almost any alternative view, if sometimes just for shits and giggles. The most extreme paranoid fantasies and rantings, in the more innocent times of decades past, could be taken as mere entertainment; because there was no mass movement and corporate media pushing them to the extent seen now, and certainly there had yet to be a Donald Trump presidency and a MAGA insurrection. Our alternative-loving mentality has had a way of leading us down strange, sometimes dark, paths; a habit we blame on our tender young psyche having been imprinted upon by Robert Anton Wilson and Art Bell; what once were gateway drugs for the curious liberal.

We don’t regret our past explorations. It made possible for us to follow all the lines of influence that eventually formed into the present deranged reactionary right, though it would’ve been hard to have predicted what it was to become in its full glory. We were right there at the beginning and it’s fascinating to think back on it. We came of age in the ’90s and viscerally felt the changes in the air. When still in high school, while down in South Carolina, we’d sometimes catch the early right-wing radio talk shows, such as Laura Schlessinger and Rush Limbaugh, along with occasionally listening to fire-and-brimstone preachers as they can be mesmerizing. Following that, we spent several summers in the Bible Belt region of North Carolina, where we worked at a Christian camp and, also while dating a local girl, got to know far right fundamentalists up close and personal.

All in all, the world of the reactionary right is not alien to us, even as it will always be something outside our own mentality. We’ve lived with it, grasped what it is, watched it develop, felt its impact in our gut, and seen what it does to others. It influenced us as well, if only in determining what we didn’t want to be. Now we’re in a different place in our life. We’ve tried to learn to be more discerning in what we put into our mental space, as we’ve found too much of the crap out there to be torturous and usually pointless, not worth wasting one’s time upon. Concern for mental health required us to stop such bad habits of wide-open curiosity, if we still prize an open mind. Nonetheless, it’s not like we can isolate ourselves. Even now, we know the exact talking points that are popular right at this moment on Fox News. We absorb it all like a sponge, all the more reason to set clear boundaries.

No Shared Knowledge, No Mutual Communication

To get back to the conservative guy we mentioned, for all the above reasons and more, we know where many on the right are getting their thoughts and ideas from, whereas few on the right have any clue about where those of us on the left are coming from. It’s a immense chasm to cross, and so it makes actual and mutual communication a rarity, but it can happen at times and that is what motivates us to reach out to the right-wingers within our personal world. Frustration aside, we do enjoy dialogue with those of other views, and that is why this particular conservative has occupied so much of our attention. When not taken in by right-wing fears, he actually is capable of nuanced thoughtfulness and so talking with him is far from a waste of time. Plus, we simply value our relationship with him on a human level; not everything is about overt ideology.

Because of our larger perspective with a broader knowledge base, we are able to sense our way into his worldview; and so we sometimes can couch our own views in the language, ideas, and frames that make sense to him. Yet he can’t return the favor, as it simply is not in his capacity. Our holding all the responsibility for translation can be tiresome. Even then, only on occasion do we successfully manage to lure him out of his reality tunnel of ideological realism and groupthink. At those times, he is able to be somewhat clear-minded and critical, if only briefly for he soon falls back into a more comfortable stance. The only reason we’ve been able to reach him at all is because the political right is fractured and the cracks offer opportunities for light to shine in, creates weak points to gain leverage and wedge open just enough before the openings snap shut again.

In contrast to his GOP partisanship, we are an equal opportunity critic of the entire two-party duopoly. This is useful in that we can get him to lower his defenses by our attacking the DNC elites, particularly the Clintonistas, of which we despise all the more as they stand in for the entire Left on corporate media spin, while in reality third way politics mostly triangulates itself between the moderate right and the corporate right, with some liberal sugar to help the poison go down. In talking to him, we can segue from such criticisms of Democrats into even harder hitting critiques of the totalizing corruption of both parties within a common power structure that dominates society. This usually works in drawing out his semi-libertarian streak, but his defenses return at the slightest hint of ideological threat. We have to be cautious in not being too provoking, and our success is spotty at best.

Still, we can often get him to agree, surprisingly, with rather leftist views (on the problems of neoliberalism, excessive CEO pay, near monopolies, externalized costs, harmful inequities, culture of trust breakdown, monied corruption, etc). That is as long as we don’t point out that we are expressing leftism. The main challenge is that, no matter what, he will always mentally still be living in the early Cold War. A McCarthyist battle against authoritarian Stalinism and in favor of authoritarian fascism will never end in his Burkean moral imagination, and no non-authoritarian third option is quite possible as a viscerally real choice, despite his being able to intellectually conceive that non-authoritarianism sounds nice as an ideal and in theory. Basically, like most on the reactionary right, he has no actual understanding of democracy or genuine concern about it. How could he when all he hears is anti-democratic rhetoric on right-wing media?

Democracy is just a word to be bandied about and, in reactionary style, defenders of democracy get caricatured as attacking ‘democracy’ (i.e., the status quo of the Establishment). Yet, since he is part of the respectable classes, he can’t admit that he is anti-democratic (i.e., right-wing authoritarian) and anti-egalitarian (i.e., social dominance orientation), if not entirely (like many Americans, he is ideologically schizoid). Such an admission would be politically incorrect, even on the political right. This is the double bind we are caught in as a society. Many individuals can’t openly declare and commit to what they actually value, believe, and uphold. Another obvious example is how racists these days deny being racists, whereas in the past they’d have been proud of their racism, to the point of open supremacism and eugenics. This goes hand in hand with the political right co-opting the label of classical liberalism, while eschewing the ugliness of classical conservatism, but eschewing it in name only.

Reaching Out to the Closed Mind

To this conservative guy, old school neocon President Joe Biden is a communist or else he is a communist puppet under the control of Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and Senator Bernie Sanders. And the corporatist Affordable Care Act (AKA Obamacare) is likewise communist, despite it increasing the wealth and power of the private oligopoly of insurance companies, and despite it having originated in a right-wing think tank and having been first implemented by the Republican Mitt Romney (it would make more sense to call it Romneycare). Everything that isn’t far right is communist, or anything that is right-wing but then adopted by the Democratic Party. And whatever you do avoid the topic of postmodern Marxism, a complete oxymoron since postmodernists and Marxists are historically bitter enemies, to such an extent that declassified records show that the CIA intentionally promoted postmodernism to combat Marxist influence. Such facts are irrelevant, though, in speaking to those on the Right.

In not knowing themselves, in refusing to know themselves, right-wing reactionaries know the other side even less and know the larger world not at all. So, lost in such darkness, they are prone to frightening nightmares, where what they project outward is cast back upon them as shadows; with all the shadow boxing that entails, wild punches being blindly thrown and haphazardly landing upon the innocent. Their only sense of the entire Left is a fantastical phantasm that would instantly dissipate in the light of self-awareness, but that would require them to lift it up into open-eyed scrutiny. How does one talk to someone on the Right when their words drop off into empty air filled with the insubstantial imaginings and frightening specters that only they can see? Yet in being part of the same society, how can we not talk to these others, how can we not attempt to reach out? After all, they are our family and friends, our neighbors and coworkers. They aren’t really other, even if that is how they perceive us or rather how the media they consume portrays us.

Erotic Fantasies of Moral Imagination

“[A]n unalterable fact about the body is linked to a place in the social order, and in both cases, to accept the link is to be caught in a kind of trap.”
 ~ Lewis Hyde

Conservative Sexual Fetishism

Conservatives, as you might’ve noticed, have always had a fetish about other people’s sex lives, an obsessive-compulsion that drives their reactionary minds like a dominatrix wielding a whip; and in the Burkean wardrobe of the moral imagination, conservatives really do like to kink it up. Particularly titillating to fantasize about is that of other people having perceived illicit sex, be it pedophilia or bestiality or simply garden-variety homosexuality (i.e., anything religiously proscribed, consensual or not, that will get you a one-way ticket to Hell). There is the irresistible allure of the taboo, and large swaths of human experience are taboo in conservative ideology. That is a lot of material to work with in scripting and staging morality porn on the inner stage of the conservative soul. So, what could otherwise be a normal, healthy, and pro-social expression of sexual freedom, in being denied, becomes distorted and demented. This perverted mentality is motivated by the same vexatious urge behind the preoccupation over other people not having sex as well, the barely submerged eroticism bursting forth like the plump bosom underneath a tightly-bound bodice on the cover of a romance novel. Even in negation, suppressed sexual energy overwhelms like being told to not think about pink elephants.

The unnatural concern in having one’s focus neurotically drawn toward others not having sex is evidenced by the popular Christian genre of virginity porn (e.g., the Twilight novels written by a conservative Mormon); the sexualized obsession with innocence that, to consider another category of culture war fantasy, also underlies right-wing conspiracy theories of pedophilia, innocence harmed and defiled. Or think about the weird phenomenon of purity rings, where a young woman’s public identity of moral purity and social worth is constructed according to the imagined non-act of avoiding vaginal penetration, whatever sexual acts she actually does or does not do secretly in her private life; it then being a question of how far can she go (kissing? groping? heavy petting? fellatio?) while maintaining this prized ‘virgin’ status that, according to belief, is ultimately determined by an omniscient, intrusive, and voyeuristic father-god who, like a peeping tom, watches his human children’s every sexual act or non-act, as the case may be, and judges it like giving an ice skating score (for humor: Garfunkel and Oates, The Loophole). Praise be! Now there is a fascinating fetish. The intensity of thwarted desire, like floodwater building behind a dam, combined with a sadomasochistic religiosity; that could become immensely intoxicating.

It’s amusing that Edmund Burke made famous the conservative-style moral imagination in his lurid portrayal of a wild mob, seemingly with lecherous and lascivious intentions, having violently ripped away the French queen’s delicate underclothing; presumably revealing her tender flesh and womanly parts to the prying eyes that sullied her purity, innocence, and nobility — basically, it was a rape fantasy and it obviously got Burke all worked up and excited. It was an invented scene of repressed sexual frenzy being messily released like a young boy’s ejaculate, not an accurate historical account of sociopolitical events during the French Revolution; and it is to be suspected that the pent up libido, one of the few real and accurate details, was based on Burke’s personal experience. That writing has set the tone for the reactionary mind ever since, and it helped liberals like Thomas Paine to make clear what was so dangerous and perverse about such untethered frothing. In any case, it was Burke who named this kind of ideologically-motivated and collectively-expressed fantasizing as ‘moral imagination’ and, in demonstrating it’s compelling persuasiveness for the reactionary mind, the practice of it has stuck as the main weapon of culture war and moral panic ever since.

Conservative Projections of Shame

Such inventive eroticism, equal parts lustful and prurient, is symbolic of all things illicit, far beyond being limited to any possible variety of sex act (described or implied, denied or suppressed); as representing the bestial nature of the body, an expression of Adam’s Original Sin, the eternal field of battle between God and Satan, good and evil. It doesn’t matter what other people are actually doing or actually want to do, nor necessarily about the fantasist’s behavior either. This is entirely about the conservative’s carnal nightmares that they are trapped in, as they can’t escape their own mind; and, indeed, they apparently get off on it, which surely further adds to an endless cycle of masochistic shame that draws them ever back into the shadow of their own unresolved issues. It certainly makes for a time-consuming hobby, if one is worried about getting bored; and the reactionary mind, in particular, despises boredom. That is the necessity of melodramatic political theatre and political spectacle — it is entertainment, pure and simple; as much or more to entertain the one telling it, in how the purpose of evangelizing is mostly to further entrench the conviction of the evangelical, not about converting unbelievers and saving souls.

All of that might be fine, if conservatives were able to keep such dark fantasies and fetishes as a private psychosis and delirium, and as long as no illegal acts were committed (each to their own, live and let live; as a liberal would say), but no such luck. The freedom of personal imagination and the responsibility of personal conscience, as idealized and practiced in a secular liberal democracy, has never been the keystone of conservative moral order inseparable from conservative social order. The problem is that, as part of their lust for power, they are always trying to use their own perverse imaginings as rationalizing fodder for culture war in order to supposedly stop other people from doing what conservatives do in their own minds, whether or not acted out in their own private lives. They can’t stand their sense of self-disgust and so feel compelled, if in a state of horror, to set it loose on the public stage. It’s a cry for help, but the rest of us aren’t sure how to help them. Should we have a national intervention for the sake of public health?

Conservatives are forever trying to pass, reinforce, and defend laws against what they deem immoral behavior, sexual and otherwise, not because of what non-conservatives might do but because conservatives fear, maybe for good reason, that they can’t control their own behavior. They think they know what others would do because they know what they would do, if they had the opportunity, for they are fantasizing about it all the time. So, they seek to apply a distorted Golden Rule: Rather than do unto others as you would want others do unto you, it’s stop others from doing what you believe is wrong as you would want others to stop you from doing as bad or worse. That is how the reactionary mind assumes social order must be maintained, by way of authoritarian systems of social control, since people are treated as inherently bad and untrustworthy. Everyone, after all, is a born sinner; an old theological dogma that persists even into the secular thought of many non-religious individuals.

Conservative Social Control Replaces Self-Control

In the dark corners of the reactionary mind, the terror and torment is that these shameful fantasies, repeating over and over as hidden sins and repressed lust, will escape out into the real world and make for interpersonal messiness; but, as Jesus warned, even a sin of thought is still a sin; no doubt a condemnation that plagues the worried soul of many a conservative. It must be frightening to have such a libidinously demented fantasy life that always feels out of control, like a demonic force ever tempting one to horrific wrongdoing and moral depravity. We might not want to be too harsh considering that conservatives, in respect to themselves, might be correct about the need for external power and hierarchical authority of behavioral control. They might really become dangerous, if they ever stopped collectively suppressing their anti-social tendencies and harmful desires. Maybe they need all the assistance they can get.

No doubt, the persistent sexualizing that is played out on the inner stage of the conservative mind isn’t merely that of innocent and impotent passing thoughts, as the reactionary mind is addicted to what it denies, pulled toward what it pushes away. This oppressive repression acts as a fuel to the fire of their anxiety-driven righteous anger of self-loathing, what makes them so worked up in a way that liberals have a hard time understanding. Such sexual repression, as endless examples show, really does increase sexual compulsion and/or malbehavior. Think of how many gay-hating preachers later were found out to have been covertly following an active gay life, sometimes using church funds to do so. Or think of all those priests who, in having taken vows of bachelorhood and abstinence, ended up taking advantage of the children under their care. Conservatives are warning about the darkness they know intimately in their own hearts. It’s an indirect admission of an uncomfortable secret and an unpardonable guilt that they can’t give voice to in a more straightforward manner, for the public humiliation would destroy them.

So, they express these uncontrollable urges as dark temptations and harmful inclinations projected onto those other supposedly bad and dangerous people: leftists, liberals, and atheists, or else minorities and the poor, strangers and foreigners, those perceived as deviant or different, basically any target that can be conveniently othered and scapegoated (literally, living beings to be sacrificed after symbolically placing the community’s sins upon them). One such immorality play, particularly powerful, in the conservative imaginary is bestiality, and there isn’t much else like it. As with the exaggerated emphasis on and disturbing obsession with pedophilia, the conservative holds bestiality aloft as a caricatured sexual extremism that stands in for nearly every sexual act other than missionary style between a religiously married man and woman; although, within a conservative patriarchy, there is greater forgiveness toward a heterosexual male’s non-marital or extramarital sexual activities (men have needs, so goes the argument), and there is some wiggle room about age of consent for many conservative societies.

Conservative Symbolism and Imagination

Intriguingly, within a worldview of debilitating anxiety over impurity and perceived threats, the moral imagination of the reactionary mind has often used animals to make its points about the needs and claims of cognitive certainty, shared identity, group boundaries, social order, class/caste hierarchy, and moral worth: peasants and slaves as beasts of burden, the indigenous and backwoods whites as wild creatures, Africans as monkeys, Irish as white gorillas, Jews as a sub-species, immigrants as diseased rats, homeless as stray cats, and on and on; such bizarre metaphorical stereotypes being endless. As another example, ethnic Catholics, in the WASP imagination, were historically likened to ‘animals’ breeding out of control; in justifying xenophobic demands of anti-immigration, oppression, segregation, and eugenics. Ironically, this anti-ethnic and anti-Catholic prejudice was the reason that most American Protestants (in both main parties), during most of the 20th century, supported family planning clinics, birth control, and abortions. Civilized humans, in their superior self-restraint, supposedly don’t give into the wild lust of wanton bestial copulation and procreation.

This brings us to the proper role of the proper kind of sex, and hence what is improper. Within this ideological worldview, if all other humans unlike oneself (non-WASPs, non-Americans, non-whites, etc) are mere animals or are animal-like, then someone of the right group having sex with someone of the wrong group is akin to committing bestiality, incurring moral impurity for all involved and requiring punishment or exclusion to reinstate the moral order, to make the world right again. The perception of the natural world, be it sincere belief or cynical rhetoric, has long been implemented as a metaphorical model for the human world; most powerfully symbolized by the physical body. So, bestiality is never really about bestiality, in all its glory of ideological resonance; and, more broadly, sexuality is never merely about sexuality; similar to why conservatives preaching on abortion aren’t actually talking about the claim of killing fetuses and aren’t actually expressing concern for the sanctity of human life.

Filtered through symbolic conflation, every culture war issue means something else, all rhetoric of moral panic points elsewhere. It’s just distraction of ideological sleight-of-hand. This might be why bestiality, something that doesn’t actually come up in normal life all that often, plays such an outsized role on the American right in their social commentary, culture war, religious moralizing, and political narratives. It gets awkwardly mentioned way too often that it starts to make the rest of us feel a bit uncomfortable. What is up with this strange obsession? Outwardly stated, the eternal warning of social conservatives is that, if as a society we allow gay sex or whatever, it will inevitably lead to a libertine free-for-all where sexual deviants will roam the land anally-raping cows and molesting children; or something like that. In that moral worldview, there are only two possibilities, total repression or mass orgy; with the wrong choice leading to bad consequences — first anarchy and chaos will burst forth upon the streets and into the schools, preying upon the innocent, and then social breakdown and societal collapse will follow in its wake.

Conservative Storytelling and Fearmongering

Do many conservatives really believe any of this? Probably not. That is besides the point. It’s make-believe and useful-fiction, if still powerful, both powerful as social control and powerful as political theatre. It’s not uncommon for people to act according to what they, deep down, know isn’t true; for suspension of disbelief is required to some degree in any fictional narrative or fictional enterprise. And humans have a talent for knowing and not knowing something at the same time. It’s all about telling a ‘good’ story. We liberals get confused because we have a tendency to take conservatives at face value, since they are always proclaiming their own literalism. Of course, they could never admit that narrative matters more to them than truth because, then, the spell of the narrative would be broken. The story told is more comforting than would be reality disclosed because, no matter how fearful and discomforting that story, the conservative doesn’t want to become aware of what they really fear, what is in their own heart and mind. This is why their moralistic storytelling is often confused and doesn’t quite add up, when rationally analyzed. The purpose is not to make sense but to make nonsense, to disconnect one from direct and visceral sensory experience of reality. Such a way of thinking is shown with an amusing example, going back at least to the 1990s but probably earlier.

An old conservative argument is that the Western Roman Empire fell, not because the Christians turned it into a self-destructive theocracy, but because the Roman population suddenly started having too much butt sex. Strangely, Romans were supposedly less gay when they were pagan worshippers and only turned to a widespread fondness for men-on-men action once Christianized in the last centuries of Roman reign. It’s not clear how that puts Christianity in a positive light, but for whatever reason a significant number on the religious right find it a compelling argument for why they should once again be allowed to return to their nostalgic dreams of theocratic longing, to Make Rome Great Again! But was the Empire ever great in the first place? In any case, there is no decline of the Empire for a simple reason: The Empire never ended. That is how a wise philosopher once put it, in talking about the authoritarian right-wing of his own time. It has never ended because the power-mongers will never let it end, in reality or imagination. Yet, if you listened to them, you’d think the Empire is in a constant state of threat; that at any moment the radical left and/or the dirty masses will rise up to finally defeat and destroy the Forces of Order for all time, bringing on an Age of Darkness and Despair, the End Times foretold in Holy Scripture.

But the reality is the Empire can never end as long as its foundations remain protected within the insurmountable walls of the reactionary mind. God and His Kingdom, like the supernatural beings of fairyland, are always receding as the Age of Miracles and Magic disappears into the hazy past; while the reactionary mind longs for the return of the archaic voices of authorization, in their comforting certainty. In the reactionary mind, the Queen is forever being violated and ravished, and yet the Empire somehow remains forever in place. The Queen comes out every day, like a Disneyland worker putting on her costume and acting out her role, to the delight of her audience. The other ghosts of the haunted moral imagination, in various guises, likewise get trotted out to keep the whole charade going. It is sort of amusing, when one takes it as a strange and deranged form of entertainment. Along with watching actual porn on the internet, the conservative creates ideological porn to be viewed on an inner screen. By the way, according to internet data, porn viewing rates are highest in the Bible Belt, specifically with the highest rates of gay porn. When religious conservatives preach about the evils of sexuality, the sins of the flesh, they have many porn viewing hours under their belts to assist their mentally visualizing in great detail what they claim to hate so much. Let’s just say they Biblically know what they’re talking about. The moral imagination of the reactionary mind is so vivid for a reason.

Conservative Fantasizing About Bestiality

All of this craziness was brought back to our attention because of a particular case of right-wing moral panic, involving the right-wing’s beloved bestiality fetish. The self-identified conservative Ryan Farmer, just some random dude online who salivates over people having sex with animals, earlier this year wrote critically about Maryland’s House Bill 209 that is a repeal of Section 3-322 of Maryland’s criminal code, what has been called the ‘perverted practice’ statute. That statute “is built on a foundation of animus against homosexuals, but goes substantially farther, likening oral sex—which surveys demonstrate is practiced by upwards of 80% of adults—to bestiality” (The Honorable Luke Clippinger, HB0209 2022-01-21 Testimony to House Judiciary Committee). It was already technically unconstitutional and effectively unenforceable because of an earlier federal court decision, but police officers were still charging gay men with violating it (Bradley S. Clark, Why does Maryland law still prohibit sexual contact between same-sex couples?). The morally outdated law was simply being used to harass individuals, as motivated by the immoral bigotry of police officers who were using it as a cudgel of prejudice.

That was the real issue. Socially acceptable and consensual acts of sexual freedom, even something as simple as fellatio, were being conflated with bestiality; and homosexuality was being implicated as well. To reinforce this evil caricature of otherwise normal and healthy sexual behavior, Farmer stated that, “Effectively, this is legalization of bestiality, as these Delegates have no clear interest in re-enacting the criminality of performing sex acts with an animal” (2022 HOUSE BILL 209: MARYLAND DEMOCRATS SEEK TO LEGALIZE ACTS OF BESTIALITY). That is, as always, total bull shit. Being “a proud Marylander,” he had to have known that House Bill 641, signed into law a few years ago, had already made bestiality illegal separate from all the rest (Dawn White, Gov. Hogan Signs Bill Making Bestiality A Felony). So, why is he lying? Well, to the reactionary mind, there never needs to be a reason to deceive and manipulate, as long as it gins up fear and anxiety; that is all the justification that is required, mere moral panic for the sake of moral panic. It’s what the conservative craves, the state of agitation that feels normal to the permanently agitated psyche.

As a side note, one might strongly suspect that, as with gay porn, bestiality rates are probably higher in the Bible Belt and in other conservative areas, considering all of those lonely conservatives out in rural areas (what happens in the barn stays in the barn), and who knows what is going on beneath the thin veneer of normality out in the conservative suburbs (always a favorite setting for horror stories); but unfortunately, it’s doubtful there is good data on such things. In all seriousness, that is an interesting thought. Maybe conservatives are rightfully concerned about bestiality because they know or suspect that it’s common in their own conservative communities. It’s a similar logic that led Edmund Burke, in being familiar with the English precedent of regicide, to focus on the beheading of the French king. His real concern, unstated because it was too threatening, was nearer to home. Rather than French events having influenced English society, it was actually the Anglo-American recent past of English Civil War and American Revolution that had inspired the French revolutionaries. That is precisely what made it so terrifying. Someone like the Englishman Thomas Paine, radical and revolutionary, was a homegrown product of traditional English culture; a strain of moral imagination that was best left unacknowledged.

Conservative Moralistic Authoritarianism

It does make one wonder. Of all things, real and imagined, why is bestiality in particular so horrifying? It’s not as if conservatives are generally and strongly motivated by concern for animal wellbeing, such as in terms of the fundamentalist belief that God created animals solely for the purpose of being used by humans. Many and maybe most conservatives apparently are fine with what those on the left would often consider cruelty and harm toward other species, involving laboratory testing, puppy mills, factory farms, slaughterhouses, hunting, meat-eating, environmental damage, ecosystem destruction, mass extinction, etc; not that all of these issues fall along simplistic and dualistic ideological lines. Here is the point. If you were asked if you’d prefer that someone killed and ate you or had sex with you, which would seem the better option and which the worst? Assuming an animal had consciousness and intelligence, how do you think they’d answer that question? The sense of moral depravity and deviancy, in the conservative mind, has nothing to do with the animal’s rights and protections, the animal’s life and happiness; and has nothing to do with reduction of suffering, according to the least harm principle; nor is it about defense of consent, considering the most conservative (and most religious) countries and U.S. states have the lowest ages of consent for sex. What is perceived as wrong by conservatives is the perceived moral harm to the social order, the impurity that would infect society. So, the concern is not that of what a human does to an animal but what the taint of the animal does to the human.

The average individual on the political left would more likely be consistent in equally opposing both bestiality and carnivory, on principle, as neither could be deemed consensual acts and as both potentially betray the least harm principle; although application of principle can be complicated and nuanced, something a liberal would also be more likely to openly admit and intellectually justify (e.g., there are environmental and ethical leftists and liberals who eat meat, albeit they typically have environmental and ethical arguments for their dietary choice). At the other ideological extreme, more than a few right-wing libertarians would quite possibly perceive neither bestiality nor carnivory as problematic, at least not necessarily in terms of libertarian principle (if for other reasons), in that their concern is merely or primarily about human liberty; and not necessarily the ethics of animal rights and animal protection; but of course, the response of left-wing libertarians would be a different question with a different spin on ‘liberty’, probably more in line with the liberal. So, whether liberal or libertarian, there would be a consistent principle, albeit a different preference and application of principle, but the reactionary mind of the conservative has no similar consistent principle, other than defense of hierarchy for the sake of their own power and authority; and hence the reason social science research finds that hypocrisy is common among right-wing authoritarians, which research in turn links to social conservatism.

Conservative morality, though ideologically dogmatic, is not fundamentally and primarily about anything specific in a real world sense but whatever can get used as a rhetorical red herring while the actual purpose remains obscured, often hidden in plain sight. It’s not about sexuality, as it’s not about abortion, drugs, etc. And it’s not about the treatment or mistreatment of animals, children, or whatever else. Nor is it about rights and liberty. What it is about is denying the agency of the subordinate class, that is to say to keep the oppressed in their place; a rigidifying and stratifying of the social order by way of shutting down of the public mind and moral imagination, hence fear and anxiety as a potent psychosocial force. Social conservatism is and always has been a central component of authoritarianism, a defining feature in fact; and the viscerality of the body and bodily experience (sex, abortion, menstruation, motherhood, sexually-transmitted diseases, etc) is one of the most powerful tools through which to narratize, a point made by Lewis Hyde about metonymy, but also emphasized in Michel Foucault’s biopolitics. It is upon and through the body, along with physicality in general, that ideological worldviews and identities are interpellated, enacted, and enforced; although it’s through a return to direct sensory experience of embodiment that such an ideological trap can be undone, a reconnecting to what was disconnected.

Look to any authoritarian regime, organization, or group and you will always find an enforced submission to constrained and exclusionary sexual mores, identities, and roles; and punishment of oppression, violence, or banishment to anyone who doesn’t comply to group identity and groupthink (e.g., libertines), anyone who challenges the ideological system (e.g., feminists), anyone who otherwise doesn’t fit in (e.g., transgender), and anyone who is required as scapegoat (e.g., homosexuals); where the perceived consequence of punishment is taken as proving the merit and necessity of the moralistic system. The right-wing social order must be maintained at all costs, simply because social order is valued on its own terms; not justified by how it serves the people, for everyone must justify themselves in serving it because, if failing that, their continued societal membership in good standing might not be justified at all. A totalitarian order is considered a necessity because, in a dualistic worldview, without it nothing stands between civilization and the forces of anarchy, chaos, and destruction. But to the liberal-minded, such authoritarian order itself is the madness. That is the gut-instinct in pushing back so hard against sexualized culture war. Freedom, in all ways, is worth fighting for.

* * *

Trickster Makes the World
by Lewis Hyde
pp. 169-170

[A]n unalterable fact about the body is linked to a place in the social order, and in both cases, to accept the link is to be caught in a kind of trap.

Before anyone can be snared in this trap, an equation must be made between the body and the world (my skin color is my place as a Hispanic; menstruation is my place as a woman). This substituting of one thing for another is called metonymy in rhetoric, one of the many figures of thought, a trope or verbal turn. The construction of the trap of shame begins with this metonymic trick, a kind of bait and switch in which one’s changeable social place is figured in terms of an unchangeable part of the body. Then by various means the trick is made to blend invisibly into the landscape. To begin with, there are always larger stories going on— about women or race or a snake in a garden. The enchantment of those regularly repeated fables, along with the rules of silence at their edges, and the assertion that they are intuitively true— all these things secure the borders of the narrative and make it difficult to see the contingency of its figures of thought. Once the verbal tricks are invisible, the artifice of the social order becomes invisible as well, and begins to seem natural. As menstruation and skin color and the genitals are natural facts, so the social and psychological orders become natural facts.

In short, to make the trap of shame we inscribe the body as a sign of wider worlds, then erase the artifice of that signification so that the content of shame becomes simply the way things are, as any fool can see.

If this is how the trap is made, then escaping it must involve reversing at least some of these elements. In what might be called the “heavy-bodied” escape, one senses that there’s something to be changed but ends up trying to change the body itself, mutilating it, or even committing suicide…

We Are All Liberals, and Always Have Been

Jonathan Haidt’s moral foundations theory gained traction some years back. His ideas aren’t brilliant or entirely original, but he is a catchy popularizer of social science. Still, there is some merit to his theory, if there is plenty to criticize, as we have done previously. It is lacking and misleading in certain ways. For example, in talking about the individualizing moral foundations, Haidt has zero discussion of the personality trait openness.

That is the defining feature of liberal-mindedness. Openness is core to the liberal values of intellectuality, critical thinking, curiosity, truth-seeking, systems thinking, cognitive complexity, cognitive empathy, tolerance of ambiguity, tolerance of differences, etc. As an attitude, in combination with the individualizing moral foundations of fairness/reciprocity and harm/care, openness also powerfully informs major aspects of the liberal sense of egalitarianism and justice underlying social and political liberalism.

Openness represents everything that is unique in opposition to the binding moral foundations: ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity. Those other moral foundations, in being everything that openness is not, are what define conservatism, specifically social conservatism, and arguably are what makes conservatives prone to authoritarianism. One can think of authoritarianism as simply the binding moral foundations pushed to an extreme, such that the openness personality trait and the individualizing moral foundations are suppressed.

This is important for how the framing of the topic has been politicized. Haidt is a supposed ‘liberal’ who, in being conservative-minded, has made a name for himself by ‘courageously’ attacking liberalism and punching left, an old American tradition among pseudo-liberal elites. There has been an argument, originated by Haidt, that liberals are somehow deficient because of lacking conservative-minded values. But that is inaccurate for a number of reasons. The unwillingness to conform, submit, and fear-monger is in itself a liberal value, not merely a lack of conservative values.

Anyway, maybe not all values are equal in the first place. One study indicates, instead, that the binding moral foundations are not necessarily inherent to human nature and so not on the same level. The so-called but misnamed individualizing moral foundations are what everyone is born with. That is to say no one is born a conservative or an authoritarian. Instead, we are all come into this world with a liberal-minded sense of openness, fairness, and care. That very well might be the psychological baseline of the human species.

Yes, other research shows that stressful conditions (parasite load, real or imagined pathogen exposure, etc) increase both social conservatism and authoritarianism. But the evidence doesn’t indicate that chronic stress, as exists in the modern world, is the normal state of the human species. Would a well-functioning community with great public health, low inequality, a strong culture of trust, etc show much expression of conservative-mindedness at all? One suspects not. Certainly, traditional tribes like the Piraha don’t. Maybe physical health, psychological health, and moral health are inseparable.

In one sense, liberalism is a hothouse flower. It does require optimal conditions to thrive and bloom. But those optimal conditions are simply the conditions under which human nature evolved under most of the time. We have a threat system that takes over under less-than-optimal conditions. If temporary, it won’t elicit authoritarianism. That only happens when stressors never can be resolved, lessened, or escaped; and so trauma sets in. One might speculate that is not the normal state of humanity. It may be true that we, in the modern West, are all liberals now. But maybe, under it all, we always were.

* * *

We Are All White Liberals Now
We Are All Egalitarians, and Always Have Been
We Are All Bleeding Heart Liberals Now

The role of cognitive resources in determining our moral intuitions:
Are we all liberals at heart?

by Jennifer Cole Wright and Galen Baril

The role of cognitive resources in determining our moral intuitions:
Are we all liberals at heart?

by Caroline Minott

Some researchers suspect that the differences in liberal and conservative moral foundations are a byproduct of Enlightenment philosophers “narrowing” the focus of morality down to harm and fairness. In this view, liberals still have binding foundation intuitions but actively override them. The current study asks the question: are the differences between liberals’ and conservatives’ moral foundations due to an unconscious cognitive overriding of binding foundation intuitions, or are they due to an enhancement of them? Since both of these conditions takes effort, the researchers used self-regulation depletion/cognitive load tasks to get at participants’ automatic moral responses. […]

When cognitive resources were compromised, participants only responded strongly to the individualizing foundations (harm/fairness), with both liberals and conservatives deprioritizing the binding foundations (authority/in-group/purity). In other words, automatic moral reactions of conservatives turned out to be more like those of liberals. These findings suggest that harm and fairness could be core components of morality – for both liberals and conservatives. While many believed in an innate five-foundation moral code, in which liberals would narrow their foundations down to two, we may actually begin life with a two-foundation moral foundation. From here, conservatives emerge by way of expanding upon these two-foundations (adding authority/ingroup/purity).

What the Right Fears, the Left Desires

Let us throw out a simple observation with limited detail and analysis. This is a phenomenon that seems to define the reactionary mind. And so it is more often found on the American right-wing. But it can be observed in anyone who is pulled into reaction, including those reacting to reactionaries or otherwise immersed in the reactionary dynamic; a dynamic, by the way, that is inevitably authoritarian. Within the reactionary culture of American society, that can include much of the population to varying degrees. While this complicates matters, we will mostly ignore it for the time being, since we’ve already discussed it elsewhere.

We’ll briefly note the complication in the following and then move on. To put this in concrete terms, most Democratic elite and partisans tend towards the reactionary, if less strongly and blatantly than GOP elite and partisans. It’s nearly impossible to be involved in the polarization and propaganda of partisan politics without being at least somewhat reactionary — it’s almost a prerequisite. Still, there are vast differences of degree and it’s mainly those at the extreme end that we’re talking about. It is a specific category of person that falls into the full glory of the reactionary mind and embraces it as an identity (for details, see our writings on Corey Robin and the reactionary mind).

Here is the observation. Reactionaries only perceive the other side’s beliefs and views, values and principles as ideological, that only those other people’s ideologies are radical and extremist; that other’s politics are a religious faith, other’s political actions are nihilism and anarchism, other’s religions are cults and myths, other’s rhetoric is propaganda, other’s fears are moral panic, other’s behavior is mass formation, other’s governance is authoritarianism, on and on and on. Basically, those other people are bad or evil, whereas reactionaries are confident that they are on the side of Light and Righteousness. There is a lack of humility and introspection, mixed with projection and caricature.

This relates also to various ways that reactionaries can be dismissive of others. Another person’s information and evidence, experience and suffering is not fully real to them. The reactionary mind works by closing down and excluding. So, another group’s oppression and victimization is not only less real but less legitimate and important. This is why, among Americans, many white conservatives, white fundamentalists, and white males believe they are the most victimized people in the United States, maybe in the world; a view starkly disconnected from reality.

This is an old pattern. And, in Anglo-American culture, it really does usually divide according to Left and Right. It was the emergent conservatives, as reactionary counter-revolutionaries, who accused the political left of being nihilists following the American and French revolutions. Then shortly after that, it was the Southern aristocracy, in reacting to modernization, that accused Northerners of ideological ‘-isms’. And these reactionaries would repeat this rhetoric endlessly, as if it was the most damning of judgments. But the point is that kind of dismissive criticism has rarely been heard on the Anglo-American left.

Why is that? We originally didn’t plan to offer any analysis, but let’s point to some old themes of ours and share a cursory explanation. The fundamental reason for this difference involves moral imagination, symbolic conflation, social constructionism, and ideological realism (we have numerous posts on all of these). We could surely add to that list, if we gave it much more thought. Basically, the reactionary right requires their worldview to be conflated with reality, confused in the mind, buried in the unconscious, obscured from public gaze, and so placed above interrogation. There are many tools to achieve this end such as faux nostalgia, historical revisionism, and invented traditions; and so erasing the evidence of its origins in order to make something appear as if it was always that way.

On the other hand, the action of the political left has typically been the opposite, to explore origins and analyze the development, to place things in context; and hence the reason the political left has long been closely associated with intellectuality, science, academia, and education. Between the conservative and liberal minds, this is the push and pull between two forces, what Lewis Hyde called Hermes of the Dark and Hermes of the Light, one that enchants and the other that disenchants. The liberal mind wants to bring things out into the open so that they can be analyzed, questioned, and doubted; or understood and appreciated. And this is precisely what conservatives fear, the grubby scrutiny of consciousness that Edmund Burke portrayed as a lecherous mob penetrating the palace and tearing away the queen’s clothing to reveal what should not be seen by prying eyes.

The ruling power of the reactionary mind and the conservative order can only operate by being hidden and protected. This is why the reactionary right fears the left as radical and extremist, nihilist and anarchist. There is a grain of truth to this. Consider that ‘radical’ means to get to the root of things and that is what the liberal-minded like to do, pull things up out of the dirt and into the sunlight. The conservative-minded rightly points out that this might kill the plant, but if it is a weed or invasive species we do want to kill it. And, if it turns out to be a desirable plant, we can always transplant it into the safety of a garden where it will be tended and watered. Contrary to reactionary obfuscation, the liberal mind seeks open-eyed clarity and discernment.

Even the accusation of nihilism hints at something genuine. It originally was a dismissive label and a slur used against revolutionaries, reformers, and radicals. But some far leftists in late 19th century Russia took it as a proud and honorable title; in the way some blacks use the ‘N’ word to take ownership of it and neuter it as a weapon. The Russian Nihilists were not a highly organized movement, similar to the present ‘antifa’ in the US (supposedly everywhere and yet can never be found), but they shared a common philosophy or attitude. To their understanding, nihilism meant that, although future solutions are unknown in the present, they could seek to eliminate the problems that obstructed the ability to seek and enact those potential solutions — like tearing a structure down to its foundation in order to rebuild or plowing a field to plant crops; that is to say creative destruction.

Unlike the false claims of nihilism as mere anarchistic terrorism, these Nihilists didn’t lack beliefs and values. Rather, what they wanted was an open public debate about beliefs and values, that nothing should be off limits. Their actions were pro-active. They embodied Hermes the Light who disenchants, but always with the purpose of re-enchanting (i.e., inspiring and enthralling) the mind with a different and better ideological frame of narrative and understanding. This is nothing unusual, as every major change necessitates this process of undoing, prior to re-creating. It depends on one’s perspective. To British reactionaries like Edmund Burke, the American Revolution ended up seeming like the chaotic nihilism of violent mobs. But, ironically, the American reactionaries, once they co-opted the revolutionary nation-building, saw it as the most wonderful thing.

There is a real distinction to be made between right and left, reactionary and non-reactionary. The political right is correct to an extent. The two mentalities really do diverge, even if a mutual dynamic lashes them together in their movements. This is what many soft-hearted and well-intentioned liberals fail to understand, in their desire for equality and their vulnerability to false equivalency. The two mindsets are not only different in degree but in substance and motivation — they are two worldviews foreign to each other. As rightism attempts to enclose the whole world within its ideological grip, leftism at its best points beyond itself to what is presently unknown. This is fundamentally nihilistic, whichever definition of that term one prefers, but essentially a broad and curious-minded openness toward undiscovered and unproven possibility.

Here is an even more important distinction. The reactionary right is drawn into essentialism and determinism, as related to ideological realism. This is the naturalistic fallacy. Like races and gender, social mindsets and political identities can be taken as reality itself; and so abstractions as labels can become reified. These are among the many things the political left seeks to undo and dispel, to disenchant. Think of the difference between Ayn Rand and Karl Marx. The former asserted an absolutist dogma, whereas the latter was more akin to the Russian nihilists in never having outlined any specific ideological system that would inevitably replace capitalist realism, as he also thought solutions couldn’t be determined beforehand. Leftism and liberalism, as such, are more markers of undetermined significance, pointing in a direction as yet unknown.

Those on the political left don’t need to dismiss the other side because leftism wants to weaken such boundaries of the mind and boundaries of social order, particularly boundaries of pseudo-tribalism, so as to imagine something else. In reality, none of us is actually left-wing or right-wing, conservative or liberal. These are social constructions, not reality; whether or not we deem them useful fictions. We are free to create something else and the suggestion that seeking not yet known possibilities is nihilistic is meaningless and irrelevant, an empty fear lashing out in the darkness. The leftist has less difficulty in admitting that their own politics are also an ideological worldview because it is only in admitting this that we can bring our biases and failures out into the open to be aired. What the right fears, the left desires.

The political left has less to defend, both in a practical sense and as an ideological project. This is why, in our own writings, we regularly take shots at all sides. In fact, we are often most critical of those who are most similar and most in agreement with us, and we regularly piss off people who might be perceived as being on ‘our side’. An example of this is our complaint against the corporate takeover of environmentalist arguments, in co-opting veganism as a political tool (e.g., EAT-Lancet). It’s precisely because we have been strident environmentalists for as long as we can remember that we take such offense at this movement being misused as propagandistic social control. The value of environmentalism, in our own liberal mind, is not as a social identifier of group identity. This is how we’ve ended up such a disloyal liberal in refusing to bow down to the DNC elite, AFSCME union leadership, or anyone else.

Group loyalty is not a defining trait of the liberal mind. It’s because of this resistant attitude toward group-mindedness that some describe trying to organize the political left as herding cats. It’s the strength and weakness of liberal-mindedness. Left-liberalism, rather than falling into strongly and strictly contained boundaries of us versus them, tends to expand and sometimes, sadly, splinter apart. But there is something impressive and worthy about the liberal mind. We’ve previously noted that white liberals are the first ‘group’ seen in American research to express a pro-outgroup bias, as opposed to identifying with those supposedly like themselves (i.e., other white liberals).

The reason is that most of those white liberals don’t take white liberalism as their group identity, in the way that do white conservatives, for they’ve opened and expanded the circle of concern. There is less sense of an other to project upon because the liberal potentially invites everyone, even those on the reactionary right, into belonging as members of a liberal society. Terms such as reactionary and progressive, left and right are relative, not absolute, labels and context-dependent, not essentialist identities; and so one day those terms will disappear while the human race will remain. Liberalism aspires to unity through diversity. The political right sees this pro-outgroup bias as leftist self-hatred that seeks to destroy all that is good about the white race, the Christian religion, and Western civilization. But, in the liberal mind, there is enough kindness and compassion to go around, along with enough resources if shared equally and fairly.

It’s a split between an attitude of scarcity and an attitude of abundance, between fear and love. To the left-liberal persuasion, we are all humans on a shared earth, we are all citizens of the world — the ancient dream of the Axial Age prophets. Those on the reactionary right, obviously, disagree in that they define themselves by what they oppose and exclude. As conservative Ronald Reagan pointed out, we might only be unified as a common human species when earth is attacked by a common enemy of space aliens; although simply the existence of space aliens, even if entirely peaceful, would be enough to elicit a reaction of fear from reactionaries. If and when that happens, the reactionary right will accuse those space aliens of everything that, in the past, they accused liberals and leftists (or Native Americans, blacks, Mexicans, Asians, Eastern Europeans, immigrants, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, etc). Meanwhile, the political left will seriously consider and openly debate about whether space aliens should have the same freedom and rights, should be welcomed as fellow beings as part of a single shared galaxy or universe.

* * *

Notes on terminology:

We don’t make an absolute differentiation in how we use the labels of left-wing, leftism, liberalism, and left-liberalism. Even ‘progressivism’, at this point, has mostly been subsumed within this political left matrix, although earlier last century there were conservative and right-wing progressives of the old school Whiggish strain (many of them imperialists, nativists, antisemites, eugenicists, xenophobes, racists, white supremacists, and fundies). But there is separate historical development of the ‘left’ and the ‘liberal. We’ve covered this information before, but we’ll rehash it here.

Since the French Revolution, the political left has been primarily associated with egalitarianism and similar concepts of fraternity, solidarity, camaraderie, and such. This is about what mutually unites and holds together an economic class or group of people (typically a large group), either formally organized (e.g., labor union), informally associated (e.g., a poor community), or otherwise allied through common vision, interests, and benefit. The desired goal is to escape false consciousness by developing class consciousness or group consciousness, the knowledge and awareness of the conditions that create the social world one was born into. For this reason, the idea of a leftist way of thinking has also become implicated in theories or understandings about what is interdependent, systemic, environmental, ecological, holistic, integral, intersectional, complex, etc.

The metaphorical ‘left’ has an ancient pedigree, such as the left-hand path; as opposed to a right-hand man, being in the right, and having rights. Liberty and hence libertarianism is about the individual rights that can be given or taken away by official and legal power; specifically and originally in terms of the right to not be enslaved, whether or not others are enslaved. Freedom, on the other hand, is more cultural and communal, such as belonging of a free people and being among friends. See: Cultural Freedom, Legal Liberty. The word ‘right’ might be etymologically related to Greek ‘arete’ as virtue, righteousness, pride, power, ability, etc; and maybe also related to words like regent, royalty, and rajah. One can sense why the right-wing became naturally identified with authoritarianism, social dominance, and rigid hierarchy. Whereas the connection to conservatism is more of a sociopolitical observation, since every authoritarian regime that has ever existed has been socially conservative, including Stalinism and Maoism.

Liberalism stands out as unique among these terms. Unlike conservatism, it’s earliest definition had nothing to do with governance, politics, political parties, social order, power structure, legal systems, social movements, and such. To this day, it maintains more of its basic meaning as a psychological predisposition, a behavioral mentality or attitude, a way of relating to or treating others, and how one inhabits or acts in the world; particularly, as measured in FFM openness, MBTI intuition and perceiving, and Ernest Hartmann’s thin boundary type. Most simply, liberalism always has carried the meaning of generosity of spirit, although conservatives argue that liberals are being generous with other people’s money. This spiritual generosity, of course, never was inherently and primarily about money; as it mainly suggests an attitude of loving-kindness, sympathetic understanding, compassionate action, moral concern, helpfulness, and forgiveness which may or may not be expressed through material resources, private or public.

This relates to how liberalism became described according to the religious notion of a bleeding heart, which means a good Christian who sacrifices for others; but as an accusation it implies one who cares too much or who wants to be (or wants to be perceived as being) a martyr. And that brings us to the crime of sympathizing with the enemy, foreigners, and other unwanted or dangerous outsiders; along with sympathizing with undesirables in general (e.g., the conservative perception of the dirty, lazy, criminal, poor, and all around inferior permanent underclass who are supposedly undeserving of sympathy) — anyone who is deemed ‘other’. This is why, during the Cold War, liberals were sometimes called fellow travelers, to judge them as guilty by perceived association with communists. There are endless associations along these lines, as the word ‘liberal’ has been around so along to accumulate a mixed history of meanings.

There is one other thing that is a new thought. In studying Julian Jaynes and Lewis Hyde, the use of language comes up. Everyone uses metaphors and metonymies and they have immense power over the mind (see the literature on linguistic relativity). But the left-liberal tends to use such language openly and consciously; while the right-conservative does so obscurely or unconsciously. It’s partly a difference of whether our use of language is held lightly or tightly. That even applies to the language of left and right, a metonymical metaphor of the body politic. That is the point we made above about the left pointing beyond itself. Left-liberalism wants to disenchant the mind and there is no greater power of enchantment than word magic, particularly as memetic mind virus.

That is why those who complain the most about the left-right metaphor are typically those on the left, not those on the right. It’s amusing because in complaining they are demonstrating their leftist style of thinking, in not perceiving these words as representing essentialist and deterministic qualities that literally divide up humanity. Metaphors are either useful or not, but when useful they help clarify patterns that are otherwise difficult to perceive and talk about. At present, there is not yet an equally potent and effective metaphor to replace this one. And no such metaphor disappears without being replaced. That is why, despite our own criticisms of all of these terms, we go on using them. There apparently are no other good alternatives, not so far as we can tell. We could simply speak of egalitarianism in place of leftism and liberalism, but that word doesn’t have the readymade sense of meaning that most people easily grasp.

* * *

2/5/22 – Note on left vs right, liberal vs conservative:

As often repeated in this blog, reactionaries can co-opt anything. That is a complicating factor. Take the Nazis, as right-wing authoritarian (RWA) as they come, and combined with social dominance orientation (SDO) — they used any and all rhetoric as it was convenient, in typical realpolitik fashion. This included also using the rhetoric of leftism and progressivism, but they also used the rhetoric of conservatism, religion, and much else. One observer who visited Nazi Germany stated that Nazi rhetoric was incoherent, as they simply would say anything. But there is actually a coherent motivation within the reactionary mind, if one scrutinizes it closely enough and digs down into its underlying psychological structure. The reactionary mind is essentially a Dark Personality, defined by the Dark Triad (psychopathy, narcissism, Machiavellianism) or Dark Tetrad (plus sadism).

Rhetoric is largely irrelevant, at least at this level. You have to first determine someone is honest in their use of rhetoric before you can take their rhetoric at face value. One of the pillars of the Dark Personality is Machiavellianism, having to do with a lack of humility and a willingness to do anything to get ahead. This is closely associated with SDO, which is distinct from but often overlapping with RWA. How they are differentiated is, for example, their motivation for prejudice. RWAs will fear and hate those who are unable or unwilling to assimilate to the group identity and subordinate themselves to conventional authority, which is why RWAs are actually more flexible in simply wanting to be good followers, even in a liberal social democracy or a leftist state. SDOs, instead, fear and hate those who will attempt to assimilate because, in doing so, they threaten to undo the social order of hierarchy and inequality.

That said, later research does differentiate between two elements of SDO that must be measured separately (The Nature of Social Dominance Orientation, Arnold K. Ho et al). There are the full-on dominators who express old school bigotry like racism. That is SDO-Dominance (SDO-D). But that aspect is on the decline in the West since it is no longer politically correct in mainstream society and no longer allowed to be enforced in law. That is where SDO-Egalitarianism (SDO-E) comes in. Many SDOs are prejudiced in more subtle ways and with more subtle means. They simply want to enforce anti-egalitarianism itself. That kind of SDO might be find if a few black people become rich, just as long as most black people remain poor, and just as long as the plutocrats remain in power. The same would apply to other groups as well, such as a harsh attitude toward poor whites (e.g., DNC elites and DNC-aligned corporate media scapegoating poor whites for Donald Trump’s rise to power, despite the fact that his main supporters were middle class whites). The fear is that the repressed will rise up, but SDO-Es are less concerned about the exact demographics of the repressed.

Obviously, one can sense how the reactionary can be complicated and why it comes in degrees. But the full reactionary mind will be high in both SDO-D and SDO-E, will be high in both SDO and RWA, what are referred to as Double Highs — these are the worse of the worst, the most prejudiced and the most likely to become leaders of far right groups. But what about left-wing authoritarianism and dominance? That is one of the further complications, as indeed reactionaries can and will use any rhetoric. Josef Stalin is the greatest example of how a Double High will use Machiavellianism to gain power and rule. He didn’t actually care about communism, other than how it helped him rebuild the Russian Empire with a neo-feudal peasantry as forced labor. What stands out is that Stalinism was socially conservative, not socially liberal. That is the main point. Reactionaries can co-opt any rhetoric, but this is superficial. What they can’t ever fully co-opt is social liberalism itself as behavior and policy because that would undermine RWA and SDO.

This is shown in research where “dark personalities seem to have a particularly important impact on political extremism and election of politicians and political parties who are considered right- or left-wing” and yet simultaneously “narcissism and psychopathy were associated with political conservatism, whereas Machiavellianism was associated with low rates of liberalism (Jonason, 2014). The Dark Triad traits also correlate with conservative judgments such as capital punishment, gay marriage, and gun control (Arvan, 2013). […] Finally, dark personality traits have been shown to be associated with moral foundations that in turn are linked to conservatism. For example, Međedović and Petrović (2016) showed that Machiavellianism predicted both ingroup/loyalty and authority/respect, whereas psychopathy was positively associated with ingroup/loyalty” (Boris Duspara and Tobias Greitemeyer, The impact of dark tetrad traits on political orientation and extremism).

So, even when some left-wingers or rather some using left-wing rhetoric measure high in dark personality traits related to RWA and SDO, they also measure high in conservative traits. You will never find a dark personality with liberal traits because, by definition and by essence, liberal traits are the complete opposite of the Dark Triad/Tetrad, RWA, and SDO. This is why, in seeking to clarify, we speak of left-liberals as a distinct category because one could also argue that left-conservatives exist along with right-conservatives, but what one will never meaningfully find are right-liberals as the right-wing is defined to the degree it is not liberal, whereas the left is a bit less clear in its relationship to liberalism (there is a long conflict between leftists and liberals that has formed a legacy of confusion, although it is as much or more a conflict between old liberalism and new liberalism).

When we use the terms ‘left’ and ‘right’ in this blog, we are always referring to motivations and not rhetoric. The strange phenomenon of left-conservatives doesn’t make sense beyond superficial rhetoric because conservatism inherently opposes the very substance and meaning of left-wing ideology. So, to refer to left-conservatives is simply another way of saying reactionaries co-opting left-wing rhetoric for right-wing purposes of RWA and SDO. This is useful knowledge, though, for intellectual discernment and intellectual self-defense. We are always using the past as a touchstone because, despite all of the confusion, there is a consistency of ideological distinction that goes back centuries. That is why it is helpful to put this in the earliest historical context. Right and left originally referred to the seating arrangement in the French Assembly. Supporters for the king sat on the right side of the king; whereas detractors, critics, reformers, and malcontents sat on his left. This basic kind of distinction remains true, no matter what is the power in question.

The French king was a Double High figure and so to support him meant to support a system that was based on high RWA and high SDO. There is only one way to be loyal to a strongman ruler who demands total obedience, only one position to be in when on the right. To be a right-winger means submission to some institutional system of authority and domination, be it political, social, economic, or religious. To be the king’s right-hand man is to do as one is told, to be a yes-man, to be a good follower and a good enforcer of submission. But there is potentially an infinite number of ways to be on the king’s left. That basic distinction remains true to this day, at least in a Western context (as left and right categorization may or may not apply to other cultures). In the United States, there is no established left-wing system, institution, or organization of respected authority that wields any significant power and influence. Even academia in universities is structured according to authoritarian bureaucracy and dependent on authoritarian corporate funding, which is the reason why egalitarian far leftists like anarchists are rarely employed as college professors and researchers. American leftists inevitably are forced outside of power because that is the nature of being a Double Low and Light Personality within any society dominated by Double Highs and Dark Personalities.

But even in the most liberal society and most well-functioning social democracy, there will always be left-wing critics who are forever pushing toward new and greater possibilities, just as conservatives and authoritarians will come to defend the established order, even defending a liberal and egalitarian order — another way in which leftism is partly distinct from a broad sense of liberalism. To be a leftist is to be forever dissatisfied with what is in imagining what might be. This is why the political left is an endless spur toward progress as there is no ultimate end to possibility, such that enacting one possibility simply opens up to further possibilities. That goes to the point that left-wing ideology is never limited to any single political system but, rather, opens up to diverse possibilities that includes what has not yet been fully understood, articulated, and envisioned. Leftism simply stands for possibility itself, which ironically is how leftists get identified as nihilists with a bad attitude because leftism first requires pointing out what is wrong, what is hobbling, crippling, and stunting potential. Possibility, to be sought and made manifest, must be freed from what seeks to limit and eliminate possibility. More than anything else, this is possibility-mindedness as openness, curiosity, exploration, wonder, hope, and optimism.

This possibility-mindedness, though, is not a blank slate for it is inherently motivated by a love of ever increasing egalitarian freedom — it represents the possibility and the potential that is seen as equally residing within everyone; the opposite of and opposing to ideological realism that constrains possibility by shutting down the radical imagination. Leftism shakes loose the calcified mind and identity. Liberalism is just one component of this, but an important component. It is the victory of leftism that liberalism has become the dominant paradigm that frames and defines everything, even the reactionary right; where each and every generation of conservatives is more liberal than the last, such that the average conservative today is to the left of the average liberal from a century ago. This has created a strange situation where the majority of Americans are left-liberals, even as the reactionary right continues to not only rule the government, economy, and media but also rule the public mind, public identity, and public imagination — rule by oppression.

Liberalism has been so normalized that classical conservatism is almost entirely buried and forgotten. One is hard put to find many contemporary American conservatives who openly and blatantly, fully and proudly defend the misogynistic, racist, eugenicist, genocidal, plutocratic, and imperialist conservatism from past centuries (e.g., a rigid caste system of aristocrats and peasants, of slaveholders and slaves, of colonizers and colonized, of the civilized and the primitive, of WASPs and ethnics, of native-borns and immigrants). Classical conservatism is now politically incorrect, even on the mainstream political right, so politically correct that it can’t even be acknowledged. This is why, among the educated and respectable classes, conservatives will often claim to be classical liberals (i.e., early modern liberalism). But, of course, the reactionary right’s understanding of past liberalism is extremely narrow and nostalgic, i.e., mostly false and misleading — they certainly don’t mean radical Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thinkers: Baruch Spinoza, Denis Diderot, Marquis de Condorcet, Pierre Bayle, Giambattista Vico, Roger Williams, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Ethan Allen, Thomas Young, Abraham Clark, etc. Mostly, reactionary right classical liberals are looking to John Locke and Adam Smith; but Lockean land rights were earlier, not to mention more strongly and radically, defended by Roger Williams; and modern conservatives overlook the fact that Adam Smith, the leading light of capitalist thought, stated a free society wasn’t possible with high inequality, i.e., a Double High society.

So, amusingly, the reactionary right in selectively co-opting yesteryear’s liberalism and filtering it through nostalgic historical revisionism ends up having no inherent substance of its own, while the egalitarian left in abandoning or transforming old liberal positions is the creative force that again and again establishes the very substance that can be later co-opted. The right uses moral imagination to appear to have substance in hiding its lack of substance, in that the reactionary is forever defined not by what it is for but by what it is reacting against. And the left constantly leaves behind its own substance once it has been established, which can leave the impression of the left lacking substance, of being merely critical and antagonistic, destructive and nihilistic. Like the French left, the Anglo-American left came into being in opposition to a king and the entire authoritarian system of monarchy and aristocracy. The French were following the example of Anglo-American revolt, not only the American Revolution but also the earlier regicidal English Civil War that itself was influenced by the earlier radical class war of the Peasants’ Revolts, along with the Renaissance, Protestant Reformation, and Anabaptist hereticism. All of this formed into a larger Western tradition of leftist politics that continues to oppose whatever powers that be, but not knee-jerk opposition for it is seeking to reform and re-create. What the left is seeking freedom from and hence freedom toward is always a moving target.

The Fate of the GOP

“In no partisan spirit I contend that the Progressive movement began within the Republican Party. It rapidly advanced its control, shaping policies of state administrations, and stamping its impress upon national legislation as a distinctly Progressive Republican movement. And upon this fact in recent political history I appeal to Progressive Republicans everywhere to maintain their ogranization within the Republican party.”

Robert M. La Follette, La Follette’s Weekly Magazine, Volume 4 (1912)

Here are some thoughts on the historical origins, present state, and future potential of the Republican Party. Besides those like Cindy McCain and Mitt Romney, there have been waves of moderates, conservatives, and traditionalists (not to mention neoliberals and neocons) leaving the Republican Party or otherwise pulling away from partisanship (along with big biz taking its money elsewhere, at least for the time being). It most clearly began with Donald Trump’s nomination and first presidential campaign. The news media, at the time, reported on many Republican leaders who spoke out against Trump or even spoke in favor of the Democrats. Trump, as a demagogic opportunist, was able to takeover precisely because the GOP was the weakest it had been in more than a century; and Trump would only weaken it further.

It was a dissolution that, in Republicans gaining victory and wielding power, would worsen. The previous fractures in the party broke wide open and have become a gulf, such that a large number of former officials from the Bush administration are now disavowing their ties to the party: “Kristopher Purcell, who worked in the Bush White House’s communications office for six years, said roughly 60 to 70 former Bush officials have decided to leave the party or are cutting ties with it, from conversations he has been having. “The number is growing every day,” Purcell said” (Tim Reid, Exclusive: Dozens of former Bush officials leave Republican Party, calling it ‘Trump cult’). Others like Reagan Republican Joe Scarborough had left a couple of decades ago, presumably already having seen George W. Bush taking the party in an undesirable direction, maybe in having set the stage for the right-wing reactionary takeover of the party that was completed with Trump’s reign.

With the attack on the Capitol, QANON conspiracists in Congress, and GOP’s continued defense of Trump, yet more Republicans have been disgusted and demoralized, some finding appeal in Biden’s nostalgic call for the norms of established institutions and the normalcy of respectablty politics (no matter that this rhetoric seems hollow to many others). This is how the GOP might fully become Trump’s party, as the last of the anti-Trumpists leave and so cause further concentration of the extremists within an ideological homogeneity and insular echo chamber. And it’s not limited to GOP leadership abandoning ship. Recently, tens of thousands of voters have changed their Republican Party affiliaton — over 10,000 in some individual swing states like Arizona (Reid Wilson, Tens of thousands of voters drop Republican affiliation after Capitol riot), possibly causing them to swing toward the Blue for a long time to come.

Consider the Mormons who, according to a 2010 Gallup survey, “are both the most Republican and the most conservative of any of the major religious groups in the U.S. today” (Frank Newport, Mormons Most Conservative Major Religious Group in U.S.) — more Republican and conservative than white Evangelicals? Dang! Yet Mormon partisanship was already weakening by then: “Mormon support for the Republican ticket dropped from 80 percent in 2004 and 78 percent in 2012, to 61 percent in 2016, even as most other Christians moved further to the right, according to Pew” (Alex Thompson & Laura Barrón-López, Mormons rejected Trump as blasphemous. Now he likely can’t win without them.), although not entirely true as many Christian groups have moved left in recent years, the main exception being white Evangelicals — the latter being a key element of the ‘Ferengi’ minority demographic (Polarization Between the Majority and Minority). By the way, the Mormon vote has played a pivotal role in swing states like Arizona that lost more 10,000 Republicans, which might be why Joe Biden flipped that once stalwart Republican state.

So, the Republican base becomes smaller and narrower, louder and more threatening — the ‘Ferengi’ fringe. That is combined with the realignment that happened over the past half century, with the GOP now having taken the rightward path to its furthest endpoint, over a cliff. In living memory, there once was a large wing involving a combination of black Republicans and log cabin Republicans, progressive Republicans and liberal Republicans; even pro-choice Republicans. The last remnants of this held on into the ’80s, until they were squeezed out by the changes of media deregulation, ideological polarization, and rabid partisanship. Before that happened, the Republican Party of Eisenhower and Reagan used to include the likes of Hillary Clinton, Arriana Huffington, Thomas Frank, Cenk Uygur, etc — major names now in the Democratic Party or in leftist alternative media.

The religious right ‘moral majority’ always was a myth — even limiting it to the religious, such demographics have always been mixed and often holding views different from the religious minority of white Evangelcals. This is the reason for the necessity of the Wirthlin effect and symbolic conservatism, specifically the powerful wedge of the culture wars, as Americans are operationally liberal (i.e., actual positions and policies supported). Republicans couldn’t win elections without this rhetorical con game. The very people promoting the claim of a right-wing ‘moral majority’ knew they were lying. Rather than being a majority, it was explicitly anti-majoritarian. That was the whole point, to use empty rhetoric and political power to force a false narrative, to win by havng declared that they’d already won and then having convinced the media and political elites to repeat this spin — with some help from FBI’s COINELPRO that silenced opposition in the decimation of the political left, such as the assassination of Fred Hampton (combined with the string of other assassinations: MLK and Malcolm X, JFK and RFK).

Bill Moyers, in discussng how the Republicans took over through anti-democratic tactics like gerrymandering, gives a bit of historical background to the “founding of the Moral Majority” (as part of an interview of Davd Daley, Republicans Admit They Lose When Elections Are Fair and Free). “Thousands of religious conservatives gathered in Dallas, Texas, to launch what is now the most influential base of the Republican party. Ronald Reagan running for the Republican nomination, spoke to them. And one of the most influential Republicans of the past 60 years was there. Paul Weyrich was his name — right-wing Catholic, brilliant strategist, outspoken partisan [who] founded the Heritage Foundation, founded the Moral Majority, on and on and on. He really was an architect of the Republican domination today.”

Moyers then shared “a brief excerpt” of his speech and added that, “It brought cheers from those religious conservatives.” Weyrich, without shame or a sense of hypocrisy, stated: “Now many of our Christians have what I call the goo-goo syndrome — good government. They want everybody to vote. I don’t want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people, they never have been from the beginning of our country and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.” This was part of the Republican rhetorical attack on government in order to take over government, based on a demented ideology that democratic governance, public good, and the social compact were irrelevant or worse than irrelevant, a threat to their ambitions for unrepresentative power.

To put it in historical context, consider the original moral majority, the religiously-motivated American Revolutionaries. In having “read only the Bible, the Catechism, Watts’s Psalms and Hymns, and the Almanack,” according to 86 year old Captain Levi Preston (as interviewed by Mellen Chamberlain in 1843), “what we meant in going for those redcoats was this: we always had governed ourselves, and we always meant to. They didn’t mean we should” (Spirit of ’76). This may have been an unlearned populism, but it was bluntly democratic. Those rough-hewn working class radicals, carrying on the old tradition of religious dissent from the English Peasants’ Revolt and English Civil War, knew how to deal with aspiring tyrants like Weyrich. Keep in mind, that was old school evangelicalism. The mention of Watts’s Psalms and Hymns refers to the popular preacher who articulated the conflict between church and state, in challenging religious monopoly and religious tests, a public debate that earlier had enlivened Oliver Cromwell’s army (J. F. Maclear, Isaac Watts and the Idea of Public Religion).

As for Weyrich’s theocratic machinations, Trump’s personality cult, in gaining the zealous support of white Evangelicals, is the culmination of this dark faith; and it may seem to be going down in flames. Nonetheless, this might not mean the GOP is in terminal decline; but it guarantees that, if it survives, it will be radicially and permanently transformed — that brief period of a coherent conservative movement (or rather it’s rhetorical narrative as portrayed in corporate media) won’t be coming back anytime soon, if ever. Republican Senator Ben Sasse, under threat of censure by some Nebraskan Republicans, stated that, “The anger has always been simply about me not bendng the knee to one guy. Personality cults aren’t conservative. Conspiracy theories aren’t conservative. Lying that an electon has been stolen, it’s not conservative. Acting like politics is a religion, it isn’t conservative” (Former GOP Lawmaker Now Dedicated To Fighting Misinformation).

Others, in having left the GOP, have also had harsh words. “The Republican Party as I knew it no longer exists. I’d call it the cult of Trump,” said Jimmy Gurulé, one of those former Bush officials who could accept blatant lies, illegal wars of aggression, mass innocents deaths, and torture prisons but Trump’s Twitter tirades went too far (Tim Reid, Exclusive: Dozens of former Bush officials leave Republican Party, calling it ‘Trump cult’). “If it continues to be the party of Trump, many of us are not going back,” threatened Rosario Marin, yet another one of these respectable Bush cronies. “Unless the Senate convicts him, and rids themselves of the Trump cancer, many of us will not be going back to vote for Republican leaders.” These Republicans hold to a nostalgic image of respectability, real or false, that once was taken seriously in the mainstream but has now been entirely discredited. Was there ever a time when American conservatism was not at least a bit crazy and dangerous? That is questionable from a leftist perspective, but it’s understandable why many conservatives long for a return to what they perceive as pre-insanity Golden Age, a time when they weren’t mocked and ridiculed.

One could debate what is or is not conservative or what it should be, but this isn’t the first time that conservatism found itself in the dumps, as likewise happened in the early 20th century. Then, following World War II, conservatism became respectable again (or at least put on a good act) because of Russell Kirk and William F. Buckley Jr., and that was carefully achieved by ruthlessly banishing the right-wing fringe and conspiracy nuts, even if that simply meant pushing a cleaned up version of Bircherism, racism, and fascism. The point is conservatism was once solidly part of the mainstream, and it wasn’t that long ago. Some argue that an honorable conservatism is essential, whereas when dishonor sets in it becomes perilous to all of society.

“I don’t think conservatism can do its job in a free society in opposition to the institutions of that society,” said conservative Yuval Levin, “I think it can only function in defense of them. And a conservatism that becomes anti-institutional looks like a mob attacking the Capitol, which I don’t think is where anybody wants to end up” (interview by Ezra Klein, An Appalled Republican Considers the Future of the G.O.P.). It is never conservative to tear down institutions, not even liberal (or pseudo-liberal) institutions like universities, and especially not public institutions. [Actually, an argument could be made that conservatives have always attacked institutions, in that conservatism orginated as a modern ideology and reactionary backlash in opposition to the failing traditional institutions of the ancien regime that proved their unworthiness by having allowed liberalism and leftism to take hold; and so conservatives sought to eliminate and replace traditional institutions, an inherently destructive act and, in creating something entirely new, quite radical at that; but we’ll avoid that complication for our purposes here — for more on this view, see posts on the reactionary mind and reactionary conservatism.]

In the prelude to Klein’s talk with Levin, a book is briefly mentioned — Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy. It was written by a Harvard Political Scientist, Daniel Ziblatt, who “shows […] that democracies live or die based on how responsible their conservative parties are.” Klein says that, “In particular, the question is whether the center right quarantines the anti-democratic far right, in which case democracies tend to live and thrive, or it allies with them, in which case, the far right often takes over and democracies often fall. We are in that kind of moment right now.” If that is true, we are in trouble. Conservatism is inherently a reaction to liberalism — always has been — and so it acts as the shadow to liberal society. And so conservatives are closer to this darkness in either holding it in check or becoming possessed by it. The latter seems to be the case for the United States in this demagogic hour at the dawn of a new millennia. The burning flame of moral imagination as dark fantasy and ideological realism is powerful and, for that reason, potentially dangerous and destructive — as attested, again and again, by history (consider the Nazi conspiracy theory of Cultural Bolshevism and Jewish Bolshevism resurrected as the American conspiracy theory of Cultural Marxism).

If the GOP is no longer able to pretend to be a respectable conservative party and can no longer uphold a mainstream conservative movement, then what is it or where is it heading? It could become even more of a right-wing reactionary party, maybe devolving to a third party, where its platform would be entirely defined by conspiracy, xenophobia, ethnonationalism, etc; maybe things much worse like fascism and eugenics. Or it could reverse course toward the progressvism of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Dwight Eisenhower (or even Richard Nixon); before the GOP became exclusively anti-liberal. This might be more of a conservative, capitalist-friendly, and paternalistic progressivism as seen previously, but one that made room for liberal tendencies and democratic proceduralism. Progressivism originally was understood as democratic reform from within the system to defend against leftists, partly by stealing the thunder of leftist demands and promises, which was TR’s strategy (Capitalists Learning From Socialists).

That was at a time when liberalism was clearly distinguished from leftism, as reactionary rhetoric hadn’t yet fully conflated the two as a singular slur. “Many of the men who call themselves Socialists to-day,” wrote Theodore Roosevelt in his autobiography, “are in reality merely radical social reformers, with whom on many points good citizens can and ought to work in hearty general agreement, and whom in many practical matters of government good citizens well afford to follow” (see other TR quotes in Capitalists Learning From Socialists). His brand of progressivism was as conservative as it came, quite nationalistic and imperialistic, but he drew inspiration from the political left. To put this in context, the progressive era saw many Klansmen, Evangelicals, and Mormons supporting child labor laws, universal public education, Social Security, and much else — social conservatives and Republicans having helped pave the way for Teddy’s fifth cousin, progressive Franklin Delano Roosevelt, to create the New Deal and, following it, Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society. One can’t help but be reminded that Donald Trump won election to the presidency through explicitly progressive rhetoric that was in certain ways to the left of Hillary Clinton’s platform (Old School Progressivism).

Also, don’t forget that it was the Republican Party that introduced progressive taxation and defended it for a long time, at a time of extremely high tax rates on the rich. Also, Eisenhower said that liberalism was the way to run government, although he believed conservatism was the way to run the private economy; while Nixon spoke positively about liberalism, passed the EPA, and pushed for a basic income. We are presently experiencing a right-wing populist backlash with weak leadership that has splintered the political right, but we might return to that prior era of early-to-mid 20th century when strong progressivism and moderate liberalism was considered the framework for both parties, the center of the politcal spectrum, and the moral majorty of public opinion. Conservatism existed back then as well, but it was chastened and moderate, forced into a secondary role in public debate and forced into making alliances. This allowed conservatives to do serious and frutiful soul-searching, the kind of soul-searching that many conservatives find themselves returning to as they’ve become homeless and out of power.

The Republicans will likely be out of power for a generation, assuming they ever regain power. That was the prediction of William Strauss and Neil Howe, in their generations theory about the Fourth Turning. Back in the 1990s, they foresaw a period of crisis, as they theorized typically happens every 80 years (in a cycle of 4 generations). Through destabilization or destruction, the crisis shows the weaknesses and failures of institutions. That was effectively demonstrated, symbolically and practically, in the insurrectionist attack on the Capitol building; an event that, if the overruning of the Capitol police had happened mere minutes earlier, numerous Congressional leaders could have been held hostage, injured, and killed (Vice President Mike Pence was being targeted as well); and it turns out that individuals within the institutions created to prevent such a dangerous situation may have been complicit in instigating, planning, and/or allowing the attack. That is a crisis that would’ve been hard to have imagined decades ago. What Strauss and Howe argued would follow the period of crisis would be a period of institutional rebuilding within society. That will be an opportunity for the political right to rebuild itself as well, maybe from the ground up.

* * *

Further Reading:

  • To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party
    by Heather Cox Richardson
  • When Republicans Were Progressive
    by David Durenberger & Lori Sturdevant
  • Unreasonable Men: Theodore Roosevelt and the Republican Rebels Who Created Progressive Politics
    by Michael Wolraich
  • Turning Right in the Sixties: The Conservative Capture of the GOP
    by Mary C. Brennan

Two Views of Present Christianity

First, everyone can be skeptical of science, including of course scientists themselves — after all, scientists are skeptics by profession. But skepticism pushed toward extreme denialism is mostly limited to the political right, some scientific issues standing out (e.g., climate change). And general distrust of science is broadly and consistently found only among religious conservatives.

This is a point that was made by Chris Mooney in his research showing that there is no equivalent on the political left — as far as I know, not even among the religious left. For example, the smart idiot effect is primarily found on the political right, such that knowledge really does matter to those on the political left (research shows that liberals, unlike conservatives, will more likely change their mind when they learn new info).

The role religion plays is in magnifying this difference between ideological tendencies.

Not All Skepticism Is Equal: Exploring the Ideological Antecedents of Science Acceptance and Rejection
by Bastiaan T. Rutjens, Robbie M. Sutton, & Romy van der Lee

To sum up the current findings, in four studies, both political conservatism and religiosity independently predict science skepticism and rejection. Climate skepticism was consistently predicted by political conservatism, vaccine skepticism was consistently predicted by religiosity, and GM food skepticism was consistently predicted by low faith in science and knowledge of science. General low faith in science and unwillingness to support science in turn were primarily associated with religiosity, in particular religious conservatism. Thus, different forms of science acceptance and rejection have different ideological roots, although the case could be made that these are generally grounded in conservatism.

Study: Conservatives’ Trust In Science At Record Low
by Eyder Peralta

While trust in science has remained flat for most Americans, a new study finds that for those who identify as conservatives trust in science has plummeted to its lowest level since 1974.

Gordon Gauchat, a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, studied data from the General Social Survey and found that changes in confidence in science are not uniform across all groups.

“Moreover, conservatives clearly experienced group-specific declines in trust in science over the period,” Gauchat reports. “These declines appear to be long-term rather than abrupt.”

Just 35 percent of conservatives said they had a “great deal of trust in science” in 2010. That number was 48 percent in 1974. […]

Speaking to Gauchat, he said that what surprised him most about his study is that he ran statistical analysis on a host of different groups of people. He only saw significant change in conservatives and people who frequently attend church.

Gauchat said that even conservatives with bachelor’s degrees expressed distrust in science.

I asked him what could explain this and he offered two theories: First that science is now responsible for providing answers to questions that religion used to answer and secondly that conservatives seem to believe that science is now responsible for policy decisions. […]

Another bit of surprising news from the study, said Gauchat, is that trust in science for moderates has remained the same.

Here is the second point, which is more positive.

Religious conservatives are a shrinking and aging demographic, as liberal and left-wing views and labels continually take hold. So, as their numbers decrease and their influence lessens, we Americans might finally be able to have rational public debate about science that leads to pragmatic implementation of scientific knowledge.

The old guard of reactionaries are losing their grip on power, even within the once strong bastions of right-wing religiosity. But like an injured and dying wild animal, they will make a lot of noise and still can be dangerous. The reactionaries will become more reactionary, as we have recently seen. This moment of conflict shall pass, as it always does. Like it or not, change will happen and indeed it already is happening.

There is one possible explanation for this change. Science denialism is a hard attitude to maintain over time, even with the backfire effect. It turns out that even conservatives do change their opinions based on expert knowledge, even if it takes longer. So, despite the evidence showing no short term change with policies, we should expect that a political shift will continue happen across the generations.

Knowledge does matter. But it requires immense repetition and patience. Also, keep in mind that, as knowledge matters even more for the political left, the power of knowledge will increase as the general population moves further left. This might be related to the fact that the average American is increasingly better educated — admittedly, Americans aren’t all that well educated in comparison to some countries, but in comparison to the state of education in the past there has been a dramatic improvement.

However you wish to explain it, the religious and non-religious alike are becoming more liberal and progressive, even more open to social democracy and democratic socialism. There is no evidence that this shift has stopped or reversed. Conservatism will remain a movement in the future, but it will probably look more like the present Democratic Party than the present Republican Party. As the political parties have gone far right, the American public has moved so far left as to be outside of the mainstream spectrum of partisan politics.

We are beginning to see the results.

Pro-Life, Pro-Left
by Molly Worthen
(see Evangelicals Turn Left)

70 percent of evangelicals now tell pollsters they don’t identify with the religious right, and younger evangelicals often have more enthusiasm for social justice than for the culture wars

Trump Is Bringing Progressive Protestants Back to Church
by Emma Green

In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, some conservative Christians have been reckoning with feelings of alienation from their peers, who generally voted for Trump in strong numbers. But at least some progressive Protestant churches are experiencing the opposite effect: People have been returning to the pews.

“The Sunday after the election was the size of an average Palm Sunday,” wrote Eric Folkerth, the senior pastor at Dallas’s Northaven United Methodist Church, in an email. More than 30 first-time visitors signed in that day, “which is more than double the average [across] three weeks of a typical year,” he added. “I sincerely don’t recall another time when it feels like there has been a sustained desire on people’s part to be together with other progressive Christians.”

Anecdotal evidence suggests other liberal churches from a variety of denominations have been experiencing a similar spike over the past month, with their higher-than-usual levels of attendance staying relatively constant for several weeks. It’s not at all clear that the Trump bump, as the writer Diana Butler Bass termed it in a conversation with me, will be sustained beyond the first few months of the new administration. But it suggests that some progressives are searching for a moral vocabulary in grappling with the president-elect—including ways of thinking about community that don’t have to do with electoral politics. […]

Even if Trump doesn’t bring about a membership revolution in the American mainline, which has been steadily shrinking for years, some of the conversations these Protestant pastors reported were fascinating—and suggest that this political environment might be theologically, morally, and intellectually generative for progressive religious traditions.

Southern Baptists Call Off the Culture War
by Jonathan Merritt

Indeed, disentangling the SBC from the GOP is central to the denomination’s makeover. For example, a motion to defund the ERLC in response to the agency’s full-throated opposition to Donald Trump failed miserably.

In years past, Republican politicians have spoken to messengers at the annual meeting. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush addressed the group, Vice President Dan Quayle spoke in 1992, and President George W. Bush did so in 2001 and 2002 (when my father, James Merritt, was SBC president). Neither President Bill Clinton nor President Barack Obama were invited to speak to Southern Baptists during their terms. Though Southern Baptists claim not to be affiliated with either major party, it’s not difficult to discern the pattern at play.

Vice President Mike Pence addressed the convention this year, which may seem like the same old song to outsiders. But there was widespread resistance to Pence’s participation. A motion to disinvite the vice president was proposed and debated, but was ultimately voted down. During his address, which hit some notes more typical of a campaign speech, a few Southern Baptists left the room out of protest. Others criticized the move to reporters or spoke out on Twitter. The newly elected Greear tweeted that the invitation “sent a terribly mixed signal” and reminded his fellow Baptists that “commissioned missionaries, not political platforms, are what we do.”

Though most Southern Baptists remain politically conservative, it seems that some are now less willing to have their denomination serve as a handmaiden to the GOP, especially in the current political moment. They appear to recognize that tethering themselves to Donald Trump—a thrice-married man who has bragged about committing adultery, lies with impunity, allegedly paid hush money to a porn star with whom he had an affair, and says he has never asked God for forgiveness—places the moral credibility of the Southern Baptist Convention at risk.

By elevating women and distancing themselves from partisan engagement, the members of the SBC appear to be signaling their determination to head in a different direction, out of a mix of pragmatism and principle.

For more than a decade, the denomination has been experiencing precipitous decline by almost every metric. Baptisms are at a 70-year low, and Sunday attendance is at a 20-year low. Southern Baptist churches lost almost 80,000 members from 2016 to 2017 and they have hemorrhaged a whopping one million members since 2003. For years, Southern Baptists have criticized more liberal denominations for their declines, but their own trends are now running parallel. The next crop of leaders knows something must be done.

“Southern Baptists thought that if they became more conservative, their growth would continue unabated. But they couldn’t outrun the demographics and hold the decline at bay,” said Leonard. “Classic fundamentalist old-guard churches are either dead or dying, and the younger generation is realizing that the old way of articulating the gospel is turning away more people than it is attracting. “

Regardless of their motivations, this shift away from a more culturally strident and politically partisan stance is significant.

As the late pastor Adrian Rogers said at the 2002 SBC annual meeting in St. Louis, “As the West goes, so goes the world. As America goes, so goes the West. As Christianity goes, so goes America. As evangelicals go, so goes Christianity. As Southern Baptists go, so go evangelicals.”

Rogers may have had an inflated sense of the denomination’s importance, but the fact remains that what happens in the SBC often ripples across culture. In Trump’s America, where the religious right wields outsized influence, the shifts among Southern Baptists could be a harbinger of broader change among evangelicals.

The divide between the religious and the rest of the population is smaller than it seems. That is because media likes to play up conflict. To demonstrate the actual views of the religious in the United States, consider a hot button issue like abortion:

  • “As an example of the complexity, data shows that there isn’t even an anti-abortion consensus among Christians, only one Christian demographic showing a strong majority [White Evangelical Protestants].” (Claims of US Becoming Pro-Life)
  • “[A]long with most doctors, most church-going Catholics support public option and so are in agreement with most Americans in general. Even more interesting is the fact that the church-going Catholics even support a national plan that includes funding for abortion.” (Health Reform & Public Option (polls & other info))
  • “[M]ost Americans identify as Christian and have done so for generations. Yet most Americans are pro-choice, supporting abortion in most or all situations, even as most Americans also support there being strong and clear regulations for where abortions shouldn’t be allowed. It’s complicated, specifically among Christians. The vast majority (70%) seeking abortions considered themselves Christians, including over 50% who attend church regularly having kept their abortions secret from their church community and 40% feeling that churches are not equipped to help them make decisions about unwanted pregnancies.” (American Christianity: History, Politics, & Social Issues)

Whatever ideological and political conflicts we might have in the future, it won’t be a continuation of the culture wars we have known up to this point. Nor will it likely conform to battle of ideologies as seen during the Cold War. The entire frame of debate will be different and, barring unforeseen events, most likely far to the left.

* * *

As an additional point, there is another shift that is happening. There is a reason why there feels to be a growing antagonism, even though it’s not ideological per se.

The fact of the matter is “religious nones” (atheists, agnostics, religiously non-identifying, religiously indifferent, etc) is growing faster than any religious group. Mainline Christians have been losing membership for decades and now so are Evangelicals. This is getting to the point where young Americans are evenly split between the religious and non-religious. That means the religious majority will quickly disappear.

This isn’t motivated by overt ideology or it doesn’t seem to be, since it is a shift happening in many other countries as well. But it puts pressure on ideology and can get expressed or manipulated through ideological rhetoric. So, we might see increasing conflict between ideologies, maybe in new forms that could create a new left vs right.

Younger people are less religious than older ones in many countries, especially in the U.S. and Europe
by Stephanie Kramer & Dalia Fahmy

In the U.S., the age gap is considerable: 43% of people under age 40 say religion is very important to them, compared with 60% of adults ages 40 and over.

If nothing else, this contributes to a generational conflict. There is a reason much of right-wing media has viewers that are on average older. This is why many older Americans are still fighting the culture wars, if only in their own minds.

But Americans in general, including most young Evangelicals, have lost interest in politicized religion. Christianity simply won’t play the same kind of central role in coming decades. Religion will remain an issue, but even Republicans will have to deal with the fact that even the young on the political right are less religious and less socially conservative.

A Holiday Experiment

During the holiday season, there is an increase in alcohol consumption. This led me to some thoughts.

Liberals have higher rates of alcoholism (and drug addiction) than conservatives. But oddly it is conservative states that have the highest rates of drunk driving arrests, accidents, and deaths. Why is that? Do liberals hold their alcohol better? Or do they fall into a drunken stupor more quickly? Are most liberals simply too lazy to try to drive after drinking? Or did all that pot they smoked while drinking cause them to get the munchies and so they’re waiting for the pizza to be delivered?

Research has found that, when inebriated, liberals tend to think and act more like conservatives. For example, they are more likely to express conservative-minded stereotypes and prejudices. So, when conservatives get drunk, do they simply become even more conservative? If so, how does a conservative act when they are even more conservative? Do the conservatives look at the temporarily conservative-minded drunk liberals, saying “that’s not conservatism” and then telling someone to hold their drink?

These are important questions. For those with a nice mix of liberal and conservative family members, I recommend you get them all drunk and observe the results. Think of it as a scientific experiment.

On Rodents and Conservatives

My parents are always worrying about the bird feeders in the backyard. They think they’ll attract rodents that will get in the house.

First of all, in the years my parents have lived here, they’ve had the bird feeders and rodents have never gotten in the house. And, second, rodents are unlikely to ever get in because it is one of these modern sealed-up houses with no cracks in the foundation, no loose siding, no crawlspace to be easily accessed, and not even a drafty attic.

This is how the conservative mind leads to paranoia. Somehow something or someone who isn’t supposed to be here will get in, no matter how improbable according to a rational analysis. This is the same fear that is seen with immigrants, minorities, the poor, or anyone who is different. The way my parents talk you’d think that rodents are welfare queens trying to game the system, and admittedly rodents are sneaky critters who will take advantage of any situation. This is what would lead some extreme conservatives to sitting on their back stoop shooting at shadows in the dark — fortunately, my parents’ fearful attitude is a milder variety.

The fear isn’t rational, for fear is ultimately never rational, just an emotion that may or may not indicate something beyond itself. And so there is no way to counter fear with rationality. There is only one response that fear demands and that is taking action, which pushed to its end point means fight or flight. In my parents’ imaginations, it’s almost as if the rodents are already in the house scurrying about. There is very little distinction, in the conservative mind, between imagining something as real and it actually being real.

I love my parents dearly. But it can be a challenge sometimes. It’s not that the bird feeder issue is a big deal. It’s just one of those thousands of things that regularly come up. As my parents gave voice to their fear of a rodent plague destroying all that is good in the world, an uprising of nature against mankind and civilization, I could see the gears in their head clicking away. Looking out the window, they could see the rodents that weren’t there… not yet, but once night comes with naive liberals sleeping soundly in bed the rodent threat will swarm over the landscape.

Okay, I’m exaggerating a bit for effect. I’m just feeling amused.

It reminds me of a popular Buddhist story. Two Buddhist monks were walking along. They came to a stream where a woman was having difficulty in trying to cross. The older monk helped carry her to the other side. Then the monks continued on. Further down the path, the younger monk decided to chastise his companion because it was against their religious vows to touch a woman. In response, the older monk shared a bit of wisdom. He said, I put the woman down back at the stream, but you’re still carrying her.

As a liberal, that is how I see conservatives. They are constantly carrying in their minds all kinds of things, from rodents to immigrants, from welfare queens to terrorists, their minds overflowing with fears and anxieties. And they rarely if ever put them down. It’s hard for anyone to shake something once it gets in their mind, but it’s particularly hard for conservatives. Even when their thick boundaries allow them to temporarily cut off their worries and concerns in order to focus on some other matter, those worries and concerns never really leave their minds and will quickly return to their awareness with the slightest trigger.

It’s not as if my parents will bring up the imagined rodent problem all that often, but for as long as they live in this house it will remain at the back of their minds. Every time they see those bird feeders, the narrative of rodent invasion will play in their minds, though probably most often below the threshold of consciousness.

I should clarify a point. Conservatives aren’t always wrong about what they fear. Theoretically, rodents could get into my parents’ house. It’s just the probability is extremely low (from a liberal perspective, ridiculously low), not the kind of thing worth worrying about. If my parents lived in an old house with lots of cracks and crevices, their fear would be valid. That is the problem. Conservative fears aren’t dependent on context. To the extent that someone is conservative-minded, there is a state of fear constantly on the look out.

Still, motivated by rodent phobia, conservatives such as my parents might be less likely to have rodent problems or at least more likely to deal with them swiftly and harshly. War on rodents? Maybe Trump could look into that. With conservatives in the world, maybe we liberals benefit from being kept safe from the rodent plague, although it must be admitted that conservative European societies back in the day failed to prevent the rodent-inflicted Black Plague. So, I don’t know.

I just like watching the birds.

Uncomfortable Questions About Ideology

On Quora, someone asked, “What is the link between conservatism and paranoid schizophrenia?” It’s an intriguing and provocative question. One could also ask it of other ideologies in relation to other mental illnesses. (Just the other day, I speculated a bit about depression and schizophrenia, in a similar line of thought).

The responses on Quora were mostly dismissive, some in knee-jerk fashion. I’m not sure why that is. I actually think this is a fair question. It’s too bad some people are unable or unwilling to engage, just because it makes them uncomfortable. This kind of thing doesn’t bother me as long as it is being discussed sincerely and honestly, and I find it odd that others are resistant to even considering it.

There are clear differences in how the brain functions for liberals and conservatives, along with many other ideological demographics you might want to consider: left-wingers and right-wingers, socialists and capitalists, anarchists and authoritarians, etc. And these proven differences in brain functioning presumedly would include how the brain malfunctions (or, if you prefer, functions neuroatypically).

For example, some data shows liberals have higher rates of drug use (“fairly steady increase in amount of drug use as one moves from the conservative to the radical end of the scale.”) and alcohol use (“when a state becomes more liberal politically, its consumption of beer and spirits rises”) and this leads to higher rates of addiction and alcoholism. Some of this is just demographic, as substance abuse increases with increasing wealth and increasing IQ, both correlated with liberalism (i.e., liberals on average are wealthier and higher IQ than all other demographics, besides libertarians). But others argue that it is an inherent tendency to liberal psychology, related to high ‘openness to experience’ and low ‘conscientiousness’. Liberals are prone to curiosity and experimentation, rule-breaking and authority-challenging.

Another example is that some have found that liberals have higher rates of depression. This makes sense, as liberals have lower rates of such things as religiosity (e.g., church attendance) that is negatively correlated to depression. So, either the liberal personality itself predisposes one to depression or predisposes one to behaviors that make one vulnerable to depression. There is also a link between depression and both high and low IQ, liberals on average being on the high end.

On a related note, some research shows that conservatives aren’t actually happier, despite self-reporting as happier. In some studies, liberals were observed as smiling more often and more naturally, and also using more positive words (University of California, New Yorker, Time, Washington Post, NYT, & FiveThirtyEight). Then again, maybe there is some psychological benefit to reporting one is happy, specifically as a desire to fit into social norms and so to be socially accepted (happiness or its appearance most definitely is a social norm in American society). But it could be that liberals have both higher rates of depression and happiness, which is to say they are disproportionately represented at both ends (similar to how Democrats include more people at the low and high IQ extremes, whereas Republicans are disproportionately found in the average IQ range)—or maybe liberals are just moody.

Anyway, it would be beyond bizarre if we didn’t find these kinds of correlations across the political spectrum, including for conservatives. Every ideological predisposition has its problems and deficiencies (I have a lovely post about the weaknesses and failures of liberalism). With almost anything pushed to an extreme, one would reasonably expect to find such things as mental illnesses. This relates to personality traits, for when imbalanced they lead to all kinds of psychological and behavioral issues.

Let me get back to the original question. Schizophrenia is an interesting issue. But it is complex. There may or may not be a correlation to conservatism. I don’t know. More probable would be correlations found between conservatism and certain mood disorders, specifically those involving fear, anxiety and conscientiousness. One possibility is something like obsessive-compulsive disorder (“These findings support the view that OCPD does represent a maladaptive variant of normal-range conscientiousness”). Still, there are those who argue that there is a link between schizophrenia and conservatism, and some might consider their theories to be scientifically plausible:

“Previc’s review of religiosity and mental disorders also adds fuel to the fire of a schizophrenic-conservative link. Previc writes “psychotic delusions are a common feature of mania, [temporal lobe epileptic] psychosis, and paranoid schizophrenia…all of these disorders are to varying degrees associated with overactivity of the fronto-temporal pathways (mostly on the left side), elevated [dopamine], and a bias toward extrapersonal space”. […] The conservatives seem to be more prone to mental disorders of the left hemisphere, while, based on the evidence we’ve gathered, liberals are more prone towards depression and anxiety disorders, which are predominately right hemispheric in origin. The mental disorder evidence supports both Brack’s hemisphericity theory of political orientation and Previc’s dopaminergic-spatial theory of religiosity” (Charles Brack, God, Dopamine, and 3-Dimensional Space: The Ingenious Theories of Fred Previc).

I’m not familiar with that research. But it seems a reasonable hypothesis. I can think of no justifiable criticism, other than political correctness, for not taking it seriously and for scientists to not study it. If it isn’t worthy of further appraisal and analysis, some counter-evidence would need to be offered to explain why it is unworthy—such as a critique of this research or, better yet, other research with alternate conclusions.

Let’s look at this dispassionately. Think of this in terms of other distinctions, as shown in diverse social science research. Do different people measure differently on personality traits/types? Yes. Do people who measure differently on personality traits/types have different rates of ideological tendencies? Yes. Different rates of psychological conditions? Yes. All of this is entirely non-controversial.

In this context, let me give a basic example that could explain possible higher rates of schizophrenia among conservatives. Liberalism correlates to high ‘openness to experience’ and the opposite for conservatism. So, how do schizophrenics measure on ‘openness’? According to one scientific study—Personality traits in schizophrenia and related personality disorders (where SZ refers to “a diagnosis of schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder”):

“On the five-factor personality scales, SZ subjects showed higher levels of neuroticism, and lower levels of openness, agreeableness, extraversion, and conscientiousness than control subjects.”

The psychological trait of ‘openness’ is one of the most defining features of liberalism. This has been found in endless studies. That schizophrenics rate lower levels of this is extremely telling. It doesn’t prove the hypothesis of a conservatism-schizophrenic link. But it does indicates that it shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand.

To shift to a different perspective, consider it in terms of something like gender. Are gender differences real? Yes. They can even be seen in brain scans, as can personality traits/types and even ideological differences. Is there gender differences in measures of personality traits/ types and ideological differences? Yes. In MBTI, a disproportionate number of women measure as Feeling types and a disproportionate number of men measure as Thinking types. As for ideology, a disproportionate number of women are Democrats, but men are more evenly divided between the parties (disproportionate number of men, instead, are found among Libertarians and Independents).

Well, what about mental illnesses? Are there gender differences in mental illnesses? Yes. Emily Deans, at Psychology Today, wrote:

“Psychiatrically speaking, it is probably not a coincidence that dopamine related disorders, such as schizophrenia, addiction, ADHD and autism are more common in men, whereas the serotonin/norepinephrine linked anxiety and depressive disorders are more common in women. Of course dopamine is also associated with depression and opiates with addiction, and men get depressed and anxious while women have ADHD and autism. These are obviously not absolutes, just trends.”

I saved one of the most compelling pieces of evidence for last.

A major discovery about conservatism and liberalism involves brain structure. Conservatives on average have a larger amygdala (i.e., emotional learning and relating) and liberals on average have a larger ACC (i.e., emotional regulation and cognitive control/flexibility). Both are important, and so an emphasis of one over the other creates different tendencies.

The amygdala sometimes gets associated with fear responses, but it is also necessary for empathy and without it functioning well you could become a psychopath. Also, this emotional learning is what builds emotional bonding, which isn’t just about empathy but also group identity. This is probably why conservatives are inclined to identify with family, church, ethno-nationalism, etc.

It’s not that liberals lack empathy. It just expresses differently, less of a strong emotional pull from conservative group-mindedness. Instead, liberals are prone to an abstract, universalizing empathy—which is why conservatives will, for example, argue that liberals sympathize with the enemy and to an extent they’re right (at the same time, liberals are right that conservatives lack this broader empathy toward those outside of some narrow group identity). Conservatives are much more loyal than liberals, because they are more group-minded, related to their being more partisan as well and less tolerant of cooperation and compromise.

If you want to see the extreme of liberalism, look to libertarians who promote a hyper-individualistic laissez-faire worldview that is the complete opposite of conservative group-mindedness. Indeed, libertarians show the least amount of empathy than any other ideological demographic, not even showing the liberal non-groupish empathy. As such, liberals could be seen as in the middle between the extremes of conservatism and libertarianism. If the problem of liberal politics is the difficulty of herding cats, then the challenge of libertarian politics is that of trying to train lizards for synchronized swimming. Almost any trait of liberalism is going to be found even higher among libertarians. Libertarianism is liberalism on drugs or rather on more drugs—quite literally, as libertarians do have very high drug use. Liberals are downright conservative-minded compared to libertarians (and I’d expect brain scans to show this).

The difference between conservatives and liberals has more to do with who they empathize with and to what degree. As National Review discusses, conservatives place their empathy of US soldiers above even the innocent foreigners that US soldiers kill, whereas liberals don’t place US soldiers so high in the empathy scale and actually see them as equal to foreigners—so who has more empathy? Overall, liberals tend to favor those perceived as outsiders and underdogs, which is why they aren’t overly loyal and patriotic. On some measures (e.g., empathic concern), liberals even rate higher than conservatives. This probably has to do with other factors besides just the amygdala, but surely the amygdala plays a role. From a conservative standpoint, liberals (as with libertarians) have a deficiency in group-mindedness, to the point of being seen as a danger to society, which is to say the conservative’s society.

If a liberal becomes deficient enough in this area, they likely will be drawn to libertarianism. Does that mean libertarianism itself is a mental illness? No, but to have any less empathy than the average libertarian would clearly push one toward psychopathic territory. At the same time, the libertarian’s lack of emotional response is what makes them so idealistic about rationality, which is why they are the most idealistic of post-Enlightenment classical liberals. Conservatives are right that group concern is important, just as libertarians are right that groupthink can be oppressive, but one could argue that conservatives are making the stronger point considering humans are first and foremost social animals. For a social animal to disregard and devalue the group obviously would be less than optimal according to social norms, including psychological and behavioral norms (i.e., mental health). Libertarianism taken to the extreme would be severely dysfunctional and even dangerous, but that is true for almost anything taken to an extreme.

As a side note, gender plays into this, as I noted earlier. Matt Ridley has a WSJ article, in which he writes that: “The researchers found that libertarians had the most “masculine” psychological profile, while liberals had the most feminine, and these results held up even when they examined each gender separately, which “may explain why libertarianism appeals to men more than women.”” On this scale, I guess conservatives are in the middle—one might call them ideologically bisexual (I couldn’t help myself).

I got a bit distracted there. The data is so fascinating. To get back to my point, my last point, the brain structure issue hits home what is so central, at least in terms of conservatives and liberals (I don’t know about libertarians, much less anarchists, socialists, communists, Marxists, etc). What struck me is something Chris Mooney said in a Discover article:

“People with some forms of schizophrenia, Paranoid Type, for instance, typically have a poorly functioning ACC, so they have trouble discerning relevant patterns from irrelevant ones, giving equal weight to all of them.”

The one part of the brain liberals clearly express high function is with the ACC (anterior cintulate cortex). And this is precisely what is relatively smaller for conservatives. This biological variance is one of the main defining distinctions in ideological expression, what makes liberals liberal-minded and conservatives conservative-minded. Isn’t it interesting that highly functioning ACC correlates both to lower rates of conservatism and schizophrenia? It’s just a correlation, but one has to admit that it is interesting, to say the least.

It is the opposite of surprising that different rates of various psychological illnesses, disorders, and behaviors would be found disproportionately among various demographics. This is true in terms of gender, class, and even race. In the US, whites are more likely than blacks to commit suicide. So, why not look at ideologies in this light? None of this proves a causal link. There are endless confounding factors. Correlations aren’t necessarily meaningful, but they aren’t necessarily meaningless either. They are just evidence to be considered.

There are no conservatives.

There are no conservatives.

Someone can choose to be a regressive, rather than a progressive. A reactionary, rather than a radical. A right-winger, rather than a left-winger. But it is impossible to be a conservative in the world today.

We live in a liberal era. It is what frames our entire sense of reality, at least since the Enlightenment, although the basic framework has its roots in the Axial Age. There are many varieties of liberalism, and at this point all of us are liberals of some kind.

One of the most radical liberal ideas ever implemented is capitalism. So-called conservatives have embraced it, even though there is nothing conservative about it. That is because they aren’t conservatives, no matter what they claim.

We live in a world where there is nothing left to conserve. We’ve had continuous ‘progress’ and creative destruction for a very long time. Nothing has remained untouched and unmoved. Even fundamentalist religion is a modern invention. Tradition is an empty word, a talisman we shake to fend off the monster lurching out from the future’s shadow.

We can embrace this brave new world or fight it. Either way, conservatism isn’t an option. Change is inevitable, like it or not. Fantasies about the past are simply a form of entertainment, as the world collapses around us… and becomes something else.

* * *

If one reads carefully what I wrote and thinks carefully about what it means, it becomes obvious that this isn’t a paean to liberalism. It is simply noting the world we live in. Liberalism must accept the blame as much as the praise for where we find ourselves.

The past is gone. It won’t be saved or revived. I don’t think that is necessarily a good thing. Part of my motivation for writing this is that I wish I lived in a world where conservatism was possible, where there was something capable and worthy of being conserved. But the changes we are making to society and environment are permanent.

There is no turning back. We are past the point of no return.

* * *

“If Homo sapiens survives the next millennium, it will be survival in a world unrecognizably different from the one we have known for the last 200,000 years.

“In order for us to adapt to this strange new world, we’re going to need more than scientific reports and military policy. We’re going to need new ideas. We’re going to need new myths and new stories, a new conceptual understanding of reality, and a new relationship to the deep polyglot traditions of human culture that carbon-based capitalism has vitiated through commodification and assimilation. Over and against capitalism, we will need a new way of thinking our collective existence. We need a new vision of who “we” are. We need a new humanism— a newly philosophical humanism, undergirded by renewed attention to the humanities.

“Admittedly, ocean acidification, social upheaval, and species extinction are problems that humanities scholars, with their taste for fine-grained philological analysis, esoteric debates, and archival marginalia, might seem remarkably ill-suited to address. After all, how will thinking about Kant or Frantz Fanon help us trap carbon dioxide? Can arguments between object-oriented ontology and historical materialism protect honeybees from colony collapse disorder? Are ancient Greek philosophers, medieval poets, and contemporary metaphysicians going to save Bangladesh from being inundated by the Indian Ocean?

“Perhaps not. But the conceptual and existential problems that the Anthropocene poses are precisely those that have always been at the heart of humanistic inquiry: What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to live? What is truth? What is good? In the world of the Anthropocene, the question of individual mortality— What does my life mean in the face of death?— is universalized and framed in scales that boggle the imagination. 21 As environmental philosopher Dale Jamieson puts it, “The Anthropocene presents novel challenges for living a meaningful life.” 22 Historian and theorist Dipesh Chakrabarty has claimed that global warming “calls us to visions of the human that neither rights talk nor the critique of the subject ever contemplated.” 23 Whether we are talking about ethics or politics, ontology or epistemology, confronting the end of the world as we know it dramatically challenges our learned perspectives and ingrained priorities. What does consumer choice mean compared against 100,000 years of ecological catastrophe? What does one life mean in the face of mass death or the collapse of global civilization? How do we make meaningful decisions in the shadow of our inevitable end?

“These questions have no logical or empirical answers. They cannot be graphed or quantified. They are philosophical problems par excellence. If, as Montaigne asserted, “To philosophize is to learn how to die,” then we have entered humanity’s most philosophical age, for this is precisely the problem of the Anthropocene. 24 The rub now is that we have to learn to die not as individuals, but as a civilization.”

Learning to Die in the Anthropocene
By Roy Scranton
Kindle Locations 141-166