Why Can't Liberals Talk to Conservatives?


What's really the Matter with Kansas?

Thomas Frank's book "What's the Matter with Kansas" pointed out the shift in attitudes in the moderate portion of the population to a concern with "values" rather than economic issues. While he was able to paint a vivid picture of the situation and the historical changes in the makeup of the power base of the local Republican party he was not able to answer the question which he himself posed: "Why do people continue to vote against their own self interest?"

A possible insight into the psychological reasons below:

Recently there has been an increased awareness of the "authoritarian personality". This started in the 1950's with the work of Theodor Adorno and his colleagues in the book "The Authoritarian Personality". They attempted to see if they could find certain characteristics of a person's personality which would correlate with the propensity to follow ideologues like Hitler and Mussolini. This work has been followed up by many others since then. A good summary of this work is presented on this web page: Study Summary

I've extracted and reformatted the part that I think applies to the present discussion (presented below). The summary makes the claim that there are certain personality traits which are associated with a conservative political outlook. I'm using the dictionary definition of conservatism:

  1. The inclination, especially in politics, to maintain the existing or traditional order.
  2. A political philosophy or attitude emphasizing respect for traditional institutions, distrust of government activism, and opposition to sudden change in the established order.
The authors conclusions:
We consider evidence for and against the hypotheses that political conservatism is significantly associated with:
  1. mental rigidity and closed-mindedness, including
    1. increased dogmatism and intolerance of ambiguity
    2. decreased cognitive complexity
    3. decreased openness to experience
    4. uncertainty avoidance
    5. personal needs for order and structure
    6. need for cognitive closure
  2. lowered self-esteem
  3. fear, anger, and aggression
  4. pessimism, disgust, and contempt
  5. loss prevention
  6. fear of death
  7. threat arising from social and economic deprivation
  8. threat to the stability of the social system
In addition they state:
The two core aspects of conservatism are generally psychologically related to one another for most of the people most of the time. In part, this is because of the historical fact that traditional social arrangements have generally been more hierarchical and less egalitarian compared with nontraditional arrangements. Therefore, to resist change in general has often meant resisting increased efforts at egalitarianism; conversely, to preserve the status quo has typically entailed entrusting the present and future to the same authorities who have controlled the past. Accordingly, several common measures of political conservatism include items gauging both resistance to change and endorsement of inequality.
[My emphasis]
What these two extracts highlight is that many people have a psychological need for a society in which there place is given and where decision making is handled by "those in charge". It is no longer fashionable to speak of one "knowing one's place" in a country like the US which prides itself on its individualism, but in reality most of us do know our place. We act appropriately when dealing with our "betters", whether our teachers, bosses, clergy, political leaders or even the rich and famous.

So what happens when the political hierarchy says to the middle class in Kansas "leave everything to us, we know best." For those with an authoritarian/conservative outlook it sounds right. Pushing for change entails risk which matches the points above including the need for order and structure and the threat to the stability of the social system.

The present social organization is unequal; liberal efforts to change this run right into the attitudes highlighted in the second extract. There is an inherent belief that inequality is either pre-ordained (or divinely mandated, in certain cases) or proper because it maintains the status quo. Look at all the people in history who have supported the ideas of Monarchy, even when they themselves were living in misery. Even today in the UK there are lots of people of modest means who don't see anything wrong with a permanent privileged class. Many even take pride in being able to point to the wealth and pomp of royalty. They bask in reflected glory, as it were.

The consequences of these attitudes can be seen in the popularity of Libertarianism and the lack of a broad-based populist movement. Rather than seeing the excessive wealth and power of the few as taking away resources from the rest of society, this inequality is looked at as proper. The Libertarians regard it as the just rewards of personal initiative, the conservatives regard it as a goal that they may also reach. To oppose it will, therefore, cost them in the future when "their ship comes in". Progressives will use arguments such as pointing out that most of the super-rich inherited their wealth, they didn't get it by pluck. The argument carries no weight, why? The answer lies in the first personality trait: "mental rigidity and closed-mindedness", and the sub-reasons of avoidance of complexity, ambiguity and openness to experience. That is, facts which contradict an accepted belief are discounted or ignored. Thus, the liberal belief that appeals to reason and fact will overcome opponents fails.

The result of this nexus of conservative and authoritarian thought patterns is a failure of liberals to persuade those who oppose their positions. "Conservative" ideologues don't have the same problems with attracting followers. What they do is appeal to an ideal (in many cases pointing to an imaginary golden age, in the past) social situation. So by saying, for example, we need to strengthen the family (as it was in the past) they are able to seize political power. Once in place they freely impose radical change while all the while treating the changes as a maintenance of, or return to, the status quo ante.

A classic example, from Kansas's past is the campaign of Carrie Nation to ban alcohol. This effort was based upon the claim to be preserving the family which was being ruined by the drinking of the wage earner. This effort eventually led to the radical step of a constitutional amendment banning alcohol. Thus, a radical change in society (banning a substance which had been in use for millennia - even in religious ceremonies) was promoted as a "conservative" step. This radical step led to a decade of lawlessness in the form of organized crime, bootleggers, bribing of police and government officials and disregard of the law by a substantial fraction of the populace. Even the goal of eliminating drunkenness failed as usage grew back to almost pre-prohibition rates within the decade. After the repeal, society was left with a permanent organized crime structure which then moved into gambling and drug dealing and which persists to this day. So much for a "conservative" agenda.

The challenge to those fighting for social equality is how to appeal to those whose fear of change is greater than their desire to improve their own lot, let alone the conditions of the even less fortunate. Notice that the efforts of the "liberal" Christian communities to use the words of Jesus about poverty and helping the weak, even though they appeal to religious doctrine, have not resonated either. The status quo they point to (or the idealized past) is too remote to serve as a model for contemporary society.

I don't have any suggestions on how to appeal to this group, but I think the first step is to understand their psychological makeup and how it controls their political, social and economic attitudes. Then messages can be tailored to overcome fears while providing a vision for a better future, even for them.

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If you have any comments or for further discussions email me at robert.feinman@gmail.com
Copyright © 2006 Robert D Feinman
Feel free to use the ideas, but the words are mine.