We live in a decidedly conservative country. The Presidency, both houses of Congress and nearly two thirds of the states are controlled by Republicans. It’s likely that the Supreme Court will once again soon have a conservative majority. And this has happened despite Democrats winning the popular vote both for the presidency and for the Senate. This is the first of a two-part article examining, first, how liberals can understand what motivates conservatives and, second, how conservatives can understand why liberals hold such dramatically different world views.
After many years of studying the intersection of politics, psychology and philosophy, I have come to see that the primary emotion that drives people to be conservative is fear. Fear arises in early childhood through many factors: genetic inheritance, dysfunctional families, harsh or absent parents, religious indoctrination (‘Fear thy God’), traumatic experiences or injury, unsafe environments. The child learns to fear whatever threatens her and devises strategies to protect herself. The strategies might include avoidance, submission, seeking protection, self-blaming, finding ways to become more powerful, and many other responses. We are very creative in defending ourselves.
When you feel fear, safety becomes paramount. So, people who have a habitual fear response, gravitate to security. Law and order become a basic need. Respect for the authorities that create and enforce law is a natural consequence. The king, the ruler, the President, the police, the military, the church hierarchy – all these authority figures are revered. So too are laws, rules, religious codes of behavior, societal norms. These precepts are what restrain people from acting out in undisciplined ways that would be threatening and might, thus, bring up fear.
Anyone who deviates from the law or the rules or even the social conventions becomes a threat. It might be a hippy with long hair, a homosexual, a person with a different skin color or religion, a protester, a communist. For many conservatives, these people become “not us”, alien, worthy of suspicion or discrimination or even enemies. Fear begets anger.
The conservative divides the world in this way: into us and them, safe and unsafe. The conservative motto might be: I will protect what is mine: my life, my family, my country, my religion, my property, my privileges. These are what must be conserved and defended.
The conservative’s first loyalty is to himself, then in gradually expanding circles to his family, his community, his clan or faith, his country. Because of this focus on self and family first, the conservative does not want to be responsible for the economic welfare of others. The conservative belief is that people should take care of themselves and their own. If they cannot, they are undeserving and a burden on all of us who are responsible. Thus, a conservative will happily pay taxes for a strong police force and military (protection from fear) but resent paying them for aid to the poor or sick.
It is, therefore, no surprise that our current President in his first few weeks in office has played on so many fears: undocumented immigrants who commit crimes, murder rates in Chicago, refugees who might become terrorists, journalists as enemies of the people, Islam as an alien ideology. And, naturally, his remedies are to increase defense spending, protect the police from lawsuits, build better and more nuclear weapons, exclude foreigners from the country and cut spending on social and environmental programs to pay for….protection from fear.
Because fear was baked in to the conservative’s mind at a very early age, it is really difficult for them to hear objective information that contradicts some of the fear messages they are always receiving. For example, violent crime rates have been trending down for many years. Or, immigrants have lower crime rates than natural born citizens. Or, we have the lowest unemployment rate in a generation. Or, the US dollar is at an all-time high. Or, we have better air and water than most of the world because of our environmental regulations. Or, your handgun is more likely to kill you or someone you love than to protect you from an intruder in your home.
Is it even possible to communicate across the mental divide and world view that separate conservatives from liberals? I think there are ways, and I will be examining these in a future blog. But coming up next: Understanding the Liberal Mind.