Tuesday, June 15, 2004

The Psychology of Political Conservatism

Did you know there is a wide body of academic literature concerning the psychology of political conservatives? I kid you not; as I write, there is probably some professor up for tenure with a very weak publication record, and his saving grace will be that in one particular study he had the "courage" to harp on the psychological problems of Republicans, which is a very brave thing to do on college campuses. If he wants to make the vote a cinch, he would be wise to show up at his tenure review in drag. You can't buy diversity like that on the faculty.

Curiously, even as the "couching" science has blossomed within the academy, the actual couching of conservatives in the public square has slowed considerably. At one time, scientists could openly couch conservatives. The most famous and thorough couching of all time took place prior to the 1964 election, when 1,189 psychiatrists declared Barry Goldwater mentally unstable and paranoid. One can assume that these psychiatrists presumed such attributes made Goldwater unfit for office. None of these shrinks had met Goldwater, which provided them the added bonus of not being liable to a malpractice suit for their armchair diagnoses. Unfortunately, that same fact left Fact magazine, the public benefactor responsible for informing the voting public of Goldwater’s instability, liable for a libel suit from Barry himself, which he handily won. So much for freedom of the press, free speech, and the moral imperative of an informed electorate! (I’ll just bet that John Ashcroft has a picture of Goldwater in his office.)

The libel suit that stemmed from Barry’s couching may have had a chilling effect on scientific inquiry in the field, or at least on efforts to apply the science of couching to everyday paranoid conservative politicians. But I think there is a larger reason the practice fell out of favor. When 1,189 psychiatrists peered into the convoluted workings of Goldwater’s brain, conservatism was no threat to the ruling liberal orthodoxy. That of course has changed, and with it couching has taken a back seat to other political strategies, which consist principally of claiming that conservatives possess the IQ of amoebas, and that we don’t wear facial hair because we are only capable of growing Hitler mustaches, and that would reveal what we really think.

Liberals no longer have the luxury of couching conservatives in real time - it can only be done on a post-mortem basis. Indeed, in an environment where they have helped define virtue as chiefly consisting of the quality of having been a victim, the practice of couching may elicit sympathy for us conservatives as the victims of authoritarian fathers. (Picture millions of Great Santinis raising little Young Republicans - the horror!) We might even add to our plurality through the misplaced sympathy of liberal voters who hope that voting us in will help to cure us by allowing us to “grow” in office (and there is some precedence that such growth does happen).

So deeply entrenched is the more effective dual strategy of painting every conservative as Hitler with a lobotomy that you could probably bring on your own assault by randomly approaching a student at Cal Berkeley and stating that you think George W. Bush is a compassionate and intelligent politician. With your arms covering your ears in a feeble attempt to protect your head, you may not hear her grunting between blows: “Take that for the Patriot Act and that for Guantanamo Bay and that for Blood for Oil.”

But there is also a slim chance that you may be spared the beating of your life (and it’s probably not your first, due to the likelihood of your authoritarian upbringing) at the hands of our young pacifist coed, if she has been schooled in the science of couching conservatives. As a student at Berkeley, she may have chanced upon a course or two taught by either Jack Glaser or Frank Sulloway, two Berkeley professors that are very recent contributors to the science. Glaser and Sulloway recently co-authored an article in the Psychological Bulletin along with John Jost of Stanford and Arie Kuglanski of the University of Maryland. Apparently the complexity of the topic requires four co-authors. We’ll call these guys the Four Freuds for simplicity.

The involvement of any Berkeley professor in this research area, let alone two, is worthy of note. That a man can walk the campus of Berkeley day in and day out for years, and each day arrive at his office thinking about the psychological oddities of conservatives is no small wonder. Have these guys ever even seen a conservative outside of the occasional Connie Chung interview of some 70 year-old neo-Nazi who lives 200 miles from his nearest neighbor? Paleontologists arguably have more first hand experience with live dinosaurs then a Berkeley professor is likely to have with conservatives.

And if these guys were faculty at Berkeley 35 years ago, they may have found themselves held at gunpoint by some of your average psychologically well-adjusted Berkeley students. That was when the quaint practice of our best and brightest students holding their college administrators hostage at gunpoint was in vogue. These rational idealists would demand changes to the curriculum in exchange for the safe release of the administrators, and did so at Cornell and Yale, among others. You might think that such happening would have spawned a psychology of the extreme left that sought to explain why some would risk lifelong incarceration in exchange for the promise of easier college classes. But quite the opposite probably occurred.

Picture the scene: Glaser and Sulloway as human bargaining chips for the students’ demands to add a litany of courses that have as their common theme the corruption of all those stodgy institutions that have led to their receiving an advanced education free of charge. Glaser and Sulloway, in the five tense moments it takes for the administration to capitulate to the demands of the terrorists (and thank them for adding diversity to the curriculum) independently and simultaneously envision their next great research project. “I will establish the perverse psychological motives of conservatives!” A turning point in the history of science! A few semesters later, they are co-teaching a course entitled “Conservatives - Still Crazy After All These Years”, listed proudly in the coursebook alongside other classics born that same day, such as “Marriage as Modern Slavery” and “How White Men Ruined the Utopian State of Nature.” Maybe Jost and Kuglanski were dilated-eyed Berkeley undergrads who happened to show up for Glaser and Sulloway’s lectures, and the rest is history.


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