Thomas B. Edsall has an excellent New York Times Opinionator post probing the psychology underlying the modern Republican party’s sharp turn toward extremist goals and methods. Edsall’s post, “How Did Conservatives Get This Radical?” should be of interest to journalists who want to elevate the nation’s political discourse and enlighten their readers.
Many of today’s self-described “conservatives” are in reality embracing a radical extremist agenda, threatening crisis after crisis and seeking to make economic brinksmanship the new norm. Edsall quotes veteran GOP operative Peter Wehner who puts it succinctly:
This is not conservatism either in terms of disposition or governing philosophy. It is, rather, the product of intemperate minds and fairly radical (and thoroughly unconservative) tendencies.
Edsall has an eagle eye for the apt quote, and offers this from a recent Wall St. Journal editorial:
Kamikaze missions rarely turn out well, least of all for the pilots…We’ve often supported backbenchers who want to push G.O.P. leaders in a better policy direction, most recently on the farm bill. But it’s something else entirely to sabotage any plan with a chance of succeeding and pretend to have “leverage” that exists only in the world of townhall applause lines and fundraising letters.
Turning to social scientists to illuminate the underlying attitudes behind the Republicans’ abandonment of real conservatism, Edsall quotes from an email he received from University of Washington political scientist Christopher Parker, which limns the parameters of authentic conservatism:
Ultimately, a conservative — in the classical sense — wishes to preserve a stable society. Of course, this includes stable institutions and observing the rule of law. For these reasons (and several more), a conservative prefers evolutionary, more incremental change to revolutionary change: revolutionary change threatens the stability conservatives seek to conserve. Hence, conservatives reluctantly accept change — so long as it isn’t revolutionary. They do so for the sake of stability and order. Moreover, for the sake of order and stability, real conservatives are amenable to political compromise with their opponents.
But then there’s the “reactionary conservatives” of today, who Parker explains are,
…backwards looking, generally fearful of losing their way of life in a wave of social change. To preserve their group’s social status, they’re willing to undermine long-established norms and institutions — including the law. They see political differences as a war of good versus evil in which their opponents are their enemies. For them, compromise is commensurate with defeat — not political expediency. They believe social change is subversive to the America with which they’ve become familiar, i.e., white, mainly male, Protestant, native born, straight. “Real Americans”…
Edsall presents charts revealing data showing a major difference in attitudes of ‘tea party conservatives’ and and ‘non-tea party conservatives’ on immigrant equality, civil liberties and President Obama, with tea party respondents consistently embracing less humane views. He cites a test developed by psychologist Robert Altemeyer which Avi Tuschman, author of “Our Political Nature: The Evolutionary Origins of What Divides Us,” uses to reveal “three clusters of measurable personality traits that correlate with political conservatism or liberalism,” including:
1) Tribalism vs. xenophilia (an attraction to outsider groups); religiosity vs. secularism; and different levels of tolerance of “non-reproductive sexuality”;
2) opposing moral worldviews concerning inequality, one based on the principle of egalitarianism, the other based on ordered hierarchy, what people used to call “the great chain of being”; and
3) perceptions of human nature, people who see human nature as more cooperative vs. others who see it as more competitive.
Edsall references another study, “Political Ideology: Its Structure, Functions, and Elective Affinities,” which found,
Speciﬁcally, death anxiety, system instability, fear of threat and loss, dogmatism, intolerance of ambiguity, and personal needs for order, structure, and closure were all positively associated with conservatism. Conversely, openness to new experiences, cognitive complexity, tolerance of uncertainty, and (to a small extent) self-esteem were all positively associated with liberalism.
Another social-psychological measurement, “social dominance orientation,” explains Edsall, measures “preference for inequality among social groups,” He relates it to political beliefs, noting Parker’s data indicating that “there are more Tea Party conservatives with high measured levels of social dominance orientation (39 percent) compared with non-Tea Party conservatives (30 percent).”
Edsall concludes that “Until more white voters come to terms with their status as an emerging American minority, the forces driving voters to support Tea Party candidates and elected officials who adamantly reject compromise will remain strong — and the Republican Party will remain fractured.”