Conservatism As Identity Politics--Intro

Cross-posted from my new blog, "Patterns That Connect."


Last week, Glenn Greenwald wrote an influential post, "Do Bush followers have a political ideology?", in which he argued that Bush supporters are cultists who do not possess a political ideology, but instead use the terms "conservative" and "liberal" to identify members of the cult and those outside the cult, respectively. While I agree with the vast majority of Glenn's analysis, I believed he was mistaken in one respect--the cultism is the ideology.  What's more, it is also a form of conservatism, as I argued in an initial response, "It's The Ideology, Smarty!" at My Left Wing. Here I want to expand on those remarks in a series of posts, and place them in a larger framework that draws on a variety of different disciplines and perspectives.  At the core of this endeavor is a definition of conservatism, as follows.


Here's my thesis: Conservatism is a form (indeed the original form) of identity politics.  It is expressed through multiple forms of political ideology based on justifying elite rule and the division of the human race into dualized classes (ideal and counter-ideal) in terms of some "natural" moral order.  

Conservatism appears in various forms as the rationalizations and dualized classes shift over time, and in three distinct states of realization, reflecting different levels of development of the self.  The overt rationalizations commonly mistaken for conservative ideology are, in fact, derivative phenomena--tertiary at best.  The primary phenomena is the creation of a conservative identity, the subject of conservative political narratives.  The secondary phenomena is the supporting ideology of superior and inferior groups, casting conservative identity as something to be preserved, promoted, and defended against the forces of evil, embodied in its demonized others.  The primary and secondary phenomena are relatively constant over time, while the tertiary phenomena vary considerably.

This thesis will be elaborated, explained and justified in a series of posts.  It reflects a range of ideas I have been reflecting on over a number of years, though the occasion for drawing them together is the debate sparks by Glenn's post.

Six Perspectives

The ideas embodied in the above definition derive from a diverse range of perspectives, grounded in six major disciplines--political theory, history, public opinion research, psychoanalytic theory, developmental psychology, and political psychology--which I expect to reappear frequently on this blog in the future as well.  

Political theory allows us to focus on and describe the overt historical forms of outward ideological expression. It allows us to identify common elements and themes, as well as variations. It will be referred to in what follows, but generally only within an historical framework.

History provides a framework for relating continuity and differences in political theory to their real-world contexts. Historically, the nature of conservative ideology in the modern, post-Enlightenment era is described in terms of major theorists, such as Burke and de Maistre, and different lines of development predominating in England, Continental Europe and the United States. The variety of historical forms that modern conservatism has taken serves as a framework for critiquing naive claims identifying conservatism with relatively recent and accidental forms of its secondary, outward ideological expression in the United States.

Public opinion research provides solid empirical data for demonstrating the way in which post-New Deal conservatism functions as a form of identity politics, unifying two radically opposed political tendencies--social conservatism and libertarianism.  It explains how liberalism and conservatism as conceptualized in quite different ways, not simply as mirror images of one another.

Psychoanalytic theory explains the underlying dynamics of demonizing the other and idealizing conservative identity.  While the processes involved are common to all individuals to some degree or another, they do not necessarily play a role in constituting key aspects of political thought, as they do in the case of conservatism.

Developmental psychology--which describes how the very foundations of human reasoning go through a series of reorganizations during the developmental process--provides a framework for understanding conservatism as a failed attempt to deal with a world too complex for its order of cognitive complexity to grasp.  It further allows us to understand conservative cultism as corresponding to an even more primitive developmental stage, characterized by the very sorts of logically inadequate thought processes we have increasingly witnessed throughout the Bush presidency.  An even more primitive developmental stage may correspond to the atavistic eliminationist rhetoric which David Niewart at Orcinus has been tracking for so long.

Political psychology  provides a complex picture of conservatism as partially defined by a  range of psychological motivations, including some quite directly related to oft-stated conservative values, such as order and stability, and others about which conservatives are more ambiguous, sometimes invoking, and sometimes disowning. Two factors, correlated both with group prejudice and political conservatism, are particularly noteworthy--rightwing authoritarianism (RWA) and social dominance orientation (SDO).   RWA is significantly correlated with a wide range of character flaws, including deficits in reasoning and lack of critical self-awareness, and is much more strongly identified with conservative politics among those who are most politically active. SDO is an element of social dominance theory (SDT), which explains how hierarchical societies perpetuate themselves through an interaction of socially conditioned attitudes, institutions and legitimating ideological expressions, the later of which are often most changeable, sometimes even adopting an outwardly egalitarian appearance--as with seemingly egalitarian arguments against affirmative action.

Taken altogether, these approaches will allow us to gain a far more accurate picture of what conservatism is all about.  This, in turn, will provide a foundation for much more effective political action at every level.  It should not be expected to dictate a specific course of action, but it should be expected to dictate against some courses of action--some of them currently quite popular.

What's Next

I will  begin the series proper with evidence from a 1964 study, published in 1967, that produced the first broad picture of American public opinion, complete with some complexities that have persisted to the present day, despite the considerable shifts in the political landscape since then.  The data from that study--backed up by 30+ years of surveys from the General Social Survey--provides compelling evidence that conservatism functions as a kind of identity politics, which overtly appears to be about ideology, but has underlying elements of simple group identity politics.  It's always nice to start with some hard data, especially when it establishes a fundamental pattern that clarifies so much else that is otherwise so murky.

Tags: Conservatives, Identity Politics, Ideology, Patterns That Connect, Political Psychology (all tags)



My New Blog, And Welcome To It

After a long hiatus, I've resumed work on my own blog, re-launched as "Patterns That Connect", an image, idea and orientation that comes from anthropologist and cybernetic philosopher Gregory Bateson.  I'll be cross-posting everything from my blog here at MyDD, as well as at Left Wing, and I'll be posting stuff here that I won't be posting there.

My blog will be a place to collect a certain kind of diaries, a place that may attract people from different spheres who might not come find them here.  I expect things to be slow there for a while--I'm not a great promoter--but I expect a different sort of flavor to arise in the comments over time, so I invite folks to read and comment at either place, as the spirit moves them.

You can find the introductory post to my blog here

by Paul Rosenberg 2006-02-22 03:08PM | 0 recs
My theory

On a fundamental level most people are conservatives, even in Europe. Conservatism appeals to our "lower instincts" - self preservation, fear of strangers and outsiders, good v/s evil, certainty, the will to revenge, sometimes even blood lust, and authoritarianism (follow the leader, tough on crime/terror/immigrants). My experience - from living in Europe - is that even here people are conservative when it comes to questions about war, immigration, crime and education, but not the economy.

Liberalism is possible but must be cultivated through education, and very few places in the world has succeeded with this. These places are the most peaceful and happy nations on the earth. Liberalism has its roots in Christianity and was/is an attempt by liberal/true Christians to deal with the horrible violence, intolerance and hypocrisy of the conservative/fake Pharisee Christians.

by Populism2008 2006-02-22 11:51PM | 0 recs
Well, Sort Of...

I hope you hang in there and read my whole series, because some of what you say has some validity, supported by empirical data, but some of it involves what looks like sloppy generalization to me.  The whole point of this series is to try to get a whole lot clearer about the how this all fits together.

For example, contrary to conservative propaganda, Liberalism has never presented itself as depending on a naively sunny view of human nature.  It has always been concerned with finding ways to bring the powers of selfish and altruistic motivations together, as well as diminishing the needs that stoke selfish motivations. Indeed, social contract theory establishes the legitimacy of the state on the basis of diminishing fear of losing everything--ending the "war of all against all."

Thus, in my view, a more accurate restatement of what you've claimed would be that "on a fundamental level most people have needs that conservatives harp on"--but that conservative power depends precisely on never really meeting these needs, while liberals threaten them precisely by meeting them.

Take crime, for example.  "Get tough" attitudes toward crime are notoriously ineffective--for fighting crime. But that's fine, since they work wonders for electing conservatives. And the more they fail, more people are afraid, and the more they vote for more conservatives.

That's another one of those Patterns That Connect.

by Paul Rosenberg 2006-02-23 08:27AM | 0 recs
Re: Well, Sort Of...

Thanks for your reply.

I wouldn't claim that liberalism depends on a "sunny view" of human nature. I have studied some liberal philosophy and from Hobbes and onward there is a streak of pessimism/realism behind the theories of the state.

But liberalism depends on certain attitudes that don't come natural to people. One of those attitudes is to understand and sympathize with strangers. The attitude that is natural to most humans (those that haven't been educated in a liberal value system) is to get tough - on crime, on immigration and so on. It's not just a question about the effectiveness as you claim - that people would vote for liberals if they knew that liberalism would make them better off - but about our deepest identity.

The support, higher among people with lesser education, for death penalty shows this very clear. Arguments about the lack of effectiveness doesn't turn people around on this issue - because it's mostly about revenge and blood lust. Deep down a lot of us wan't to see the criminal suffer for his crimes, and we feel cheated when it doesn't happen. The conservative impulse is an impulse of agression and fear and can only be tamed by education. In peaceful times people are more liberal, but when war comes around the two battling nation will soon have conservatives in power, talking and acting tough.

I suppose you could say that Hitler was a conservative, if one means conservatism as a human instinct rather than a theoretical doctrine.

by Populism2008 2006-02-25 12:45AM | 0 recs
The 'Natural' Argument Is Textbook Conservatism

But liberalism depends on certain attitudes that don't come natural to people.
This is the conservative argument from human nature.  But liberalism realizes a wider range of human nature than conservatism does, and the past 60 years of psychological research--since the end of WWII--strongly supports the liberal view from a number of persepctives, which I'll get into later on in this series.

One of those attitudes is to understand and sympathize with strangers.
Suspicion of strangers is a common human trait.  But so is curiosity, even fascination.  There's a reason that Romeo and Juliet is considered timeless.  The social structure has to fight hard to keep each new generation in line.

The attitude that is natural to most humans (those that haven't been educated in a liberal value system) is to get tough - on crime, on immigration and so on. It's not just a question about the effectiveness as you claim - that people would vote for liberals if they knew that liberalism would make them better off - but about our deepest identity.
People react this way to fear.  But living in fear is no more natural than living in peace and contenment.  In fact, it's less so.  Peace and contentment reflect our optimal state of living.  Fear exists as a mobilizing mechanism for dealing with immediate danger.  An attitude based on an extended state of fear is actually quite unnatural, and reflects the fact that our social systems are vastly different than the ones in which we evolved.

Deconstructing the myth of the natural is one of the perennial tasks of those who would free themselves from conservative dogma.

by Paul Rosenberg 2006-02-25 05:27AM | 0 recs
Re: The 'Natural' Argument Is Textbook Conservatis

Human nature supports liberalism, not conservatism. Humans are happy in a state of peace, as you point out. Liberalism is the best way to deal with human shortcomings such as those I've listed above.

But I disagree that peace is the natural condition. We are built to survive, not to be happy. In nature people are scared more often than not - it keeps them on their toes so that they survive and can reproduce.

by Populism2008 2006-02-27 11:21AM | 0 recs


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