The Psychology of Conservatism in Decline

In its quantitative form, politics is about vote counts and polling data. In its qualitiative form, politics is about the state and the relative power of the many kinds of people in it. Today’s conservative problem is the diminishing power of its most likely voters compared to the less-likely, but more numerous, liberal voters. At New York Magazine, Jonathan Chait describes the Republican Party’s “last stand” as the party of white, suburban voters in 2012, offering this summary of the Southern Strategy:

Whatever its abstract intellectual roots, conservatism has since at least the sixties drawn its political strength by appealing to heartland identity politics. In 1985, Stanley Greenberg, then a political scientist, immersed himself in Macomb County, a blue-collar Detroit suburb where whites had abandoned the Democratic Party in droves. He found that the Reagan Democrats there understood politics almost entirely in racial terms, translating any Democratic appeal to economic justice as taking their money to subsidize the black underclass. And it didn’t end with the Reagan era. Piles of recent studies have found that voters often conflate “social” and “economic” issues. What social scientists delicately call “ethnocentrism” and “racial resentment” and “ingroup solidarity” are defining attributes of conservative voting behavior, and help organize a familiar if not necessarily rational coalition of ideological interests. Doctrines like neoconservative foreign policy, supply-side economics, and climate skepticism may bear little connection to each other at the level of abstract thought. But boiled down to political sound bites and served up to the voters, they blend into an indistinguishable stew of racial, religious, cultural, and nationalistic identity. (Emphasis mine)

Culture is a human adaptation built around identity — beginning with gods, which is why Rick Santorum has earned the approval of “real” conservatives who’ve been waiting for a “real” conservative to lead them. If that sounds messianic, remember that faith-based politics rule the Republican Party.

Readers may remember a discussion last year about whether conservatism had become a cult (root of the word “culture”) or a religion (every religion being built around a cult). At the time, I posited that today’s conservatism is in fact a product brand — a cultic belief system built around a material object, such as a political party.

“We” is the foundation of any culture. There is a “we” in the conservative mind, and it is much better-defined than the “we” of the liberal mind, but the conservative “we” has been growing narrower every year even as the term “conservative” has gained in popularity. Most people who say it don’t even define it in political terms, but cultural ones.

Any culture exists to solve specific environmental and social problems. Whenever external change makes cultural adaptation necessary, the cultural belief system must either adapt or die. The Southern Strategy has always been about asserting a cultural identity to the benefit of one political party; the manifold issues absorbed into the cognitive culture have been about the party’s needs, just as conservative culture has embedded its values in the party.

Thus conservatism today is an enormous mess of rationalized cognitive dissonance and outright denial: to call one’s self “conservative” is to say you don’t believe in climate change, for example, when the historical record is littered with cultures that failed to adapt to climate change. Chait again:

(T)he psychology of decline does not always operate in a straightforward, rational way. A strategy of managing slow decay is unpleasant, and history is replete with instances of leaders who persuaded themselves of the opposite of the obvious conclusion. Rather than adjust themselves to their slowly weakening position, they chose instead to stage a decisive confrontation. If the terms of the fight grow more unfavorable with every passing year, well, all the more reason to have the fight sooner.

That “decisive confrontation” is the last stand, and it is psychologically easier than adaptation to change. Evolution requires reflection and alteration of the self, whereas fighting only requires militancy. Because America is becoming less white, the GOP prefers to fight change rather than be changed.

It is easy to oversimplify this story as being simply about race. In fact, conservative culture finds it easy to incorporate people of color who speak their language (witness the Herman Cain candidacy). Racist memes about lazy, shiftless people of color are not simply about skin tone, but culture. When self-described conservatives assert that “anyone can be a nigger” because the word means more than just race, they are (awkwardly) speaking about sublimated class tension.

And class is very much at issue these days. “We are the 99%” is a statement about the imbalance of political power between a tiny minority and the rest of us, but in the conservative mind “we” includes that tiny, wealthy slice as well as everyone who “produces” rather than “mooches.” The economic culture war is in fact the defining conflict of the conservative movement because it assumes all the other conflicts.

This language of producers and moochers comes from the novel Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, which presents a dystopian future of civilization in collapse. Readers will recall the Glenn Beck doom bunker, which endorsed gold and seed packages as “disaster supplies.” Conservative propaganda is rife with this kind of paranoia, yet as Chait argues, the disaster that Republicans really fear is an electoral one brought by changes to the larger American culture.

A culture resisting change will often seem most successful even as it fails: Inca power over subject tribes had reached a zenith when Spaniards arrived and found the locals simmering in discontent. Chait recounts how Republicans seized power in Congress and statehouses two years ago, bet everything on a confrontation with President Obama, and stand to lose it all this year. If they do, it will be a disaster of their own making — because they saw it coming, but it was easier to fight a losing battle than admit they were the problem.

About Matt Osborne

Veteran blogging the culture wars from Alabama. Video journalist, mash-up artist, aspiring novelist, and metalhead. Expect bunnies, geekery, dark humor, and snarky empirical analysis to annoy idealists of all stripes. You can follow me on Twitter, but be ready 'cause it might get loud.
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