George Will

WASHINGTON -- This just in: Conservatism often is symptomatic of a psychological syndrome. It can involve fear, aggression, uncertainty avoidance, intolerance of ambiguity, dogmatic dislike of equality, irrational nostalgia and need for ``cognitive closure,'' all aspects of the authoritarian personality.

Actually, this theory has been floating around academic psychology for half a century. It is reprised in ``Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition,'' written by four professors for Psychological Bulletin.

``Motivated social cognition'' refers to the ``motivational underpinnings'' of ideas, the ``situational as well as dispositional variables'' that foster particular beliefs. Notice: situations and dispositions -- not reasons. Professors have reasons for their beliefs. Other people, particularly conservatives, have social and psychological explanations for their beliefs. ``Motivated cognition'' involves ways of seeing and reasoning about the world that are unreasonable because they arise from emotional, psychological needs.

The professors note, ``The practice of singling out political conservatives for special study began ... (with a 1950) study of authoritarianism and the fascist potential in personality.'' The industry of studying the sad psychology of conservatism is booming. It began with a European mixture of Marxism and Freudianism. It often involves a hash of unhistorical judgments, including the supposedly scientific, value-free judgment that conservatives are authoritarians, and that fascists -- e.g., the socialist Mussolini, and Hitler, the National Socialist who wanted to conserve nothing -- were conservatives.

The four professors now contribute ``theories of epistemic and existential needs, and socio-political theories of ideology as individual and collective rationalizations'' and ``defensive motivations'' -- defenses against fear of uncertainty and resentment of equality. The professors have ideas; the rest of us have emanations of our psychological needs and neuroses.

``In the post-Freudian world, the ancient dichotomy between reason and passion is blurred,'' say the professors, who do not say that their judgments arise from social situations or emotional needs rather than reason. The professors usefully survey the vast literature churned out by the legions of academics who have searched for the unsavory or pathological origins of conservatism (fear of death? harsh parenting? the ``authoritarian personality''?).

George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
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