Conservative psychosis

George Will

8/10/2003 12:00:00 AM - 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''?).

But it is difficult to take the professors' seriousness seriously when they say, in an essay responding to a critique of their paper, that Ronald Reagan's ``chief accomplishment, in effect, was to roll back both the New Deal and the 1960s.'' His ``accomplishment''? So that is why Social Security and Medicare disappeared.

The professors write, ``One is justified in referring to Hitler, Mussolini, Reagan, and Limbaugh as right-wing conservatives ... because they all preached a return to an idealized past and favored or condoned inequality in some form.'' Until the professors give examples of political people who do not favor or condone equality in any form, it is fair to conclude that, for all their pretensions to scientific rigor, they are remarkably imprecise. And they are very political people, who would be unlikely ever to begin a sentence: ``One is justified in referring to Stalin, Mao, Franklin Roosevelt and the editors of The New York Times as left-wing liberals because ...''

The professors acknowledge that ``the same motives may underlie different beliefs.'' And ``different motives may underlie the same beliefs.'' And ``motivational and informational influences on belief formation are not incompatible.'' And no reasoning occurs in a ``motivational vacuum.'' And ``virtually all belief systems'' are embraced because they ``satisfy some psychological needs.'' And all this ``does not mean that conservatism is pathological or that conservative beliefs are necessarily false.''

Not necessarily. What a relief. But there is no comparable academic industry devoted to studying the psychological underpinnings of liberalism. Liberals, you see, embrace liberalism for an obvious and uncomplicated reason -- liberalism is self-evidently true. But conservatives embrace conservatism for reasons that must be excavated from their inner turmoils, many of them pitiable or disreputable.

The professors' paper is adorned with this epigraph:

``Conservatism is a demanding mistress and is giving me a migraine.'' -- George F. Will

A ``mistress'' who is ``demanding''? Freud, call your office. The epigraph is from ``Bunts,'' a book of baseball essays, from an essay concerning what conservatives should think about the designated hitter. Will probably thought he was being lighthearted. Silly him. Actually, he was struggling with fear of ambiguity and the need for cognitive closure.

Conservatives, in the crippling grip of motivated social cognition, think they oppose the DH because it makes the game less interesting by reducing managers' strategic choices. But they really oppose that innovation because mental rigidity makes them phobic about change and intolerant of the ambiguous status of the DH. And because Mussolini would have opposed the DH.