Do conservatives need psychological help?

Posted: Mar 22, 2006 12:05 AM

Remember the cocky, arrogant kid in nursery school, the one who always thought that he had all the answers and that he could do whatever he wanted, and was always ignoring what the teacher had to say? Chances are this bully grew up to be a conservative.

Right now, I have no doubt that some liberal readers are nodding their heads and saying, "Yes! That makes total sense. Conservatives are such bullies!"

Well, according to the latest "scientific" study this is nonsense. In fact, it's the other way around.

Here's the lead from a story in the Toronto Star about a new study in the Journal of Research Into Personality: "Remember the whiny, insecure kid in nursery school, the one who always thought everyone was out to get him, and was always running to the teacher with complaints? Chances are he grew up to be a conservative."

Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley - of course - found that of the roughly 100 kids they tracked for 20 years, starting in nursery school, the whiny kids were more likely to become conservatives.

UC Berkeley professor Jack Block's theory, according to the Star, is that insecure kids look for "reassurance provided by tradition and authority, and find it in conservative politics. The more confident kids are eager to explore alternatives to the way things are, and find liberal politics more congenial."

Ah yes, in Berkeley, Calif., nothing is more rebellious to the status quo than being a liberal. Why, they must be pariahs at the local organic food co-op. I mean, it's just plain heroic to embrace liberal politics in a town where residents cast 90 percent of their votes for John Kerry and only 6.6 percent of their votes for Bush.

But don't nominate these mavericks for a Profiles in Courage award just yet. If you read down to the 15th paragraph in the story, you'll discover that there was "a .27 correlation between being self-reliant in nursery school and being a liberal as an adult." In other words, self-reliance explains seven percent of the variance between kids who bravely became liberal and tykes who supinely embraced conservative politics.

One obvious problem with this sort of analysis is that the single best predictor of partisan affiliation is the political orientation of your parents. In Berkeley, the most liberal majority-white city in America, most kids are going to be liberal because their parents are liberal. If one or two of the whinier kids turn out to be conservative, it might have more to do with the fact that their parents are whiny conservatives. Heck, if I lived in Berkeley, I might be whiny too.

To call these sorts of studies entirely useless is probably unfair. No doubt Block has more or less accurately charted the path of his subjects. And even he concedes that the study tells us little about the rest of the country. But it's also pretty clear that Block wants to find psychologically satisfying explanations for what makes people conservatives. It's not hard to imagine that if the whiny, sniveling brats turned out to be liberals, he would explain this as proof that liberals are born more emotionally sensitive and with a greater acuity for spotting injustice.

One reason this isn't hard to imagine is that this is a very, very old game. Ever since Theodor Adorno came out with his scandalously flawed Authoritarian Personality in 1950, liberal and leftist social scientists have been trying to diagnose conservatism as a psychological defect or sickness. Adorno and his colleagues argued that conservatism was little more than a "pre-fascist" "personality type." According to this school, sympathy for communism was an indication of openness and healthy idealism. Opposition to communism was a symptom of your more deep-seated pathologies and fascist tendencies. According to Adorno, subjects who saw Nazism and Stalinism as similar phenomenon were demonstrating their "idiocy" and "irrationality." Psychological counseling, many argued, could cure these maladies. But for some it was too late. In 1964, an ad in The New York Times reported that 1,189 psychiatrists determined that Barry Goldwater was not "psychologically fit" to be president.

In 2003, another Berkeley study, led by John T. Jost, reviewed four decades of research of conservatism and found that conservatives tended to be fear-driven dogmatists, terrified by ambiguity. The study linked Ronald Reagan, Rush Limbaugh, Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. The findings were hardly surprising since they basically recapped the branch of "scholarship" launched by Adorno.

Yet another Berkeley professor, George Lakoff, has convinced leading Democrats that psychology is the best way to tackle politics. People see things through "frames," according to Lakoff, and if Democrats could simply recast those frames in their favor, conservatives would see the light. Howard Dean calls Lakoff "one of the most influential political thinkers of the progressive movement."

Perhaps the more revealing psychological insight can be found in the fact that so many liberals think disagreeing with them is a form of psychosis.

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