A few weeks ago when I was still in charge of my life and my urinary tract wasn’t, I was working on this post psysploring the the differences between liberal and conservative mindsets and the periodic shifts that we see in who controls the political system.
The Swings of the Pendulum: From Authoritarianism to Democracy
Way back on 3 March, I read the ever popular Heather Cox Richardson‘s Letters from an American newsletter in which she discusses her interview with Ol’ Handsome Joe. The interview itself is quite good and well worth watching. It started me to thinking about these issues and how we do tend to swing between these two poles. Let me summarize her here:
- CONSERVATISM is built around defending private property and that is the domain of the Constitution. You know, the whole preventing King George from taxation without representation Tea Party and quartering the damned Red Coats in the domiciles of Americans and only land-owning white men should vote and all that stuff. Yeah. The Constitution is about private property.
- LIBERALISM is built around equality before the law as articulated in the Declaration of Independence. The All Men [sic] are Created Equal and god-given rights and creating a more perfect union. You see how that works, right? Feel free to opine away in the comments.
- CONSERVATIVES use a peculiar form of race-based fear mongering to bate the iNdEpEnDeNt white voter into voting conservative any time the liberals start actually creating a more perfect union or equality before the law starts getting to be too uppity. They use all those racist dog whistles and proxies for racism: costing tax dollars, redistributing wealth vis-a-vis socialism. If you give those CoC the vote they’ll want the same schools, roads, and hospitals that we give white folk and then where will we be? We’ll have Blacks and Browns using state sponsored amenities that they didn’t earn and deserve.
- RESTRICTING THE FRANCHISE goes hand-in-hand with conservatism. If we let the wrong people vote, the wrong people will benefit from government services and handouts. You’re not ever going to convince the wrong people to vote for you if that’s your platform, so it is better to just suppress the vote.
- DIVIDED WE FALL turns out to be the strategy preferred by conservatives to keep the nation’s wealth flowing disproportionately into the pockets of the wealthy and their political lackeys. And, the racist dog whistle is the best device for keeping white folks voting against their better interests.
- THE WHEEL TURNS round to the extremes periodically and if we map them out, we’ll see how it matches up with some of the worst periods in American history:
- The 1850’s led to the Civil War.
- The 1890’s saw the boom and bust economies and Jim Crow.
- The 1920’s gave way to the Great Depression.
- Now we see the gap between the wealthiest at the top and the rest of us wider than it ever has been, racism in the ascendancy, and anti-democratic forces actively trying to supress and nullify the vote.
- THE GOOD NEWS is that each one of those eras in which we were headed down the road to authoritarianism, we turned back towards democracy. The leaders who answered the call have become some of our biggest heroes: Lincoln and the Roosevelt boys. Now, we have Joe Biden standing tall in the saddle rallying the country and world to the side of democracy.
Conservatives, Cognitive Rigidity, and Interpersonal Coldness
We’ve explored the differences between conservatives and liberals pretty often here on Ye Olde Blogge. We’ve opined that at the extremes radical conservatives and liberals both tend towards authoritarian personalities believing that their views are the correct ones and everyone else should just shut up and do as they’re told. There is evidence to support that. And, Ye Olde Blogge has plenty of anecdotal evidence through direct experience with extreme leftist authoritarian personalities. Bernie Bros, anyone?
However, a recently published study by Jake Womick and Laura King suggested that there is much more asymmetry in the thinking and interpersonal styles of the conservative and liberal split. They tested over 800 voters during the 2020 primaries on four four cognitive thinking variable and two interpersonal variables:
- Interpersonal variables: Participants were classified as either being interpersonally warm or cold.
- Interpersonal warmth meant that scores were high on the empathy and compassionate side of the spectrum.
- Interpersonal coldness, scores were low on the spectrum.
- Cognitive style: Participants were classified as either being cognitively flexible or rigid based on these four variables.
- Cognitive flexibility:
- Open to new experience
- Open mindedness
- Low levels of dogmatic thinking
- An ability to believe that there might be many correct answers or see gray areas
- Cognitive rigidity:
- Closed to new experiences
- Close minded
- Dogmatic thinking
- A preference for single right answers.
- Cognitive flexibility:
You can see how this is going to play out, right? The further right you were on the political spectrum the more you were interpersonally cold and cognitively rigid, but the same wasn’t true for the left side of the spectrum. People who were extreme lefties remained interpersonally warm and cognitively flexible. I will note that this doesn’t preclude them from being authoritarians, but it makes authoritarianism much less appealing to them. It also doesn’t say that there weren’t conservatives who were interpersonally warm or cognitively flexible, just that it was rare and the same being true for liberals.
What is interesting is that for each of the measures, the ones measuring cognitive style ticked in the rigidity direction among Sanders supporters. Bernie Bros? We see you.
Conservatives Traits Cluster
It is clear that personality, cognitive, emotional, and behavioral traits tend to cluster. People who are introverted tend to be less open to new experiences, for example. It’s true y’all even though you are an introvert who loves exploring on your own. Looking at the things we know or are at least supported by actual empirical findings, it’s easy to see why people who have a lot of cognitive rigidity and interpersonal coldness would tend to be racists, misogynists, homophobes, and authoritarians, which other studies have demonstrated a correlation between conservatives and these illiberal beliefs . You can also see how they would correlate with the dark tetrad personality characteristics and a tendency towards conspiratorial thinking.
These findings fit nicely with other studies that report the “empathy fatigue” of rural, conservative, Christian, white voters who feel like every time they turn around liberals have found another undeserving group for them to feel sorry for while no one ever feels sorry for them. Trying to appeal to the empathetic side of these mo’fo’s is a hopeless task.
Now, you understand why you can’t reason with MAGA Nation. They just don’t. They got their one right answer and they are going to ride it to the Hurt Blacks First and Worst side of town. Now that Trump and the GQP have given them permission to be as openly racist, misogynist, and homophobic as they wanna be, by golly they are going to do it.
We are once again, though, left with the sad realization that American culture is built on a bedrock of racism that is slowly being excavated but hasn’t been removed completely. It is a sad truth that white voters are exceedingly vulnerable to the racist dog whistles that resonates with their racial animus and causes them to gravitate towards the GQP when voting.
But, when combined with Richardson’s observation of the swinging pendulum of widening wealth gap and increasing authoritarianism until people get a little freaked out over the prospect of losing our democracy and they rally around a leader that can pull us back from the ledge.
Our marching orders for 2022 is to beat that democracy is under attack at home and abroad drum as hard and loud as we can. We have to rally around Biden as the person who can rescue our democracy from the clutches of the authoritarian right. We have to drive home that if the GQP gets a majority in either the House or Senate, we will see no legislation pass, and they will continue undermining our democracy by abdicating their responsibility to govern. We will continue to see them pander to the base as they have with their state legislation attacking abortion, schools, healthcare, and voting rights and in the confirmation hearing of KBJ.
History and poly-sci studies have demonstrated that appeals to patriotism, democracy, and support for civil liberties actually work in the face of authoritarian power grabs.
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Categories: Cognitive Psychology