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David Thompson

Obscure psychological papers are not, by and large, a likely cause of furious and widespread political debate. Certainly the phrases "uncertainty avoidance" and "motivated social cognition" are not normally associated with heated and persistent arguments spanning Wall Street Journal editorials, the California Patriot and the belligerent rants of U.S. radio 'shock jocks'. However, one such paper, originally published in the May 2003 issue of the Psychological Bulletin , did just that. Indeed, the publication remains a topic of peevish public debate.

The paper, 'Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition' , was written by John T. Jost, associate professor of organisational behaviour at Stanford University, with Jack Glaser, Arie W. Kruglanski, and Frank J. Sulloway. The Stanford research drew upon the views of over 22,000 participants, spanning speeches, political interviews and verdicts rendered by judges. After poring over 50 years of literature on the psychology of conservatism, the researchers identified five personality traits that typify people who adhere to a conservative ideology: "fear and aggression; dogmatism and intolerance of ambiguity; uncertainty avoidance; need for cognitive closure and terror management."

The paper concludes: "At the core of political conservatism is the resistance to change and a tolerance for inequality." Jost and his team also concluded that conservatives are less "integratively complex" than liberals, meaning that the conservatively-inclined don't feel obliged to offer plausible or coherent justifications for their beliefs, (even when those beliefs are logically contradictory or counter-productive). They also found that rightwing personalities are "comfortable viewing the world in black and white." Statistically speaking, the rightwing personality favours a world of untested moral absolutes, solipsistic reasoning and uncomplicated causality -- an outlook that is reassuringly strong in tone and very easy to comprehend.

One could, of course, argue that 'right' and 'left' are not entirely adequate descriptions of a person's political outlook, and that, for instance, combinations of 'left' and 'right' ideas can coexist within the same individual, much as introversion and extraversion can coexist, depending on context. Furthermore, there are political ideas which would not, in themselves, conform to left or right conventions, though they may frequently be annexed or attacked as if they do. However, the Stanford research deals with individuals who would, by and large, consider themselves subscribers of one church rather than the other. And it is this contented self-identification as rightwing which is the subject of the team's study.

One could argue further, as some have, that a similar thumbnail sketch could be drawn of leftist personalities. In documenting only the rightwing personality, charges of bias are perhaps unavoidable, and many Republicans have argued that the Stanford team should have given equal and similar treatment to the personalities of the left. However, the Stanford researchers apparently found a lack of comparable material on which to formulate a parallel leftist analysis. This shortcoming necessarily raises questions, one of which being whether right and left outlooks are at all symmetrical in terms of logical errors and compulsive components.

There are, of course, many specific errors in popular leftist thought. But what if those errors aren't as clearly interconnected and pervasive as those of similar magnitude in rightwing ideology? From this perspective, it seems possible that rightwing politics, and its corresponding moral assumptions, could be described primarily as an expression of personality, rather than a cluster of ideas, some of which happen to be untenable.

One might, for instance, argue that leftist ideas are precisely that -- ideas -- abstracted concepts that operate irrespective of the subject likely to benefit from them, while a rightwing outlook is generally perceived in terms of immediate self-interest. Despite the moralising tone of rightwing evangelism, the solipsistic outlook such evangelism defends is itself at odds with notions of morality, since morality is, by definition, based on empathy and reciprocation.

Unilateral self-interest can be comprehended by just about everyone, whereas abstracted principles and long-term causal complication are not so easily grasped. As the Stanford team found, self-styled Conservatives typically take the side of an argument which represents the short-term solution, and which entails a minimum amount of personal discomfort. An archetypal Conservative could plausibly be characterised as someone who deals with a problem as it relates to them, and not as it relates to the broader society or the world as a whole. Rightwing thinking is, perhaps, rather unique, and may have no obvious leftist analogue to be offered as "objective balance."

The rightwing columnist Melanie Phillips is a prime example of a personality gorged on a diet of untested assumptions, intolerance of ambiguity and dogmatic moral absolutes. Indeed, her shrill and often fanciful commentary serves as a plausible barometer of popular rightwing opinion. (No doubt Melanie would object to being classified as rightwing; one article, published in the Jewish Chronicle, was titled, rather adamantly: 'Not Rightwing, Simply Right'. However, Melanie's alarmist and punitive outlook is nonetheless rightwing in all but name, and claiming to be "simply right" rather than rightwing is merely a sly confabulation of the two terms, and one which itself confirms the presence of a vain and absolutist mindset.)

In Melanie's black-and-white world, things of which she does not approve are somehow intrinsically "wicked", irrespective of context, consequence and motive. Smoking cannabis and homosexuality are among Melanie's favourite targets, and both are regularly deemed "wicked" on disingenuous and occasionally farcical grounds: "Ecstasy, cocaine and cannabis are an intrinsic part of the club scene. Why aren't police raiding all such places every night? It's as if grievous bodily harm had got out of control and people were urging the legalisation of assault."

Clearly, Melanie has little time for the notion that who puts what inside his or her own body could, in many instances, be no-one else's business, and thus not a moral issue. The logical fallacy here seems to be a confusion between acts that have harmful consequences between one person and another (unwilling) person, and those that may (perhaps) have harmful consequences, but only for the person doing the action. Being stoned while child-minding or driving is clearly a very different matter from being stoned at home with no dependents or innocent pedestrians to worry about. But such fine distinctions rarely make for hyperbolic tabloid copy.

Melanie's methodology is distorted in part by commercial imperatives, whether her own or those of her editors. Those imperatives include a desire to reflect the feelings of the Daily Mail's demographic. (Note the use of the word 'feelings'. In a populist middle-brow tabloid, analytical rigour and causal complexity take second place to reinforcing an existing outlook, however simplistic, tendentious or unjustified that outlook may be.) The same can, of course, be said of many journalists and many papers, regardless of political orientation, but the Daily Mail holds a central position in the British media world, at least in terms of sales; and again, no left-leaning analogue exists for comparison. The Mail and Melanie are, nonetheless, by far the best illustration of both this commercial machinery in action and the mindset to which it appeals. The Mail is also notable in that it is prone to banner headlines featuring uniquely alarmist terminology ("lethal", "evil", "tyranny", "militant", "devastated", "fearful" etc), along with a vaguely Biblical colourfulness. And the correlation between a rightwing readership and an acceptance of religious moral absolutes should not pass unremarked.

The questionable styling of Melanie's work for the Mail can be seen in her repeated and gratuitous attempts to generate disproportionate indignation and reflexive alarm, qualities which her paymasters deem demographically suitable. ("Confirm my worldview! Justify my feelings! Don't complicate the argument with inconvenient qualifications!") This process has little to do with autonomous analysis or a testing of assumptions (at least not those of the reader, or indeed Melanie's own). It does, however, have a great deal to do with "giving the customers what they want" -- and one has to bear this in mind when considering the columnist's methodology and the conclusions at which she breathlessly arrives. Since rightwing thinking is frequently solipsistic, perhaps the underlying motive is merely to find unquestioning comfort in mutual scorn of the 'outsider'.

One reader recently questioned Melanie's tendentious interpretation of evidence regarding the morality of drug use. The columnist responded with typically absolute certainty ("You are wrong"), before citing an exhaustive list of medical sources detailing possible harmful consequences. The tactic being employed here, one to which Melanie so often resorts, is simply to overwhelm any contrary voices by sheer weight of bibliographical reference, a manoeuvre which neatly avoids the actual issue, which is one of interpretation and methodology, not of who has the longest book list. One might note how quality of analysis is discarded in favour of the quantity of quotes that can be construed as supporting a pre-existing and unanalysed position. This tactic is, of course, a glorified form of bigotry. As Melanie's moral outlook is absolute in nature, rational argument is of only superficial importance, since to an absolutist mind the ends can justify any means. Rightwingers are not generally known for experiencing doubt or introspective reflection, and this too might help explain the popularity of such a logically untenable outlook.

One of the Stanford researchers, Jack Glaser, suggested that "for a variety of reasons, rightwing populism may have a more consistent appeal than leftwing populism, especially in times of crisis and instability." The researchers also stressed their findings were not intended to be politically judgemental, pointing out that an intolerance of ambiguity and low cognitive complexity might also be associated with widely valued characteristics such as commitment and loyalty.

Inevitably, there have been innumerable ripostes to Jost's paper, most notably by James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal ("Is it for real, or is some Berkeley prankster enjoying a huge laugh at their expense?") and by James Lindgren, Director of the Demography of Diversity Project at Northwestern University. Lindgren attacked the Stanford team's work, citing contrary data: "The Jost article claims that conservatives are angry and fearful and claims that conservatives are unhappy. I find this strange, given the decades of superb data showing the opposite..." Lindgren made reference to the NORC General Social Survey (a standard social science database, second only to the U.S. Census in use by U.S. sociologists): "The GSS asks the standard question about happiness in general. In the 1998-2002 GSS, extreme conservatives are much more likely to report being 'very happy' than extreme liberals--47.1% compared to 31.6%..."

Lindgren challenged the assertion that a rightwing political outlook is driven by a notable degree of anger and fear: "In the 1996 GSS, extreme conservatives were much less likely to report being mad at someone every day in the last week--7.3%, compared with 24.2% for extreme liberals." Lindgen also cited GSS data from the same period suggesting a marked disaffection with the state of one's finances was more common among "extreme liberals" (34.5%) than among "extreme conservatives" (25.8%). However, it remains possible that this bias in disaffection could in part be accounted for by the broad correlation of a very high income and standard of living with a rightwing outlook that is required to rationalise and defend it; and ours, after all, is an age in which wealth is often equated with worth.

Furthermore, one could argue that a simplistic causal outlook and an avoidance of life's moral ambiguities -- traits which Jost identified as significantly common to Conservative personalities - would, in part, account for a less troubled worldview. (One is, after all, not only deserving, but right and absolutely so.) As would a tendency to feel satisfied with how things are, regardless of the conflicts and inequities experienced by others.

Taken in broad terms, popular rightwing thinking is ego-driven, causally autistic, and thus premised on a series of double standards. Hypocrisy and selective forgetfulness are among the defining features of the rightwing mind. How else can rightwingers talk of 'decency' and 'societal norms' while advocating overdriven global capitalism -- an economic policy that frequently erodes those notional 'norms' and undermines the basic civil infrastructure on which all businesses depend?

If not by double standards, how else can Republicans and Conservatives talk in populist terms -- conveniently appealing to the basest of instincts -- while fostering economic elitism on a scale never seen before in the civilised world? Conservatives are, after all, the people who talk in quasi-religious tones of 'enterprise', 'hard work' and 'entrepreneurial drive', while rewarding capital gains over wages and salaries. As a result of this bias, owning shares and property, or inheriting such, can be far more lucrative than working for a living, regardless of how strenuous and enterprising that work might be. Roughly 80% of the income of the very richest Americans is unearned, which rather belies any claim to meritocratic endeavour. (And just to underline the incoherence of rightwing 'virtue', it now looks very likely that the Bush administration plans to do away with every trace of tax on capital gains, which will mean the poor -- who depend on taxed wages rather than untaxed capital income- will be subsidising the rich.) However, the rightwing personality apparently sees no contradiction between claims of meritocratic ideals and inherited economic advantage or predestined poverty.

Likewise, the Conservatives' trademark disregard for environmental concerns, even those of apocalyptic proportions, reveals a compulsive unreason at the heart of the rightwing mind. In a Daily Mail article titled The Global Warming Fraud, Melanie Phillips echoed Margaret Thatcher's conviction that a concern for environmental consequences is nothing more than a leftist conspiracy: "[Global warming and ecological concern] is yet another variation of left-wing, anti-American, anti-west ideology which goes hand in hand with anti-globalisation and the belief that everything done by the industrialised world is wicked. The agenda [is] to cripple [the west]... [Environmentalists] assume a bizarre economic future in which the United States stops growing and developing nations overtake the industrialised world. But that reversal of fortune is, of course, precisely the objective..."

Thus, those of us who would rather not see the Gulf Stream alter course, leaving Britain permanently snowbound, or see the food chain collapse thanks to ultraviolet radiation's terminal effect on plankton, are demonised as self-hating westerners. Self-preservation, a more plausible motivation, passes entirely without comment. Unfortunately, bourgeois 'decency' and entrepreneurial profit-making generally presuppose an inhabitable planet, rather than a dead or dying one.

Conceivably, one could argue that a rightwing outlook is, for many subscribers, a way to shut down analytical thought and close down the mind. Specifically, one might argue that rightwing belief is agoraphobic in nature, in that, by seeking to reduce the daunting moral world to a monochrome either/or scenario, it seeks to deny broader and more complex possibilities. Again, Melanie Phillips offers a suitably vivid example of this intent. In a recent tirade against the proposed introduction of atheism to the religious education curriculum, titled The Subversion of Religion and Morals, Melanie recoiled from the idea of students being presented with a broader frame of reference: "Instead of being taught the Ten Commandments, it says children should be taught to question the authenticity of the Bible. Once you've told children that some people don't believe in God, what's there to teach about atheism? How do you teach a non-doctrine whose only claim to fame is as a negation?"

Well, for a start, one might outline the range of arguments made by atheists and question their respective validity. (For instance, one might point out that atheism is, in effect, a belief in the non-existence of God, and thus rather symmetrical with the belief it claims to oppose.) One might even broaden the scope of religious education to include agnosticism, which is a more logically and metaphysically coherent position, and not so prone to polarised entrenchment.

As a philosophical exercise, surely this would foster a sense of enquiry about the world and its possibilities? And, in turn, surely this would give a more sound and considered foundation to whatever positions students might ultimately arrive at, whether those positions were religious or not? I for one would rather hear the informed and considered views of an atheist or a believer, than endure ignorant rants from either side. The aim of education is, as I recall, to foster enquiry and brightness of mind.

However, Melanie prefers to dismiss the idea out of hand like an uncomfortably hot potato, then promptly ascribes some nefarious agenda to the proposal, which she reviles as yet another grave threat to 'decency' and 'norms'. Indeed, her article climaxes with a declaration that the introduction of such material is a "prelude to [the] total deconstruction [of Christian society]." Once again, the objective seems to be to sweep aside all rational discourse and qualifying factors with a tidal wave of emotion, high drama and unfounded supposition. This is very much Melanie's journalistic style, and is common to much rightwing thinking, but its affect on analytical rigour and democratic ideals is corrosive and malign.

As the U.S. election nears, Conservative websites are aglow with visions of an uninterrupted Republican future stretching out for all posterity: One world, one operating system. There is, however, another possibility. Centuries from now, assuming we survive this eerily psychotic era, Republicanism, Conservatism and the rightwing mind in general could well be regarded not as a political movement, but as a mental health issue.


David Thompson is a freelance writer, whose work has appeared in the arts and books pages of The Times, The Observer and Eye: the International Review of Graphic Design. An archive of his published work can be found at his website.

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