Conservatism’s Yellow Brick Road


For all the folderol about the conservative and liberal minds, we can say without contention that there are certainly differences in the underlying history or biology of people who end up manifesting quite different reactions to the world around them, many of these differences unrelated to the details of belief.  And it is my deepest suspicion, increasingly supported by brain studies, that different ones of us are made differently in subtle ways resulting in a variety of reactions to the social conditions in which we live (see Chris Mooney’s book, ‘The Republican Brain’).

How much these differences can be summarized into simple patterns is still a question, but a most basic distinction, independent of specific beliefs is really not so difficult: conservatives want and need everyone to be like them and liberals are not displeased when some people are different from them.

There are two types of liberals in this model, those who have learned by experience that everyone can’t be like them, even if they might want them to be, and those who are actually invigorated by the differences of others. Conservatives are of two types as well, those who see difference as a discomfort and social inconvenience to be avoided as much as reasonably possible and those who see difference as a danger and a crime for special condemnation.  It is important to note that the details of the difference are not the issue so much as the simple fact of difference.

It is a mistake to get caught up in the details of difference; detail is not the point, but only the definitional force of difference itself that matters.  The detail is only a means to an end, a condition of membership and not an adaptation to reality.  And because the details of belief are conditions of membership, these positions must be held with much greater fervor and certainty than other ‘elements of truth’ would ever be in actual practice.

A corollary condition follows: liberals are not primarily concerned with being like those around them, focusing more on events and evidence for decisions, while conservatives are more deeply sensitive to fitting in with what they perceive as prevailing attitudes.  The major method for influencing attitudes and decisions for them is to show that many people “just like them” think a certain way.

These were both very useful habits of thought and action in our originating tribal life…when both attitude systems were represented with some equality and there were social expectations for honesty and fairness.  Conserving existing attitudes is important for social coherence and responding to culture-free evidence is vital for adaptation to the larger Reality.  However, if each system is isolated from the other and is allowed to form the view that its own result is absolutely correct while the other is absolutely wrong, neither system of thought can fully function in the total social context: the essential functional role of adapting species behavior to the larger exigencies of life on the earth.

And it must be noted that in their most aggressive forms the conservative view must reject liberalism while liberalism can accept the differences presented by conservatism, though rejecting its absolutism as, at a minimum, counterproductive and distorting of reality; and finally noted that conservative rejection can be expected to be strident and liberal rejection of conservatism can be expected to be compliant and issue based. Conservatives seem to try to understand liberals by trying to see what liberals do to make everyone think the same and liberals try to understand conservatives by studying how conservatives relate to reasoned, logical presentations of evidence; both, therefore missing the essential qualities of the other.

* * *

The principles of philosophical and scientific decision making have been considered in great depth for thousands of years and need not be labored with here.  And the ways of those who are invigorated by the differences of other people function quite differently than fear of difference.  For now it is the process of ‘being like everyone else’ and ‘everyone else being like you’ – an essential tension – that is interesting.  It is unlike the “easy” discoveries of difference among people who value, or at least accept, difference.  How does one go about displaying one’s views, basic congenial communication, when to do so risks that the views may be seen as different from those around them?  There have to be coded processes, learned and practiced, that let a thought be exposed and then quickly withdrawn if it is suspected of divergence; a sort of ‘now you see it now you don’t,’ with a 2-second no foul rule.

One of the consequences is that everyone can believe that everyone else thinks just as they do – and can, therefore, live in the perfect bliss of a completely accepting world.  A select group of opinion makers are appointed or self-appointed; people, who by virtue of their talents at perceiving, distilling and projecting the coded forms of many popular views, instruct others in how to say and how to do those things that support the common code (think tanks, for example).  The irony is, of course, that the attempt to manage a ‘completely accepting’ world is made by creating unspoken rules and codes by which differences are rejected.

Have you ever been around a monumental construction built of playing cards, experienced the tension and narrowed limits of movement required to allow the construction to have some permanence of existence?  First, the reason for the ‘castle’ is not questioned, but taken as a given reality.  And second, acquired from the first, all the behaviors required to avoid endangering the ‘castle’ are also considered essential.  The zone of influence expands from the table on which the construction sits to the allowable patterns of movement around the room, to the opening and closing of windows, to which doors have to be closed and opened in a given order, to the passing of trucks on the highway, to the flushing of a toilet in an upstairs bathroom, to…

A difference between this metaphor and the coming to a common pattern of conservative “reality” is that in the metaphor the movement of influence can be plainly seen.  However, the “I can only be safe if I am just like my neighbor and my neighbor is just like me” idea leads as irrevocably to the rejection of science, to a 6,000 year old earth and to religious fundamentalism…just as irrevocably as the requirement of having “no breezes around the card castle” leads to having to be sure that the door to the kitchen be closed before going onto the porch.

Of course, we all have our systems for measuring and informing others about what we are willing to talk about and willing to do at the various levels of relationship, that is not at issue, but it is the systematic process maintaining the illusion and reality that ‘you believe as me’ and ‘I believe as you’ acting as a primary social construction that defines a major part of the conservative constituency.

Conservatism is a way of life in a way different from liberalism, which is more a habit of thought.  The rejection of difference requires complete systems of control for all aspects of life in ways that the acceptance of difference does not.  It is really this ‘way of life’ that we so often hear is in need of defending.

This leads to present so-called conservative positions, while based on these quite deep human habits of thought and attitude, being co-opted purely as devices to herd people into groups that can be manipulated for the crassest reasons of power and influence.  But this simple and cynical fact doesn’t change the reality that these are fundamental ways to approach the experience of life.

A conservative-liberal synergistic dynamic works when liberalism supplies the belief system and conservative process maintains it; conservatism is uniquely ill-equipped to supply its own beliefs since its function is not to respond sensitively to the variations in reality, but rather to standardize beliefs for purposes of social cohesion. Liberalism does not produce social cohesion by its normal functioning. For these reasons, today’s “conservative” and “liberal” constituencies must contain their own actual conservative and liberal parts.  In a terrible perversion, the “liberal” function in American Conservatism, and increasingly elsewhere, has been taken over by the plutocracy (and as total plutocratic power increases it becomes more and more a “reality to be dealt with” in liberal consideration).

Since self-identified groups of humans require some means of feeling connected together by common habits and beliefs, then great influence can be had by supplying the form of those habits and beliefs. The obvious “enemy” of such an ascension to power would be those who might question both the elements of detail and whole idea of difference in the first place – who might wonder at the efficacy of a card castle in the living room – the liberal frame of mind.

And so an effective pincer-movement forms naturally, a movement that is episodic in human history, the conservative mind’s drive to eject difference is met in symphony with the powerful’s need to prevent any questioning of their devices of domination; and it always takes on a recognizable form: ‘kill the heretic.’  However, it is vital to recognize and keep clearly in mind that one set of forces is coming from the habits of the conservative mind and that another, using the same language and devices, is coming from the cynical forces of the powerful.  Unfortunately, this is a difference that the construction of the conservative “reality” is perfectly designed to obscure.

James Keye is a retired teacher and small businessman living in Santa Fe, NM.

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