The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things: the Unconscious Roots of Conservative Ideology

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The ideal of democracy – a well-informed public engaged in good faith in a passionate, yet reasoned debate – has never truly existed. Still, if one removes the qualifiers from the previous statement, it is relatively close to the actual American practice of self-governance.

Yet, the gulf between almost-universally endorsed political abstracts and specific policies becomes painfully apparent when the polity attempts to apply them in the real world. For instance, when Herbert McClosky and John Zaller examined attitudes towards “capitalism” and “democracy,” principles which are theoretically linked, they found that “The evidence on this point is unequivocal: people who are most firmly attached to democratic values tend to exhibit the least amount of support for capitalism,” and vice versa.

With an inherent but invisible conflict brewing beneath the generalities that the public widely agrees upon, heuristics can be an extremely useful tool to develop a sort of mental shorthand for both diehard ideologues and the politically unsophisticated masses. Rather than becoming an expert on every subject, most citizens necessarily rely on a combination of personal experience and cues from elites. Nonetheless, as scientists are fond of noting, the plural of anecdote is not ‘data,’ and a reliance on one’s own standpoint and social group alone often results in problematic inconsistencies. This incoherence between abstract idealism and functional reality is particularly evident within the extensive research into the operational-symbolic paradoxes of conservative ideology. Analysis into how psychosocial predispositions act on political ideology assists in identifying errors in forming policy views, and ultimately in determining how occasionally contradictory political beliefs can be simultaneously held.

Dispositional Factors in Ideological Alignment

Sasha Issenberg’s controversial piece in the New York Magazine, “Born This Way,” delved into the relationship between specific types of political appeals and genetics. In the aftermath of morally disastrous experiments with eugenics in the early part of the twentieth century, he writes, “American researchers backed away from any suggestion that personal politics came with birth….leaving the discipline inadvertently perched on a bizarre assumption: Politics was the only sphere of human existence immune to hereditary influence.” Only in the recent past, as the study of genetics has advanced exponentially, have researchers begun to look into the double helix for clues to the roots of the left-right divide.

The answers are still quite muddled. One behavioral geneticist, Matthew Keller, claims that a layman’s “knee-jerk reaction” that political behavior can’t be explained genetically is merely an indication of ignorance. Social scientist James Fowler, on the other hand, who isolated a gene variant called DRD4-7R linked to strong social skills, novelty-seeking behaviors, and liberal self-identification, disagrees, clarifying that, “There are hundreds if not thousands of genes that are all interacting to affect complex social behaviors.” According to Dr. Fowler and other experts, we are centuries away from fully understanding the implications of current genetic research. For those concerned with the political process as it is likely to unfold in their lifetime, it is helpful to zoom out from the still blurry picture of DNA, and to focus instead on rational and emotional decision making processes.

Issenberg highlights the senatorial campaign of Al Franken and Norm Coleman, who remained neck and neck when targeting ads based on policy issues and demographic pandering; when pollsters instead looked at the personality profiles of voters, they found a division between “thinkers” and “feelers.” The campaign modified its advertising to appeal to the group where Franken was weaker, and a few months later, Sen. Franken was sworn in. Beyond the very basic, binary personality divisions addressed by the Franken campaign, social scientists have examined a number of factors in an attempt to answer Issenberg’s question:

“Why in the American system were the people who opposed the death penalty almost always the ones who believed rich people should pay more in taxes? Why are those concerned with Net neutrality the same people obsessed with local produce? Why do support for strong regulation of abortion and weak regulation of the financial sector seem to go together?”

Why, in other words, are seemingly unrelated political positions so intimately bound up together in the mind of individuals and parties? Studies on disgust, control, and fear have proven particularly fruitful in answering these questions.

It is not a coincidence that the chart below, in Figure 1, resembles a more complex and fluid expansion on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs. Rather than delineating physical, emotional and spiritual needs, this framework incorporates those needs and perceptions into elective affinities, outlining how they inform political policy preferences for individuals. While the discursive superstructure refers to the sorting mechanism (the what), the motivational substructure describes personal justifications for adopting ideologies (the why).

Figure 1
Motivational substructure, discursive superstructure, and downstream consequences of political ideology

Source: Jost, et al. 2009: 319.
Source: Jost, et al. 2009.

Jost, Federico and Napier (subscription required) are interested not only in how associations are formed between discursive content and general political opinions, but in the role that emotional, social and psychological phenomena like threat response plays in the adoption of ideology; “…people can be said to choose ideas,” the authors explain, “but there is also an important and reciprocal sense in which ideas choose people.” The functions that political ideologies serve, is, they propose, essentially dualistic. There is first, the overt purpose of organizing political information, but also a second underpinning – the existential desire to rationalize much more deep-seated tendencies. Naturally, as in all organizing frameworks, this asset comes with a corresponding liability.

Often, that cost is twofold: first, to return to Issenberg’s question, ideological consistency requires accepting a portfolio of potentially orthogonal concepts. In terms of ideology, individual attitudes regarding social and economic policies are only related to one another conceptually; it is not actually necessary for them to correspond within an individual’s belief system. McClosky and Zaller’s research in 1984 demonstrated not only a tension between capitalistic and democratic principles, but specifically that significant majorities of strongly pro-capitalist survey respondents opposed equal opportunities for ethnic and sexual minorities, believed that homosexuals should not be allowed into public sector jobs, and viewed government-backed racial integration as moving too fast.

These socially conservative views are not inherently yoked to any tenet of capitalism. Yet statistically, they are in fact strongly correlated. This is evidence of the top-down nature of political discourse, aided by motivated individuals who acquire and disperse the highlights of discursive content from political elites. For a mostly disinterested public absorbing ideology in piecemeal from these motivated elites, the second cost is the cognitive dissonance of holding contradictory ideas simultaneously. As Jost puts it,

“Decades of research suggest that the majority of the population exhibits a relatively low level of knowledge about the specific discursive contents of liberal and conservative ideologies….and a relatively low level of ideological consistency (or constraint) in their attitudes towards many different issues.”

This insight is intuitively clear to anyone who has seen one of Bill Maher, Jimmy Kimmel, or any other late night comedian’s brutal (and arguably, unfairly edited) “man on the street” videos, which showcase a breathtaking breadth of ignorance and prejudice in glorious high-definition. However, it still leaves open the question of bottom-up causes: how do personality characteristics predispose an average, uninformed citizen to accept a package of liberal or conservative ideological content without critical evaluation? What needs do elective affinities fulfill?

Jost and colleagues offer up a provocative set of answers. They point to longitudinal studies which showed that preschool children who are “…characterized as feeling easily victimized or offended…fearful, rigid, inhibited…” along with a host of similar traits, were much more conservative than their outgoing, energetic peers by adulthood. Likewise, they describe international studies of the Need for Cognitive Closure scale that attracts high-scoring individuals with a need to “…‘seize and freeze’ on beliefs that offer simplicity, certainty and clarity, [who] are significantly more likely to hold conservative or right-wing views.” While this set of attributes and behaviors might seem, on the surface, undesirable, a case can be made that the reduction of uncertainty and avoidance of threatening or confusing situations is a sound evolutionary strategy.

However, in the course of making that case, the authors instead lay the foundation for another unflattering supposition about the conservative mindset: that, as a series of experiments in 2002 showed,

“…‘the default attributional position is a conservative response,’ insofar as both liberals and conservatives are quick to draw individualistic (rather than system-level) conclusions about the causes of poverty, unemployment, disease, and other negative outcomes, but only liberals correct their initial response, taking into account extenuating circumstances.”

In other words: liberals are just conservatives with another layer of thought added. In fact, the authors point to how a distraction, or an increase in cognitive load will result in increased conservatism. Additionally, threat aversion, anxiety, and mortality salience strongly tends to increase prejudices and hostility to other groups. Aside from the implication that a theoretical apocalyptic scenario occasioned by the monsters of our age, zombies, would indeed result in a much less liberal form of government, what does this metanarrative suggest? Are conservatives truly more attuned to risk, physically insecure, and intolerant of ambiguity?

It is clearly reductionist to look purely at genetics or childhood personality and conclude that political ideology is predictable based on one factor or the other. Yet, McClosky and Zaller’s discoveries are no less contentious – their investigation found a clear dividing line between conservatives and liberals along the question of social benevolence; not just in regards to governmental action, but in personally relating to anyone outside of their immediate social and kinship networks.

“Conservatives, of course, claim to be as benevolent towards others as liberals are, and a few of our [survey] items reflect this….Our data nonetheless makes it plain that, in their attitudes towards people who are outside of their circle of personal acquaintance, conservatives are, as a group, less likely to favor action aimed at alleviating social distress….the items deal not simply with manifestly political beliefs, but with personal attitudes that are to some degree rooted in personality structures.”

With the somewhat loaded phrase “personality structures,” the authors are referring to a combination of conservative traits: first, a belief in personal kindness towards those in their own kinship networks, and second, a mistrust of government or social action to alleviate suffering or inequality. Jost, Federico, and Napier are more concerned with the causal factors underlying elective affinities, Issenberg is interested in the genetic basis of political expression, and McClosky and Zaller are more interested in social implications of economic preferences. Still, the authors of all three well-researched articles agree that underlying factors play an important role in a politically conservative perspective.

Specific Policy Implications

With these deeply rooted emotional mechanisms as the de facto driver for the ostensibly rational process of evaluating policy and selecting representatives, it is not surprising that contradictions within ideological systems should arise. Following the post-war collectivist consensus here and in Europe, researchers found a sudden, sharp spike in polarization among not only political elites, but within the general public. In a rebuttal to Morris Fiorina’s 2006 claim that Americans are not particularly divided, Alan Abramowitz and Kyle Saunders looked at the socio-historical context and linked two factors (an increase in educational achievement, and the cultural upheavals of the mid to late twentieth century) to a dramatic rise in ideological polarization.

Christopher Ellis and John Stimson analyzed the effects of this political shift by conducting a longitudinal study that tracked survey responses from 1970 to 2005. They found that in these specific decades, the label of “conservative” was significantly more popular; on average, respondents labeled themselves as conservative over liberal by a 2 to 1 margin. The prestige of the conservative label has been completely immune to messaging changes, as when liberals have attempted to rebrand themselves as “progressives.” However, when questioned about specific economic and social policy preferences, an almost identical margin of the public preferred the more liberal option. Digging deeper into the data, they observed that,

“Only about one in five self-identified conservatives consistently hold conservative issue positions….almost 80% of professed conservatives are not conservative on at least one of these dimensions. A larger group (30%) of conservatives are operationally conservative only on the narrow set of issues related to traditional morality, not the broader social welfare dimension. The ‘economic conservatives,’ conservatives on social welfare issues alone, are not very numerous (15%). But the largest group of self-identified conservatives rejects operationally conservative beliefs on both the social welfare and moral issue domains. This stands in contrast to the less than 4% of self-identified liberals who hold no liberal issue views.”

So what accounts for the striking difference in accuracy – 20-25 points, on average – between labeling and preference? According to Stimson and Ellis, there are three pathways by which Americans may label themselves as conservative: first, “constrained conservatives” who correctly evaluate their own policy preferences and match them to political conservatism, second, “moral conservatives” who attach cultural and religious meaning to the label without actually understanding the political and economic implications, and third, “conflicted conservatives,” who whimsically hold an entirely liberal portfolio of economic and social preferences, yet do not appear to know it.

This stark difference is highlighted in numerous policy debates. In terms of one lightning-rod issue, abortion, the disconnect between stated position and actual policy preference is strikingly apparent. A number of opinion surveys, most notably a May 2012 Gallup poll, found a remarkable gap between the number of respondents who called themselves pro-life (50%), and the number who thought that abortion should be illegal in all cases (20%). Fewer than half of surveyed parties who labeled themselves pro-life actually were willing to criminalize abortion. Geoffrey Cohen’s work on group influence (subscription required) provides insight into this dichotomy; in the process of defining objects within a group, moral connotations are grafted onto various objects. For instance, Cohen writes, “Conservatives appeal to the sanctity of life in the context of abortion, but then downplay the value of ‘protecting life’ in favor of ‘vindicating justice’ in the case of capital punishment. Thus, they can be both ‘pro life’ and ‘pro death penalty,’ even though no inherent or factual philosophical connection exists between these two positions.”

Figure 2
Abortion Positions

Source: Data adapted from Gallup, May 2012.
Source: Data adapted from Gallup, May 2012.

Another fascinating enigma of conservative thought confuses personal will with systemic, structural causes of poverty. A sizable percentage of American conservatives combine a view of poverty as a moral failing with a deep mistrust of social welfare programs, on the grounds that the impoverished likely do not deserve help. Despite numerous studies showing statistically negligible welfare fraud rates, it is held as an article of faith on the political right that fraud and abuse of the system are rampant.

Michelle Martin examines how this implicit belief in the moral culpability of the poor for their disadvantaged status connects to a centuries-old link between laissez-faire capitalism and Protestant moral constraint. Through the dual lenses of Calvinism and social Darwinism, philosophically unrelated tenets of economic and social conservatism lead to specific policy prescriptions that replace a systemic critique with moral judgments on individuals:

“A resurgence of earlier negative sentiment toward the poor and their plight seems to have occurred in the post-Kennedy…. a national survey conducted in 1975 found that the majority of those living in the United States attributed poverty to personal failures such as having a poor work ethic, poor money management skills, a lack of any special talent that might translate into a positive contribution to society, and low personal moral values. Those questioned ranked social causes such as poverty, racism, poor schools, and the lack of sufficient employment the lowest of all possible causes of poverty…even though a considerable body of research points to social and structural issues as the primary cause of poverty.”

Figure 3
Income Inequality

Source: Klein, 2011.
Source: Klein, 2011.


It is impossible, in politics as with any other complex human behavior, to pinpoint what aspects of ideological expression are attributable to nature, which to nurture, and which to free will. Clearly, however, there is a strong behavioral component to choosing elective affinities; “Conservatism,” Issenberg speculates, “might not be that thing defined by William F. Buckley or Edmund Burke but a primal condition by which people hedge against disorder or change they can’t otherwise control.”
This reliance on papering over emotional positions with ideological justifications can and very often does lead to striking cognitive dissonance, as in the 2012 State of the Union response from Marco Rubio. The Florida senator opened his speech with a denunciation of government spending, stating that “More government isn’t going to help you get ahead. It’s going to hold you back. More government isn’t going to create more opportunities. It’s going to limit them,” and then proceeded to describe specifically how government had, in fact, helped his family and provided him with opportunities: “I believe in federal financial aid. I couldn’t have gone to college without it…. Medicare is especially important to me. It provided my father the care he needed to battle cancer and ultimately die with dignity. And it pays for the care my mother receives now.”

However, in historical context, the egregious mismatch between operational realities and symbolic ideals in modern conservative ideology is very likely a temporary condition. Still, though factors that wax and wane with economic and cultural cycles may be unstable, the unconscious needs that underlie conservative impulses, such as avoiding risk and disgust while embracing authority and threat-reduction, will continue to shape policy preferences and thus, the national debate.