Demonizing Conservative Thought
The president has adopted an electoral strategy of demonizing conservative thought. In a now-infamous speech, President Obama referred to his conservative opponents as "stuck in the past," and as "naysayers" who "don't believe in the future." He scoffed that his detractors were "founding members of the Flat Earth Society" who "just want to keep on doing things the same way that we've always done them." The president contrasted his critics with people who "refuse to stand still" and who "put their faith in the future." In a second speech, discussing Congressman Ryan's proposed budget, the president implied that liberal policies create "opportunity" and "upward mobility" while conservative policies entrench inequality. These false dichotomies mischaracterize conservative ideas.
These were not merely off-the-cuff remarks intended to smear political rivals. This caricature of conservative ideas is popular among liberal social scientists. In 2012 alone, two well-respected psychology journals published studies perpetuating these smears, citing more than a dozen previous studies.
"Bright Minds and Dark Attitudes: Lower Cognitive Ability Predicts Greater Prejudice Through Right-Wing ideology and Low Intergroup contact," by Gordon Hodson and Michael Busseri, argued that conservatism is linked to low cognitive ability and that it acts as a precursor to racism. This study described conservatism as characterized by "resistance to change" and "the promotion of inter-group inequalities."
"Low-Effort Thought Promotes Political Conservatism," by Scott Edelman, et al., links an absence of critical thinking to conservative conclusions. He describes conservative positions as evincing "low-effort thought" and as "initial and uncorrected responses" correctable by "overriding and adjusting initial conservative responses."
Edelman claims that conservatives are marked by an "acceptance of hierarchy" and an "opposition to equality." He describes this acceptance as "proceeding in the absence of effortful information processing." Hodson and Buseri claim that these apparent cognitive problems are "associated with prejudice" and stem from fear and anxiety.
But this reductionist view ignores reality and the beauty contained in the conservative position. In fact, the president and these social scientists denigrate conservative thought because its rejection of utopianism and insistence on cautious incremental change denies them the ability to unilaterally design a future that reflects their preferences.
Conservatives recognize that talents, such as the ability to write great novels, paint beautiful paintings, or hit five-hundred-foot home runs, will never be equally distributed. Inequalities will exist even between people with similar levels of natural talent due to differences in their levels of dedication and pure luck. Social scientists cannot wish these "hierarchies" out of existence, no matter how many papers they write.
Of course, this says nothing of political and legal equality, which conservatives embrace. What conservatives do deny is that a society that suppresses the differences between people is attainable or even desirable. Such an effort eliminates notions of nobility, heroism, and the aspiration for self-improvement. We can either appreciate the novel, the painting, and the home run -- or we can begrudge the "hierarchy" created by inequalities. We cannot do both.
Only a dystopia, such as the one described in Kurt Vonnegut's story "Harrison Bergeron," could achieve perfect equality. Vonnegut's story takes place in a time where "everybody [i]s finally equal ... every which way." This equality is perpetuated by a tyranny that forces intellectuals to place buzzers in their ears to prevent them "from taking unfair advantage of their brains," hides the handsome behind masks, and encumbers the athletic with weights.
The characters live in a world devoid of joy; everyone is equally uninspired and miserable. Vonnegut illustrates this dreariness by describing a ballet in which the ballerinas are "burdened with sashweights and bags of birdshot, and their faces [a]re masked, so that no one, seeing a free and graceful gesture or a pretty face, would feel like something the cat drug in." The imposition of equality obliterates everything that makes the ballet worthwhile. This is allegorical hyperbole, but only because no one actually believes we should truly pursue a world without hierarchy. The debate between conservatives and liberals is over where to draw the lines and which of our differences are worthy of esteem.
The adoption of universal equality is contrary to the natural human inclination to seek out excellence. The attempt to deter such behavior cannot destroy that longing. It merely perverts and distorts it. This has led to the phenomenon of the celebrity who is "famous for being famous." Once people were admonished against recognizing and honoring people for their merits, they transferred that honor to entirely unremarkable people, undeserving of such esteem. Is society better off because our children revere Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian rather than brilliant minds, moral exemplars, and great leaders? As a conservative, I think not.
Edelman claims that conservatives have a "preference for the status quo" which requires "little time, effort, and awareness." He maintains that conservatives "simply assume that existing and long-standing states are good and desirable." Hodson and Busseri attribute this to the fact that "individuals with lower cognitive abilities may gravitate toward ... conservative ideologies ... that maintain the status quo and provide psychological stability and a sense of order."
What these social scientists view as laziness is actually a humble understanding of our own limitations. Conservatives value tradition because we recognize that our inheritance contains wisdom that we could not quickly or easily replicate. Conservatives do not view tradition as perfect or final; they see it as a collection of ideas that were successfully implemented throughout the ages and should not be hastily discarded. The trial and error of generations have delivered a product superior to the one society could design based on current theories and prejudices.
Conservatives recognize that no individual or even individual generation is wise enough to recreate society from scratch. Society is far too complex to maintain or improve without relying on the knowledge transmitted through tradition. This, more than anything else, irritates these social scientists because they think it is their job to free us from tradition and to teach us how to remake the world. They trivialize conservative thought because it counsels prudence and stability, while they think it is their place to lead the revolution.
The recognition that it would be imprudent, if not outright suicidal, for every generation to redesign society does not mean that conservatives lack a desire to improve the world. Such a position would be thoughtless and self-destructive. Conservatives seek to preserve what is essential and good in society while cautiously reforming that which needs to be reformed. It is easy to go along with the latest fads; it requires much more awareness to "stand athwart history, yelling stop."
Edmond Burke, the father of conservatism, noted that "change is the means of our preservation," and a true conservative seeks "at once to preserve and to reform." But change must be thoughtful and cautious, or else its unintended consequences might spell disaster.
Conservative thought played a profound role in the founding and history of our republic. It continues to play a role in other areas, including defending the lives of the unborn, promoting economic growth, eliminating racial preferences, and finding free-market solutions to the burdens imposed by the cost of health care. That's pretty good for people who uncritically accept the status quo.
Conservatives and liberals differ to a degree in their goals and to an even larger extent on the methods for pursuing those goals. The president and these social scientists do a disservice to the political discourse by caricaturing and denigrating conservative thought. However, their methods, though unhelpful in the grand scheme, are perhaps understandable in the short-term, as conservative ideas are an obstacle in the path of presidents who promise "hope and change" and social scientists who hope to design the world anew through the application of their great intellect.
Howard Slugh is an attorney practicing in Washington, D.C.