Drawing the wrong conclusions from the right research.

A new piece in The Atlantic, entitled Studies: Conservatives Are From Mars, Liberals Are From Venus, provides a comprehensive look into the current state of academic research on Conservative Personality Disorder.  The article is an excerpt from Thomas B. Edsall’s new book, The Age of Austerity: How Scarcity Will Remake American Politics.  No doubt much of the work cited by Edsall in the Atlantic excerpt will be familiar to fans of the Palace.  Featured are Jonathan Haidt — whose work in this area I highlighted yesterday before dancing off into my fevered fantasyworld where I get to fling poo at Ann Coulter — and John Jost, whose work I have also mentioned previously.  For some reason that I simply cannot fathom, the article does not use the Palace’s industry-standard term, “Conservative Personality Disorder,” to describe those individuals directly responsible for our present calamities and intent on visiting further destruction upon humanity, the United States of America, and the planet.  (And the moon.  And Mars, too, as soon as they figure out how to get there.)

There are other problematic aspects of Edsall’s article as well, not the least of which is that from the very first sentence the author conflates Democrats with liberals.  While it is true that the heads of the Republican party currently in power are so far to the right they can see their own left ears, it is also true that the current Democratic party leadership is to the right of Ronald fucking Reagan — and yet, Edsall does not mention much less account for the 30 year slide the country has taken into the wingnut abyss.  Most problematically, the article fails to point to the direction we should pursue if we are to have any hope of ever finding a viable treatment, vaccine, or cure for the terrible malady that is CPD.  Still, the astute reader will connect the dots and discover some illuminating information nonetheless.

In a valiant effort at journalistic neutrality, Edsall attempts to paint conservative values in a positive light, as do academic researchers like Haidt, and Philip Tetlock of Wharton.  The problem is this: twist and spin the facts as much as you like, but the fear, loathing, irrationality and narcissism that lie at the black heart of conservatism are ugly — and obvious.  Here is Tetlock on what he deems the “flattering conservative portrait”:

“Conservatives realize the importance of incentives and that no, or little, aid is often the best help of all.

Oh, absolutely.  We’ll just ignore that (a) at the end of the day, “no or little aid” is, more often than not, you know, no or little aid, (b) there is a self-evident disincentive to contribute to and be part of a society that quite openly does not give a shit about you despite your unfortunate circumstances, ones you had no part in creating, and (c) this “rationale” rather conveniently supports conservative inclinations to be cheap and stingy — not to mention racist and misogynist. But let’s move on.  I am sure there must be something truly flattering Mr. Tetlock has to say about conservatives!

The conservative response to social problems avoids the simplistic first response of treating the symptom by creating a new and expensive government program . . .

First and foremost, the conservative response to social problems avoids looking in the mirror.  But in fact conservatives avoid any response whatsoever to social problems, except for advocating more of everything that causes social problems in the fist place.  (See also: cheap, stingy, racist and misogynist.)  But putting that aside, “creating a new and expensive government program” like a single payer healthcare system would solve a major social problem far less expensively than the fucked-up private insurance system we have.  That is just a fact, not a matter of opinion.  Here’s another fact:  if conservatives had any actual interest in solving social problems — like, say, people dying younger than their counterparts in other Western democracies, or hard-working, tax-paying citizens losing their homes because a loved one gets cancer — then every U.S. citizen would have Medicare.  Conservatives can object to “new and expensive government programs” all they want,  but they just sound like children whining that it’s not really their bedtime despite what the clock says.  Government is better, cheaper, and more efficient at solving some problems than private industry is, and health care is one of those problems.  To deny this is to deny reality.  Which brings us to:

conservatives are more integratively complex than liberals because they understand how often well-intentioned political reforms have unintended consequences or perverse effects . . .

Oh?  Liberals misunderstood the unintended consequences and perverse effects of, I don’t know… the Iraq War?  Deregulation of the financial industry?  Or anti-choice legislation?  “Integratively complex” — please.  LMAO.  One thing that has always struck me when conservatives complain about social programs is how eager they are to point out abberational anomalies and loopholes in these programs exploited by a tiny minority of people as an excuse to shitcan the whole thing rather than address the problem.  The whole ACORN affair is a good example.  And dog forbid a person on food stamps buys a steak at the supermarket — let’s cut all of these motherfuckers off!  They’re ALL eating steak, ALL the time, with MY tax money!  And their kids are wearing shoes!  WTF?!

Never mind the millions who desperately need and do not abuse the system, and the millions of children who would otherwise go hungry, and what that would mean for the future of everyone.  Okay, there must be something more here, something actually flattering:

Finally, conservatives understand how free markets work, [they] recognize that the invisible hand of free market competition leads in the long term to incentives to produce good at levels of quality and quantity that satisfy effective demand for those goods.”

Conservatives understand nothing of the sort.  If they had any faith that “free markets work,” they would not support enormous taxpayer subsidies for Big Oil or Big Agra.  You have to have your head up your ass to believe a single word a Republican says about free markets (or lower taxes).  The “invisible hand of the free market” is quite visible to anyone who bothers to look for it without ideological blinders on:  it is right where we can all see it, fist-fucking the middle class.*  Further, capitalism as practiced in 21st century America has nothing to do with “long term to incentives” to produce anything — unless it is produced in China, with any profit accruing to the tiny sliver of the U.S. population with the wealth and connections to exploit the opportunity.  And even that calculus is relatively short term:  manufacturing is outsourced not only because it is cheap, but because it is also quick.  On a macro scale, capitalism is now only about short-term gain at the expense of the American worker.

If this is the flattering portrait of conservatives, I cannot imagine what an unflattering one would look like.  Oh, wait — I don’t have to imagine.  Tetlock has one:

“[C]onservatives do not understand how prevalent situational constraints on achievement are and thus commit the fundamental attribution error when they hold the poor responsible for poverty . . . [C]onservatives are too prone to engage in zero-sum thinking, either I keep my money or the government takes it. They fail to appreciate the possibility of positive-sum resolutions of societal conflicts . . . Conservatives cling to the comforting moral illusion that there is a sharp distinction between allowing people to suffer and making people suffer. Finally, conservatives fail to recognize that even if each transaction in a free market meets their standards of fairness, the cumulative result could be colossally unfair. Some people will acquire enormous power over others . . . [C]onservatism and compassion are antithetical.”

This is accurate as far as it goes, but it’s a little soft and a lot incomplete.  Among other sources cited by Edsall, we learn of Harvard professor of psychology James Sidanius and colleagues, who developed a measure of “social dominance orientation,” or SDO.  (Palace readers familiar Altemeyer’s work will have a working knowledge of SDO, which he goes into in some detail in The Authoritarians).  This Sidanius d00d and his colleagues found that “Republican political party preference correlated positively and significantly with SDO in six out of six samples.”  They developed a 16 question survey to place respondents on a scale of SDO; those high in SDO gave favorable responses to these statements:

1. Some groups of people are just more worthy than others

2. In getting what your group wants, it is sometimes necessary to use force against other groups

3. It’s OK if some groups have more of a chance in life than others

4. To get ahead in life, it is sometimes necessary to step on other groups

5. If certain groups of people stayed in their place, we would have fewer problems

6. It’s probably a good thing that certain groups are at the top and other groups are at the bottom.

7. Inferior groups should stay in their place

8. Sometimes other groups must be kept in their place

People who score low in SDO gave favorable responses to these statements:

9. It would be good if all groups could be equal

10. Group equality should be our ideal

11. All groups should be given an equal chance in life

12. We should do what we can to equalize conditions for different groups

13. We should increase social equality

14. We would have fewer problems if we treated different groups more equally.

15. We should strive to make incomes more equal

16. No one group should dominate in society

So what does SDO mean, i.e., why is it important?  Well, Sidanius et al. found that:

SDO is negatively related to empathy, openness, and agreeableness; …positively linked to aggressivity, vindictiveness, coldness, tough-mindedness, and to a belief that “the world is a zero-sum game.”  In addition, those ranking high on a SDO scale “will use others to get ahead . . . they believe that harming people is legitimate, are observably disagreeable, cold, and vindictive, are low in benevolence, and do not hesitate to humiliate others. Their dog-eat-dog mentality leads them to support economic competition and war over social welfare programs … people high in SDO tend to be callous, confident, and cruel.”

Obviously, these are exactly the sort of people we want in government.  I don’t know about you, but “low in benevolence” always seals the deal for me.

And that’s not all:  Jost et al posit certain personality traits associated with conservative/right wing orientations, including:

rigid, intolerant; conventional, ordinary; obedient, conformist; fearful, threatened; xenophobic, prejudiced; …thrifty, stingy; …obstinate, stubborn; aggressive, angry, vengeful; …withdrawn, reserved; stern, cold, mechanical; anxious, suspicious, obsessive; …restrained, inhibited; concerned with rules, norms; moralistic; simple…closed-minded…

OMFG, I think I’m in love!

These findings speak for themselves loudly and clearly, even when researchers and writers bend over backwards to give conservatives the benefit of the doubt.  For example, Edsall says that “Haidt and Graham look at the issue of ‘harm’ not from the viewpoint that conservatives are more willing to inflict it, but from the other end of the telescope, that liberals place a higher value than conservatives on avoiding inflicting harm.”  This distinction is meaningless to a person who is starving because he cannot find work and there is no longer a food stamp program, or to someone bleeding from an infected wound because he has no access to affordable health care.  In the real world, sins of omission can be just as horrific and deadly as any overt acts, regardless of how a conservative may feel from a moral standpoint.  Conservatives may not be directly responsible for an individual person losing his job and health care benefits.  But in a democratically elected government, one that is ostensibly by the People and for the People, the policies that caused the exodus and evaporation of American jobs and cut Americans’ healthcare and social safety net benefits can be laid squarely at the feet of conservatives — in both parties.

One of the stranger conclusions Edsall offers is that economic hard times favor the election of more conservatives, while periods of economic growth favor lefties.  The argument goes like this:

Under conditions of scarcity, a significant number of ‘discipline’ oriented Americans will be drawn to the hard-edged doctrines of conservatism, providing support to the Tea Party and to the moral orientation of the current Republican House. Conditions of scarcity work to the advantage of conservatives, undermining the willingness of voters to sacrifice — pay higher taxes — for the less fortunate.

In contrast, periods of economic growth work to the advantage of those on the left, who are more committed to values of ‘nurturance’ and care. These voters feel the suffering of others, their compassion is intensified by the sight of the jobless and homeless and hopeless. They believe that a helping hand is morally appropriate and benefits the larger polity. Democrats depend on such voters for core support. In times of plenty, voters in the center can find themselves sympathetic to this position.

This is nothing more than the tiresome conventional “wisdom” that has things exactly backwards.  To buy into this argument, you have to ignore facts like this one:  Wall Street compensation is plummeting, and yet these bankers, the richest of the rich, are more and more openly supportive of higher taxation rates for those in their income brackets.  And the indisputable fact that over the last 30 years, even through economic boon times, the electorate has become ever more conservative.  Those who remember the early 1990s will recall that it was during a recession — and after three consecutive terms of conservative rule — that George H.W. Bush was soundly defeated by one William Jefferson Clinton, who ran on the “It’s the economy, stupid,” platform.  The same happened again in 2008:  after Dubya and his troop of merry primates had driven conservative economic policy to its zenith nadir (which resulted, predictably enough, in economic disaster and exploding wealth inequality), what happened then?  A black man beat the Republican nominee for president.  In the United States.

Then there is this conclusion:

The swing segment of the electorate — i.e. those who have “an unstable attachment to the major political parties,” according to analyst Mark Gersh, those who switch their votes from Republican to Democrat, and back again, from one election to another — is very small, ranging from just 5 percent or 6 percent, according to estimates by former Republican strategist Matt Dowd, to 10 percent, according to political analysts Alan Abramowitz and Bill Bishop. In many elections this 5 percent to 10 percent slice of the electorate proves crucial to the electoral outcome. The candidate who successfully identifies and mobilizes the key moveable segments of the electorate — swing voters — often proves to be the winner.

This notion that candidates must appeal to swing voters — who comprise between 5-10% of the electorate — is another bit of conventional “wisdom” that is demonstrably false.  Consider chapter 1, page 1, paragraph 1 of the Karl Rove playbook:  get referendums on gay marriage and/or abortion onto state ballots, then stand back and watch as herds of conservative Christians trample each other in a mad rush to the voting booth to stick it to the faggots and whores.  And purely coincidentally, while they happen to be there in that voting booth sticking it to the faggots and whores, they will vote for the entire slate of Republicans on the ballot.  The corollary is this:  make a John McCain (or a Mitt Romney) your Republican candidate, and those same people run the other way in droves.  That is to say, the enthusiastic turnout of a party’s base is at least as important as those fickle swing votes, enough to skew an election by a lot more than 10%.  Barack Obama led a liberal revolution to the polls in 2008.  It’s really too bad he isn’t actually a liberal, because in 2010 liberal voter apathy played a major role in sweeping Tea Party Republicans into power in the House: not only were liberals unimpressed with Obama’s Mitt Romney’s health care “reforms,” I’m pretty sure it did not help matters that in the fall of 2010 Obama and his closest advisors were of the belief that liberals were ungrateful f_cking retarded drug addicts.  As I said then:

I am not interested in a Democratic majority that escalates wars, throws women under the bus, cuts deals that perpetuate unconscionable levels of income inequality, locks people up for life [to which we can now add “and kills them” -Ed.] with no trial, blindly supports Israel, lets Wall Street criminals run roughshod over the rest of us, protects torturers and war criminals, defunds Social Security — and then calls us ungrateful fucking retarded drug addicts when we object.

I voted in 2010, for Working Family, Green, and yes, Democratic Party candidates.  (Not for Chuck Schumer, of course — don’t be silly.)  But is it really hard to grok why so many of the very same liberals who lined up for blocks to vote for Obama and his party in 2008 stayed home in 2010?  No, it is not.  Nor is it difficult to get “5-10%” of your base to stay home on election day.  Swing voters, my ass — this bullshit narrative simply cannot die soon enough.

I said earlier that Edsall does not mention much less attempt to account for the 30 year slide the country has taken into the wingnut abyss.  That is not entirely true; he mentions some polling data that I think says a great deal about this very problem:

A 41 percent plurality of Republicans surveyed in a USA Today-Gallup poll shortly after the November 2010 election said that political leaders should stand firm in their beliefs even if little gets done, compared to just 18 percent of Democrats. Nearly three fifths of Democrats, 59 percent, said leaders should be willing to compromise to get things done, compared to just 31 percent of Republicans.

A similar Wall Street Journal/NBC poll conducted in early December 2010, found that Democrats believe that elected officials should “make compromises to gain consensus on legislation,” as opposed to “stick[ing] to their positions even if this means not being able to gain consensus,” by a margin of 63-29, while Republicans were split, 47-47.

Putting aside the conflation of Democrats with liberals, the data point to what we already know:  conservatives are far less likely to compromise, and far more likely to stick to their beliefs “even if this means not being able to gain consensus.”  They don’t want consensus.  Consensus is weak.  Girly, even.  They want to triumph, and by their definition that requires that liberals lose.  The Overton Window shifts farther and farther to the right as liberals compromise, and compromise, and compromise again, while conservatives hold their ground.  They’re much happier taking their ball and going home than giving one inch — you know, like those girly losers always do.  It’s a huge problem, and it goes a long way toward explaining the last 30 years.

I have suggested something that can be done about it:  adopt conservative tactics.  Hold your ground on liberal principles.  Paint your opponents as weak and ridiculous.  Cut messages down to short and memorable sound bites.  Use powerful images to prime, trigger, and emotionally manipulate people into agreeing with you.  Fight back dirty and hard, with as much mockery and ridicule as you can muster.  These are some of the best weapons we have, and we are fools if we do not use them.  We may object to using them in principle — we’re liberals, after all — but it’s hard to deny that they’d be used in the service of good, for once.  I am not afraid of coarse political discourse — we already have that.  I am afraid that by the time we find a cure for Conservative Personality Disorder, the country will be so far gone it won’t matter.

In short (yeah, I know: it’s a little late for that…) while we at the Palace are quite pleased to see new CPD research being discussed at length in prominent journals, the conclusions being drawn from it are not particularly persuasive, and in some cases just flat out wrong.  Conventional wisdom is a failure, and the data do not support it.

I’m going to back to my poo-flinging reveries.  It’s at least as productive as encouraging candidates to appeal to swing voters.

* Not that there is anything wrong with fist-fucking of course, as long as all parties are enthusiastically consenting adults.  As far as I can tell, the American middle class does not consent, enthusiastically or otherwise, to being fisted thusly by the invisible hand of the free market and its servants in Congress.  And frankly, if they keep voting conservatives into office a case can be made that neither are they adults.

One thought on “Drawing the wrong conclusions from the right research.

  1. Pingback: If Only | Tangled Up in Blue Guy

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