Conservatism as identity politics—Some Introductory Remarks
Last week, Glenn Greenwald wrote an influential post, “Do Bush followers have a political ideology?”, in which he argued that Bush supporters are cultists who do not possess a political ideology, but instead use the terms “conservative” and “liberal” to identify members of the cult and those outside the cult, respectively. While I agree with the vast majority of Glenn’s analysis, I believed he was mistaken in one respect—the cultism is the ideology. What’s more, it is also a form of conservatism, as I argued in an initial response, “It's The Ideology, Smarty!” at My Left Wing. Here I want to expand on those remarks in a series of posts, and place them in a larger framework that draws on a variety of different disciplines and perspectives. At the core of this endeavor is a definition of conservatism, as follows.
Here’s my thesis: Conservatism is a form (indeed the original form) of identity politics. It is expressed through multiple forms of political ideology based on justifying elite rule and the division of the human race into dualized classes (ideal and counter-ideal) in terms of some “natural” moral order.
Conservatism appears in various forms as the rationalizations and dualized classes shift over time, and in three distinct states of realization, reflecting different levels of development of the self. The overt rationalizations commonly mistaken for conservative ideology are, in fact, derivative phenomena—tertiary at best. The primary phenomena is the creation of a conservative identity, the subject of conservative political narratives. The secondary phenomena is the supporting ideology of superior and inferior groups, casting conservative identity as something to be preserved, promoted, and defended against the forces of evil, embodied in its demonized others. The primary and secondary phenomena are relatively constant over time, while the tertiary phenomena vary considerably.
This thesis will be elaborated, explained and justified in a series of posts. It reflects a range of ideas I have been reflecting on over a number of years, though the occasion for drawing them together is the debate sparks by Glenn’s post.
The ideas embodied in the above definition derive from a diverse range of perspectives, grounded in six major disciplines—political theory, history, public opinion research, psychoanalytic theory, developmental psychology, and political psychology—which I expect to reappear frequently on this blog in the future as well.
Political theory allows us to focus on and describe the overt historical forms of outward ideological expression. It allows us to identify common elements and themes, as well as variations. It will be referred to in what follows, but generally only within an historical framework.
History provides a framework for relating continuity and differences in political theory to their real-world contexts. Historically, the nature of conservative ideology in the modern, post-Enlightenment era is described in terms of major theorists, such as Burke and de Maistre, and different lines of development predominating in England, Continental Europe and the United States. The variety of historical forms that modern conservatism has taken serves as a framework for critiquing naive claims identifying conservatism with relatively recent and accidental forms of its secondary, outward ideological expression in the United States.
Public opinion research provides solid empirical data for demonstrating the way in which post-New Deal conservatism functions as a form of identity politics, unifying two radically opposed political tendencies—social conservatism and libertarianism. It explains how liberalism and conservatism as conceptualized in quite different ways, not simply as mirror images of one another.
Psychoanalytic theory explains the underlying dynamics of demonizing the other and idealizing conservative identity. While the processes involved are common to all individuals to some degree or another, they do not necessarily play a role in constituting key aspects of political thought, as they do in the case of conservatism.
Developmental psychology—which describes how the very foundations of human reasoning go through a series of reorganizations during the developmental process—provides a framework for understanding conservatism as a failed attempt to deal with a world too complex for its order of cognitive complexity to grasp. It further allows us to understand conservative cultism as corresponding to an even more primitive developmental stage, characterized by the very sorts of logically inadequate thought processes we have increasingly witnessed throughout the Bush presidency. An even more primitive developmental stage may correspond to the atavistic eliminationist rhetoric which David Niewart at Orcinus has been tracking for so long.
Political psychology provides a complex picture of conservatism as partially defined by a range of psychological motivations, including some quite directly related to oft-stated conservative values, such as order and stability, and others about which conservatives are more ambiguous, sometimes invoking, and sometimes disowning. Two factors, correlated both with group prejudice and political conservatism, are particularly noteworthy—rightwing authoritarianism (RWA) and social dominance orientation (SDO). RWA is significantly correlated with a wide range of character flaws, including deficits in reasoning and lack of critical self-awareness, and is much more strongly identified with conservative politics among those who are most politically active. SDO is an element of social dominance theory (SDT), which explains how hierarchical societies perpetuate themselves through an interaction of socially conditioned attitudes, institutions and legitimating ideological expressions, the later of which are often most changeable, sometimes even adopting an outwardly egalitarian appearance—as with seemingly egalitarian arguments against affirmative action.
Taken altogether, these approaches will allow us to gain a far more accurate picture of what conservatism is all about. This, in turn, will provide a foundation for much more effective political action at every level. It should not be expected to dictate a specific course of action, but it should be expected to dictate against some courses of action—some of them currently quite popular.
I will begin the series proper with evidence from a 1964 study, published in 1967, that produced the first broad picture of American public opinion, complete with some complexities that have persisted to the present day, despite the considerable shifts in the political landscape since then. The data from that study—backed up by 30+ years of surveys from the General Social Survey—provides compelling evidence that conservatism functions as a kind of identity politics, which overtly appears to be about ideology, but has underlying elements of simple group identity politics. It’s always nice to start with some hard data, especially when it establishes a fundamental pattern that clarifies so much else that is otherwise so murky.