I just read a Charles Krauthammer column. It made me laugh. The total blindness of conservatives to other people… and deafness and numbness, is startling. Anything that interferes in any way with what they want to do is a horrible infringement on “natural, God-given freedoms” but the rest of us can be screwed over by credit card companies, car companies, banks, investment firms, food suppliers, schools, hospitals and on and on, and it’s because we are somehow of bad character.
Examples of the latter abound: poor people score low on IQ tests and thus their poverty is explained and is quite natural; criminals are sinners and need to be punished; poor school performance is a result only of laziness; and on and on.
Conservatives’ positive self-evaluation boils down to two things: they are more moral than others and they have more than others. While it is possible and fascinating to trace back into history the origin of these notions, it is also pretty obvious that feeling superior to others is a human trait. But how do you back of the contention you are superior because you possess more if you don’t actually possess more?
Therein lies the genius of the conservative movement. First they score on the moral superiority side through religion, convincing people that others are not to be considered since anything that happens to them on the bad side is merited by their moral turpitude in not being religious in the way the conservatives are. This is tricky because religion is tricky, what with Catholics, Jews, Evangelicals, and so on all being mutually hostile historically but now united in moral superiority.
On the economic side, it takes some doing to convince people to stay out of unions when their bosses are screwing them over. High interest rates, health care costs, education costs and so on can perhaps be blamed on the “liberal elite”, but eventually some explanation has to be found for the fact that working people are not getting ahead under conservative leadership.
That explanation is simple: working people are to be screwed over, that’s a natural law. The way out of that is to become a rich person. And that’s where the self-help books come in: they convince people that they will be rich someday soon and so anything that interferes with rich people will be bad for them and so is now bad. That was a neat psychological trick and explains the plethora of movements designed to enrich the individual but not any group.
Finally, we are at the point where the conservative house of cards has collapsed. The news out of the financial and employment sectors is no longer news, it is job loss, home loss, education loss, health care loss in the lives of ordinary working people. Finally, it is hitting home and they are bereft of their optimism and blindness. They are shifting toward a kind of populism which, in fact, was always exploited by conservatives though they did not buy into it. For some years, I’ve been predicting that the working conservatives, esp the Evangelicals, would eventually listen to their pocket books and dump conservatism for a return to some form of populism. I see it happening now.
The fact that it has come in such a disasterous way for so many people is too bad. What I never understood is how conservatives – and here I am confounding two sorts of people: the true conservatives who understand the purpose of conservatism and support it versus those working people who have been tricked into conservatism, and here I am talking about the latter – how conservatives of this sort can think of themselves and maybe, just maybe, their spouses, rising in the hierarchy, but ignore the rest of their family, friends, and church members. If you are selling crap in order to get rich, then you probably will sell it to them or at least watch as others like you sell crap to them. Don’t you want to warn them? Don’t you want them to come along with you?
And here, maybe, we have a distinction to make. Most people tricked into conservatism don’t really want to live in a dog-eat-dog world. How do we know? Because they belong to churches and other organizations that genuinely help others – perhaps only certain others – but they do feel compassion for others. But then there are the other types, not a whole lot of tem but sufficient to staff the ranks of deceptive salesmen, slick promoters, slimey repairmen, clever (“sharp”, as the old folks used to say, “sharp practices”) financial managers, and so forth. They are out there. Who are they? They are people who don’t trust others, who’ve been damaged by life and have given up on love (I owe that formula to a colleague in counseling who said people go for power when they have given up on finding love). They may be simple curmudgeons but often they are, more sadly, pathologically formed, devoid or almost devoid of normal human associations.
I think the HBO series The Sopranos did a good job of showing how these people can seemingly lead normal lives – love their kids, enjoy a BBQ – and then murder someone in a rage or quite coldly as a matter of business. They may be extremes, but the less extreme can still do a lot of damage in society.
At this point I know someone is going to exclaim, “Hey, Barrett is saying conservatives are psychopaths!” No, I’m not. This type of person appears in every political stripe. Secondly, keep in mind I am only talking about a fraction of the conservative movement: those who are working people (incl. the working poor, the working-class, the middle class) who have bought into the conservative dream of “making it big” but manage to leave everyone in their lives behind in the process.
So, after all this, I want to recognize those people who are real conservatives, people who are thoughtful and have thought through their ideas. Their view of life has been described by George Lakoff in books like Moral Politics. They do see society as made up of deserving and undeserving, moral and immoral people, and want to be on the higher level and perhaps see themselves as there now. While I disagree with them, I do not think they are cynical.
There are other conservatives, the self-serving type, who are cynical and just see life as dog-eat-dog. There are those populist conservatives I have described above and most of them are vulnerable to populist arguments. Among them are the curmudgeons and slightly psychopath types but most are normal people who have been tricked into conservative by buying into the dream that they will soon be above the trials of ordinary working people.
These are the folks who are bailing out on conservatism.