Sunday, September 11, 2022

Conservatives, Liberals, and the Dangerous World

It is an old idea that conservates see the world as a dangerous place, while liberals see it as a safe place to explore, hence their greater openness to new ideas and less interest in militarism.

But this is a cartoon. It completely ignores the question of what dangers we are talking about. To take just one example, many liberal feminists are very worried about the danger of rape. So a serious look at the question might produce a result like this:

Decades of research suggest a correlation between belief in a dangerous world and political conservatism. However, research relied on a scale that may overemphasize certain types of dangers. Furthermore, few other world beliefs have been investigated, such that fundamental worldview differences between liberals and conservatives remain largely unknown. A preregistered study of nine samples (N = 5,461; mostly US Americans) found a negligible association between a newly improved measure of generalized dangerous world belief and conservatism, and that the original scale emphasized certain dangers more salient to conservatives (e.g., societal decline) over others most salient for liberals (e.g., injustice). Across many measures of political attitudes, other world beliefs—such as beliefs that the world is Hierarchical, Intentional, Just, and Worth Exploring—each explained several times more variance than dangerous world belief. This suggests the relevance of dangerous world belief to political attitudes has been overstated, and examining other world beliefs may yield insights.

Over the past six months I have spent a lot of time reading various miltiary thinkers and writers, some of whom are very conservative. I will say that a majority are obsessed with danger in the world: Iran-sponsored terrorism, Houthi anti-ship missiles, a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. They like to stare at graphs of rising Chinese naval strength and get really mad about it. They identify strongly with Israel as a place under siege by nefarious elements who might attack at any moment, and who can only be stopped by constant armed vigilance. They share videos of crime sprees in the US. They see a world in which everything they love is under constant threat from Bad Guys.

I also follow the environmental news, so I also regularly read pieces by people who think the world is dying from climate change, acidification, toxin poisons, deforestation, and so on. 

Who is more afraid?

Some fears cut against each other. While environmentally-minded liberals are afraid of climate chage, many conservatives are afraid of an environmental tyranny that will force them to give up their cars, their houses, their lawns, and their right to have children. Maybe their fears are overblow, but it is not at all hard to find environmentalists who want to ban cars (all of them, not just gas-powered ones) and legally limit childbearing to one per family.

And then there are people like me, who are most afraid of fear itself. None of the American and British commentators I follow is more obsessed with the Ukraine war than I am. Ukraine represents dangers I fear greatly. For me, the greatest danger in the world is what we might broadly call Fascism: armed national pride, fed by a belief that the world is full of enemies who must be opposed by toughness and violence. A fear of disorder so great that it seeks to impose ever greater surveillance, ever greater unity, ever greater control; that equates freedom with chaos. Of that, I am very afraid.

All attempts to reduce political division to simple emotions fail, because the world is too complex, and we are too complex, to be understood reductively.


G. Verloren said...

I think the major distinction is the validity of the different fears.

Conservatives fear the imagined "corrupting effects" of homosexuals simply existing.
Homosexuals fear the very real ways in which conservatives try to prevent them existing.

Conservatives fear the imagined effects of immigrants "stealing their jobs".
Immigrants fear the the very real ways in which conservatives deny them jobs for racist reasons.

Conservatives have absurd fears. They're literally the ones imagining "Red Dawn" scenarios involving such outlandish notions as Soviet paratroopers dropping into rural Colorado for no apparent reason, and being driven off by a handful of small town high school teenagers. As you yourself note, they stare at graphs of Chinese naval strength and become livid - while at the same time, scoffing at the war in Ukraine and grumbling about slightly higher gas prices.

They support Israel with blind zealotry (despite hating the Jews), not because it's something they "love" which is under threat from "Bad Guys", but simply because they hate the Arabs even more (particularly Iran, because they had the ~audacity~ to overthrow the old US-backed dictator who was murdering them in streets). Conservatives "love" Israel because it is a useful pawn for them. Conservatives love power, and fear anything that they imagine threatens their power.

Meanwhile, liberal fears are based in actual ongoing injustices. They sometimes get overblown, just as all fears do, but fundamentally they are based on real, ongoing problems that are actively hurting millions of people - overwhelmingly minorities.

G. Verloren said...

Typo - meant to have have quotation marks above on "The Arabs", as I'm quite aware that Iran is not Arabic, despite conservative tendencies to lump all the peoples of that region together.

szopeno said...
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szopeno said...
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szopeno said...
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szopeno said...

I wish blog's software would allow comment edition. As usual when writing in a hurry, I made several errors. In future will try not to hit "publish your comment" before reading it at least twice D


@G. Verloren your carricature of conservative thinking is a one-sided parody that is so unreal it's funny. I assume you live in a total bubble and you never in your life had a single conservative friend.

David said...

I think John's basic point is quite right: all attempts to understand the right/left divide according to simple psychological or philosophical metrics are misguided. Part of the problem with psychological schticks like "conservatives are afraid, liberals are open to new experiences" is they rely too much on 1960s-era "hippie vs. square" stereotypes. These days, those stereotypes are all mixed up. Images associated with moderately successful suburban types--neat clothes, regular schedules, good manners--now probably fit white liberals better than they do the right. The people who assaulted the capital looked a lot more like hippies than squares.

Consider also the "liberals like change" idea. This relies on too much on early 19th century typologies, as though MAGA and Metternich had anything in common. Especially considering that a huge part of modern liberalism is about mitigating or preventing change (social insurance, financial regulation, green energy), I'd say the stereotype should almost be reversed. An admittedly small, boutique section of MAGA (eg, Peter Thiel), arguably likes all change as a sort of morality play in which people are tested and the strong prosper.

szopeno said...

Was it Scott ALexander (Suskind) who wrote the parable about zombie world and star trek world, as a way to understand liberal/conservative world outlook? There was something to it, but then Covid19 upend many assumptions about liberal/conservative world outlook. Who would guess it would be liberals who are more affraid of disease and more approving of totalitarian measures implemented by the governments?

David said...


I think the new complexity dates to before COVID. Many liberals like me already liked state protections and the nanny state, so we didn't regard things like lockdown as totalitarian at all (whether such measures were a good idea is another issue, but the problem is still so politicized that I wouldn't trust any argument that claimed to have reached a definite conclusion either way). Perhaps it's worth remarking that many on the American right regard taxes of any sort, or, say, gay marriage, as totalitarian measures too.

One of the problems with defining the terms of the left-right opposition, at least in the US, is the fact that both sides have tended to copy each other's rhetoric. E. g., each side is happy to accuse the other of being "totalitarian." From my perspective, it seems the right has been especially good at copying the left--see again the hippie and new-age style of many of the attackers on Jan. 6. And, remember when "the social construction of reality" was supposed to be a leftist idea?

Another problem is that there really are some pretty bizarre mixes. Consider that both "Blue Lives Matter" and the Boogaloo Bois are considered (correctly, I think) right-wing movements.