In contemplating a progressive primary run against the President, it must of course be acknowledged that even the strongest challenger would face immense resistance to his message outside the proverbial "choir." The widespread suspicions that a powerful "liberal elite" seeks to impose moral values that are at odds with those of ordinary Americans; the concomitant assumption that this same elite also shapes the social reforms pursued by an activist government; and the near-creedal belief in the sanctity of "free markets" and American "exceptionalism": all create high barriers for the progressive principles of participatory democracy, economic fairness, corporate social responsibility, care for the environment, and a foreign policy that is based not on domination by the strongest, but on a sense of human community.
According to a 2008 study published in the journal Science, there may in fact be a rational explanation for conservative resistance to the political aims of progressives. As summarized in the Los Angeles Times (Sept. 19, 2008), research on which the study was based traces a clear pathway in humans from genetic makeup, to physiology, to behavior. In testing a cross-section of individuals, researchers found that genetically-conditioned levels of fear in response to various test stimuli were consistently indicative of how the individuals viewed the world. Those with heightened fear responses took the conservative view on contentious issues such as gun control, pacifism, and capital punishment, and were far more inclined than those with minimal fear responses to oppose changes in the existing social order.
These findings seemingly confirm something I myself have long suspected: that one is in fact born with a predisposition to the conservative or liberal point of view. More importantly, in my own view, this inborn bias would appear to be strongly linked to an individual's sense of self-identity. Because this sense is critical to personal psychological stability, it is necessarily resistant to contrary ways of seeing things and makes difficult a bridging of ideological differences. The divide is especially daunting for the advance of progressive ideas, since it is highly likely that the inborn bias toward the conservative perspective is greatly more prevalent than that toward the progressive view. This is because, as I hope to show, the conservative view reflects the very widespread human awareness of separation between the self and everything outside it, while the progressive view is based on a rare sense of moral connectedness with other human beings and all natural creation outside the self.
Before developing this idea further, however, I should note a number of qualifications. First, in using the terms "conservative" or "progressive," I reference a conceptual mindset or psychological type, not actual policies or politicians. Second, the two terms should be understood in the specific context of their meaning in American political, social, and religious life. Third, the conclusions I offer are drawn from personal experience, reading, and observation, not from any special knowledge or scholarly research. And, finally, although I distinguish fundamental differences between the mindsets of conservatives and progressives, I recognize that, since both groups share a common humanity, each also shares a part of the other's psychology. That provides at least a narrow window for mutual influence and accommodation.
Conservative Values and Resistance to Change.
With the caveat that these qualifications be kept in mind, I would suggest that the sense of self held by the prototypical conservative derives fundamentally from the connections of which he or she is a social product. These might include, for example, parents; genetic inheritance; ethnicity; upbringing; education; religion; friends; spouse; parental role; career; social and economic station; natural surroundings; travel experiences; or cultural values held personally, or in common with a group, a locality, or the nation as a whole. It is to be expected that persons with a self-identity shaped by such connections will strive continually to meet the expectations inherent in them. Any failure to do so would loosen their grip on the sense of self and, if carried too far, run the risk of a psychological drowning.
Given their need to vindicate the influences that have shaped them, prototypical conservatives accept the world as a place of conflict and struggle. In it, they believe, individuals must fight to preserve their claims on particular interests and values against other individuals who have competing claims.
This mindset is a formidable barrier to possible inroads by progressive values. Because prototypical conservatives have little sense of an underlying and interconnected humanity that transcends individual identities shaped by the social order, they do not see it as the role of government to help build and sustain a national community committed to the common good. Instead, the primary demand they make on government is that it safeguard their freedom to wage the struggles they think are necessary to attain and preserve the social place to which they aspire.
Interestingly, as the American experience seems to show, prototypical conservatives do not fear their competitors, who are an indigenous part of the world as they understand it. They do, however, fear the "progressive" mindset. In the conservative view, especially as it is expressed on the militant political Right, progressives constitute a self-anointed elite that, despite its small size, is intent on overturning the natural competitive order by imposing in its place its vision of a mutually supportive, "caring" society. Because conservatives consider such a vision illusory, or even worse a calculated pretext for seizing power, they believe its only end can be to deprive them of a chance to claim a place as one of society's winners. Without that chance, as they see it, they can only be "losers."
For conservatives, then, conflict in the world is not an affliction to be overcome by morally-driven human empathy and creativity, but a central feature of the natural social order. That order, moreover, is assumed to have been created and ordained once and for all by an ultimate power in the universe that the monotheistic religions have personified and named "God." For many American conservatives, especially those on the "Christian Right," God is therefore seen not as a source of inspiration for leading a good life and building a better world, but as a protector against the self-anointed elite who would deprive them of their ability to wage a fair fight against those who stand in the way of their own success or dominance.
In the same way, American conservatives characteristically support whatever mechanisms are in place to preserve the ordained social order. They assume the "free market" to be God-driven and believe that efforts to reform it are both self-deceiving and un-American. They hold the same view on the Constitution, scripture, and the rights of gun ownership. Only actions governed by Adam Smith's "invisible hand" of economic providence, by sanctioned tradition, or by instinctual libido can be trusted. Conscious, deliberate choices are inherently suspect -- as they are also in the Eden myth, where man is forbidden the moral freedom to discriminate between good and evil. It is therefore precisely in the social planning, laws, and regulations of the secular federal government that the American conservative sees the greatest threat of all to his or her own freedom.
This suspicion of government, and consequent antipathy to it, is perhaps most fully revealed in the abortion issue. If the conservative's religious beliefs posit that God himself authorizes every new human life, abortion becomes a sin far greater than the torture of helpless adversaries in Iraq or the wanton bombing of villages and wedding parties, including babies, in Afghanistan. The unforgivable offense lies not in taking defenseless human life, no matter how egregious the means, but in violating God's authority. No doubt the conservative assigns a level of culpability to the doctor performing the abortion. He assigns the same blame to the woman choosing to have an abortion. She is seen in stereotype as a wayward and unimportant creature who, despite her manifest unworthiness, has presumed to take an action on her own authority that is contrary to the will of God. It is of little account that the woman may have been pressed to her decision, with great moral regret, by circumstances that made it critical to the possibilities of her own life. In the conservative view, humans have no choice but to accept the world and its governance as their traditions tell them God has ordained it.
Still, conservatives reserve their greatest resentment and antipathy for the federal government, which, in making abortion legal, has by deliberate choice pitted its own binding secular power against God's authority. For this, government is seen as the ultimate embodiment of evil. Humanistic notions that men and women themselves are morally responsible both for the conduct of their own life, and for the social and economic structures and values that affect the common good, strike the conservative mind not only as illusory, but blasphemous.
Useful Realists, but They Need To Stretch Their
Sense of Moral Connectedness.
Of course, the foregoing profile, though I believe it to be fair, is admittedly one-sided. Few of even the most ardent progressives will deny that, as a psychological type, conservatives represent more than, at the high end of the socio-economic spectrum, a reflexive defense of wealth and power; and, at the low end, a reflexive defense of guns, religion, and a literalist reading of the Constitution. Most progressives will agree that conservatives also have a positive side that contributes invaluably to a functional and vigorous society.
Conservatives are, for one thing, the natural generators of wealth -- our entrepreneurs, business executives, and bankers. They are, in many cases, our policemen, firefighters, and nurses. In their devotion to "family values," they can continue to remind us of the important roles of tradition, nature, art, family, friendships, and work in supporting our lives with beauty and stable points of reference. And, on the political front, they can play a useful role in the legislative process by making sure that visionary initiatives for change are not excessive in scope or pace, and actually lend themselves to practical implementation in the real world.