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The Teenage Rebellion of Modern Conservatives

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Not every modern conservative had a grandpa who made moonshine whiskey. With no family history of being pursued by federal revenuers, where does their extreme dislike of government come from?

The mentality is expressed succinctly in a reader's comment about a recent article I wrote:

"Conservatives simply want the Federal government to back-off. We don't need any elitist Washingtonians telling us what to eat, what to drive, how to illuminate our homes or educate our children. Real oppression comes from a nanny-state Federal government. The Federal government should focus on its constitutional purpose of defending the nation and enabling interstate commerce."

We can all agree that elitist Washingtonians, whoever they are, are the devil's own brood. But we don't usually think of nannies that way. Yet we're just now discovering (thank you, Scott Walker) how nefarious our teachers are. Have we overlooked the nanny threat? As Glenn Beck has probably noted, the word does rhyme with canny.

Okay, for the moment let's concede that the federal government is a nanny, a mean mother-figure who pushes us around. What about corporations? They can get pushy, too. To paraphrase the reader's comment above, corporations determine what many of us eat (adulterated, genetically modified foods), produce what many of us drive (gas guzzlers), and sell what many of us use to illuminate our homes (inefficient light bulbs).

Corporations also determine whether we can borrow money, what interest we'll pay, whether we'll get health insurance (oops, federal government just saved us there), whether our democracy will survive, whether the middle class will survive, and whether the earth will survive.

So bullying is good when corporations do it, bad when government does it. Conservatives say they can tolerate little government--but not BIG government. Come now, this government Godzilla is just a right-winger's diversion. What conservatives hate is not big government but good government. Good government is the triumph of democracy and common humanity, which clashes with the conservative's worship of grandiose individualism and lust for power.

That's just one reason conservatives make government out to be the enemy. Another is the conservative propaganda machine, which on behalf of the elite spins the American dream as the story of personal and corporate wealth. This propaganda has been called " the most sophisticated, deeply funded and precisely orchestrated public relations system ever concocted," which means--to give credit where it's due--the Koch brothers are geniuses.

There may be a deeper reason yet for this anti-government feeling: Conservatives are, psychologically speaking, adolescent or teenagers going through stage five of the psychosocial stages of development. It's a stage of rebellion against parental authority.

Each human goes through eight stages of psychosocial development, according to noted psychoanalyst and developmental psychologist Erik Erickson (1902-1994). As I see it, humanity also goes through corresponding stages that reflect evolution and growing consciousness. As a psychosocial history of humanity, the stages outline a progression from primitive beasts to, in stage eight, the attainment of human destiny where our better nature is realized.

The consciousness of collective, historical humanity appears to be passing through the middle stages (four, five, and six). In my opinion (and I would be surprised if all conservatives agreed), liberals and progressives are plodding along in stage six, while our conservative brothers and sisters are tagging along behind in stage five.

According to Erikson, teenage rebellion is normal and it occurs during the fifth stage from ages 12 and 19. As one mother said about her normal kids, "They were easy babies. The terrible twos weren't so terrible at all. Even grade school was a snap. They were healthy, they liked school, and they had an easy time making friends." But once they became teenagers, arguments ensued about curfews, cars, clothes and companions. "Lots of slammed doors, rolled eyes, and cold silences!"

Conservatives are rebelling against the federal government on the basis of the role it plays in their psyche. Just like mommy and daddy, that big bad federal government t ells them what they can and can't do. Nothing symbolizes parents like the federal government. Like parents, the government represents power over us. Teenagers experience, at least in part, parental power as oppressive, the same way that adults with a teenage mentality can feel about their government. The Tea Party rebellion is a teenage rebellion.

Good parents or not, many teenagers are going to rebel, just as many adults in Erikson's fifth stage of psychosocial development will rebel against a symbol of parental authority. As President Obama said, he doesn't take it personally.

Erikson coined the term "identity crisis" to describe the inner turmoil we face while trying to sort out our changing and developing experience of the world. Conservatives have been thrown into a massive identity crisis by changing demographics, economic uncertainly, revolutionary cultural changes, and perceived threats to their beliefs. White, Christian conservatives have the added benefit of assimilating a black man (and suspected Muslim alien) as father figure.

Most kids get through this fifth stage and into the sixth--young adulthood--where they're becoming more mature. With sympathy and understanding, we can help conservatives move through stage five. Otherwise, they're apt to hold us all back.

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Peter Michaelson is an author, blogger, and psychotherapist in Plymouth, MI. He believes that better understanding of depth psychology reduces the fear, passivity, and denial of citizens, making us more capable of maintaining and growing our (more...)
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