August 6, 2003

August 6, 2003 | Commentary on Political Thought

A Beautiful Mind?

Think conservatives are mean? No. Turns out we're just crazy.

 

That, at any rate, seems to be the conclusion of a new study published in the American Psychological Association's Psychological Bulletin -- one that could lead one to believe that conservatives are mentally ill.

 

That's right. Four professors -- two from the University of California at Berkeley, one from Stanford University and one from the University of Maryland -- studied 50 years of research into the psychology of conservatives. The result, according to one of the authors, is a "pluralistic and nuanced understanding of the source of conservatism."

 

Yes, their study is highly nuanced. I knew it was the minute I read the following sentence: "Hitler, Mussolini, and former President Ronald Reagan were individuals, but all were right-wing conservatives."

 

How can anyone seriously lump these men together? President Reagan, a free-market crusader, spent a lifetime battling totalitarianism. More than nuance distinguishes him from Hitler and Mussolini, rabid socialists who nationalized industry and crushed dissent.

 

The study concludes conservatives share certain traits, including:

  • Uncertainty Avoidance
  • The Need for Cognitive Closure
  • Terror Management

Well, guilty as charged.

 

Consider "Terror Management." If that means defeating terrorists and keeping our homeland safe, sign me up. Frankly, it seems to me that not managing terror would be crazy.

 

"Uncertainty Avoidance"? Sounds more like basic human nature, but yes, we conservatives avoid uncertainty by doing our homework. For example, we support "supply side" tax cuts as a way to boost the economy. Why? Because every time the government has made such cuts, the economy has improved.

 

Or how about a "Need for Cognitive Closure"? In English, that means "Making a Decision." What's wrong with that? Consider all your options, of course. Eventually, though, you have to act.

 

But there I go, avoiding uncertainty again. No surprise, I'm sure, to co-author Jack Glaser of Berkeley, who says conservatives "are more comfortable seeing and stating things in black and white in ways that would make liberals squirm."

 

Yet this study itself is awash in black and white. Its authors simply take the notion that conservatives are wrong as a given. So they dismiss conservative ideas, even as those ideas sweep the nation.

 

After all, is there something wrong with the millions of people who listen to Rush Limbaugh every day? Is there something wrong with the families who are enjoying sensible tax reforms and don't want to see those reforms repealed? Is there something wrong with the vast majority of Americans who support military readiness? Of course not.

 

For years liberals have simply refused to accept that conservatives have a permissible worldview. Perhaps the most notorious example occurred in 1964, when the now-defunct magazine FACT ran two stories hinting that presidential candidate Barry Goldwater was insane. "Mr. Goldwater's illness is not just an emotional maladjustment, or a mild neurosis," the magazine reported. He showed "unmistakable signs of paranoia."

 

The magazine based its story on questionnaires filled out by thousands of psychiatrists who had never met or examined Goldwater. But time hasn't been kind to Goldwater's critics. Four decades later, the ideas he ran on hold up much better than Lyndon Johnson's disastrous "Great Society."

 

The authors claim their findings aren't judgmental, and they concede that, "in many cases, including mass politics, 'liberal' traits may be liabilities." Liberalism a liability? I'll say. Especially when it comes to conducting psychological studies of conservatives. Doctors, heal yourselves.

 

Ed Feulner is the president of The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. Founder, Chairman of the Asian Studies Center, and Chung Ju-yung Fellow
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