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Why would so many US working and middle class citizens vote against their own class interests in the recent presidential election?

And what can really be said about the “morality” of those who oppose stem cell research, effective social programs for the poor and disadvantaged, adequate funding of schools, abortion and the right of women to control their bodies, national health care insurance, and affirmative action programs but at the same time support capital punishment, economic inequality with the most extreme income gap between “haves” and “have-nots” of any industrial nation, racism, both structural and otherwise, and the criminal invasion of Iraq with the slaughter of at least 100,000 children, women, and men all for the sake of Iraqi oil and imperialist dreams of conquest and domination, and white supremacist visions of world hegemony?

Given such glaring contradictions, one wonders if many US citizens are able to discern the difference between the wheat and the chaff and what is the quality of their reality contact.

Or is there another dynamic lurking just beneath the surface:  white control, white exclusivity, and in a word, white supremacy under the guise of so-called “Christian” values which are often egregious violations of many of the basic tenets of authentic Christianity including the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” a rule predicated on liberty, justice and equality, as well as other integrative aspects of Christianity like “Love thy neighbor as thy self” which speaks of socialism rather than unjust, misanthropic, dog-eat-dog capitalism and class conflict. As Jesus said, “What thou doeth to the least of these, thou doeth to me.”  This contrast is clear if you compare the teachings of the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with those of Rev. Jerry Falwell.

Do you really think that the God of Christianity as revealed in the Bible is unconcerned about the environment, or war and peace, and injustice and poverty?  Does God want 45 million Americans to be without healthcare and does God support the racist exclusion of people of color and other out groups?

So we see that the deeply ubiquitous ideology of Euro-American supremacy trumps class interests and, in this instance, leads to a tragic, dangerous, and irrational choice, the election of an overtly racist, war criminal hell bent on destroying the last tattered remnants of the social safety net and seems intent on attempting to remake the world in accord with his own destructive, anti-democratic, white supremacist vision:  George Walker Bush.

Bush’s Iraqi imbroglio is simply a stale rehash of the tired, old “White Man’s Burden” routine.  When he announces in his messianic, megalomaniac zeal he will bring freedom and democracy to Iraq, he denies Iraqi cultural history, Iraqi legitimacy, and Iraqi autonomy, and the value and worth of the Iraqi people themselves.  In the end, according to the Bush plan, “Big Boss Man” will be in control, in charge of the destiny of the Iraqi people, and more to the real motive, in charge of their oil.

If one were to substitute the word, “Iraqis,” for the word, “slaves,” a comment by a Euro-American holder of enslaved Africans, “We turn our slaves into whatever we want them to be” precisely mirrors Bush’s simple minded, tragically ineffective Iraqi strategy which seems doomed to failure but is likely to produce terrible consequences, to unleash the proverbial whirlwind.

But again, from the Bush perspective, “Big Boss Man” rules and Euro-American superiority and Bush et al.’s intrinsic right to world hegemony are tacitly assumed.

Unfortunately, all too many Americans seem to agree, especially Bush supporters.

Pertinent in this context is a recent survey by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA), School of Public Affairs, University of Maryland, “The Separate Realities of Bush and Kerry Supporters,” that yielded surreal, delusion-like results. The survey revealed that 72% of those who support Bush still believe Iraq had weapons of mass destruction or a major program for developing them while Kerry supporters had opposite beliefs on all these points.

In addition, 75% of Bush supporters continue to believe that Iraq was providing substantial support to al Qaeda and 63% believe solid, irrefutable evidence of this was found.  Sixty percent of Bush supporters assume that this is also the conclusion of most experts, and 55% assume, incorrectly, that this was the conclusion of the 9/11 Commission.  And again, large majorities of Kerry supporters hold exactly opposite, more veridical views.

Steven Kull, director of PIPA, commented:  “One of the reasons that Bush supporters have these beliefs is that they perceive the Bush administration confirming them.  Interestingly, this is one point on which Bush and Kerry supporters agree.”  Eighty-two percent of Bush supporters perceive the Bush administration as asserting that Iraq had WMD (63%) or that Iraq had a major WMD program (19%).  Similarly, 75% say that the Bush administration has indicated that Iraq was providing substantial support to al Qaeda.  Equally large majorities of Kerry supporters perceive the Bush administration as expressing these views.  Seventy-three percent say that the Bush administration asserts that Iraq had WMD and 74% that Iraq was providing substantial support to al Qaeda.

Also, according to Steven Kull, “Another reason that Bush supporters may hold to these beliefs is that they have not accepted the idea that it does not matter whether Iraq had WMD or supported al Qaeda.  Here too they are in agreement with Kerry supporters.”  When asked whether the US should have gone to war against Iraq if US intelligence had concluded that Iraq was not developing WMD or providing support to al Qaeda, 58% of Bush supporters said the US should not have, and 61% believe that the President would not have.

Kull continues:  “To support the President and to accept that he took the US to war based on mistaken assumptions likely creates substantial cognitive dissonance, and leads Bush supporters to suppress [, repress, and deny] awareness [italics mine] of unsettling information about prewar Iraq.”

The proclivity of Bush supporters to utilize the triad of hysterical defenses, suppression, repression, and denial, to ignore dissonant information also extends to other realms, a highly significant finding.

Despite an abundance of evidence including polls conducted in 38 countries, only 31% of Bush supporters are able to recognize and acknowledge that the majority of people in the world oppose the US having gone to war with Iraq.  Forty-two percent mistakenly believe that views are evenly divided, and 26% mistakenly believe that the majority approves.  Among Kerry supporters, 74% are able to acknowledge that the world is opposed to the US war of aggression.

Likewise, 57% of Bush supporters mistakenly believe that the majority of people in other nations favor Bush’s reelection, 33% assumed that views are equally divided, and only 9% believed that Kerry was preferred.  A recent survey of 35 major countries around the world revealed that in 30, a majority favored Kerry while in just 3 was Bush favored.

Bush supporters also harbor gross misperceptions of Bush’s international policy positions.  Substantial majorities incorrectly assume that Bush supports multilateral approaches to international issues, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (69%). the treaty banning land mines (72%), and the Kyoto treaty addressing the problem of global warming (51%).  After Bush denounced the International Criminal Court in the recent debates of Presidential candidates, the perception that he favored it dropped from 66%, but still a majority of 53% continue to believe that he favors it.  Seventy-four percent incorrectly believe that he favors including labor and environmental standards in trade agreements.  In all these instances, majorities of Bush supporters favor the positions they impute to Bush while Kerry supporters are much more accurate in their perceptions of his positions on these issues.

To turn to Steven Kull again, “The roots of the Bush supporters’ resistance to information [italics mine] very likely lie in the traumatic experience of 9/11 and equally in the near pitch-perfect leadership that President Bush showed in its immediate wake.  This appears to have created a powerful bond between Bush and his supporters – and an idealized image [italics mine] of the President that makes it difficult for his supporters to imagine that he could have made incorrect judgments before the war, that world public opinion could be critical of his policies or that the President could hold foreign policy positions that are at odds with his supporters.”

I find Kull’s explanation of Bush supporters’ resistance to information discrepant with pre-existing beliefs to be the joint result of the traumatic experience of 9/11 and the quality of the President’s leadership in the wake of that event myopic and unconvincing.

Kull seems to be positing that the propensity of Bush supporters to tune out discrepant information is situationally determined.  He does not seem to entertain the possibility that the behavior may not wholly be situationally determined but, instead, may also be, in part, dispositionally determined as well, that is, the behavior may be an interaction of state-determined and trait-determined components.

Since Kerry supporters were also in the same situation as Bush supporters, they, too, experienced 9/11 and Bush’s “leadership,” and they, too, should respond like Bush supporters if resistance to information discrepant with pre-existing beliefs was primarily state-determined but they clearly do not.  Why is that so?

Unfortunately, Kull is silent on this point so we will have to look elsewhere for a more veridical explanation of this highly significant difference in the behavior of Bush and Kerry supporters.

In a superb meta-analysis of the data from 50 years of research on the psychological motives, traits, and tendencies that underlie differences between the political right and left involving 88 samples, 12 countries, and 22,818 cases, Jost, Glaser, Kruglanski, and Sulloway [see Jost, John T., Glaser, Jack. Kruglanski, Arie W., and Sulloway, Frank J.  Psychological Bulletin, 129(3), May 2003, 339 – 375] confirmed that several psychological variables predict political conservatism.

The researchers state:  “The core ideology of conservatism stresses resistance to change and justification of inequality [read:  the rationalization of structural racism and the racist exclusion of out-groups] and is motivated by needs that vary situationally and dispositionally to manage uncertainty and threat” (p. 339).

The variables predictive of political conservatism in the order of their predictive validity are as follows:  Death anxiety or mortality salience (weighted mean r = .50); system instability or threat to the stability of the social system (.47); dogmatism and intolerance of ambiguity (.34); openness to new experience (-.32); uncertainty tolerance (-.27); personal needs for order, structure, and closure (.26); integrative complexity (-.20); and fear of threat and loss (.18).

Let us briefly examine each of these factors.

Death Anxiety or Mortality Salience

As the salience of one’s own mortality concerns increases through traumatic events like 9/11, ideological defensiveness and political conservatism also increases.

The most thorough research program to assess the effects of mortality salience on social and political attitudes has been carried out by Greenberg et al. who have demonstrated that mortality salience leads people to defend culturally valued norms and practices more fiercely and to distance themselves from, and to derogate out-group members.  Death anxiety has also been linked to system justifying forms of stereotyping and a greater preference for stereotype-consistent women and minority group members (“Toms, Coons, Bucks, and Mulattoes” to borrow a phrase).

In addition, mortality salience has been shown to elicit greater punitiveness and aggression toward those who violate cultural values.

Greenberg et al. have also demonstrated that mortality salience led high authoritarians to denigrate those who were dissimilar to them but did not have this effect on low authoritarians.  And in another study by Greenberg et al., mortality salience was found to increase political intolerance among conservatives but it increased political tolerance among liberals, perhaps because tolerance is an important attribute of the Weltanschauung or worldview of the latter but not the former group.

The significant difference between conservatives and liberals, political intolerance versus political tolerance, suggests that death anxiety or mortality salience is not simply the resultant of situational factors alone but reveals dispositional features as well.

System Instability or Threat to the Stability of the Social System

A large body of archival research demonstrates that during times of social crisis, people are more likely to turn to authoritarian leaders and institutions for security, stability, and structure.  For example, during periods of severe economic threat, the depression years of 1930 – 1939, research has shown that people were more likely to join authoritarian churches and less likely to join non-authoritarian churches.  Similarly, in another study which examined years of heavy unemployment in Seattle, Washington, 1961, 1964, 1969, and 1970, they found higher than usual conversion rates there for an authoritarian church and lower than usual conversion rates for a non-authoritarian church, while in relatively good economic years in Seattle, 1962, 1965, and 1966, coincided with lower than usual conversion rates to the authoritarian church and higher than usual conversion rates for the non-authoritarian church.

In another study, historians were recruited to rate all of the US presidential election years between 1788 and 1992 on the degree to which the social, economic, and political circumstances of that period were threatening to the American established order.  The results showed that during system-threatening times, presidential candidates who were rated as high on power motivation, forcefulness, and strength were elected by larger margins of victory than during non-threatening times.

These studies provide fairly strong support for the hypothesis that threats to the stability of the social system increase politically conservative choices, decisions, and judgments.

Dogmatism and Intolerance for Ambiguity

A number of studies have found that dogmatism consistently correlates with authoritarianism, political-economic conservatism, and the holding of right-wing opinions.  Further, political conservatives have been found to be more dogmatic, mentally rigid, and closed-minded than are either liberals or moderates.

Research on intolerance of ambiguity has shown that this trait is associated with ethnocentrism, authoritarianism, and political conservatism. 

And intolerance of ambiguity and rigidity is clearly revealed in a statement made by George W. Bush at an international conference of world leaders in Genoa, Italy:  “I know what I believe and I believe what I believe is right.”  And on another occasion, Bush informed a British reporter:  “Look, my job isn’t to try to nuance…. My job is to tell people what I think.”

Openness to New Experience

Additional research indicates that conservatives score lower on measures of extraversion and are less likely to seek out interaction with others, score lower than others on measures of general sensation seeking, and are less likely than others to value broad-mindedness, imagination, and having an exciting life.

In an interesting experiment, conservatives were also found to be less likely than non-conservatives to volunteer for psychology experiments that required openness to experience, experiments on aesthetic interest, fantasy productions, and self-reports on sexual behavior, but more likely to volunteer for experiments on decision making and humor.  In other words, conservatives evidenced an unwillingness to engage in tasks that were person-oriented but more likely to engage in object-oriented tasks.

This research provides consistent evidence that people who hold politically conservative attitudes are generally less open to new and stimulating experiences.

Uncertainty Tolerance

We next turn to a series of studies that investigate the hypothesis that conservatives find ambiguity and uncertainty threatening.

In a study of artistic preferences of people who scored either high or low on a scale for conservatism, conservatives were found to exhibit a strong preference for simple rather than complex paintings and a weaker preference for representational rather than abstract paintings.

Similarly, conservatives were found to prefer simple poems to complex ones; unambiguous over ambiguous literary texts; familiar over unfamiliar music; and familiar over unfamiliar stimuli.

These studies all converge to reveal that conservatives are less tolerant of ambiguity, less open to new experiences, and more avoidant of uncertainty compared with moderates and liberals.

Need for Order, Structure, and Closure

A number of theories hypothesize that conservatives have a heightened motivational need for order and structure.  The research that exists is consistent with this hypothesis.

In summarizing this research, Jost et al. comment:  “This evidence is consistent not only with research on dogmatism, intolerance of ambiguity, and uncertainty avoidance but also with the notion that in the realm of political attitudes, authoritarians long for order and structure, advocating such diverse measures as firm parental discipline, comprehensive drug testing, core educational curricula, and quarantines for AIDS patients . . . “ (p. 358).

Integrative Complexity

There is also a large body of research that examines left wing and right wing differences in cognitive complexity.  Content analytic techniques have been developed to measure integrative complexity that refers to the extent of differentiation among multiple perspectives or dimensions and the higher order integration and synthesis of these differentiated components.

For example, in a series of studies by Tetlock and his collaborators that focused on the thinking style of political elites, there was clear evidence that conservative ideologues were, in general, less integratively complex than their liberal or moderate counterparts.  Similarly, data from an analysis of US senatorial speeches in 1975 and 1976 indicated that politicians whose voting records were classified as either liberal or moderate showed significantly more integrative complexity than did politicians with conservative voting records.  These results were repeated or replicated almost exactly in a study of US Supreme Court justices.  In another study of members of the British House of Commons, the results showed that the most integratively complex politicians were moderate socialists who scored significantly higher on complexity than extreme socialists, moderate conservatives, and extreme conservatives.

Fear of Threat and Loss

Right wing authoritarians, according to Altemeyer, “. . . are scared.  They see the world as a dangerous place, as society teeters on the brink of self-destruction from evil and violence.  This fear seems to instigate aggression in them.  Second, right wing authoritarians tend to be highly self-righteous.  They think themselves much more moral and upstanding than others – a self-perception considerably aided by self-deception, their religious training, and some very efficient guilt evaporators (such as going to confession).  This self-righteousness disinhibits their aggressive impulses and releases them to act out their fear-induced hostilities.” 

In keeping with the idea that conservatives see the world as threatening, Altemeyer reported a study that found a strong, positive correlation between the perception of a dangerous world and high scores on the Right Wing Authoritarian Scale with a sample of Canadian college students.  Other researchers replicated this finding with several samples in South Africa and New Zealand where they also noted a significant correlation between the perception of a dangerous world and scores on a Social Dominance Scale.  Authoritarians in these studies generally saw the world as a dangerous place while liberals did not share this pessimistic perception.

In an ingenuous research program on the dream lives of liberals and conservatives in the US, the investigator found that Republicans reported three times as many nightmares as did Democrats.  This finding suggests that fear, danger, threat, and aggression percolates more prominently through the unconscious life of conservatives than liberals.

To the extent that conservatives are especially sensitive and attuned to threat or possibility of loss, one reason they attempt to maintain the statue quo, it follows that they should also be more highly motivated by negatively framed outcomes or potential losses than by positively framed outcomes or potential gains.

Five days before the 1996 US presidential election, researchers presented high and lower scorers on the Right Wing Authoritarian Scale with persuasive arguments that stressed either the potential rewards of voting (“a way to express and live in accordance with positive values”) or the potential cost of not voting (“not voting allows others to take away your right to express your values”).  They found that high authoritarians were more influenced by threatening messages than by reward messages but the pattern was just the reverse for low authoritarians who were more influenced by reward than threat messages.

In general, research indicates that a “prevention” orientation that focuses on potential threats and losses is associated with conservative ideas.


This brief review of the literature on the determinants of a conservative orientation strongly suggests that while situational factors may influence the experience and expression of conservatism, they are not the whole story.

Since we have already seen that character rigidity and motivational threat are related to the holding of conservative attitudes and values, system instability and other threatening circumstances should also increase conservative tendencies in the population.

A kind of matching process takes place whereby people adopt ideological beliefs that are most likely to satisfy their psychological needs and motives and ideology is a quintessential example of psychodynamically induced cognition and preferred coping mechanisms in that people are highly motivated to perceive the world in ways that satisfy their needs, values, and prior beliefs and commitments.

Non-elites like the working and middle class might adopt conservative ideologies under some circumstances in order to reduce fear and anxiety, cognitive dissonance, uncertainty, or instability while the more advantaged elites might embrace conservatism for reasons of self-interest or social dominance and maintenance of their privileged position.

We are now in a position to understand what Kull and his associates at the University of Maryland could not understand in the data from their survey of Bush and Kerry supporters:  Why Bush supporters were extremely resistant to information discrepant with their pre-existing beliefs.  This is a preferred coping mechanism, a psychological trait or orientation, the utilization of hysterical defenses of denial, suppression, and repression, to allay anxiety, fear, cognitive dissonance and other disruptive, dysphoric emotions evidenced more often in conservatives than in people who are liberal and who seem to be more solidly grounded in reality.

Conservatism as a system of belief is a function of many different kinds of factors.  Politically conservative orientations are multiply-determined by a wide variety of factors that vary personally and situationally and have both a stable definitional core and a set of more malleable, situationally determined, historically changing peripheral associations.

It is the ideological core of political conservatism more than its peripheral aspects that seems to be linked to specific social, cognitive, and psychodynamic needs.

A distinguishing mark of political conservatism is fear of change and the self-definitions of liberals and conservatives have to do with acceptance of, versus resistance to, change.

Another core issue important to African Americans, other people of color, and out-groups concerns endorsement or preference for inequality.  Liberals favor greater equality while conservatives perceive society as naturally hierarchical and are more explicitly racist.

Finally, there is a real culture war under way in the US between the “Blues” who reside in the liberal, cultural and intellectual metropolis, major cities, college towns, etc. and the “Reds” who are found in the more provincial outlying districts, two worlds which are separate, unequal, and often, mutually unintelligible to each other.

Alvin Wyman Walker, PhD, PD is a Clinical Psychologist/Psychotherapist who earned PhDs in Personality/Social Psychology and Clinical Psychology.  To hone his psychotherapeutic and psychoanalytic skills, he spent six additional years of post-doctoral training at a psychoanalytic institute.

Dr. Walker is currently in private practice in Harlem, New York.


November 18 2004
Issue 114

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