| Why would so many US working and middle class
citizens vote against their own class interests in the recent presidential
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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).
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
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
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
In general, research indicates that a “prevention” orientation
that focuses on potential threats and losses is associated with conservative
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
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
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.