Explaining Conservative Support Among “Ordinary People”.

Interesting analysis of the demographics of mainstream politics in Canada from Larry Gambone, one of my favorite contemporary anarchist writers. Read the article. This draws a little too much on ideas like Adorno’s “authoritarian personality” theory for my tastes. I disagree that liberals and leftists are inherently compassionate, empathic, generous people while conservatives and rightists are inherently violent, selfish, and stupid. That’s not consistent with what I know of the social science research on the question or my own experience. But Larry’s analysis of the class, cultural, generational, and ethnic factors involved in contemporary electoral politics and what such politics represents is consistent with my own. See here. The difference is that his analysis is a fairly standard leftist one while mine would step away from the “left/right” box for a moment to examine the question of rising authoritarianism from the Left, such as criminal prosecution of Christians for disagreeing with Islam, or prosecuting comics for telling lesbian jokes, and the ideological, cultural, and class implications of this. Hence, my “totalitarian humanism as the ideology of the rising upper middle class of new multicultural elites” theory.

Only 39.7% of voters, or 24% of the Canadian population supported the right wing Conservative Party in the last Canadian general election. The base for this party consists of religious extremists, but these make up only about 10% of the population. Then there are the five percent of the wealthy and near-wealthy who naturally vote Conservative, since their policies allow them to skim-off ever more of societies riches. Ideologically-rooted haters and greed creeps are the natural basis for far right parties. But how does one explain the support the remaining 9% of the population, neither cultists nor rich, give to the Conservatives? How to explain the support given by people who will be directly harmed by much right-wing legislation?

In order to explain this seeming contradiction we have to examine four factors:

  1. education and culture
  2. alienation
  3. social psychology
  4. age, gender and ethnic factors

Education and Culture

Regardless of the formal level of education, this is a group that is not well educated nor has a particularly high level of culture. Our schools do not teach people to think critically and to argue rationally. Thus, the uneducated do not discuss and debate, but mutually reinforce their prejudices. Anyone who steps out of line is either shouted down or ignored. They do not recognize a rational argument and thus are easily bamboozled by the strings of fallacies spouted by right-wing politicians. This is made doubly easy since these politicians pander to their prejudices.

Their culture consists of kitsch, corporate mass culture, or at best a philistine adoration of the “classics.” Anything beyond that is deemed “highbrow”. “modern”, or “intellectual” and thus not worthy of consideration. Attempts to raise the general cultural level or to introduce critical ideas are seen as a threat, and thus right-wing politicians who seek to cut back on government support for the arts get the backing of the culturally unsophisticated.


Right-wing voters tend to be suburbanites. They do not live in communities, but are isolated in the suburbs, and even when connections are made, they tend to be with people similar to themselves. Isolated, with their only window of the world being the TV, they are subject to the fears and prejudices whipped up by the mass media. They don’t encounter the people thus demonized, so only have the media stereotypes to go on. This situation, combined with prejudices they have inherited from their parents, leads to the creation of an unconscious “hate list”. We all know their list – tree huggers, anarchists, trade unionists, protesters, feminists, leftists, hippies, intellectuals etc. If a right-wing politician can tar his opponents as such or promise to harm the individuals on this list, he has the vote of the alienated suburbanite in his pocket. A certain amount of the right wing vote is simply a desire for revenge against other citizens deemed unworthy or a threat.

Social Psychology

Most of these people will have been brought up in an authoritarian manner. They react to this in two ways: They identify with the dominators, desire a “strong leader” and hence are open to someone as anti-democratic as Harper. Their attitude toward people deemed “beneath them” (remember the hate list) is that of the bully. (The idea that “these people ought to be suppressed.”)

One important result of an authoritarian upbringing is denial as a life-long procedure when faced with an unpleasant reality. Generally, their personal lives are ruled by denial, not just the political realm. Hence, when disasters result from right-wing policies, these are denied outright, or they latch on to a conspiracy theory to get them off the hook.

It seems that denial is not only a function of a repressive upbringing, but is inherent in the way we think. Neuroscientists have come up with a “theory of motivated reasoning” which helps explain the persistence of irrational beliefs. Our reasoning process is overlaid with emotional content. These emotions are what arise first, in advance of the reasoning process, when someone is confronted with an idea or situation. Our emotions bias us in advance. This works for everyone, progressive or reactionary. Since right-wingers have such a long and bitter catalogue of biases, I suggest that “motivated reasoning” leading to denial plays a much greater part in their decision making process than with left-wingers. (1)

Since the 1960’s, old-fashioned authoritarianism has been augmented by narcissism. Old fashioned authoritarianism had the benefit of encouraging modesty and projecting an air of solidity and decency – even though those at the top were free to build their pretentious mansions and engage in their orgies. Today, modesty, solidity and decency fly out the door. Suburbanites simply must have their tacky McMansions and all the consumer goods that go with them. And they must have it all now, not ten years down the road like their parent’s generation.

People who are insecure about themselves, something which authoritarian parenting mass produces – tend to substitute things to make up for that lost sense of worth. They will buy houses and cars that are more expensive than they can afford in order to project to the outside world that they are “somebody”.

All these obese houses and expensive toys mean a massive debt, which in turn creates a great deal of financial insecurity which right-wing demagogues freely prey upon.

Those of us who oppose this narcissistic consumer lifestyle are seen as a threat. Building houses for the less-fortunate or encouraging public transit are seen as “lowering property values” and “raising taxes.” Once again, the demagogues can read off their hate list of “cyclists, urban elitists, environmentalists” etc. and the narcissists gobble it up like Pablum.

Age, Gender and Ethnic Factors.

Polls taken during the election showed that youth aged 18-25 overwhelmingly rejected the Conservatives. Women too, though not to the same extent. Nor was there any of the much-touted “breakthrough” among “ethnic” groups. The real basis of Conservative support consists of white men over age 50, Micheal Moore’s “Stupid White Men.” There is much sense to this rejection by youth, women and minorities. When these Stupid White Men are rotting in their graves, today’s youth will be suffering the dire consequences of all the cut-backs and piratizations, not to mention climate change and peak oil. Women are generally raised to have empathy and are thus not so attracted to the sociopathic concept that only corporations matter and people don’t. People of colour would be fools to support the party that contains most of Canada’s racists, even though they pretend not to be.
A Couple of Fallacies to Clear Up

The Conservative support from the over-fifties seems to clash with the vision of the “radical Sixties Generation.” Some pundits will trot this fact out as an example of how people supposedly become conservative in their old age. But this is not the case at all, since the counter-culture and New Left radicals were only a minority of their generation. The vast majority of 60s rads are still there in the social movements or at least support them. Since the radicals got all the attention (and had all the fun) the conservative wing of the Sixties Generation has never forgiven its left-wing cohorts. Part of the present attack can be seen as a kind of revenge of the losers.

We will undoubtedly be told that today’s NDP-supporting, anti-Conservative youth will go right when they get older. This ignores the fact that politics are based upon deeply-held values. These values, such as empathy or the lack of it, tend, in the case of the former, to direct one to a progressive stance, and the latter to reactionary politics. Furthermore, your moral compass is usually permanently aligned by about age 18 or 20. Thus, if you have empathy at 18, you are most likely to have empathy at age 50. If as a youth, you regard selfishness as a virtue, you are likely to do so in old age as well.
1. Cynics and reactionary apologists will claim that leftists are full of biases as well. But there are biases and biases. It is rational for a leftist to be biased toward Nazis – they are violent, racist, antisemitic brutes. It is not rational for a rightist to hate anti-war pacifists, people who wouldn’t hurt a flea. Right wing hate lists are the result of the systematic demonizing of groups and individuals, and are not the result of rational analysis.

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6 replies »

  1. This analysis is absolute bullshit based on irrational prejudices of the sort hypocritically decried in the piece itself.

  2. I think dan is right. Although something perplexes me about these conservatives. Some of the ones I’ve met are decent enough (or I suppose) but I don’t understand their fixation on outright hatemongers like Ann Coulter, especially concerning her praise of Joe McCarthy (I don’t understand this to this very day.) Alot of cons complain about liberal intolerance and hatred but then they continually embrace hatred themselves… Of course I don’t think I like either much.

  3. I think it’s unfortunate when people make such simplistic dismissals of people they disagree with, and it is particularly unfortunate in Gambone’s case because he has produced some good work. As someone who knows people who are supporters and volunteers in the Canadian Conservative party, I can say that the portrait that Gambone paints of Conservatives is hardly fair at all, there are some who would fit his description, but I don’t think it’s fair to say they represent the large majority.

    What I would argue is that many Conservatives are inconsistent in their beliefs and by their actions they demonstrate that they do not really hold to such beliefs. An example of a typical COnservative view is this http://powerofnarrative.blogspot.com/2007/02/writing-from-scaffold-in-defense-of.html blog post about the views of David Brooks. I have posted this link in a comment before, but I think it is worth posting again because it is a perfect example of typical neo-Conservative thinking. Take not of this quote from de Maistre that appears close to the end of the post.

    “all greatness, all power, all social order depends upon the executioner; he is the terror of human society and the tie that holds it together. Take away this incomprehensible force from the world, and at that very moment order is superseded by chaos, thrones fall, society disappears. God, who is the source of the power of the ruler, is also the source of punishment. He has suspended our world upon these two poles, ‘for the Lord is the lord of the twin poles, and round them he sets the world revolving’.”

    Now my point here is to show that the majority of conservatives I don’t think really believe that in their bones, even the one’s who pay lip service to that type of world view I doubt really live it in their daily lives much in the same way that many religious people don’t hold to their beliefs that seriously. It seems to me that if someone really took the above mentioned view seriously, I don’t see how they could if feelings of kindness, compassion, or anything like that towards other people, unless that person was some extremely altruistic Francis of Assisi type, but most ordinary people are not that non-discriminating in their goodwill towards men and I happen to think that’s actually a good thing. I have heard at times the accusation made by those on the right that it is leftist’s who are hate filled and full of animosity toward “society” (some of them do indeed seem that way) but to me, it is the right-wing view of the world that seems to me to lead to such sentiments.

  4. Geez, you guys don’t like anything. I post paleocon stuff here, and you rip it to shreds. I post left-wing anarchist stuff, and you rip it up. I guess that’s a good thing. 🙂

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