Friday, November 10, 2006

"Pseudo-Conservative": An Update on the Origins of the Term

For previous posts on this topic see Why Pseudo-Conservatives are not "Conservative" and Recognition of the Need for the Term "Pseudo-Conservative".

As far as my etymological researches are concerned "pseudo-conservative" may have first been used in a rather famous book, The Authoritarian Personality, written by Theodore Adorno, Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel J. Levinson and R. Nevitt Sanford in 1950. The authors wrote that the pseudo-conservative "in the name of upholding traditional American values... and defending them against more or less fictitious dangers, consciously or unconsciously aim at their abolition." I find it difficult to improve on that definition fifty-six years later. Our pseudo-conservatives of today are also fighting "more or less fictitious dangers" such as "Islamo-Fascism" and "International Terrorism" in the "name of upholding traditional American values", and in this very struggle are "consciously or unconsciously" threatening the abolition of these very American values. (From previous posts I've made it clear I do consider "terrorism", properly understood, as our biggest current foreign threat, see What is a Progressive Foreign Policy?).

After The Authoritarian Personality appeared it was rather savagely attacked for methodological and other alleged shortcomings and was assigned to the social science slag heap. What is quite unusual is that it has undergone rediscovery, improvement and validation over the last 25 years. At least two psychologists have contributed to this rebirth: Bob Altemeyer of University of Manitoba and John Jost of New York University. Altemeyer has overcome many methodological shortcomings reported in books like Right-Wing Authoritarianism (1981), Enemies of Freedom: Understanding Right-Wing Authoritarianism (1988), and The Authoritarian Specter (1996). Jost has done a long series of studies finding support for the concept. Jost recently published a summary article in the American Psychologist entitled "The End of the End of Ideology".

Jost sums up the "end of ideology" well: "The end of ideology was declared more than a generation ago by sociologists and political scientists who—after the titanic struggle between the ideological extremes of fascism and communism in the middle of the 20th century—were more than glad to see it go. The work of Edward Shils..., Raymond Aron..., Daniel Bell..., Seymour Lipset..., and Philip Converse... was extremely influential in the social and behavioral sciences, including psychology. The general thesis of these authors was that in the aftermath of World War II and the Cold War, both the right and the left had been equally discredited and that “a kind of exhaustion of political ideas” had taken place in the West.... Ideological distinctions, it was suggested, were devoid of social and psychological significance for most people, especially in the United States."

Shils in particular demonstrated that his predictions regarding "conservatism" were more a reflection of his wishes than anything else. In 1958 Shils opined: "The conservative revival, though genuine, is moderate. People take Burke in their stride. They have become “natural Burkeans” without making a noise about it. The National Review, despite its clamor, is isolated and unnoticed, and the effort to create a “conservative ideology” which would stand for more than moderation, reasonableness, and prudence has not been successful." A worse social science assessment might be difficult to find. The only other that occurs to me is economist Irving Fisher's prediction on October 16th, 1929: "Stock prices have reached what looks like a permanent plateau...I expect to see the stock market a good deal higher within a few months."

Commenting upon what this "end of ideology" era did to The Authoritarian Personality Jost wrote: "Adorno et al.’s [book] is one of the most influential—and also one of the most badly caricatured—books in the history of social science. One Web site claims that Adorno and colleagues “attacked the ‘authoritarian character’ of the American nuclear family, the ‘problem’ of the American people’s belief in a transcendent monotheistic God, the underlying ‘fascist’ character of all forms of American patriotism, and American culture’s excessive reliance on science, reason, and ‘abstract ideas.’” Another lists it as one of the “most harmful” books of the last two centuries. Roiser and Willig... noted that even in academic circles, “The Authoritarian Personality has been the victim of several determined attempts at psychological and political assassinations”." Hmmmm. Sounds like The Authoritarian Personality may have hit a nerve with pseudo-conservatives.

Jost continued: "There are signs that Adorno et al.’s... work is gaining new appreciation, at least in part because of the current political climate.... Many of the fundamental ideas of the theory of right-wing authoritarianism have resurfaced in contemporary accounts of the “culture wars".... There is now sufficient evidence to conclude that Adorno et al... were correct that conservatives are, on average, more rigid and closed-minded than liberals. My colleagues and I published a meta-analysis that identified several psychological variables that predicted, to varying degrees, adherence to politically conservative (vs. liberal) opinions.... The original studies, which were conducted over a 44-year period that included the end-of-ideology era, made use of 88 research samples involving 22,818 individual cases and were carried out in 12 different countries: Australia, Canada, England, Germany, Israel, Italy, New Zealand, Poland, Scotland, South Africa, Sweden, and the United States. The results,.. show a clear tendency for conservatives to score higher on measures of dogmatism, intolerance of ambiguity, needs for order, structure, and closure and to be lower in openness to experience and integrative complexity than moderates and liberals. Several studies demonstrate that in a variety of perceptual and aesthetic domains, conservatism is associated with preferences for relatively simple, unambiguous, and familiar stimuli, whether they are paintings, poems, or songs."

I believe these findings that pseudo-conservatives are likely to share characteristics of an authoritarian right-wing personality is at least a step toward solving my problem of understanding what is so compelling to some leaders and some followers about "toughness" in foreign policy (See What Are the Assumptions Underlying "Tough" Foreign Policy? and Why are Pseudo-Conservatives Addicted to "Toughness"?). However, it is not the whole answer and I will continue my researches upon this question.

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