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Gordon Livingston
Gordon S Livingston M.D.

The Mind of a Conservative

What are the themes that link together disparate conservative beliefs?

Psychotherapy teaches us that identifying patterns of behavior and beliefs is the key to understanding what people really value. These themes often exist at an unconscious level and may be different from the rationalizations used to disguise, even from themselves, people’s true motivations.

The same can be said of beliefs about how the world works, which also tend to exist in identifiable configurations. For example, look at the following political positions and think about what the underlying thesis might be:

  • American exceptionalism and the need to protect it by strict immigration policies;
  • Anti-abortion under all circumstances (”Life begins at conception”);
  • Pro-capital punishment;
  • Pro-gun rights;
  • “Law and order” attitudes favoring harsh penalties for criminal behavior; Supporters of the “war on drugs;”
  • Anti-affirmative action;
  • Anti-reductions in nuclear weapons;
  • Anti-entitlements; anti-gay;
  • Anti-science (e.g., denial of evolution and climate change);
  • Belief in the promulgation of “Christian values” in schools, courts, and public ceremonies;
  • Reverence for people in uniform; given to patriotic display;
  • A fondness for military solutions to international problems;
  • Biblical certainty in matters of morality;
  • A conviction that those who disagree politically should be the objects of coercion; A view of oneself as beset by evil forces conspiring to take what one has;
  • The equation of compromise with “weakness.”

This partial list of conservative beliefs may not appear to have a coherent theme. Indeed, some of these positions seem contradictory (e.g., a conviction that life must be protected at all costs while favoring capital punishment). A closer examination, however, reveals that all of these ideas reflect a core belief in punishment as an instrument of socialization and enforcement of a rigid moral code based on fundamentalist religious beliefs.

Why is punishment such an important concept? If one believes in the idea of original sin, that human beings are by nature prone to selfish and immoral behavior, then societal rules and rigid child-rearing practices are the only means by which these instincts can be controlled. If we live in a two-alternative world in which the forces of light and darkness are always competing for our immortal souls, then we must be constantly alert and committed to overcoming our baser nature and hedonistic impulses in the interest of insuring our own salvation. There can be no compromise with “evil;” we will all be judged on the basis of adherence to God’s word as spelled out in our particular interpretation of the Bible. Those who disagree with us are legitimate objects of coercion. So, for example, people who have a different definition of when personhood is achieved by an embryo are not just wrong, they are child-killers.

In fact, the theme of punishment is prominent in anti-abortion theology. People seeking abortions are harassed, not just by being shouted at by demonstrators, but by being forced to undergo procedures (e.g. trans-vaginal ultrasounds) that are not medically indicated. Doctors who perform abortions are objects of threats and violence. What is being punished here? Sex! This is the pre-occupation of those who see licentiousness as a symbol of the unrestrained human appetites that are such a threat to public morality, that must be controlled (and punished) if we are to live as God intended. If women become pregnant they must be forced to accept the consequences and bear the child, however unwanted. Opposition to contraception (which would reduce the need for abortions) is the giveaway that what is at issue here is not the protection of the unborn so much as the punishment of sexually irresponsible women.

Nowhere is the contradiction between beliefs more apparent than with conservatives who profess the need for a small government that will not intrude on our affairs while simultaneously endorsing legislation to enforce religious beliefs, especially those related to our most intimate decisions. Prohibiting gay people from marrying or adopting, punishment of the children of illegal immigrants, the wish that government control the outcome of every pregnancy, the requirement that we all be subjected to Christian prayer in schools, attempts to suppress minority voting – all outcomes that require costly government enforcement.

The peculiarly American affection for guns (the classic instrument of control and punishment) is another example of how focused we can become on our fears and how determined we are to punish those who we imagine threaten us: intruders in the night, a robber on the street, or a suddenly despotic government.

If one believes that God rewards the good and punishes the wicked, then those who have “succeeded” materially are naturally favored over those who have failed. The latter have not made use of their opportunities to better themselves and should not be objects of concern for those more successful. It follows therefore that the poor are simply not taking responsibility for their lives, only seeking “entitlements” when they should be looking for jobs.

In highlighting the most extreme right-wing positions that are advocated by perhaps twenty-five percent of the population I have doubtless been unfair to those conservatives who still believe that compromise between people of good will with differing views about the role of government is the only way to achieve a just and tolerant society. But in recent years the extreme quarter of the population has taken over one of our two political parties and we are all suffering as a result. We face important issues on which our survival depends: economic, environmental, social. If we cannot make progress on the question of climate change, for example, all the rest of our debates are meaningless. If we choke on our own air, or starve in our own droughts, then we better hope the religious people are right about heaven, because there will be no place left for us on earth.

About the Author
Gordon Livingston

Gordon Livingston, M.D., writes and practices psychiatry in Columbia, MD.