When poor people put their faith in conservative leadership, one might ask why they trust representatives of a wealthy owner class that will likely never include them. Yet there is a rationale based on the emotion of fear.
The Psychology of Living in a Dangerous World
When young mammals mature in a place with high exposure to predators, they adjust their behavior. They spend more time in safe places, such as burrows, and less time wandering about above ground. With less time exploring their environment they have fewer opportunities for brain-enriching experiences. As a result, they are less good at adapting to change (1).
Lab researchers found that these effects were mediated by stress hormones associated with frightening experiences such as the approach of a predator.
Most children do not have to worry about predators but they vary greatly both in the objective realities of their lives, such as the use of corporal punishment by parents, and their subjective responses to frightening experiences. They are also influenced by adult perceptions of danger in their local community.
Conservatism and Fearfulness
Political conservatives (defined as high scorers on a right-wing authoritarianism scale) experience fear more intensely. This propensity is related to brain anatomy and physiology. Sensitivity to fear probably reflects a combination of influences from genetics and childhood experiences.
Whatever the causes, signs of conservative leanings are present early in childhood before children are engaged in political issues. Children who are sticklers for the rules in games with other children likely go on to vote for conservative leaders (2,3). In other respects, they tend to be rather rigid in their behavior and find it difficult to make new friends.
Such fear of the unpredictable reflects a sensitivity to danger mediated by limbic-system activation. This profile probably reflects mammalian adaptations to actual risks in the environment (4).
Children growing up in extreme poverty, or exposed to abusive parents also grow up believing, for very good reason, that their lives are risky and that caution is warranted.
Poverty and Insecurity
If conservatives generally believe that the world is a dangerous place regardless of their individual experiences, those raised in poverty have a very good reason for the same belief rooted in their own lives.
Belief in a dangerous world is connected to various conservative policies. A strong military is supported so as to counter international threats. Because there are very bad criminals out there, there is a need for severe penalties, up to a death sentence, to keep them out of circulation.
Similarly, corporal punishment is needed to socialize children in obedience to authority. Just as other nations harbor a great deal of ill will, immigrants must be treated with suspicion and held at arm's length as potential sources of crime and disease. It is important to amass as much wealth as possible because the future is uncertain and you cannot rely on the government to solve your economic problems in a dog-eat-dog world.
To the extent that the fear-based sensibility of poor people overlaps with that of conservatives, we can expect their political views to coincide also. This means that playing on popular fears and ethnic tensions is good for conservatives in elections.
According to a conservative sensibility, the only source of reliable aid and support in difficult times is our own family. So we must respect our elders and do everything we can to honor them and preserve their traditions, including their religious beliefs.
The Religious Nexus
Just as there is a marked intersection between the emotive aspects of conservatism and those of being raised under stressful conditions, there is also an overlap between both and religion.
One way of describing this connection is to think about religion as a mechanism for coping with fear and uncertainty about what the future holds — as developed in my earlier widely read post, “Why Atheism Will Replace Religion.”
The central idea is that as countries develop, residents enjoy a better quality of life with improved health and life expectancy and are more secure about what the future holds for them (i.e., have existential security), In societies like our own, that are bedeviled by sharp income inequality, there is less existential security and religion has a stronger hold.
Along with love of family and tradition, and relative lack of openness to new people and ideas, conservatives focus on religion as a means of preserving their way of life and resisting change.
It is also a way of drawing in poor people and thereby inducing them to vote for policies that go against their economic interests or otherwise reduce their quality of life. For example, many poorer Americans voted for a party that promised to take away their health care.
How does one get people to vote against themselves? The answer is mostly by an appeal to various kinds of fear, including the fear of God.
Conservative leaders must convince followers of two things. First, the world we live in is full of threats. Second, supporting that leader is the only way of protecting themselves from the threats.
If the first goal is achieved, the second is relatively simple. After all, if some politician is the only one who emphasized a specific threat, then it makes sense that they would be the only one with an answer.
The list of potential threats is long, ranging from foreign military threats to domestic terrorism, exaggerated fears of minorities and immigrants, pluralism, disease, violent crime, or government overreach.
Conservatives also play on fears that their religion is under threat and this ploy succeeded in cases as different as the US South and Putin's Russia. If religion is a bastion against many dangers, then anything that weakens it is threatening to the poor.
Conservative politicians who are otherwise highly secular in their behavior and sensibility fake piety in order to get elected and promote the causes of right-wing religious extremists to maintain support.
Such tactics are highly effective and may induce poor people to vote against their economic self-interest and in favor of a wealthy elite that becomes wealthier by exploiting them.
1 Rosenzweig, M. R. (1996). Aspects of the search for neural mechanisms of memory. Annual Review of Psychology, 47, 1-33.
2 Tuschman, A. (2013). Our political nature: The evolutionary origins of what divides us. Amherst, NY: Prometheus.
3 Garcia, H. A. (2019). Sex, power, and partisanship: How evolutionary science makes sense of our political divide. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
4 Kalinichev, M., Easterling, K. W., Plotsky, P. M., and Holtzgman, S. G. (2002). Long-lasting changes in stress-induced corticosterone response and anxiety-like behaviors as a consequence of neonatal maternal separation in Long-Evans rats. Pharmacology, Biochemistry, and Behavior, 73, 131-140.