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i-710d005c8660d36282911838843a792d-ClockWeb logo2.JPGAnother one on psychology of political ideology (form April 08, 2005):

Ezra Klein, Majikthise and Revere of Effect Measure are having another round of discussion of the Lakoff’s scheme.

One of the problems in this discussion, I think, is the confusion between Conservatism Vs. Liberalism as Systems of Government on one hand, and Conservatism vs. Liberalism as Personality Traits on the other.

Going back in history and arguing for or against the two archetypes by invoking Nixon, Reagan, McCarthy, Stalin, Hitler, Clinton, Carter, whoever…misses the point. I have made the mistake before.

But even Stalin was not 100% Stalinist. When I use the term “Stalinist”, I mean something like the kind of system in operation briefly and imperfectly in a few countries, like in Soviet Union during Stalin’s rule, China under Mao, Romania under Causescu, perhaps current North Korea. Even less perfectly it operated in those countries during their predecessors and successors, and even less in some other countries (e.g., Qaddafi’s Libya, Tito’s Yugoslavia, or Castro’s Cuba). But, the general idea can be summed up with the term Stalinism as a (political and economic) System of Government. Likewise with fascism for particular countries in particular times. Those are shorthands for political and economic systems.

Fine distinctions between Stalinism, Maoism, fascism, nazism, socialism, communism, Reaganism, Bushism, etc., may be useful for political science or history analyses. But, my interest is in psychology of ideology, i.e., what makes a person vote a particular way. And for this purpose, there are two core ways of thinking: conservative and liberal. Of course, this also has practical implications, as understanding how voters’ minds work can help devise a strategy for wooing them over. I want to know how various perceptions and misperceptions of the stances of the two major parties are reflected in people’s psyche and how they “click”.

On the other hand, terms like Conservative and Liberal, or Progressive and Regressive, or Wingnut and Moonbat, are shorthands for psychologies of individual people. Thus, if you say that Nixon was a conservative, you may be right, but that does not mean that everything he did, and even less everything that happened in the USA during his reign, was conservative. First, he was a conservative at his core, but departed from the core on some particular issues. Second, he was not a dictator (and even dictators, as noted above cannot 100% determine what is happening in their countries), so much of what was going on was a result of many people interacting, including a wide variety of conservatives and liberals.

“Strict Father” and “Nurturant Parent” are archetypes (not frames) of INDIVIDUAL FRAMES OF MIND. Of course, there is quite a scope of ideologies within each of the two core models. Not every Wingnut is neccessarily a Creationist or a Flat Earther, nor, as far as I can see, are all Moonbats (proud to be one) vegetarian tree-hugging, Birkenstock-wearing communists.

Starting with Lakoff, adding personal experience (I grew up in a “communist” country), and adding several other books and numerous articles (and blogs), I have, over the past year or so developed my own classification of what are key distinctions between conservative and liberal mindsets. I will try to put it here as a really short tabulated summary, but in order to see how I got to each one of those, you will have to dig through my blog for a while.

Differences between Conservative and Liberal Ideology

Perception of Time:

Conservatives: a downward spiral
Liberals: an upward arrow

Perception of the World:

Con: Dangerous, will always be dangerous, and humans cannot make it better
Lib: Somewhat dangerous, but getting less so due to human effort

General outlook:

Con: pessimistic
Lib: optimistic

Perception of human nature:

Con: People are born bad and need to be trained, through obedience and discipline, to become good (Dobson parenting model)
Lib: People are born with inclination to be good which can be guided and developed by loving parenting (Brazelton parenting model)

Source of moral focus (or authority):

Con: External (e.g., parent, boss, policeman, judge, King, President, Pope, God)
Lib: Internal – good parenting instills good morals

Understanding of human behavior:

Con: Stick and carrot (folk behaviorism) will do the trick
Lib: Complex and not always rational; empathy and negotiation should do the trick

Perception of community:
Con: Village
Lib: College

Role of individual in society:
Con: “rugged individualism” is a shorthand for pack mentality and all wearing the same rugged uniform and each pretending to be the leader barking orders at underlings; the strongest society is the society with the most aggressive leader on the top of the chain of command
Lib: free-thinking individuals make the society stronger; the strongest society is the society with strongest bonds between individuals, as well as the society with most creative individuals.

General understanding of the world:

Con: Hierarchical: for anything to happen there must be a person who designed it and put it in action (usually by ordering other people around); action leads to reaction; it is important that “best” people are at the controls; some people (e.g., old white rich straight Protestant males) are inherently better than others thus should be the people at the controls.
Lib: Interactionist: it is not identities of players that matter (i.e., who is “better”), but rules of interactions between many equal players that determine the behavior of a complex system, thus, in the economic sphere well-regulated free market is more efficient than top-down control by government (Stalinism) or top-down control by Big Business (fascism).

Big Fear:

Con: ambiguity, impossibility to predict outcomes from initial conditions (thus need to control)
Lib: rigidity that thwarts free interaction; authoritarianism

Now you can see why I put Stalinism and fascism both in the conservative column (though one historically rose out the Left, the other from the Right). Anyway, now you see that I have definitive criteria (i.e., it is not “what I like is liberal”, as I was once accused). For the evolution of my thought and where I am coming from, look around my blog, starting with the posts under “Understanding America” Archives by Category, as well as several March and April posts.

When a Strict Father person reads my classification, (s)he may, more or less grumblingly, agree with it, while disagreeing with my biased choice of words. But, the revealing part is the response to the “General understanding of the world” section: hierarchical vs. interactionist. Frequent Conservatives’ response is confusion and accusation that I am mixing apples and oranges (I prefer “mixing frogs and grandmothers” – “babe i zabe”).

That is EXACTLY what the model predicts: conservatives cannot grasp (grok?) complex systems of interacting elements, do not know what those are, and even if through some training in math or physics they do know, they are unable of perceiving how it contrasts with a hierarchical view of life (top-down hierarchy gives control to God, or bottom-up hierarchy gives control to genes) and politics. This may have something to do with the effects of Strict Father parenting style on arresting of mental development (see my post on Horowitz).

To illustrate what I mean by “thinking styles” of conservatives and liberals, here is the Parable of the Public Park:

There are two vacant pieces of land in a town and the City Council decides to turn both into parks. It hires two architects: one conservative and one liberal. How do the two architects approach the task?

The conservative architect goes to the land, makes measurements, goes to his studio and draws a map. He then draws a grid of more-or-less symmetrical paths, flowerbeds, monuments, etc. on the map. He hires a company to go out and turn his plan into reality. Several months later, he goes out to the park and finds out, to his chagrin, that people keep walking off the pathways and on the grass and trampling the flowers.

The liberal architect goes to the land and bulldozes the whole lot leaving the fresh flat soil and nothing else on it. She goes on a vacation and comes back after a couple of months. She then goes to the lot and maps the paths that people have beaten with their feet while she was away. She draws her plan for the park that incorporates paths that people have made. She hires a contractor to turn her plan into reality. Several months later, the City Council gives her an Award for good community planning and a contract for several other projects. Why? Because people LOVE her park, it feels natural, it is functional, and it is BEAUTIFUL.

The conservative architect believed that there is no design without a Designer and that his years in design school make him the perfect person to CONTROL how the other people will utilize the park. He plays God. He scorns the proles.

The liberal architect is wiser: she understands that the wisdom of the community is greater than anything she may have learned in school.

The Conservative imposes his ideals on others, top down.

The Liberal IS A PART of the community and taps into the communal wisdom, in an interactionist mode.


  1. #1 Jonathan Vause
    November 17, 2006

    In case anyone thought they detected a teensy bit of anti-conservative bias in the above post, perhaps some amendments to the Ideological scheme could be adopted?

    Perception of Time:
    Conservatives: what on Earth are you talking about?
    Perception of the World:
    Con: Dangerous, has always been dangerous, and men will always be dangerous
    Lib: Somewhat dangerous, but getting less so due to women’s efforts
    General outlook:
    Con: realistic
    Lib: visionary
    Understanding of human behavior:
    Con: Hit them with a big stick and they’ll eat the carrot
    Perception of human nature:
    Con: People are born bad and need to be trained, through obedience and discipline, that if they act bad they get hurt (Big Stick parenting model)
    Lib: … all you need is love, deedee didi dee, all you need is love, deedee didi dee, all you need is love, love, love is all you need (John and Yoko parenting model)

    And I always described myself as a liberal conservative. It’s all so confusing.

  2. #2 coturnix
    November 17, 2006

    Conservatives will never “grok” the difference between “nurturant” and “permissive” parenting styles.� For them, everything short of child abuse is “didi dee”.� See this post for finer distinctions of parenting styles.

  3. #3 coturnix
    November 17, 2006

    Also, see this post for debunking the common misunderstanding of what ‘nurturant’ means.

  4. #4 coturnix
    November 17, 2006

    And see this one for a shorter summary of the whole thing with lots of useful links.

  5. #5 coturnix
    November 17, 2006

    And, if interested, there is much more in the Archives under “Ideology” and on the sidebar under “Best political posts”.

  6. #6 Ted
    November 17, 2006

    How do libs and cons perceive the economic outlook?

  7. #7 coturnix
    November 17, 2006

    Search my blog (and the old blog) for “free market” and “big government” (I gotta run right now – no time to fish for exact links).

  8. #8 Ted
    November 17, 2006

    Don’t take it the wrong way if I consider your Public Park Parable a little paternalistic. I live in the wrong part of town and the tragedy of the commons reigns. We’re not that enlightened yet — we’re the reason the generator is hoisted up on a crane every night at construction sites.

    Maybe it’s my gritty neighborhood, but in my neighborhood when the free spirited architect went off on vacation, a caravan of travelers moved in, and as the kalderash spanned out through the neighborhood the crime rate went up (coincidentally). They set up in the empty park and sold trinkets, repaired pots and sharpened scissors. The properties adjoining the park experienced sudden (and jarring) white flight and property values plummeted.

    After numerous complaints the police came and started evicting by force. The travelers recorded some inevitable police brutality video on their cell phones and posted it on YouTube using the public library’s net access. Natch the YouTube videos drew outrage and ACLU showed up in force, claiming racial oppression with overtones of profiling. With a swift injunction the city was prevented from further displacing the minority pending court outcome.

    When the architect returned from vacation, she noted that a significant resources went missing (cut for timber, firewood and used in the construction of squatter dwellings). The travellers allowed local businesses to dump industrial waste in the park in exchange for walking around money. After a publicly funded and protracted environmental study the park site made the list of superfund sites. It’s scheduled for cleanup right after Hanford is completed.

    On the other hand, the anal retentive conservative that didn’t go on vacation at least got a park up and running. Sure, it’s not anyone’s idea of beauty but it’s got the requisite tennis courts, squash, badminton, and polo grounds. There’s some walking paths, but much less concrete than you’d think — the polo pony association preferred dirt, gravel and grass paths. The contractor overcharged for the construction of the fields and went overbudget, but since he’s a political contributor it was approved by the city commission.

    Someone tried dumping industrial waste once, but the pony belonging to the city commissioner’s daughter got sick. In response, the city commission promptly authorized surveillance cameras throughout the park to insure continued availability to the general public.

    What’s my point? Any piece of available land is up for a fight between competing interests and usually the Chamber of Commerce wants it to build an industrial park so they can attract business. I’d rather take a park, even if it’s designed for the idle rich, over a superfund site that devalues adjoining properties because someone wants to try fluffy social experiments.

    All I’m saying is — if your parable is realistic; so is mine. Vacation, indeed.

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