I did my first piece of research into the psychology of politics in 1968. It was my Masters dissertation. I have been studying the subject ever since -- now with many academic publications on it behind me. So it seems reasonable that in 2008 -- 40 years later -- I should look back and say as briefly as possible what I have learned in those 40 years.
In good academic style I start with a definition: The first thing to say is that Leftism is emotional. The second is to say that the emotion is negative and the third thing to say is that the negative emotion (anger/hate) is directed at the world about the Leftist, the status quo if you like. The Leftist is nothing if he is not a critic, though usually a very poorly-informed critic. And the criticisms are both pervasive and deeply felt.
What is routinely overlooked in most discussions of ideology is that conservatives don't like the status quo either -- but they don't hate it and they don't get burned up about it. Ask almost any conservative and he will give you a long list of things he would like to see changed in the world about him. It is only a Leftist caricature to say that conservatives support the status quo.
Left and Right do indeed differ in their response to the status quo but not in the simplistic "for and against" way that Leftists claim. The difference is in depth of feeling and in the changes desired. Leftists want change passionately and feel very righteous about the changes they want. Conservatives can see fault and do at times set out at length the reasoning behind the changes they think desirable -- but mostly they just want to get on with their own lives. There are undoubtedly some people who are completely happy with the world as it is but they are not concerned about politics. They probably do, however, vote conservative when called upon to vote. They would not be able to find much in common with the constant complaint that is the mark of the Leftist. The typical conservative does not simmer if his wishes for change are not implemented. The Leftist does.
One marker of the difference just set out will be well known to anyone who reads blogs from both sides of the divide: Profanity is hugely more common on Leftist blogs. A systematic study of the matter found profanity to be TWELVE TIMES more common on Leftist blogs. Profanity is of course an attempt to express one's feelings strongly.
Note that I do NOT use the word "liberal" for the Left side of politics. "Liberal" as a name for any left-leaning political party is just camouflage. Except in sex-related matters, liberty is in general a very low prioritiy for them. Tearing down sexual mores is a form of change that they have had much success at.
So what is conservatism? Basically it is caution based on a perception that the world is an unpredictable, dangerous and often hostile place. So change is not rejected. It is in fact, as just said, sometimes desired. But it is approached in a skeptical, step by step, way to ensure that its effects are beneficial or at least benign. And an important criterion of what consitutes "benign" is how the change affects individual liberty. At a minimum, a conservative wants to ensure that change will not reduce his individual liberty.
Because the Leftist is angry rather than prudent, however, he cares not a bit for the conservative's caution. The most thorough-going Leftist just wants to smash everything that exists around him out of the feeling that it is all so hateful that none of it is worth preserving. And in the French revolution, the Bolshevik revolution, the Maoist revolution and many more minor revolutions, the Leftists got their way -- with results we all know about. Doing any sort of a good job of putting back together what they have smashed is beyond them. They are destroyers only. Hate is not constructive.
Because we all know of those dismal results, Leftist activists and politicians in entrenched democracies have to be more careful. Expressing the full extent of their feelings and advocating revolution would simply marginalize them and they know that. So they have to find ways of undermining society in more subtle ways. And they are greatly aided in that by the complex nature of modern society. Most people have only the vaguest notion of how society works so the Leftist politician can propose various changes that sound good but which will be disastrous in practice -- with "share and share alike" being the classic example of that. And when the disasters unfold the committed Leftist cannot lose. He will get an internal glow of satisfaction from the suffering and disruption unleashed on all those fools around him that he hates but will be excused from blame because he "meant well".
So what motivates a Leftist to be so full of negative emotions toward the surrounding world? Many things. There is no one cause of Leftism. The Leftist activist or politician is mostly motivated by ego needs. He craves attention and praise. He needs to be perceived as wise and righteous -- and he tries to achieve that by pretending to be all heart and condemning the world for its many faults and imperfections. But it could simply be that the Leftist was born into a subset of society that is in general hostile to the larger society. Miners are a common example of that. Mining towns were once bedrock Left-voting places. Why that was so is beyond the scope of what I want to say at the moment, however.
And, as mentioned, there are of course degrees of Leftism -- degrees to which society is disliked. The out-and-out-Leftist (generally an intellectual of some sort) is just a rage-filled hater who wants to smash everything -- but the average Leftist voter is a gentler soul. They may simply be upset that they personally are not getting a very good deal from society as it exists and be generally critical of society for that reason. But the biggest category of Leftist voters by far would appear to be genuinely well intentioned people who are strongly emotionally affected by suffering in others. They see other people who are not doing well in some way and urgently want that fixed by whatever means it takes. They are angered by what they see as "injustice". And that emotion dominates all else. And it is the strong negative emotions evoked by the surrounding society that unites these people with the vicious and deliberately destructive haters at the top of the Leftist pyramid.
But anger is a very bad frame of mind in which to make decisions and craft policies so these basically good people will often be lured into voting for some unscrupulous Leftist politician who promises to fix it all -- but who must know in his own heart that the cure will be worse than the disease. But if offering false hope gets the activist into power, too bad! And the poor old conservative who knows how things work and says that there is no easy fix will be ignored -- and called "heartless".
And that, I believe is how politics works: It is particularly the people who are especially sensitive to the suffering of others who make us all suffer, paradoxical though that may seem. Without their numerous votes, the Leftist politicians would never gain power. And the converse of that is that a little bit of heartlessness can be desirable. Balance is needed in fellow-feeling, as in many other things.
One test of the above explanation is that Left-voters should be more unhappy than conservatives -- and that has been borne out in almost all the happiness surveys that I have seen. For some discussion of that, see here. Because they are less emotional and not as easily upset, conservatives are happier and more level-headed -- and so are not as easily stampeded into foolish actions by emotional appeals. Most of them don't even believe in global warming!
So, for most Leftists, their Leftism mostly dwells deep within the personality. Which is why from age 2 I could tell that my son would be a conservative. His favourite "joke" at that age (and indeed for some years afterward) was: "The boy fell in the mud". He was able to see the funny side of a minor mishap that would have been seen as a tragedy by an emotional Leftist.
And the soft-hearted Leftists have much to thank conservatives for. The conservative element in the population protects them from the consequences that they wish for. Nowhere is that better seen than when the revolution succeeds. Among the first people to be "liquidated" by the hard men of the revolution are the soft-hearted revolutionaries.
Fortunately, time also plays a part. Many of the well-intentioned Leftists do over time come to see that simplistic solutions to society's ills don't work and end up voting for more complex and balanced solutions. They become conservatives. Even the once very Leftist George McGovern sounds remarkably conservative these days. Many of the most vocal conservatives started out as Leftists and have become quite evangelical as a consequence of learning from experience that Leftist policies are destructive. They have the same benevolent aims as before but have grown wiser about what will best serve those aims. And the older they get, the more chance they have to see the counterproductive nature of simplistic Leftist "solutions".
The most succinct summary of what I have said above is that Leftism is the politics of rage. This contrasts with the usual summary that Leftism is the politics of envy. But Leftists these days seem to be a generally affluent bunch. They are certainly not on average materially disadvantaged. So I cannot see that material envy is any sort of major motive for most of them.
The above is of course only a summary. I go into great detail about what the history of Leftism and conservatism tells us here and here.
Note: The post above is an expanded version of the original -- JR
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