McClosky revisited

I recently received the following query from a reader:

I am working on a book on liberal/conservative differences from a conservative’s point of view.  In this process I came across a very old study (McClosky, Herbert (1958) "Conservatism and Personality".  The American Political Science Review 52 (1)  This was the wildest set of findings about Conservatives that I have ever seen--Adorno et al. included.  Here are a few of his statements.

“By every measure available to us, conservative beliefs are found mos frequently among the uninformed, the poorly educated and so far as we can determine, the less intelligent”

And “Far from being the elite or the masters or the prime movers, conservatives tend on the whole to come from the more backward and frightened elements of the population, including the classes that are socially and psychologically depressed.”

And: “ ..the extreme conservatives are easily the most hostile and suspicious, the most rigid and compulsive, the quickest to condemn others for their imperfections or weaknesses, the most intolerant, the most easily moved to  scorn and disappointment in others…”

This study actually had a few years of popularity (and criticism) and then seemed to just fade away. 

In reply, I wrote

His scale was invalid.  It did not predict vote.  Like most (all?) conservatism scales constructed by Leftists, it was a caricature of what conservatives believe

Some further comments:

I commented on the McClosky work in my 1973 paper: "CONSERVATISM, AUTHORITARIANISM AND RELATED VARIABLES: A Review and Empirical Study" but a few more words here might not go astray.

McClosky's work was one of a long line of Leftist attempts to demonstrate psychological inadequacy in conservatives.  His work is distinguished however by the care he took to define conservatism adequately, unlike the ludicrous Altemeyer, who gave that no thought at all. McClosky was basically a political scientist so was aware of an array of conservative thinkers such as Kirk, Burke, Rossiter etc.  He quoted from them to define what conservatism is.

He was not exactly a searching thinker, however, so largely missed the wood for the trees.  The issues that concern conservatives vary with the times.  It is only recently, for instance, that homosexual marriage has become an issue of concern for conservatives.  So he failed to go beneath the day to day issues that have energized conservatives over the years and figure out what the root causes of conservative thinking are.  He failed to see that simple cautiuousness is the most basic level of conservatism and that a concern for individual liberty is one of the most basic deductions from a cautious attitude.  So he failed to trace any of the day to day concerns back to the basics.  He failed to see that a conservative respect for tradition and history stems from a very basic cautious desire to find out what works.  If someone wants to know whether a proposed policy will work as intended, history may in fact be the only guide to that.

So the list of conservative attitude statements that he compiled and used in his surveys sounded very old fashioned and did not address basic conservative concerns.  And, probably unintentionally, he expressed conservative attitudes in an implausible way.  He wrote down what Leftists think conservatives believe rather than using statements uttered by actual contemporaneous conservatives.  And the result was to vitiate his work.  He failed to find out anything about actual conservatives because he misidentified who conservatives were.  His allegedly conservative statements were agreed to just as much by Leftist voters as by conservative voters.  Hilarious! So the characteristics he observed in his surveys were not the characteristics of conservatives at all.  They were probably the characteristics of old-fashioned people, if anything.  

And other Leftist reseachers both before and after him (Adorno, Altemeyer) have fallen into the same trap.  They clearly have a horror of actually talking to conservatives so rely for their impression of conservatives on the caricature of conservatism  that exists in their little Leftist mental bubble-world.  They see opposition to homosexual marriage, for instance, as an expression of "homophobia" rather than acknowledging that caution may cause it to be seen as a dangerous departure from what we know works in human family arrangements.

But Leftists do bad research in general. The global warming nonsense alone should tell us that.  It is theory totally divorced from the data. Leftist researchers leap to conclusions and lack basic caution about inferences.  It is no wonder that something like 99% of academic journal articles are only ever read by the author and his mother.  And as I think most published academic journal article authors will tell you, even the referees who evaluate the article for publication clearly only skim-read it at best.  So we have to be very thankful indeed for the occasional real advance in our understanding of the world that comes out of academic research.


The McClosky conservatism scale reappraised

By Walter H. Owens Jr


This study examines the validity of one of the most influential measures of political ideology, Herbert McClosky's Conservatism Scale. Using a respondent-oriented validation technique and employing data from a random sample survey of adults in one city, the scale was found unrelated (positively) to three variables popularly associated with conservatism: ideological self-identification, opposition to social welfare legislation, and presidential preference. These findings were supported by a replicating, random sample survey conducted in a separate locale 10 years later, by analyses of ICPR data from a national survey, and by other data from a separate regional investigation. These findings, along with other evidence that has emerged in separate investigations, indicate that McClosky's Conservatism Scale is invalid. They, therefore, undermine McClosky's famous study and repudiate his widely published theory of conservatism and personality.

Page 129 of Political Methodology, Vol. 6, No. 2, 1979

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