The importance of good definitions

I mentioned yesterday what a mess a poor understanding of conservatism makes out of Leftist research into conservatism.  Because they have only the vaguest notion of what drives conservatives, Leftist psychologists end up with some hilarious conclusions when they attempt to do surveys of conservative opinion.

Herbert McClosky was typical.  He devised a set of statement (a "scale") which he believed to reflect conservatism and looked at who agreed with those statements.  He found that they were a really bad lot.  They were dumb, poorly educated, psychologically maladjusted etc etc.  And that made him famous.  It was exactly what Leftists wanted to hear about conservatives and corresponds with what they mostly believe to this day.

Problem: How did people vote who showed up as conservative according to McClosky?  About half voted for Democrat Presidential candidates!  His "conservatives" showed no tendency at all to vote conservative.  Not so satisfactory!  McClosky read up lots of books about what conservatism was but he still got it wrong.  Like most Leftists he probably avoided like the plague  talking to conservatives so had no real grasp of how they think at all.

But it is not impossible to do survey research into politics that has some validity. I too put together a set of statements that I believed reflected conservative thinking.  But I got my statements not from books but from my long association with actual real-life conservative-voting people.  I am sure I read a lot less than McClosky but I knew conservatives a lot better.  So what happened?  I got correlations as high as .50 between my scale and vote -- which is a high correlation in the general context of psychological research.

Some psychologists think they can slip past the measurement problem by correlating various things with Presidential vote directly. But that gives you the opposite problem: Lack of generality.  What did a vote for Bill Clinton mean?  The great compromiser, or "triangulator", to use his term, spent so much time defending the travels of his penis that very little policy change can be attributed to him.  Some conservatives look back on his time in office with nostalgia.

Even more pertinently, what does a vote for Trump mean?  Is he a conservative?  Many in the GOP establishment say not.

So you see there is no substitute for seeking  a broad range of opinions among the people you are interested in. But those opinions do have to be validated as the opinions of actual conservative voters.  It is the only way you can get both generality and at the same time be sure that you are talking about something real.  There is no doubt that there is something liberal about the penis-Clinton and something conservative about Trump and both your definitions and your scales should be able to pick it up.  Because of the individual peculiarities of Bill and Donald, you will not expect a correlation between scale and vote that is anything like complete but it should at least be substantial.

So who do I think conservatives are?  I think they are the contented people and Leftists are the discontented people.  The only thing in politics that conservatives get upset about are leftist attempts to mess with their contentment -- most notably these days the huge array of political correctness that Donald Trump has highlighted.

That conception is of course only a basic rule.  There are exceptions influenced by time and place but the rule still works well in most applications.  As we see, it explains the popularity of Donald Trump among conservative voters very well.  He voices dissatisfaction with the meddlers who want to upset just about everything in a society that most of us feel reasonably content with.  A lot of Americans REALLY LIKE America and feel blessed to be Americans.  They are VERY content with America as it is and resent people who want to "fundamentally transform" it, to use Mr Obama's famous and wildly cheered phrase.

A lot of GOP Congressmen have from time to time denied that Trump is a conservative.  All that shows is how heavily they have been brainwashed by the Left.  They stand for watered down Leftism, not conservatism.  They think it would be "racist" to exclude Muslim immigrants from America whereas most ordinary Americans are pretty content with the sort of neighbours they already have, rather than wanting a whole heap of potential Jihadis suddenly plopped down in their neighborhoods.

Another thing that my definition fits is the fact that political stance is highly hereditary. The happiness research almost all comes to the conclusion that happiness is dispositional:  Some people are born to be happy and some are born to be miserable.  Both conservatism and happiness/contentment are dispositional. Conservatives tend to have a happy personality.

And the statements in my scale did reflect a contentment with the status quo. Note for instance the item: "Queen Elizabeth and her family do a good job and she should remain Queen of Australia".  Clear contentment there.  Even innovations in music are disliked:  "Modern pop music is often disgusting and degenerate".  But what about "Girls should remain virgins until they marry"? What has that got to do with contentment?  It reflects traditional arrangements, which still had relevance in the 1980s when the research was carried out.  Probably few conservatives today would  agree with it but at that time it was only conservatives that did.  And most of the items in my scale did reflect a satisfaction with traditional arrangements rather than the vastly changed arrangements that began in the '60s.

So seeing conservatives as the contented people explains most of what we see of conservative opinion.  It is a definition that works and leads to valid research.

McClosky, H. (1958) "Conservatism and personality". Amer. Polit. Sci. Rev., 52, 27-45.

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