Fear Turns Liberals Conservative
Psychologists have proven that being liberal or conservative has a strong built-in biological component. Twins separated at birth tended to have similar political leanings despite growing up in a liberal or conservative home. They suspect that conservative brains have a lower tolerance for the unknown and liberal brains are more excited by change. If you distill those ideas down, it suggests conservatives are more fearful than liberals. Then why would liberals be more concerned with Covid-19 than conservatives? Shouldn’t conservatives be the careful ones?
A lot has turned upside down in 2020. Perhaps assuming Democrats are more scared of the virus than conservatives is the wrong conclusion. It would be more in line with the psychological findings to presume that liberals are more willing for life to change quite dramatically, to accept a “new normal,” and conservatives are not.
If you look at this political season, the ads from the left are less fear-driven than those from the right. While the Biden campaign criticizes Trump’s record, the Trump campaign tells you Biden will destroy the country in a lawless, communist hellscape. This is perhaps because while all people respond to fear, conservatives cement their political opinions under fear while liberals are prone to a reversing theirs.
But as you may be thinking, it isn’t all that simple. You can’t just say “boo!” and a Democrat starts voting Republican. Conservative and liberal values are more nuanced than fear and adventure. According to Jonathan Haidt, the father of moral foundations theory, liberals are obsessed with fairness and compassion while conservatives are more evenly balancing those values with these others: authority, loyalty, and sanctity. The wild cards are the libertarians who above all else value freedom. They are often called classical liberals because they are consistent with that value of liberty. But in American politics, you find them straddling the aisle, not sure which side to take — to them, neither looks very good.
It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, when anti-establishment liberals switch from Democrats to Republicans. It happens all the time. They historically have often voted Republican because even though they agree with progressives about cultural freedoms and such, they care more about limited government. While neither Republicans nor Democrats actually pursue limited government to the extent libertarians would like, Democrats are scarier because they don’t seem to acknowledge the dangers of big government at all. In fact, they tend to seek out more government and more laws to solve every problem, just like someone good with a hammer treats everything as a nail.
If progressives want libertarians to vote with the rest of their liberal values, they have to recognize the dangers of big government and too many laws — essentially value freedom more and voice that value. The emphasis on caring for others, while a beautiful virtue, can go so far that it becomes coddling and enabling, like a clingy parent who can’t let their children walk and fall on their own. So much of human nature proves that we are not so fragile as we are anti-fragile: whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. And we need struggle and adversity to grow strong. A tree grown in a greenhouse may be soft and brittle because it never had to resist the wind. A caterpillar freed from its cocoon prematurely will not be able to fly. And in many instances, the free-market is the best and most predictable economic system to rely on.
Libertarians don’t get everything right. They love the simple natural law philosophy because it rings so true like mathematics. But if we followed the natural law to the T, no one would get medical care because “sink or swim!” If we didn’t apply our human ideas of morality, then huge corporations would be free to develop monopolies, buy up all the media, manipulate the masses, and control the world, all for their sociopathic bottom line. Corporations have a legal agenda and incentive to profit as much as possible; human beings create unions and governments to check that agenda with the agenda to care about individual human lives. If we were completely free, we would have no government at all, and guess what would happen? We would be picked off one by one by a larger group just because they can.
Progressives also care about fairness. We see statistics that show us countries with less wealth inequality are happier, so in the pursuit of happiness, we try to go in that direction. The problem comes when we attempt to legislate equality of outcome — that means taking things away from the most talented and giving them to the least, essentially the opposite of meritocracy. Meritocracy is very important to American culture, and every society for that matter. The more talent and energy you bring to the group, the more it benefits collectively, and the more acknowledgment you deserve. The last thing we want to do is discourage the most talented among us to underproduce. This is the argument for reducing taxation on the wealthy. But the data shows taxing the wealthy does very little to curtail their productivity.
The American Dream is about going from rags to riches. To ensure that dream is available to all, we attempt to create equality of opportunity. Since people start at such different places, it isn’t unreasonable to think that redistributing some resources to those who lack basic opportunities would help accomplish the fairness we believe in. But in practice, it doesn’t work very well. Furthermore, we hate it. We do token legislation like affirmative action which has very little impact overall while ignoring the deeper cultural systems that maintain segregation between the haves and have-nots. This is why for most of us the American dream is a myth. We can still point to immigrants who showed up on our shores without a penny and rose to be titans of industry — but we conveniently ignore the psychological and cultural gifts that young immigrants used to work the system to their benefit. Without a real cultural commitment to equal opportunity, we simply resist it at every turn, trying to give our own offspring the very best opportunities even at the expense of others. And this isn’t evil — it is human nature.
If we really want to fight for equality, for fairness, we have to dig down to the deeper levels. If we really want to pull black Americans out of the lowest socio-economic categories, we need to create cultural integration that destroys our instinctual self-segregation. But asking white suburban parents to let their sweet little children play with kids from the dangerous part of town is more than most are willing to entertain. And so democrats continue to champion equality without doing anything substantive about it.
This is where libertarians turn on their progressive friends — they see the dishonesty, the hypocrisy, the failure to actually do what they say they want to do. And the whole equality agenda begins to look a whole lot like communism, which has had a terrible track-record in recent human history, robbing people of many of their freedoms. If Democrats don’t acknowledge the ruinous dangers of this path, their libertarian friends will not trust them. They will view their compassionate idealism as Pollyanna distortions of reality, deeply out of touch with human nature. And they may be right.
The strides made with gay rights in the last 10 years were perhaps the biggest progressive accomplishments in recent memory. But these explosive changes didn’t arise from protest marches and legal battles — not really. They arose from people coming out to their families, TV shows making people more familiar with homosexuality — and when the cultural tipping point was struck, no legal opposition to the change could stand. There was a quote on the wall of the human resources office for Ford Motor Company in Detroit that read: “Culture eats policy for breakfast.”
Progressives are caring compassionate people who want to minimize the pain of others. But doing so is more complicated than it sounds. Many people with trauma resist healing. Many people who would be helped by educational programs refuse them. Evolving a culture is a much deeper and more organic process that legislators really don’t have a lot of influence over. Laws definitely help, but they rarely lead. Leadership is a cultural phenomenon.
Leaders like Donald Trump have a talent for engaging their audience and getting the people to feel like they see eye-to-eye on reality, even if it is simply disliking liberals together. “Fake News” he says, and people feel this disgust for the mainstream media that so badly mischaracterizes him and the views of his followers. Leaders like this stir culture and get it to grow in a particular direction. Many conservatives dislike Trump but they are willing to support him to get their political agendas pushed forward. Christian conservatives support the sanctity of life and therefore support him because he is selecting supreme court justices with that persuasion. The rest of his unchristian behavior they can overlook. Conservatives who value authority and the safety that it brings are very happy to hear him say things about supporting the troops and funding the military, or “law and order” shutting down progressive protests and riots. They can overlook his other flaws. And those who value loyalty hear him say “America first” and they just forget about everything else he’s done to be disloyal to his former wives, business partners, employees, customers, or investors. He triggers their hot-button issues with his words and they follow him.
Libertarians would like to resist him for his many flaws and the fact that he talks like an authoritarian, but then he says things that sound like he doesn’t want to control you or your personal life. He doesn’t like taxes, he doesn’t like the progressives telling you what to do, he doesn’t like standing armies around the world, he doesn’t like big government. Then he goes a step further and calls it a deep state of corrupt politicians, a swamp that needs to be drained. He makes it “us” vs the government even though he is now at its helm. But that works for the libertarians, and now he’s hooked them too.
Then along comes a little Russian disinformation and some wild conspiracy theories about not just a deep state but a New World Order orchestrated by an evil elite that has been ruling the world for centuries, trying to control us all, take away our freedoms, our guns, our rights, even our freedom to think. It’s a horror story of Orwellian proportions, amalgamated from all of the conspiracy theories of the last several centuries, and it makes everyone suspect in the plot to take away our freedom. And you know there are conservatives at work in spinning the QAnon narrative because they weave in all the usual conservative talking points against liberals: fear of the biased mainstream media and liberal education, fear of the global warming hoax designed to bankrupt America, fear of the overwhelmingly liberal Hollywood elites who are now associated with pedophilia and forms of vampirism, fear of democrats who are trying to take away our freedoms by creating a communist police state and cancel-culture gestappo — all the fears that trigger libertarians. And they cast Donald Trump as the lone rebel defending us against the system of evil.
Some of these liberal friends get caught up in the stories and the fear of 2020, and they decide that even though they hated Trump last year, he looks like the lesser of evils now. But did they really change their values from left to right? Were they really duped by a conspiracy theory, or were they already anti-establishment libertarians to begin with? It could be that progressives have simply lost the libertarians due to their own ineptitude — that in a fearful climate of Covid-19, they are too quick to demand people care about the collective good to notice how they appear to have no regard for personal liberty. Or it could be that this election season Republicans came up with a diabolical plan to steal voters from the left and bring them over to the right by tapping into their darkest fears.
Trump and other Republicans have been sharing QAnon and other conspiracies on Twitter, validating some of these factually unsupported ideas on TV. This may mark a new low for them. The Democrats aren’t innocent in this propaganda war, of course. They are trying to appeal to the Christian conservatives about Trump’s poor moral character. The Lincoln Project is trying to convince moderate conservatives that Trump is not a conservative at all and the worst president we’ve ever had. The political battle for the white house has simply dropped all pretense of civility — it is an all-out war, spy-level disinformation tactics now included. And the fear certainly seems to be working.
It just shows us how far politicians will go to win at all costs when the people are not engaged at a values level. I’ve heard people on the left and right say that the ends justify the means this year. But when will that stop? And what have we done to our culture in the meantime?
We have a responsibility to steward our country, not just to beat the other half into submission but to grapple with our differences and come up with solutions together. We are good at championing certain values, but our opponents have values too and they are also very important, not just for them but for all of us. We need to take a stand together against corruption, against big business and government dominating the individual, against spying and using disinformation on our own people, against the theoretical communist takeover of our country, against deceitful journalism, against enabling and coddling our people into weakness, against disregard for the sanctity of life, against disregard for the sanctity of our environment, earth, air, and water, against hatred of our own country, against denial that elected officials are in fact our leaders no matter how much we dislike them, against racism, sexism, xenophobia, white supremacy, elitism, and of course sex-trafficking and pedophilia.
We can agree on these things and stop fearing each other right now. And from that simple agreement — acknowledging the values of the other — we can get back to solving our problems.