One man’s anti-authoritarian is another man’s misfit

This George Will column ridicules a piece by four professors who claim that conservatism is symptomatic of a psychological syndrome that can involve fear, aggression, uncertainty avoidance, intolerance of ambiguity, dogmatic dislike of equality, irrational nostalgia, and need for cognitive closure, all aspects of the authoritarian personality. At the risk of rendering myself guilty by association, some of what these professors say is consistent with my analysis of the difference between liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans. In this article, I argued (to oversimplify my thesis) that conservative Republicans generally are comfortable following, or at least willing to follow, rules. Liberal Democrats, by contrast, tend to regard rules as tools of oppression that can freely be disregarded whenever it is in their interest to do so. The time-worn argument that conservatives have authoritarian personalities is, more or less, a nasty way of recasting my thesis.
Rather than ascribing personality disorders to one side or the other, I’m inclined to locate the origins of the divergent attitudes towards rules in experience, in most instances, presumably, childhood experience. Conservatives tend to be people who have found it beneficial, or at least not particularly trying, to live with rules. Extreme liberals tend to be those who have not found rules at all congenial. In some cases, this is a rational response to the unjust nature of the rules they encountered early on. Blacks and (to a lesser degree) women of a certain age would be examples. In other cases, it may be a rational response to early experience with the unfair application of reasonable rules. In yet other cases, it may be a rational response to an inability to thrive under reasonable rules fairly applied. Finally, for some the response may be irrational.
In the end, of course, this kind of speculation is just a parlor game that, no matter how skillfully played, can never really help us decide the merits of any debate. But it fascinated me to realize that I may share common ground with leftist professors when it comes to thinking about what makes each other tick.


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