Conservatism and Fear

A few years ago, I read an article that discussed the evolutionary roots of liberal and conservative thinking.  I thought it was fascinating to realize that there are clear survival benefits to this dichotomy— essentially, the liberals want to go over the hill and find something new, while the conservatives want to hunker down and effectively maintain what is already here.

Both mindsets make sense, and both are necessary to keeping a culture afloat. Particularly, I imagine that the conservative point of view was quite pervasive during the beginnings of humanity. After all, why would the liberals amongst us want to risk everything we’ve built (literally), the crops we’ve grown, the safety and well-being of the children, all for the outside chance of finding something “new”? “New” is a waste of time, new is risky and uncertain and could end up killing everybody.  What we have is real, and what we have needs to be preserved for the sake of the species.  This, I believe, is the origins of the conservative ideology, and it is, by definition, built on a foundation of fear.

At an elemental level, fear is essential to survival. Without fear, we die.  This is why it has wormed its way into the wiring that sits beneath so much of what we do and what we believe.  Most notably, fear as a means of community preservation can be found in many crevices of our society, and much of the conservative outlook can be traced back to it.  A return to the “glory days of the past,” for example, in the form of “traditional” family values, is an example of community preservation.  A strong military and aggressive defense strategy is another prime example.  A distrust of government and an emphasis on personal responsibility can also be seen as an extrapolation of this same community preservation instinct— protecting oneself against outside interests that could potentially dismantle the carefully constructed system currently in place.

The issue with fear as a motivator is that it is non-intellectual. It is visceral, it is blunt and inarticulate.  On a molecular level, fear is actually designed to suppress rational thinking.  Nadine Burke Harris, pediatrician and CEO of the Center for Youth Wellness, talks about how children who have experienced high levels of trauma, who live in constant fear of pain or death within their home or their community, tend to be worse students because they are unable to effectively access their prefrontal cortex, the center of higher learning and rationality in the brain.  

“You're walking through the forest and you see a bear, right? So you can either fight the bear or run from the bear. That's kind of your fight or flight system,” Burke Harris explains to Ira Glass in an episode of “This American Life” from 2012. “Your body releases a ton of adrenalin, right? Which is your short-term stress hormone, and something else called cortisol, which tends to be more of a long-term stress hormone. And this dilates your pupils, gets your heart beating fast. Your skin gets cold and clammy. That's because you're shunting blood from anywhere that isn't absolutely necessary to the muscles that you need to be able to run from that bear. The other thing that it does-- now, you can imagine that if you're about to fight a bear, you need some gumption to fight that bear, right? So it kind of shuts off the thinking portion of your brain, right? That executive function cognitive part. And it turns on the real primal aggression and the things that you need to be able to think that you're going to go into a fight with a bear and come out on the winning side. And that's really good if you're in a forest and there's a bear. The problem is when that bear comes home from the bar every night. Right? And for a lot of these kids, what happens is that this system, this fight or flight response, which is an emergency response in your body, it's activated over and over and over again. And so that's what we were seeing in the kids that I was caring for.” Nadine Burke Harris’ research found that this fear-guided programming suppresses a child’s self-discipline, impulse control, as well as certain kinds of memory and reasoning.

I think these findings are incredibly thought-provoking, and I think their implications go beyond the kind of fear elicited by childhood trauma and abuse.  Fear, for all people, thrusts them into various gradations of this self-protective, non-intellectual, “us vs. them” mindset, even when that fear comes from the inside out.  As we all know, “threats” do not have to be objectively credible to elicit a fear response. For example, I have a terribly consistent and somewhat embarrassing fear of flying that will not be discouraged by any objective, rational analysis of the threat, no matter how many statistics I memorize. This is true as well of many conservatives, and especially within the Conservative movement in the United States.  Fear of immigrants, voter fraud, and the gay agenda are all easily dismissible with facts and figures, but these fears persevere nevertheless.  

Many studies have shown a correlation between increased fear and a shift to the “political right.”  The Oxford Handbook of Political Ideologies cites a handful of findings on the subject: “Oxley et. al (2008) found that individuals exhibiting strong physiological (i.e. startle-eyeblink) responses to threatening stimuli were more likely to endorse socially conservative positions aimed at protecting the social order. Vigil (2010) reported that conservatives are more likely than liberals to perceive emotionally neutral faces as threatening.” The studies go on and on.  Of course, I am not saying that all Conservative or Republican beliefs are grounded in debilitating fear. Historically, the Republican Party has promoted strong principles and viable solutions.  In our modern political climate, however, after thirty years of aggressive fear-mongering by the Republican leadership, a "political platform" is no longer the central unifier. Now, more than ever, fear is at the center.

This inevitably brings me to Donald Trump, a direct result of fear-mongering politics. Trump plays into fear-based thinking, validating it and promoting it to an unprecedented degree. Muslims, Mexicans, Democrats, the mainstream media, even other Republicans— everyone is an “other,” coming over the hill to destroy what they've so carefully built. Trump has the worst record that has ever tracked, and has blatantly spread rumors and lies on many occasions, but it never seems to make a difference with his supporters because their commitment to him is not predicated on empirical analysis and a detailed legislative agenda. All that matters is that we must “Make American Great Again” before the enemy has stomped out all our crops and toppled our houses. It is this rise of irrational fear that has accompanied the emergence of all tyrants, and the rise and inevitable fall of Trump will be seen as no different.

At this point, it is important to acknowledge that our label-obsessed culture sometimes forgets that anything as complex and multifaceted as political identity will always exist in a spectrum. Much like the labels associated with sexual identity, “liberal” and “conservative” are labels that muddle a gradational reality.  If a genetic predisposition to be either more motivated by risk-taking (liberals) or by self-preservation (conservatives) exists on a spectrum, then there is always a path for the millions of people lost somewhere in the middle of the spectrum to nurture their way out of their labelled construct and into a more nuanced mindset.  

When it comes to children from abusive homes, Nadine Burke Harris and others agree that progress is attainable and has everything to do with intensive, well-rounded education that is informed by this research.  When it comes to fear-driven conservatives, this programming may be even more deeply engrained, but the solution is no different. For instance, one of the reasons that young people are significantly more liberal than their parents is that they are being born into and are being educated by the increasingly global community mindset of the digital age.  Obviously, the internet also breeds plenty of hate and insular thinking, but in many instances, it has helped to pop isolationist bubbles within all corners of our culture and shine a light on unhealthily antiquated “community preservation”-based attitudes. Racism and bigotry, while accepted in some circles, will always be condemned on the global stage, and impressionable young people who would have otherwise lacked this perspective are able to witness this and learn from it. Our leaders, our teachers, and our parents must use the power of this perspective expansion to in turn expand empathy and undermine the power of fear. 

If it is true that these tendencies towards fear-guided self-preservation are grounded deep in evolution, it is unlikely that we will ever fully escape them.  Trump will fail, as all tyrants do, but irrational fear isn’t going anywhere. It exists in all of us. We can only hope that, even if it is in violent fits and starts, we are moving along an arduous arc towards the frontal cortex, towards critical thinking and rationality. Every time there is a flare-up of widespread fear-based thinking, we must remain calm, understand the trauma or abuse at its core, and find a way to address it as best we possibly can. It may not make a significant difference, but it couldn’t hurt to try.