I did my first piece of research into the psychology of politics in 1968. It was my Masters dissertation. I have been studying the subject ever since -- now with many academic publications on it behind me. So it seems reasonable that, over four decades later, I should look back and say what I have learned in the intervening years. And the prime thing I have learned is that you cannot understand Leftism without understanding its emotional roots. And once you understand that, all the rest is detail.
What IS Leftism?
In good academic style I start with a definition: The first thing to say is that Leftism is emotional. The second is to say that the emotion is negative and the third thing to say is that the negative emotion (anger/hate/rage) is directed at the world about the Leftist, the status quo if you like. The Leftist is nothing if he is not a critic, though usually a very poorly-informed critic. And the criticisms are both pervasive and deeply felt.
What is routinely overlooked in most discussions of ideology is that conservatives don't like the status quo either -- but they don't hate it and they don't get burned up about it. Ask almost any conservative and he will give you a long list of things he would like to see changed in the world about him. It is only a Leftist caricature to say that conservatives support the status quo. And conservatives like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were undoubtedly great agents of change.
So Left and Right do indeed differ in their response to the status quo but not in the simplistic "for and against" way that Leftists claim. The difference is in depth of feeling and in the changes desired. Leftists want change passionately and feel very righteous about the changes they want. Conservatives can see fault and conservative leaders do quite regularly work towards the changes that they and their voters think desirable -- but most conservatives just want to get on with their own lives. There are undoubtedly some people who are completely happy with the world as it is but they are not concerned about politics. They probably do, however, vote conservative when called upon to vote. They would not be able to find much in common with the constant complaint that is the mark of the Leftist. The typical conservative does not simmer if his wishes for change are not implemented. The Leftist does.
One marker of the difference just set out will be well known to anyone who reads blogs from both sides of the divide: Profanity is hugely more common on Leftist blogs. A systematic study of the matter found profanity to be TWELVE TIMES more common on Leftist blogs. Profanity is of course an attempt to express one's feelings strongly.
Note that I do NOT use the word "liberal" for the Left side of politics. "Liberal" as a name for any left-leaning political party is just camouflage. Except in sex-related matters, liberty is in general a very low priority for them. And their attack on sexual mores arose only as a means of tearing down the status quo. Their advocacy of freedom of choice in sexual and reproductive matters soon breaks down if people make choices they disapprove of. The amazing attacks on Sarah Palin's decision to bear a handicapped child rather than abort it certainly showed no respect for her choice in the matter.
So what is conservatism? Basically it is caution based on a perception that the world is an unpredictable, dangerous and often hostile place. So change is not rejected. It is in fact, as just said, sometimes desired. But it is approached in a skeptical, step by step, way to ensure that its effects are beneficial or at least benign. And an important criterion of what consitutes "benign" is how the change affects individual liberty. At a minimum, a conservative wants to ensure that change will not reduce his individual liberty.
Because the Leftist is angry rather than prudent, however, he cares not a bit for the conservative's caution. The most thorough-going Leftist just wants to smash everything that exists around him out of the feeling that it is all so hateful that none of it is worth preserving. And in the French revolution, the Bolshevik revolution, the Maoist revolution and many more minor revolutions, the Leftists got their way -- with results we all know about. Doing any sort of a good job of putting back together what they have smashed is beyond them. They are destroyers only. Hate is not constructive.
Because we all know of those dismal results, Leftist activists and politicians in entrenched democracies have to be more careful. Expressing the full extent of their feelings and advocating revolution would simply marginalize them and they know that. So they have to find ways of undermining society in more subtle ways. And they are greatly aided in that by the complex nature of modern society. Most people have only the vaguest notion of how society works so the Leftist politician can propose various changes that sound good but which will be disastrous in practice -- with "share and share alike" being the classic example of that. And when the disasters unfold the committed Leftist cannot lose. He will get an internal glow of satisfaction from the suffering and disruption unleashed on all those fools around him that he hates but will be excused from blame because he "meant well".
What CAUSES Leftism?
So what motivates a Leftist to be so full of negative emotions toward the surrounding world? Many things. There is no one cause of Leftism. But there are nonetheless two major sources of Leftism and understanding them explains most Leftist policies and positions. The first is the motivation most common among Leftist voters and the second is the motivation most common among Leftist leaders. It would be nice if we could identify just one sort of motivation common to all Leftists but, as with so many other things in life, reality is more complicated than that.
And although the motivations of leaders and followers are in general very different, there is of course some overlap between the two. Some people who express their Leftism only at the ballot box are similarly motivated to Leftist leaders and some Leftist leaders are similarly motivated to Leftist voters.
So, to start with the average Leftist voter: It could be that the Leftist was born into a subset of society that is in general hostile to the larger society. Miners are a common example of that. Mining towns were once bedrock Left-voting places. Why that was so is beyond the scope of what I want to say at the moment, however.
And Left-voters may simply be upset that they personally are not getting a very good deal from society as it exists and be generally critical of society for that reason.
But the biggest category of Leftist voters by far would appear to be genuinely well intentioned but shortsighted people who are strongly emotionally affected by suffering in others. They see other people who are not doing well in some way and urgently want that fixed by whatever means it takes. They are angered by what they see as "injustice". And that emotion dominates all else. And it is the strong negative emotions evoked by the surrounding society that unites these people with Leftists of other stripes.
And that, I believe is how politics works: It is particularly the people who are especially sensitive to the suffering of others who make us all suffer, paradoxical though that may seem. Without their numerous votes, the destructive and irresponsible Leftist politicians would never gain power. And the converse of that is that a little bit of heartlessness can be desirable. Balance is needed in fellow-feeling, as in many other things.
That the fellow feeling of the Leftist follower is unbalanced and immature can be seen from its sheer immediacy. Leftists can rally (and did rally) to shield vicious muderers like "Tookie" Williams from the rightful consequences of their actions because the Leftists concerned see only the immediate prospect of the offender's execution. That a failure to punish severely the reprehensible deeds that people like Williams commit will excuse and encourage more such deeds by others is just not within the tiny time-horizon of the Leftist. Any fellow-feeling for Tookie's innocuous but long-dead victims was notable for its absence in the vigils designed to "save" Tookie.
Another sort of immaturity that infests the Leftist's emotional life is the childish need to be looked after. How wonderful it would be if the protective parents of one's childhood remained forever present, shielding one from all threats and providing all needs. The Leftist passionately wants that and fools himself into thinking that the state can fulfil that role. It never does, of course, but such Leftists just never grow up emotionally. They continue dreaming their childish dreams.
One test of the claim that most Leftist voters are chronically emotionally disturbed and dissatisfied is that Left-voters should be more unhappy than conservatives -- and that has been borne out in almost all the happiness surveys that I have seen. For some discussion of that, see here. Because they are calmer, less emotional and not as easily upset, conservatives are happier and more level-headed -- and so are not as easily stampeded into foolish actions by emotional appeals. Most of them don't even believe in global warming!
So, for most Leftists, their Leftism mostly dwells deep within the personality. Which is why from age 2 I could tell that my son would be a conservative. His favourite "joke" at that age (and indeed for some years afterward) was: "The boy fell in the mud". He was able to see the funny side of a minor mishap that would have been seen as a tragedy by an emotional Leftist.
And the soft-hearted Leftists have much to thank conservatives for. The conservative element in the population protects them from the consequences that they wish for. Nowhere is that better seen than when the revolution succeeds. Among the first people to be "liquidated" by the hard men of the revolution are the soft-hearted revolutionaries.
Fortunately, time also plays a part. Many of the well-intentioned Leftists do over time come to see that simplistic solutions to society's ills don't work and end up voting for more complex and balanced solutions. They become conservatives. Even the once very Leftist George McGovern sounds remarkably conservative these days. Many of the most vocal conservatives started out as Leftists and have become quite evangelical as a consequence of learning from experience that Leftist policies are destructive. They have the same benevolent aims as before but have grown wiser about what will best serve those aims. And the older they get, the more chance they have to see the counterproductive nature of simplistic Leftist "solutions".
In absolute numbers, Leftist activists and politicians are very few but their impact is large -- so understanding them is the big challenge. They are mostly motivated by ego needs. The Leftist activist craves attention and praise. He needs to be perceived as wise and righteous -- and he tries to achieve that by pretending to be all heart and condemning the world for its many faults and imperfections. And some Leftist leaders -- intellectuals in particular -- are out-and-out rage-filled haters who want to smash everything in a world that does not fit in with their theories and accord them the prominence and praise that they need and feel is their due.
But anger is a very bad frame of mind in which to make decisions and craft policies so the policies advocated by Leftist leaders are usually simplistic and very poorly thought-out. The Leftist leader is so keen to smash the status quo that detailed thought about the alternatives and their consequences is rare. And the basically good people who are the Leftist voters are angry too, for different reasons, so they don't think things through or pay much attention to detail either, and as a result, they will often be lured into voting for some unscrupulous Leftist politician who promises to fix everything -- but who is sufficiently involved in politics to know deep down that the cure will be worse than the disease. But if offering false hope gets the leader/activist into a position of power and glory, too bad! And the poor old conservative who knows how things work and says that there is no easy fix will be ignored -- and called "heartless".
The most succinct summary of what I have said above is that Leftism is the politics of rage. This contrasts with the usual summary that Leftism is the politics of envy. But Leftists these days seem to be a generally affluent bunch. They are certainly not on average materially disadvantaged. So material envy is an implausible motive for most of them. Envy of status, prestige and position, however, is another matter. That is where Leftist leaders come in -- something discussed at great length below.
Conservatives and emotion
I have a separate monograph on conservatism but I think I need to say a few more things about conservatism here. The main thing that I have said so far about conservatives is that they are cautious. But caution is not really an emotion. It is a disposition and some emotions have to go with that but I think I should say a little more about what those emotions are.
What I did mention above is that conservatives are always shown in research as being happier and more content than Leftists and that leads into what I think is important. Because conservatives are NOT full of rage, they feel free to enjoy whatever is around them. And one of the great satisfactions in human life is fellowship: Feeling part of a group of people whom you like or respect. So instead of screaming "racism" at every sign of group loyalty, conservatives can simply enjoy their group loyalties. They are untroubled patriots, for instance.
So American conservatives can feel warm inside to be Americans and they can greatly value the fellowship they find in their church. And where conservatives diverge most strongly from Leftists is that they can also feel a sense of fellowship, belonging and connectedness with their ancestors and forebears. We often see this very strongly expressed among American conservatives when they talk about the "Founders" of the nation and the wisdom the founders bequeathed in the Constitution etc. And such thoughts are of course often to the fore on Thanksgiving day. And I have put up a "Thanksgiving" edition of POLITICAL CORRECTNESS WATCH that shows how much hostility Thanksgiving now attracts from the Left. Thanksgiving is of course a continuation of traditional harvest festivals. Human beings have always joyously celebrated a successful harvest and given thanks to their Gods for it. It takes the hate-filled modern-day Leftist activists to find any fault with that.
And another common expression of solidarity with the past is of course the great respect that conservatives pay to those who have died in war in the service of their nation. In my country, Australia, that day of remembrance (which we call Anzac day) is our only really solemn national occasion. Leftists have tried to laugh at it from time to time but it goes from strength to strength, with young people as well as old participating in the services of remembrance.
And there is no doubt that the army is always one of the most solidly conservative bodies of people that exists in any community. And the degree of fellowship in the army must be very close to maximal. If you pass a member of your old army unit in the street, you always stop to say a few words at least. There is a lasting bond between men who have fought together that outsiders can only dimly understand. My time in the Australian army was most undistinguished (though very fondly remembered) but I was an army psychologist so perhaps I have a little more awareness of what the army is about than most. I am certainly pleased to say that I have worn my country's uniform.
All these sorts of fellowship that conservatives feel are generally felt pretty strongly. There is often a swelling of pride and gratitude associated with such feelings. And, because of his anger and dissatisfation with society, the poor sad old Leftist is basically left out of all that. His hate and rage bars him from sharing some of the most basic human connections and emotions. And, where Leftist followers are concerned, that is particularly sad. As an emotional person, he is probably much in need of such connections and feelings so not having them must multiply his bitterness. So when Leftist followers do at long last find an outlet for their need for fellowship and connectedness that passes muster with them we get the completely over the top hysteria of Fascism, Nazism or Obama-worship. (Anybody who has been conned into believing that the National Socialist Hitler and the Marxist Mussolini were Rightists should read here and here)
And I now want to give a vivid example of how conservatives feel: Something that Leftists will hate viscerally but which most conservatives should understand and enjoy. And if conservatives enjoy feelings of connectedness with the past, where better to look at this point than to an institution founded in 1440 by King Henry VI and which is still as flourishing as ever today. I refer to a school that has been giving boys a first-class education for nearly 600 years: Eton. I reproduce below the Eton Boating Song. Eton is of course Britain's most elite school and British private schools are famous for fostering a sense of fellowship among their pupils. And you will see that vividly below. Listen to the music as you read the words and I will add a few comments afterwards. The song refers of course to competitive rowing regattas but it is also the unofficial song of the whole college. It is certainly the song most associated with Eton:
Jolly boating weather,
And a hay harvest breeze,
Blade on the feather,
Shade off the trees;
Swing, swing together,
With your bodies between your knees.
Rugby may be more clever,
Harrow may make more row:
But we'll row forever,
Steady from stroke to bow,
And nothing in life shall sever
The chain that is round us now.
Others will fill our places,
Dressed in the old light blue;
We'll recollect our races,
We'll to the flag be true;
And youth will be still in our faces
When we cheer for an Eton crew.
Twenty years hence this weather
May tempt us from office stools:
We may be slow on the feather,
And seem to the boys old fools:
But we'll still swing together,
And swear by the best of schools.
I went to a totally undistinguished school in a small Australian country town but that song does tend to bring a tear to my eyes. It is a powerful expression of being part of something bigger and better, and something that transcends time. I hope some of my readers get that powerful feeling too.
And note that is also a humble song. It talks of pride in a great identity but without any thought of dominating and changing others -- which is the Leftist preoccupation. It talks of the singers as being "old fools" sitting on "office stools". There is no Fascist aggression there at all. In characteristically English style, it actually spends quite a lot of time talking about the weather! No egotistical "Tomorrow belongs to me", "We are the people we have been waiting for" or "Yes we can" there.
Yet it is a song that expressed a powerful feeling. British officers in World War I were known to go "over the top" in the dreadful charges of that war singing the Eton Boating song. That to me is a sort of nobility which I know that no Leftist egotist will ever understand.
To summarize so far, then: In political matters Leftists have primarily negative emotions whereas conservatives have primarily positive emotions. And the happiness research bears that out.
Patriotism, nationalism and racism
Warner Todd Huston sets out at some length the simple but rather denied truth that American Leftists only pretend to be patriotic. In a patriotic nation they have to do that for PR purposes but their hearts are not in it and they manage the pretence only by claiming that they love what America COULD BE rather than what it is. Rather pathetic.
I have set out at some length above evidence that patriotism is not in general aggressive. There is however a related attitude known as nationalism. Nationalism can mean two quite different things: 1). A desire of a people for independent existence as a nation -- as in 19th century German nationalism or 20th Scottish nationalism; 2). When the lovers of their own country want to dominate other countries. It is meaning 2 that I am concerned with here. And all the examples of that which I can think of, from Napoleon to Hitler, have been Leftists. So my summary of the matter is that nationalism is a Leftist perversion of patriotism. No wonder Leftist leaders are so suspicious of patriotism! They judge others by themselves. They know how vicious they would be with an entire nation behind them and assume that others think similarly.
But, as already mentioned, both patriotism and nationalism are only one sort of group loyalty. Rotarians are often strongly attached to their club and even homosexuals feel "gay pride" apparently. And many church members are strongly attached to their religious denomination or local church. And religious identity can extend to something like nationalism -- with physical attacks on members of other denominations. There is still a faint remnant of that in Northern Ireland (though the enmity there is as much historic as religious) and in Islam there is a lot of it. Muslims are great slaughterers of other Muslims -- if the other Muslims don't subscribe to the "right" brand of Islam. But Islam is Fascistic anyway.
And then there is the great unmentionable. You CAN feel proud of your race. And if the pride is "black pride" that is just fine. But "white pride" is apparently a breath from the depths of hell. Yet history's most destructive example of racism was not concerned with whiteness at all. Hitler in fact allied himself with the non-white Japanese and attacked many nations that were just as white as Germans are. In fact there are proportionately rather more blue-eyed blondes (idealized by the Nazis) in Russia and in Poland than there are in Germany -- and Adolf slaughtered millions of both. Hitler's bag was -- following Woodrow Wilson and Houston Stewart Chamberlain -- ARYANS. And most Aryans are in fact brown (Indians).
So the Leftist suspicion of pride in being white has exactly no foundation in the place where it might be most expected! So when Leftists associate Nazism with white racism, it is just the normal Leftist ignorance of facts and history. So white racism as an oppressive thing is mainly an American phenomenon. And the KKK were overwhelmingly Democrats! Clearly, conservatives were not the problem there.
I can't resist noting here, however, that I quite like Aryans myself. I normally have three or four quite brown Indians living with me in my house and most days I fly the flag of the Republic of India from my flagpole. And I was kicked off the Majority Rights blog for constantly mocking the white racists who also blog there. So I imagine that it is by now pretty clear that Leftists would have an uphill job of tagging me as a white racist (though they will no doubt get to the top of that hill somehow). I just don't fit their simplistic black-and-white way of thinking. If we are more careful with our definitions than Leftists usually are, however, I think it should become clear that there are some forms of white "racism" that are perfectly reasonable, normal and harmless.
I refer in particular to my prior comments showing that patriotism is not in general necessarily aggressive, hostile or oppressive. And I see no reason why what we might call "white patriotism" should be aggressive, hostile or oppressive. In other words, a feeling of connectedness with other whites and a pride in being white does not necessarily imply a wish to oppress or attack people of other races. But when we come to nationalism, however (the Leftist specialty), it is a very different situation. White nationalism (the desire to conquer or control non-white races) is indisputably a very bad thing.
But white nationalism is also a very rare thing. Hitler wasn't moved by it nor was the British empire. The chief enemy of the British empire was the French, who are quite white. The KKK is about the only example of white nationalism that I can think of. And the KKK at one time were a major power at Democrat conventions (The 1924 "Klanbake" convention, for instance). Such acclaimed Democrat Presidents as Woodrow Wilson and FDR both had solid KKK support. So if we are careful with our definitions, white pride is only dangerous in the hands of Leftists. The very small band of modern-day neo-Nazis are probably an exception to that but there are small exceptions to most rules. And the modern-day political parties that are most often called neo-Nazi (Britain's BNP and Germany's NDP) do in fact have a lot of quite socialistic policies -- just as old Adolf did.
Note how easily everything falls into place once we have swept away the Leftist hokum about Nazism and the KKK being "Rightist".
Possible objections to the above account
1). A challenge to the account I have given above could be the fact that, right up to JFK, Leftists were patriotic too -- almost crazily so in the case of people like Theodore Roosevelt and the followers of Hitler. So have I misunderstood or misrepresented present-day Leftists? If Leftists were once patriotic, surely it is wrong to see lack of patriotism as characteristic of them.
I think Obama worship gives us the answer to that. Because Leftists are more emotional, their POTENTIAL for group loyalty generally and patriotism in particular is unusually great. But the more there are things that they hate in the world about them, the more they are inhibited from giving rein to any such feelings. But when something arises that they can give undivided loyalty to, they go overboard -- as we saw in Fascism, Nazism and in the Obama worship of 2008.
So the Leftist is in perpetual conflict: He WANTS connectedness but so many things in the world about him are unsatisfactory to him that he ends up as a rejectionist rather than as a participant. In the past, it was only "The Bosses" who were the focus of his ire and he could kid himself that most of the people around him were not responsible for the "injustices" that bother him so much. Now, however, when it appears to him that even "rednecks" and "NASCAR dads" are on the side of what upsets him, he is completely alienated. He once felt that "the workers" were on his side and appointed himself as a spokesman for them. That illusion is now gone and the whole country is on the wrong track from his viewpoint. So how wonderful for him it was when the Obamessiah came along to rescue him from that dreadful dilemma and offered the prospect of reshaping the country into his desired mould!
2). I have argued primarily from real-life examples above that patriotism does not imply hostility towards others. I might mention that there is a very large academic literature in psychology which assumes otherwise -- starting with the work of the Marxist Adorno et al. (1950) on "ethnocentrism". Leftist psychologists claim that patriotism and racism do go together. When I did survey research to test that assumption, however, I repeatedly found that the facts showed exactly what I have asserted above -- that patriotism does NOT in general go with hostilty towards others. See e.g. here and here and even here.
Reference: Adorno,T.W., Frenkel-Brunswik, E., Levinson, D.J. & Sanford, R.N. (1950). The authoritarian personality New York: Harper.
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