The pandemic has put psychological theories of politics to a very interesting test.
Over the past two decades, as conservatives and liberals have drifted ever farther from each other, an influential body of literature has attempted to psychologize the partisan divide — to identify conservative and liberal personality types, right-wing or left-wing minds or brains, and to vindicate the claim of the noted political scientists Gilbert and Sullivan, That every boy and every gal / That’s born into the world alive. / Is either a little Liberal / Or else a little Conservative.
In its crudest form this literature just amounts to liberal self-congratulation, with survey questions and regression analyses deployed to “prove” with “science” that liberals are broad-minded freethinkers and conservatives are cramped authoritarians. But there have been more sophisticated and sympathetic efforts, too, like the influential work of New York University’s Jonathan Haidt on the “moral foundations” of politics: Haidt argues that conservatives actually have more diverse moral intuitions than liberals, encompassing categories like purity and loyalty as well as care and fairness, and that the right-wing mind therefore sometimes understands the left-wing mind better than vice versa.
Both the crude and sophisticated efforts tended to agree, though, that the supposed conservative mind is more attuned to external threat and internal contamination, more inclined to support authority and hierarchy, and fear subversion and dissent. And so the political responses to the pandemic have put these psychological theories to a very interesting test.
In the coronavirus, America confronts a contaminating force (a deadly disease) that originated in our leading geopolitical rival (an external threat) and that plainly requires a strong, even authoritarian government response. If there was ever a crisis tailored to the conservative mind-set, surely it would be this one, with the main peril being that conservatives would wildly overreact to such a trigger.
So what has happened? Well, several different things. From the Wuhan outbreak through somewhere in mid-February, the responses to the coronavirus did seem to correspond — very roughly — to theories of conservative and liberal psychology. Along with infectious-disease specialists, the people who seemed most alarmed by the virus included the inhabitants of Weird Right-Wing Twitter (a collection of mordant, mostly anonymous accounts interested in civilizational decline), various Silicon Valley eccentrics, plus original-MAGA figures like Mike Cernovich and Steve Bannon. (The radio host Michael Savage, often considered the most extreme of the right’s talkers, was also an early alarmist.)
Meanwhile, liberal officialdom and its media appendages were more likely to play down the threat, out of fear of giving aid and comfort to sinophobia or populism. This period was the high-water mark of “it’s just the flu” reassurances in liberal outlets, of pious critiques of Donald Trump’s travel restrictions, of deceptive public-health propaganda about how masks don’t work, of lectures from the head of the World Health Organization about how “the greatest enemy we face is not the virus itself; it’s the stigma that turns us against each other.”
But then, somewhere in February, the dynamic shifted. As the disease spread and the debate went mainstream, liberal opinion mostly abandoned its anti-quarantine posture and swung toward a reasonable panic, while conservative opinion divided, with a large portion of the right following the lead of Trump himself, who spent crucial weeks trying to wish the crisis away. Where figures like Bannon and Cernovich manifested a conservatism attuned to external perils, figures like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity manifested a conservatism of tribal denial, owning the libs by minimizing the coronavirus threat.
Now we are in a third phase, where Trump is (more or less, depending on the day) on board with a robust response and most conservatives have joined most liberals in alarm. Polls show a minimal partisan divide in support for social distancing and lockdowns, and some of that minimal divide is explained by the fact that rural areas are thus far less likely to face outbreaks. (You don’t need a complicated theory of the ideological mind to explain why New Yorkers are more freaked out than Nebraskans.)
But even now, there remains a current of conservative opinion that wants to believe that
- all of this is overblown, that
- the experts are wrong about the likely death toll, that
- Trump should reopen everything as soon as possible, that
- the liberal media just wants to crash the American economy to take his presidency down.
Where does this leave the theories of conservative and liberal minds? It’s too much to say that they don’t describe anything real. A certain kind of conservative personality (a kind that includes more than a few of my own friends) really did seem particularly well attuned to this crisis and ended up out ahead of the conventional wisdom in exactly the way that you would expect a mind-set attuned to risk and danger, shot through with pessimism and inclined to in-group loyalty to be.
At the same time, the behavior of what you might call “normie” Republicans — not Very Online right-wingers or MAGA populists but longtime Fox News and talk-radio consumers — suggests that any such conservative mind-set is easily confounded by other factors, partisanship chief among them. The fact that the virus seemed poised to help Democrats and hurt the Trump administration, the fact that it was being hyped by CNN and played down by Hannity, the fact that Trump himself declined to take it seriously — all of this mattered more to many Republicans than the fear of foreign contamination that the virus theoretically should have activated or the ways in which its progress seemed to confirm certain right-wing priors.
So one might say that the pandemic illustrates the power of partisan mood affiliation over any kind of deeper ideological mind-set. Or relatedly, it illustrates the ways in which under the right circumstances, people can easily swing between different moral intuitions. (This holds for liberals as well as conservatives: A good liberal will be as deferential to authority as any conservative when the authority has the right academic degrees, and as zealous about purity and contamination when it’s their own neighborhood that’s threatened.)
But the right’s varying responses to the pandemic also illustrate two further points. The first point is that what we call “American conservatism” is probably more ideologically and psychologically heterogeneous than the conservative mind-set that social scientists aspire to measure and pin down. In particular, it includes an incredibly powerful streak of what you might call folk libertarianism — which comes in both highbrow and middlebrow forms, encompassing both famous legal scholars predicting minimal fatalities from their armchairs and “you can’t stop the American economy … for anything” tough guys attacking social distancing on Twitter.
This mentality, with its reflexive Ayn Randism and its Panglossian hyper-individualism, is definitely essential to understanding part of the American right. But it’s very much an American thing unto itself, and I’m doubtful that it corresponds to any universal set of psychological tendencies that we could reasonably call conservative.
The second point is that on the fringes of the right, among QAnon devotees and believers in the satanic depravity of liberalism, the only psychology that matters is paranoia, not conservatism. And their minimizing response to the coronavirus illustrates the unwillingness of the conspiratorial mind to ever take yes for an answer — meaning that even true events that seem to vindicate a somewhat paranoid worldview will be dismissed as not true enough, not the deepest truth, not the Grandest of All Grand Conspiracies that will someday (someday) be unraveled.
In his novel “Foucault’s Pendulum,” a sendup of crackpot esotericism that anticipated “The Da Vinci Code” years before its publication, Umberto Eco captured this spirit by describing the way that self-conscious seekers after hermetic wisdom and gnostic mysteries approached the rise of Christianity:
… someone had just arrived and declared himself the Son of God, the Son of God made flesh, to redeem the sins of the world. Was that a run-of-the-mill mystery? And he promised salvation to all: you only had to love your neighbor. Was that a trivial secret? And he bequeathed the idea that whoever uttered the right words at the right time could turn a chunk of bread and a half-glass of wine into the body and blood of the Son of God, and be nourished by it. Was that a paltry riddle?
… And yet they, who now had salvation within their grasp — do-it-yourself salvation — turned deaf ears. Is that all there is to it? How trite. And they kept on scouring the Mediterranean in their boats, looking for a lost knowledge of which those thirty-denarii dogmas were but the superficial veil, the parable for the poor in spirit, the allusive hieroglyph, the wink of the eye at the pneumatics. The mystery of the Trinity? Too simple: there had to be more to it.
This is where the pandemic-minimizing sort of conservative has ended up. They are confronted with a world crisis tailor-made for an anti-globalization, anti-deep-state worldview — a crisis in which China lit the fuse, the World Health Organization ran interference for Beijing, the American public health bureaucracy botched its one essential job, pious anti-racism inhibited an early public-health response, and outsourcing and offshoring left our economy exposed.
And their response? Too simple: Just a feint, a false flag, another deep state plot or power grab, another hoax to take down Trump. It can’t be real unless Hillary Clinton is somehow at the bottom of it.
The transformation of the Tory party leaves surviving MPs feeling uneasy
IMAGINE A CONSERVATIVE MP and your mind’s eye might conjure up Philip Hammond. The former chancellor is tall, grey and with a sense of humour that matches his fiscal policy: extra-dry. If not Mr Hammond, then perhaps a figure in the mould of Kenneth Clarke. The rotund, cigar-chomping jazz enthusiast has served in practically every senior government job bar prime minister in a 49-year stint as a Tory MP. Failing that, consider Sir Nicholas Soames, a former defence minister. He has a Churchillian manner, largely because Winston Churchill was his grandfather. The three embody the parliamentary Conservative Party in different ways. Yet they are no longer in it.
The trio were among 21 Conservative MPs to have the whip withdrawn and be barred from standing for the party again after they supported a plan to make Boris Johnson, the prime minister, seek a delay to Britain’s scheduled departure from the European Union on October 31st (see next story). The purge was only the most visible part of a revolution that is transforming the world’s oldest political party. Those who advocate
- fiscal prudence,
- social liberalism and an
- orderly departure from the EU have been routed.
Those who demand free-spending authoritarianism and a “do-or-die” escape from the yoke of Brussels are ascendant. ConservativeHome, a blog for party activists, described this week as “the end of the Conservative Party as we have known it”.
The revolution has required ideological flexibility from those who wish to survive it. The cabinet is full of MPs who are historically small-state Conservatives. Four of the five authors of “Britannia Unchained”, a paean to small government published by ambitious young Tory MPs in 2012, when fiscal austerity was in fashion, now sit in a cabinet intent on opening the public-spending taps. A spending review on September 4th included measures that will increase the size of the state as a percentage of GDP for the first time since 2010. Sajid Javid, the chancellor, is a fan of Ayn Rand and hangs pictures of Margaret Thatcher in his office. Yet on Mr Johnson’s instructions he announced an extra £13.8bn ($16.9bn) in election-friendly giveaways, paid for with extra borrowing.
There is also new thinking on law and order. Another 20,000 police officers are to be hired, and a review of whether prison sentences are too soft is expected. Priti Patel, who has called for a clampdown on immigration and once supported the return of capital punishment, is home secretary. It is a far cry from what some in the party thought Mr Johnson had in store. “Expect a liberal centrist,” advised one MP, who now sits in the cabinet, before Mr Johnson became prime minister. Wags have dubbed the new Tory domestic agenda: “Fund the NHS, hang the paedos.”
But the hardest line is on Brexit. Conservative MPs appreciate that they must get Britain out of the EU if they are to keep their seats. Yet Mr Johnson’s approach, which seems most likely to end in no-deal, leaves a quiet majority of the parliamentary party uneasy. And it is not just former Remainers who fret. A member of the cabinet who enthusiastically campaigned for Brexit admits that no-deal would be a catastrophe. But MPs are willing to serve, partly because Mr Johnson seems determined to move things forward one way or another. “They may not agree, but they are happy for the direction,” says one cabinet minister.
Setting the route is Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s chief adviser, who will not even say whether he is a member of the Conservatives. When running for office, Mr Johnson promised an inclusive, “one nation” style of government. Instead, he has set about shaking the country’s institutions, suspending Parliament for the longest period since 1945 in order to reduce the time MPs have to debate Brexit. Hitherto unimaginable tactics, such as asking the queen to veto anti-no-deal legislation, are now openly discussed. “This Conservative government…seems to not be very conservative, fiscally or institutionally,” noted Ryan Shorthouse of Bright Blue, a liberal Tory think-tank.
The strong-arm techniques are in stark contrast to the days when David Cameron ran the party, and rebels ran amok. Mr Cameron was unwilling to crack down on an increasingly daring Eurosceptic fringe, which eventually bullied him into holding the referendum. Under Mr Johnson, such sedition is not acceptable, as this week’s purge was intended to show. Figures from Vote Leave, the main campaigning group behind the Brexit vote, call the shots in Downing Street, causing long-serving Tory MPs to shake their jowls at the state of affairs. Sir Roger Gale, an MP since 1983, declared: “You have, at the heart of Number 10, as the prime minister’s senior adviser, an unelected, foul-mouthed oaf.” Mr Johnson was reportedly given a rough ride at a meeting of the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers on September 4th.
Yet for all the fury over the deselections, Mr Cummings’s strategy remains just about intact. The prime minister and his aides want an election in which Mr Johnson is portrayed as the champion of a people defied by wily politicians, with the promise of a cash tsunami about to break over Britain’s public services if people vote Tory. “He gets the election he wanted and the framing he wanted,” says one former Downing Street aide. Nor will the revolution necessarily be permanent. A socially conservative offer to voters tempted by Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party may last only until the next general election, says Tim Bale of Queen Mary University of London.
“What this country needs is sensible, moderate, progressive Conservative government,” declared Mr Johnson during a stilted performance in prime minister’s questions on September 4th. Yet with the Tory party in its current state, Britain will have to wait.
Robert Reich explains why Ayn Rand’s ideas have destroyed the common good.
Donald Trump once said he identified
with ayan rands character Howard Roark
in The Fountainhead an architect so
upset that a housing project he designed
didn’t meet specifications
he had it dynamited others in Trump
Circle were influenced by Rand Atlas
Shrugged was said to be the favorite
book of Rex Tillerson Trump Secretary of
State’s Randa also had a major influence
on Mike Pompeo from CIA chief Trump’s
first nominee for Secretary of Labor
Andrew Posner said he spent much of his
free time reading Rand the Republican
leader of the House of Representatives
required his staff to read Rams I grew
up reading Iran it inspired me so much
that it’s required waiting in my office
for all my interns of my staff Uber’s
founder and former CEO Travis kalanick
has described himself as a ran follower
before he was sacked he applied many of
her ideas to obras code of values and
even used the cover art for rands book
The Fountainhead as his Twitter avatar
so who is iron Rand and why does she
matter line Rand best known for two
highly popular novels still widely read
today The Fountainhead
published in 1943 an Atlas Shrugged
in 1957 didn’t believe there was a
common good she wrote that selfishness
is a virtue an altruism an evil that
destroys nations when Rand offered these
ideas they seemed quaint
if not far-fetched anyone who lived
through the prior half-century witnessed
our interdependence through depression
and war and after the war we used our
seemingly boundless prosperity to
finance all sorts of public goods
schools and universities a national
highway system and health care for the
Aged and poor we rebuilt war-torn Europe
we sought to guarantee the civil rights
and voting rights of African Americans
we open doors of opportunity to women
of course there was a common good we
were living it
but then starting in the late 1970s
rands views gained ground she became the
intellectual godmother of modern-day
American conservatism this utter
selfishness this contempt for the public
this win at any cost mentality is it
roading American life without adherence
to a set of common notions about right
and wrong we’re living in a jungle where
only the strongest cleverest and most
unscrupulous get ahead and where
everyone must be wary in order to
survive this is not a society it’s not
even a civilization because there’s no
civility at its core it’s a disaster in
other words we have to understand who I
am Rand is so we can reject her
philosophy and dedicate ourselves to
rebuilding the common good the idea of
the common good was once widely
understood and accepted in America I
mean after all the US Constitution was
designed for We the People seeking to
promote the general welfare not for me
the selfish jerk seeking as much wealth
and power as possible yet today you find
growing evidence of its loss
- CEOs who
couch their customers loot their
corporations into fraud investors
- lawyers and accountants who look the
other way when corporate clients play
fast and loose
- who even collude with
them to skirt the law
- Wall Street
bankers who defraud customers and investors
- film producers and publicists
who choose not to see that a powerful
movie mogul they depend on is sexually
harassing and abusing young women
- politicians who take donations really
bribes from wealthy donors and corporations to enact laws their patrons
- shudder the government when they
don’t get the partisan results they seek
- president of the United States who
repeatedly lies about important issues
refuses to put his financial holdings
into a blind trust and then personally
profits off his office and Momence
racial and ethnic
conflict the common good consists of our
shared values about what we owe one
another as citizens or bound together in
the same society a concern for the
common good keeping the common good in
mind is a moral attitude it recognizes
that we’re all in it together if there
is no common good
there is no society
“If it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing.”
Ayn Rand. 1905-1982.“Only the paranoid survive.”
Andy Grove. 1936-2016.“There was something very slightly odd about him, but it was hard to say what it was.”Douglas Adams. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy... Over the past thirty five years, I’ve worked with thousands of smart and successful people in the computing industry. Now that I look back on it, I am amazed by what a large percentage of them exhsibited symptoms from one or other so-called psychological “disorders”, myself being the poster boy. When I talk about psychological disorders here, I’m referring to those listed in DSM 5: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the authoritative book on the topic according to the American Psychiatric Association. I’m intentionally using quotes for the word “disorder” because I plan to argue that these once abnormal tendencies are now commonplace, at least in certain professions, and should no longer be viewed as abnormal nor should they be stigmatized. The question is not whether many of us suffer from such traits but whether we are able to function as normal and successful members of society despite them.One obvious example of such behavior is an addiction to and an obsession for extreme sports. I claim, based mostly on anecdotal data, that a statistically aberrant percentage of successful people in the computer industry obsess over sports of one kind or another. I don’t mean running a 5K or going for a weekend hike with the dog. I mean ultra-marathoners who routinely run a hundred miles or more, IronMan triathletes, bikers who do century rides every weekend, mountain climbers who train to climb Mt. Rainier, you name it. Several articles have recently been written on this topic, highlighting surges in kiteboarding, skydiving, sports car racing, mountaineering, and other similar extreme endeavours among Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. These are all extremely busy people – most of them working sixty, eighty, a hundred hours a week. Yet, they also somehow find the time to spend 24 hours running non-stop up a mountain or to bike two hundred miles from Seattle to Portland “for fun” in a single day!This is not normal. You cannot compete in an IronMan triathlon unless you obsess over your training. You cannot run a hundred miles in a single day unless you run the equivalent of a marathon (and more) every weekend. That takes time, it takes commitment, and it takes obsession.. Studies have also shown that autism is linked to mathematical talent and that college students opting for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) degrees have a higher than normal incidence of autism in their families. And one of the symptoms of autism is an “intense interest in a limited number of things” – in other words, obsessive behavior. The prevalence of mild autism (Asperger’s Syndrome) has been documented widely in the industry with well known examples such as Bill Gates. He is one of the most intelligent men I’ve ever met, but, according to the book, he “suffers” from a psychological disorder.