Political pundits have expended a lot of effort to try to understand our political divide. In particular, they want to understand what led so many people to vote for a man who outwardly defies their oft-stated values. Was it the browning of America? Was it the loss of manufacturing jobs? Was it the decline of rural, small-town America? Was it that Hillary Clinton seemed to be a flawed candidate? Was it a backlash to the Obama years?
All of those may have been factors. But I believe those explanations fall short. I believe there are emotional and psychological issues that have created the chasm between liberal and conservative Americans fed by the fragmentation of media. Since the demise of the Fairness Doctrine, conservative propagandists have been able to feed their audiences a steady stream of outrage and lies. So, too, have websites and social media. Many Americans now expose themselves only to “news” stories that fit their preconceived ideas. And the once unifying presence of evidence-based network news is now dismissed by a large percentage of conservatives as “fake” news. This new media reality has tapped into the long-seething anger and fear of conservative Americans who feel they are ignored and left behind by Washington and the so-called intellectual elites.
As an accomplished con-man, Trump recognized the vulnerability of these conservatives and, with the help of Russian interference, he was able to manufacture and exaggerate their outrage. It was his ability to manipulate them that ultimately led him to the White House.
Let me be clear, I don’t believe that today’s conservatives are bad people. But, for the most part, they lack a curiosity for the unfamiliar. They lack compassion and empathy for people unlike themselves. They are fearful of change, even if that change promises to make things better. They see compromise as a weakness. And they have far too much regard for authority, especially when it is accompanied by the American flag and the Bible. It is because of these characteristics that they are especially vulnerable to being manipulated by unscrupulous politicians and pastors. To fully understand what I mean, let’s examine those characteristics one at a time.
CURIOSITY – Studies have shown that fewer conservatives have passports than liberals. They are less likely to travel outside of our country and, when they do, they tend to travel to countries where they don’t have to try to understand another language or another culture. This lack of curiosity has also led to their growing contempt for science – a discipline that is based on curiosity.
COMPASSION – Liberals are quick to support charitable causes to aid the impoverished, to preserve the environment, and to support human rights. But studies show that conservatives contribute even more money to charity. However, most of that money is donated to churches. Further, their compassion is too often limited to those they know or those who are like them. Want an example? Conservatives, especially evangelicals, are horrified when a white, evangelical pastor is imprisoned in Turkey for trying to convert Muslims to Christianity. But they are unmoved by the plight of brown Christians fleeing violence in Central America and Syria. And they seem perfectly okay with brown refugee children being ripped away from their parents and held in cages along our southern border.
CHANGE – For the most part, liberals see change as good if it promises improvement – improvement in the quality of life; improvement in the lives of others; improvement of the environment. Conservatives, on the other hand, seem to embrace change only if it directly helps them (America First). Otherwise, they seem bound by the rules of what once was (Make America Great Again). They would rather deny freedoms to thousands in the LGBTQ community rather than accept them as they are. They refuse to accept people of another color or another religion unless they personally know them. And they refuse to risk changing our economy to address climate change, even when it has been proven that it would improve our environment and the economy at the same time.
COMPROMISE – Many conservatives see the world in stark contrasts of black and white. Of winners and losers. Having embraced the sports axiom that a runner-up is the first loser, they have even learned to despise average. To the people who support Trump, negotiations are a zero sum game. There is no such thing as a win-win solution. There is no place for political compromise or moderation. It is that philosophy that led to Mitch McConnell’s decision to block nearly every one of President Obama’s initiatives and appointments regardless of its merits. It is what caused them to rail against the Affordable Care Act, a Republican idea. It is what caused them to block the Supreme Court nomination of Merrick Garland, a man who was selected precisely for his moderate views. It is that attitude, and that attitude alone, that led to today’s hyperbolic political partisanship despite conservative claims that both parties are equally at fault.
AUTHORITY – Liberals often pride themselves on questioning authority and showing a healthy skepticism of those in power. On the other hand, conservatives, especially those who have embraced Trump, display a blind, unquestioning loyalty to their leaders. Moreover, like their leaders, they will never admit to a mistake. In the minds of conservatives, people like Trump and Charles Koch are winners to be admired and emulated despite their ethical and moral failures. To today’s religious conservatives, such “winners” didn’t inherit their wealth from their fathers or steal it through bullying and accounting tricks. They actually believe that those “winners” were chosen by God.
So, my liberal friends, I submit to you that it will do you no good to reason with today’s conservatives. They may hear you, but they will not listen. They will not change. They will not compromise. But they will undoubtedly expect you to do what they won’t.