The Tea Party, like previous reactionary movements in the U.S., is grounded in millenia of human evolution and four centuries of Western history. (More)

Reviewing the Reactionary Right, Part I: Evolution and History

This week Morning Feature reviews our discussions from the past several weeks to explore the roots and objectives of the Tea Party. Today we revisit Avi Tuschman’s Our Political Nature and Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind to explore the evolutionary and historical roots of extreme conservatism. Tomorrow we’ll look back at Isaac Martin’s Rich People’s Movements and Christopher Parker and Matt Barreto’s Change They Can’t Believe In to see the forces and goals that created and shape the Tea Party.

Nature vs. Nurture

As we saw in Dr. Tuschman’s Our Political Nature, scientific data strongly suggest that inherited personality traits account for 40-60% of our basic political worldviews. In cultures around the world, graphs of members’ Openness to Experience and Conscientiousness, like the other traits of the Five Factor Model, will follow a normal distribution curve. Openness and Conscientiousness also correlate with psychologist Bob Altemeyer’s measurements of Right Wing Authoritarianism (RWA), and with measurements of Social Dominance Orientation (SDO).

Specifically, people with higher Openness and lower Conscientiousness scores tend to score lower on both RWA and SDO, and to be more progressive. Conversely, people with lower Openness and higher Conscientiousness tend to score higher on both RWA and SDO and to be more conservative. These correlations track in cultures around the world and, in each country where research has been conducted, RWA scores predict party affiliation better than do demographic factors like age, sex, income, or race.

Twin studies also found a 75% correlation of Openness, Conscientiousness, and RWA scores among identical twins (who share 100% of their genes) who were separated at birth and raised in different families. Conversely, the correlation of these scores among fraternal twins separated at birth was slightly lower than the correlation of scores among siblings raised in the same family. As both fraternal twins and other full siblings share 50% of their genes, the twin studies combined with the statistical distribution of the scores in an overall population support the conclusion that these traits – that is, our political worldviews – are about half-nature and half-nurture.

“Our ancestors’ personalities helped them survive and reproduce successfully over thousands of generations”

Dr. Tuschman offers a detailed analysis of why human evolution would favor a wide range of Openness, Conscientiousness, and RWA scores. He summarizes that analysis in his conclusion:

We’re here with the political orientations we have because our ancestors’ personalities helped them survive and reproduce successfully over thousands of generations. Their political personalities were instrumental in the regulation of inbreeding and outbreeding. These dispositions helped them mediate biological conflicts between parents, offspring, and siblings. And their moral emotions also balanced various types of altruism against self-interest in countless social interactions. In some types of social or ecological environments, more extreme personality traits were adaptive. In most cases, moderate personality solutions proved fit. That’s one reason why there are so many moderates among us. Another reason for moderates and flexibility is that environments change, so it wouldn’t make sense for our genes to rigidly determine our personalities.

In short, political orientations do not emerge solely from personal and cultural experience applied to contemporary issues. They also reflect, at least in part, basic human personality traits passed down through millenia. This does not prove that every political orientation is equally morally defensible – that would be the naturalistic fallacy – but the genetic roots of our political nature suggest that the reactionary right will never Just Go Away.

“To make privilege popular”

In The Reactionary Mind, Dr. Robin surveys the history of Western political conservatism “from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin,” to quote his subtitle. We’ll see tomorrow that Christopher Parker and Matt Barreto believe Dr. Robin paints with too broad a brush, as they distinguish “reactionary” from “mainstream” conservatism. Yet their data reflect a difference of degree rather than a difference in kind, and Dr. Robin cites a wide variety of sources to show that conservative ideology is, at its core, “a meditation on – and theoretical rendition of – the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back.”

Dr. Robin focuses on the personal nature of conservatism – from laws that allowed marital rape, to slave owners controlling their slaves’ most intimate lives, to objections to organized labor – to illustrate that conservatism is about “the day-to-day experience of ruling other men and women.” Conservatives tend to score higher on SDO, the belief that every society must have hierarchies and those higher in a hierarchy have both a natural right and a moral duty to dominate those below.

Conservatism is, Dr. Robin argues, a reaction to political changes that threaten those hierarchies:

A consideration of this deeper strain of conservatism gives us a clearer sense of what conservatism is about. While conservatism is an ideology of reaction – originally against the French Revolution, more recently against the liberation movements of the sixties and seventies – that reaction has not been well understood. Far from yielding a knee-jerk defense of an unchanging old regime or a thoughtful traditionalism, the reactionary imperative presses conservatism in two rather different directions: first, to a critique and reconfiguration of the old regime; and second, to an absorption of the ideas and tactics of the very revolution or reform it opposes. What conservatism seeks to accomplish through that reconfiguration of the old and absorption of the new is to make privilege popular, to transform a tottering old regime into a dynamic, ideologically coherent movement of the masses.

The reactionary preference for hierarchies and privilege is rooted in traits that evolved through millenia, and today’s conservatism draws on centuries of rhetoric to justify the impulses of those personality traits. To quote John Kenneth Galbraith:

The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.

Dr. Robin also explores how reactionary conservatism both denounces and adopts the language and tactics of progressive movements, a pattern we’ll see tomorrow in the history of Rich People’s Movements and their latest incarnation, the Tea Party.


Happy Thursday!