Monday, September 19, 2011

Insights Into Apparent Callousness Among Conservatives

I suspect a lot of Conservatives reacted to news reports and infographics that more than 46 million Americans now live in poverty about the same way some of their ultra-conservative-faction Tea Party members did during the recent debate by cheering pulling the plug on anyone who is dying but that doesn’t have health insurance.

Even if a subsequent attempt to balance perception of that event is accurate, flippancy and conservatism go back a long way including Lord Tommy Dewar’s famous early 20th century quip that “if we are here to help others, I often wonder what the others are here for.”

While it would be much too easy, even as a politically moderate Independent, I have too many friends of that persuasion, who are compassionate, to brush all Conservatives off as heartless.

My friends may not go as far as one Conservative commentator did while referring to some as having “no sense of moral decency” but even they would agree there is some truth to the perception that many Conservatives seem callous and recently I’ve come across several possible explanations.

One possible insight into those who are truly callous is that a pivotal “switch” may not have been flipped in childhood as described by Dr. Jim Taylor’s excellent new book for parents when he wrote that:

“…even if children are predisposed to compassion, what begins as an egocentric stage can turn into an entrenched attribute if that genetic switch isn’t turned on. And the way parents ensure that the switch is flipped is by sending children messages that discourage selfishness and encourage compassion.”

Another insight may be that Conservatives seem to be far more likely to be “declinists” by nature or more likely to fall under the spell of others who are. According to journalist Alan W. Dowd, who documents that America has been viewed as in “decline” a good portion of the last 300 years.

I’ve primarily been moderate and Independent politically since coming of age, but growing up in an ultra-conservative Republican household, by age 15 the first political books I read were John Birch Society-inspired paranoid-declinest-readers such as A Texan Looks At Lyndon, subtitled “a study of illegitimate power” and A Choice Not An Echo. Books like these probably pushed many of us toward becoming Independent and/or Liberal.

But judging from a recent infographic documenting the economic prosperity from ‘47-‘79, during my first 30 years of age and the economic regression from ‘80 until the present, the past 30 years, a period dominated by conservative politicians including the “Great Communicator” President Ronald Reagan, it seems stagnation, if not relative decline, may actually correlate closely with conservative viewpoints and policies.

It is important to note that correlation is not necessarily causation but after thirty years it is clear that the conservative inclination shows no sign of pay-off, no matter how many times it continues to be rebranded. In fact those who are so ready to preach the politics of “decline” in the Republican presidential primaries may find that their approach has actually led to the stagnation of the past thirty years.

Another insight into why so many Conservatives seem callous can be found in the research findings reviewed in the book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us when authors Drs. David Campbell and Robert Putnam write:

“Experiencing a loving God is associated with high trust in one’s fellow mortals, whereas experiencing a judgmental God is associated with low trust in other people….Religious liberals…are among the most socially trusting of Americans, whereas religious conservatives more often experience a judgmental God, and they are among the least trusting of Americans, especially if they are not observant.”

Contrasting those believing in a Judgmental God vs. a Loving God may in part also explain why conservative Republicans felt comfortable taking two-thirds of the budget cuts in its recently House-passed “Pathway to Prosperity” budget out of “programs that serve people of limited means” according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities while including the notation below appearing on page 25 that the budget will:

“ensure that America’s safety net does not become a hammock that lulls able-bodied citizens into lives of complacency and dependency.”

To me that sentence reflects what many would call a lack of “social trust” including Conservative author and columnist David Brooks in his book The Social Animal where he writes:

“Without social trust, the political system devolves into a brutal shoving match…The social fabric is based on the idea that effort leads to reward. But very often, government rewards people who have not put in the effort. It does this with good intentions…[e.g. welfare entitlement] and it does it with venal intentions [e.g. lobbyist-secured earmarks, tax breaks, subsides and corporate welfare]…

These programs weaken social trust and public confidence. By separating effort from reward, they pollute the atmosphere. They send the message that the system is rigged and society is corrupt.”

But from their research, the authors of American Grace further note that ultra-conservative, highly religious Republicans are especially vulnerable when it comes to social trust when they write:

“Fundamentalist religious views are negatively associated with social trust…Social trust increases with religious attendance but decreases with fundamentalism…Religious liberals more often experience a loving God, and they are among the most socially trusting of Americans, whereas religious conservatives more often experience a judgmental God, and they are among the least trusting of Americans, especially if they are not observant.

For highly observant fundamentalist Americans, their theology inclines them toward skepticism about human nature but their frequent attendance somehow move them to a more optimistic view.”

“Social trust” which is defined as a belief in the honesty, integrity and reliability of others - a "faith in people" is regularly benchmarked by the Pew Center and the General Social Survey. Studies also show that “social trust” correlates with quality of life and economic health.

In a column a couple of weeks ago entitled The Vigorous Virtues Brooks further comments on the importance of social trust but chastises the current Conservative and ergo Republican positions as inadequate:

“Finally, there is the problem of the social fabric. Segmented societies do not thrive, nor do ones, like ours, with diminishing social trust…government may have helped undermine personal responsibility and the social fabric, but that doesn’t mean the older habits and arrangements will magically regrow simply by reducing government’s role.”

It does appear that Brooks, as a compassionate Conservative, is in the minority both in his ideology and in the Republican Party. It is not at all clear from everything I’ve read that compassion as a value can be learned by an adult if “the switch wasn’t flipped” in childhood or that there is room for compassion in a worldview based on a Judgmental God.

Nor is there any evidence that empathy and compassion can come from reading first-hand accounts of poverty like Joe Queenan’s article this month entitled The Inconvenient Truths About Poverty.

As you’ll note in one of the first reader comments at the bottom of the article

At 12:05PM on 6 September 2011, jr wrote:

“this article is 100% bunk. the tv producer was correct. do you expect to live in a world that there is no differentiation between rich and poor? if so you are living in fantasy land. why would anyone strive to be successful if laziness would suffice? this is just more of the distribution of wealth bs as touted by the liberal democrats in power. it results in buying elections by paying the poor to stay unemployed and receive govt. assistance.”

As for me, I’m far more persuaded by a comment posted by Jay Zenner, a friend who blogs at Springtree Territory, when I first blogged about Queenan’s article:

“I guess there's more than one type of poverty. Besides financial poverty there's intellectual poverty and spiritual poverty. None of them are ennobling and all major religions and Rotary preach providing help to break the ‘vicious circle’ Queenan mentions...for all types of poverty”.

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