Research has shown that conservatives desire security, predictability and authority more than progressives do, and progressives are more comfortable with novelty, nuance and complexity. If you put a conservative and a progressive in a magnetic resonance imaging machine and present them with identical images, you would see differences in their brain, especially in the areas that process social and emotional information. The volume of grey matter, or neural cell bodies, making up the anterior cingulate cortex, an area that helps detect errors and resolve conflicts, tends to be larger in progressives. And the amygdala, which is important for regulating emotions and evaluating threats, is larger in conservatives. Although these findings are remarkably consistent there is of course considerable variation1.
Conservative fears of nonexistent or overblown boogeymen — Saddam’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction, the imposition of Shariah law, chief health officers, boat people, transvestites, transsexuals — make it difficult not to see conservatism’s normally prudent risk avoidance as having morphed into a state of near permanent paranoia, especially fuelled by recurrent moral panics, a sociological phenomenon in which a group of people whips up hysterical fears over another group of relatively powerless people who are supposedly threatening the whole social order2.
The modern world is not as conservatives think it should be. Homosexuality has been legalised; bisexuality no longer exists solely in the shadows nor do transgender people, and the latter are speaking out; same-sex marriage has been legalised; drugs are being decriminalised; religion is declining, and with that more people are making fun of it; people of non-white persuasion are now all over television, both in shows and more startlingly, in advertising; women are commentating on men’s sporting competitions; previously unheard people can now be heard because of social media; science has shown that conservative assertions about climate, vaccines, viruses, evolution and gender are wrong; voluntary assisted dying is legal in many places; abortion has been decriminalised; women are asserting their right to be treated equally; black people are asserting their right to be treated equally; government may make laws or regulations preventing business activities damaging nearby communities or the environment, thereby limiting their profits. This is a panoply of developments which disturb your average conservative, let alone those of the far right, and lead them into this paranoid state. Because of this, the mind of the ‘modern’ conservative is consumed by fear and hatred.
Conservatives fear anyone that they consider inferior will be treated as an equal. This includes anyone who looks unlike the reflection they see in the mirror every morning, whether it be women, Aboriginals, people of African extraction, people of Asian extraction, people of Middle Eastern extraction, gay people, transgender people, and the non-religious. They fear that the way they treated minorities in the past will be how minorities will treat them if the minorities ever achieve equality.
Conservatives fear that the world will not be one in which they are heeded, and that anything they say about asylum-seekers, tradition, western civilisation, the royal family, religion, feminism, women, gay people, transgender people, Covid-19, or vaccines will be ridiculed. They would have you believe that we are in danger of being overrun by asylum-seekers, that tradition is all that really matters for the wellbeing of the nation and that must include the monarchy and the Christian religion, for it is their religion, and because of those, western civilisation is all that matters. They would also have you believe that it is the only ‘civilisation’ with anything to offer. However, they do not seem to see democracy as an important part of that offering. David Frum made this clear, very pointedly, when he said: “If conservatives become convinced that they cannot win democratically, they will not abandon conservatism. They will reject democracy.”
Conservatives fear that scientific discoveries will require a change in their lifestyle, and that their attitude to the planet, which they believe to be theirs over which they have dominion and to use and abuse as they see fit, will be shown to be dangerously wrong. So many of them have declared that climate change is not happening; or if it is happening, it is natural; or if it is happening, it is beneficial; or if humans have caused it, there is nothing we can do about it; or if we can do anything about it, we shouldn’t, because our donors own coal mines and coal-fired power stations. So many of them have declared that Covid-19 is no worse than the ‘flu and that vaccines are not required, and if they are required, they are dangerous; and lockdowns are a move to try to control the populace and take their freedoms away.
Conservatives fear that the bigotries of which so many conservatives are still enamoured will be made illegal, like many others have been. As I say above, they are upset that voluntary assisted dying is spreading around the nation, that abortion has been decriminalised, that prostitution has been legalised, that homosexuality has been legalised, that same-sex marriage has been legalised, that the sexual revolution has happened, that discriminating against people because of their sex or sexuality is no longer acceptable, and that ‘gay conversion’ is outlawed. It is strange that so many of their concerns are centred around sex, sexuality and gender. It all seems a bit prurient.
A large proportion of conservatives are religious and they fear that their Christian view of the nation will be taken seriously no longer. This terrifies the religious as they can see that their religion is declining rapidly, and the reverence they demand for being ‘a person of faith’ is fading such that they now are becoming an object of ridicule. The power of those occupying the pulpit is also declining as there are fewer bums on pews than there used to be, and when they do pontificate about anything that impinges upon how people live their lives, they too are ridiculed, or ignored. While this is a new experience for them and is difficult for them to grasp, one of the things that concerns them the most is the loss of their tax-free status. The irony is that the attitude of so many of them to their fellow humans is nothing like the views supposedly espoused by Jesus and which they say they follow.
The former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, William E. Gladstone (1809-1898) understood conservatives when he said: “Liberalism [i.e. progressivism] is trust of the people tempered by prudence. Conservatism is distrust of the people tempered by fear.”
In addition to being fearful of where this nation is headed, they also have a significant amount of hate which is mostly directed at those who have expertise. This is demonstrated by the opprobrium and death threats directed at climate scientists for the last decade or two for having the expertise to demonstrate that carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere mostly through the burning of fossil fuels is unsustainable if we want to have a habitable planet. Those with expertise tell them how they need to behave in the face of climate change as well as in the face of a global pandemic. Conservatives never like to be told what they need to do, especially if it is for the protection of those in society. They only want what suits their short term aims.
Conservatives also hate education except when it is for their own progeny. They view education as dangerous because it teaches people how to think, and they want that to be reserved for their progeny rather than the hoi polloi. That is why they starve public schools of funds but throw enormous amounts of money at private schools. They look upon education in much the same way as Hermann Goering did when he said: “Education is dangerous – every educated person is a future enemy.”
Conservatives also hate being considered stupid. Yet, looking at people like Craig Kelly, Tony Abbott, Scott Morrison, Colin Boyce, Barnaby Joyce, Matt Canavan, Gerard Rennick and numerous others, what else is one to think? Not all conservatives are stupid, but many seem to be. It was perhaps best expressed by philosopher and political economist John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) when he said: “Conservatives are not necessarily stupid, but most stupid people are conservatives.”
While not all conservatives have all the fears and hatreds listed above, most have a fair proportion of them. They can see that the power and status they once had is disappearing right before their eyes, and it terrifies them. They have been privileged for so long, that, to them, equality looks like persecution.