Obama’s Out-of-Date Categories

With his now notorious remarks
about the way “bitter” small-town folks “cling” to their religion and guns while disliking immigrants, Barack Obama has taken us — at least those of us old enough to remember — for a stroll down memory lane, back to the 1950s, when it was taken for granted among liberals that conservative beliefs were largely psychopathological.
Back in those days, political intellectualism was a monopoly in the hands of liberal thinkers. Of course, there were some conservative intellectuals: Russell Kirk was at work, and so was Clinton Rossiter, and it was in the 1950s that William F. Buckley Jr. founded his National Review. But in the world of business, a company doesn’t have to control a full 100 percent of the market to count as a monopoly; 90 or 95 percent is far more than enough. And in the 1950s, serious political thought in the United States was at least 90 percent liberal. Liberal thinkers and their fans pretty much took it for granted that if you were an intelligent person, you’d be a liberal. And you didn’t have to be exceptionally intelligent: The truth of liberalism was so obvious that anybody of even moderate intelligence could see it.
That raised a question: How could we account for the fact that some people were not liberal, that some were conservative? Sheer stupidity, of course, was part of the answer. Some people are just so dumb they wouldn’t recognize the truth if it came up and shouted at them. But not all conservatives were that dumb. Most knew how to read; many had high school educations; some had even been to college. So how can we account for their conservatism?
The answer was soon found: Conservatives were suffering from a psychopathology. The scientific rationale for this assessment was provided by one of the most influential books ever produced in America, The Authoritarian Personality, a study done by a team led by the philosopher Theodor Adorno. Adorno was an anti-Hitler refugee from Germany, where he had been a member of the so-called Frankfurt School. He was very much on the political left, a neo-Marxist who, along with other members of the school (Erich Fromm and Herbert Marcuse, for instance), attempted a synthesis of Marx and Freud.
The study was commissioned and funded by the American Jewish Committee, which was fearful that what had happened in Germany could possibly happen here in America. It was obvious that millions of Germans were of a certain personality type that made Hitler and Nazism and the Nazi program — including its lethal anti-Semitism — appealing to them. Did the United States abound in persons of a similar type? If so, there was a real danger that an American Hitler could come along.
Sure enough, the Adorno study revealed that this personality type (the authoritarian personality, they called it) was easily found in America. The type was characterized by, among other things, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, rigid conventionalism in morality, strong hostility to homosexuality and other forms of sexual deviance, servile submission to those in authority, aggression toward violators of the norms of conventional morality, and “superstition” (with much religion being counted as superstition). The authors developed something they called the “f-scale” (f standing for fascism). This paper-and-pencil test would allow you to measure a person’s proneness toward authoritarianism, hence the psychological likelihood of his being lured by a fascist leader or party.
Since The Authoritarian Personality was not light reading (my copy has a length of nearly 1,000 pages, all of them densely written), it is unlikely that many persons read the book word for word from beginning to end. But there were many second- and third- and fourth-hand summaries of its content, so that hardly any American intellectual of the 1950s was ignorant of its central thesis. As word of the study circulated, it was perhaps inevitable that it would merge with the popular political-spectrum idea of the day, according to which conservatism and fascism were both of “the right” — conservatism being moderate rightism and fascism extreme rightism. The end result was that liberal intellectuals came to see American conservatives as infected with an authoritarian personality, and it was this “sick” personality that inspired their political views. In other words, conservative opinions, unlike liberal opinions, were not rational; they were irrational; they were the consequence not of reason but of a psychopathology, and a very dangerous psychopathology at that.
One of the more amusing results of all this was the collision between Buckley and Gore Vidal at the 1968 Democratic convention, where they served as commentators for one of the TV networks. At a certain heated moment Gore called Buckley a “crypto-fascist,” and Buckley retorted by calling Vidal a “queer.” These were not equally culpable insults: Vidal was describing Buckley in what must have seemed to Vidal to be scientifically accurate terms, whereas Buckley was merely using a nasty word to refer to Vidal’s well-known homophilic orientation. Vidal was doing analysis, Buckley was just hurling an insult.
Poor Senator Obama! He’s trying to understand — and to explain to some of his San Francisco fans — why blue-collar families in Pennsylvania and elsewhere don’t seem fully to appreciate his brand of liberalism. Unfortunately for him, he’s using explanatory categories that are now nearly 60 years old. But among certain present-day liberals (especially perhaps those living in the San Francisco Bay area), these ancient categories are alive and well. Despite a half-century of conservative intellectualism in America, some liberals — not as up-to-date as they think they are — still believe that political intelligence is a liberal monopoly. And so when they run across somebody who believes in religion, believes in the Second Amendment, believes that only legal immigrants should enter the United States, etc., they dismiss out of hand the possibility that the person may have good reasons for his belief. Instead they say, “Poor fellow, he’s got psychological problems.”
If Obama is the candidate of “change,” the first thing he ought to change, I submit, is these outmoded anti-conservative categories.


  • David R. Carlin Jr.

    David R. Carlin Jr. is a politician and sociologist who served as a Democratic majority leader of the Rhode Island Senate. His books include “Can a Catholic Be a Democrat?: How the Party I Loved Became the Enemy of My Religion” and “The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America.” Carlin is a current professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island at Newport.

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