Who are the Conservatives?

Thoughts on a phenomenon that seems to me, increasingly pathological.
Very much, a work in progress.
Last update: 16 October 2023

There was a time when I voted Liberal[footnote 1]. The Fraser Government convinced me that Australia's Conservatives were no longer fit for leadership. Over the years, I'm told I've become comparatively Progressive. Have I moved Left? Has Australia moved Right?

From what did I drift, without even realising it? Who are the Conservatives?

The Strict Father
Everyone gets what they deserve
Moral Foundations
Alternative realities (post-truth/Rovism/truthiness)
Conspiracy Theories
Time & Change

According to Lakoff, we all have both Conservative and Progressive characteristics. The degree to which those characteristics are expressed varies with circumstances. Fearful people, for example, tend to think, act - and vote - more Conservatively. That might explain why Conservative politicians like to keep the electorate scared - there's always some danger, from which (they say) only they can protect us.

Lakoff implies that Conservatives are made, more than born. There is, however, evidence to the contrary. It seems logical that brain structure influences character and behaviour. Research indicates that factors like environment and individual circumstances affect brain development. Exactly what makes a Conservative is not a simple question.


To some extent, we all know fear. The difference lies in the degree to which fear takes control.

There is evidence that Conservatives have less control over their fears:
... political conservatives have a "negativity bias," meaning that they are physiologically more attuned to negative (threatening, disgusting) stimuli ...
... conservatives respond much more rapidly to threatening and aversive stimuli ...

Studies link a heightened startle reflex to Conservatism.
In reflex tests of 46 political partisans, psychologists found that conservatives were more likely than liberals to be shocked by sudden threats.
Earlier studies have linked reflexive responses to threats ... with existing states of heightened anxiety.


As brain structure studies indicate, Conservatives tend to be less well-equipped to deal with complexity. This leads to a natural intolerance:
These challenges are extraordinarily complex, demanding resort to expert knowledge and sophisticated leadership. The ultra-conservative response, however, is to deny complexity, ...

This intolerance of complexity and ambiguity is echoed in their response to other collective action problems such as climate change.


According to Wilson (1973), Conservatives tend to have an abiding need for certainty.
From Evidence-based entrepreneurship:
... the term uncertainty refers to all situations that involve innovation, novelty, ambiguity, complexity, risk, and anomie. As these different manifestations of uncertainty are aversive to conservative people conservatives avoid them. This implies that conservatism is related to attitudes, values, and behaviors that reflect a dislike of uncertainty. Similarly, conservative people try to reduce any kind of uncertainty that they are confronted with or avoid and downgrade it. Wilson assumed that these uncertainty-avoiding, and thus conservative, attitudes and behaviors serve an ego-defensive function. According to Wilson, “They arise as a means of simplifying, ordering, controlling, and rendering more secure, both the external world ... and the internal world”


One oft-remarked Conservative characteristic is a lack of nuance. The need to view issues in binary terms; true/false, good/evil, black/white. This probably relates to intolerance of complexity and the need to be able to categorise with certainty.

The Strict Father

According to Lakoff, Conservative behaviour can be understood in the context of the Strict Father model of parenting:
In the conservative worldview, it's assumed that the world is, and always will be, a dangerous and difficult place. It is a competitive world and there will always be winners and losers. Children are naturally bad since they want to do what feels good, not what is moral, so they have to be made good by being taught discipline. There is tangible evil in the world and to stand up to evil, one must be morally strong, or “disciplined."

In the 'Strict Father' family, the father's job is to protect and support the family. Children are to respect and obey him. The father's moral duty is to teach his children right from wrong, with punishment that is typically physical and can be painful when they do wrong. It is assumed that parental discipline in childhood is required to develop the internal discipline that adults will need in order to be moral and to succeed. Morality and success are linked through discipline. This focus on discipline is seen as a form of love -- "tough love."

The mother is in the background, not strong enough to protect and support the family or fully discipline the children on her own. Her job is to uphold the authority of the father and to care for and comfort the children. As a "mommy," she tends to be overly soft-hearted and might well coddle or spoil the child. The father must make sure this does not happen, lest the children become weak and dependent.

Competition is necessary for discipline. Children are to become self-reliant through discipline and the pursuit of self-interest. Those who succeed as adults are the good (moral) people and parents are not to "meddle" in their lives. Those children who remain dependent--who were spoiled, overly willful, or recalcitrant--undergo further discipline or are turned out to face the discipline of the outside world.

When everyone is acting morally and responsibly, seeking their own self-interest in a self-disciplined fashion, everyone benefits. Thus, instilling morality and discipline in your children is also acting for the good of society as a whole.

In Strict Morality, the Strict Father is the Moral Authority, determining right from wrong, and protecting the family from a world that is chaotic and threatening. Evil is a major force in the world that must be fought using Moral Strength, which has the highest moral priority. Evil is both external and internal. Internal evil is fought with self-discipline and self-denial to achieve "self-control." "Weakness," and the tolerance of it, is immoral since it implies being unable to stand up to evil. Punishment is required to balance the moral books: If you do wrong, you must suffer a negative consequence.

Competition is necessary for a moral world; without it, people would not have to develop discipline and so would not become moral beings. Worldly success is an indicator of sufficient moral strength; lack of success suggests lack of sufficient discipline. Dependency is immoral. The undisciplined will be weak and poor, and deservedly so.

Strict Father Morality demonstrates a natural Moral Order: Those who are moral should be in power. The Moral Order legitimizes traditional power relations as being natural, determining a hierarchy of Moral Authority: God above Man; Man above Nature; Adults above Children; Western Culture above Non-western Culture; America above other nations. (There are other traditional aspects of the Moral Order that are less accepted than they used to be: Straights above Gays; Christians above non-Christians; Men above Women; White above Non-whites.)

Since to participate in the promotion or preservation of immorality is itself immoral, it is a moral requirement to eradicate immorality--through "tough love" if possible but through punishment if necessary--in every aspect of life, public and private, domestic and foreign.

For instance, those with a strong Strict Father model are likely to support a more punitive welfare or foreign policy than someone with a strong Nurturant Parent model, who are likely to favor more cooperative approaches. Those with a strong Nurturant Parent model are more likely to favor social policies that ensure the well-being of people such as health care and education, whereas someone with a strong Strict Father model would object to social programs in favor of promoting self-reliance.

Everyone gets what they deserve

We get what we deserve

The just-world hypothesis is the assumption that a person's actions are inherently inclined to bring morally fair and fitting consequences to that person, to the end of all noble actions being eventually rewarded and all evil actions eventually punished. In other words, the just-world hypothesis is the tendency to attribute consequences to—or expect consequences as the result of—a universal force that restores moral balance.

To Conservatives this is an article of faith. In part, it's a defence mechanism: we are powerless against the injustices we see in the world, so we convince ourselves that the victims are to blame for their plight.

From The Daily KOS:
It seems to be a built in tendency that one has to constantly work at overcoming. Even when one is consciously aware of the great injustices of the world, it still appears unconsciously as a cognitive bias ...
All human beings may have the just-world bias at varying degrees, to make the obvious tragedies of the world a bit more bearable; but for conservatives, it is a delusion used to defend an indefensible ideology ...

Moral Foundations

Moral foundations theory posits six foundations:

It seems to me that Conservatives tend to favour the last three and Progressives the first two. Not everyone agrees.

This graph from Ethics Defined tracks the original five (Liberty was added later):
Five moral foundations


Fairness is lowest in the Conservative hierarchy of concerns. What's viewed as "fair" varies as well.
In the classic image:
Equality versus equity
A Conservative might see the right-hand half as unfair, because resources are not evenly distributed.

"From each according to capacity; to each according to need" would also tend to be seen as unfair. To a Conservative, fairness would see benefit accrue in proportion to contribution, so those who contribute most should benefit most. Marx's dictum has roots in the New Testament (Acts 4:32–35), yet Conservatives are typically religious. Viewing something that's in the Bible as unfair is a contradiction I've yet to understand.


Loyalty to family, tribe or other ingroup is high in the Conservative hierarchy. There is, it seems, no acceptable reason for failing to support the group. An outraged "Whose side are you on?" is a familiar refrain.

For example, no matter what wrong the group may have done, exposing it will be met with outrage. Fury over whistleblowing, even if the group is committing crime or doing harm, is common. Exposing wrongdoing within the group will not be welcome. Exposing it outside the group will probably meet with retribution.

In current Conservative discourse, the term "elite" is a common dog-whistle. It establishes the out-group or "other" (ie. the "elite" are not us).

Where they conflict, the group mind will generally prevail over reality - until reality bites (and often long after the biting has begun).


Lowest in the Progressive hierarchy of concerns, and thus a powerful predictor of Conservatism, this foundation is often defined by disgust.
The role of disgust in politics is especially important in 2016 as Donald Trump talks more about disgust than any major political figure ...

From The Righteous Mind:-
Chapter 7:
The Sanctity/degradation foundation evolved initially in response to the adaptive challenge of the omnivore’s dilemma, and then to the broader challenge of living in a world of pathogens and parasites. It includes the behavioral immune system, which can make us wary of a diverse array of symbolic objects and threats. It makes it possible for people to invest objects with irrational and extreme values — both positive and negative — which are important for binding groups together.

In discourse, look for the words like "disgusting", "crooked", "nasty" and "dishonest".

Alternative realities (post-truth/Rovism/truthiness)

[Edit 29 December 2016]
Early in December of 2016, a supporter of President-elect Donald Trump asserted: “There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore, of facts,”
[End edit]

It's become increasingly common for Conservatives to view any conflict between reality and their beliefs as a problem with reality. Often attributed to Karl Rove:
All politicians operate within an Orwellian nimbus where words don't mean what they normally mean, but Rovism posits that there is no objective, verifiable reality at all. Reality is what you say it is, ...
the phenomenon dates at least a decade further back. In his 1992 essay, Steve Tesich:
... sought to describe what he called “the Watergate syndrome,” whereby all the sordid facts revealed by the presidency of Richard Nixon rendered Americans disdainful of uncomfortable truths.

In 2002, journalist Ron Suskind met with a then-unnamed senior advisor to President George W. Bush:
The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality."
That aide was later identified as Karl Rove.

Also known as post-truth and satirised as truthiness, the phenomenon can be summed up:
.. debate [which] is framed largely by appeals to emotion disconnected from the details of policy, and by the repeated assertion of talking points to which factual rebuttals are ignored. Post-truth differs from traditional contesting and falsifying of truth by rendering it of "secondary" importance.

Denial of objective reality is a worrying development.

[Edit 8 December 2016]


Research indicates that Conservatives are more likely to endorse conspiracy theories.
Psychologists have described how conspiracy theories allow believers to explain complicated events ...
The characteristic may relate to Conservatives' difficulty with complexity. The conspiracy theory offers a simple explanation to a complex issue.
[End edit]

[Edit 24 March 2020]

Time & Change

I've not found any research on Conservative perceptions of time. From observation, there's something distinctive in it. Much as Conservatives evidently have their own realities, it seems perceptions of time also differ from the Progressive. Terms such as, “never”  (and, by inference, “forever”) seem to relate to finite time-scales (a lifetime, a year, a financial quarter). How does that affect attitudes to things that happen outside that time-frame? If a politician thinks “forever” is the current electoral cycle, then will they be able to plan for events beyond that? What of a business person who thinks “forever” is the current accounting period? Is something that's beyond the Conservative horizon irrelevant? Is it invisible? Is it non-existent?

Related to time is perceptions of change. I've often heard a Conservative argue that something isn't true now (for example, commercially viable iron refining without coal), as if that proves it will never be. Belief in the immutability of what is might explain difficulty comprehending change.

[End edit]

[1] For those who aren't familiar with Australian politics, Liberal doesn't mean what it does in the US. Australia's Liberal Party began slightly Right-of-centre and drifted further Right. It's now approaching rabid. Fraser himself was accused of drifting Left; he responded that he'd stayed where he was - the Party had moved.

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