Conservatives, Evil and Psychopathy: Science Makes the Link!
It’s not the least bit surprising that Rush Limbaugh is still defending Donald Sterling, spinning an elaborate conspiracy theory about how Sterling was “set up,” as Elias Isquith described here at Salon: “Whoever set this up,” Limbaugh said with understated drama, “is really good.”
He continued: “They covered every base. They’ve got the media wrapped around their little finger. I mean, when you get rid of the anthem singer — I used to be in charge of anthem singers at the Kansas City Royals. When you can get rid of (the) anthem singer, you’ve got power.”
Sure, it’s so far gone it’s silly, but defending old white guys is Limbaugh’s thing. Especially rich old white guys. And when he does it, he’s simply being a good conservative. Defending wealth, power, privilege, hierarchy — it’s just what conservatives do. Now, however, some folks — including social scientists — are beginning to ask, in effect, if they’re not actually defending, even promoting, evil as well.
Sterling’s self-immolating drama vividly illustrates what the questions involve. It’s not just that Americans — unbeknownst to Sterling, Cliven Bundy and Limbaugh — have come to an overwhelming consensus that racism itself is evil, though that’s certainly enormously important in and of itself. But there’s also the additional factor of interpersonal depravity — psychopathy, if you will, which people are increasingly coming to see as significantly overrepresented in the 1 percent.
Let’s start with what I said about Limbaugh simply being a good conservative when he rushed to Sterling’s defense. That’s not just a liberal canard. It’s not just me trying to do to Limbaugh what Limbaugh does to liberals. It’s what conservatives themselves have said repeatedly over the years. The defense of hierarchy is what conservatism is all about, as Corey Robin reminded us all with his recent book, “The Reactionary Mind.”
What’s more, the differences between how liberals and conservatives think are reflected in a range of divergent cognitive processes, as summarized in a 2003 paper by John T. Jost and three co-authors, “ Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition,” a “meta-analysis” that brought together findings drawn from 88 study samples in 12 countries:
“The core ideology of conservatism stresses resistance to change and justification of inequality and is motivated by needs that vary situationally and dispositionally to manage uncertainty and threat,” Jost and his co-authors wrote in the abstract. These are not merely American phenomena, nor is there any reason to think they’re particularly modern.
While Jost’s paper revealed a complicated array of different factors involved, two in particular have been shown to explain the lion’s share of intergroup prejudice: right-wing authoritarianism (RWA) and social dominance orientation (SDO). John Dean’s book “Conservatives Without Conscience” focused on the combined workings of these two factors. While there is some overlap between the two, RWA is more predominant among followers, who would probably make up the main bulk of Limbaugh’s audience, while SDO is more prominent in folks like Sterling.
SDO represents a generalized tendency to support groups’ dominance, whether the groups are defined biologically (men over women, the old over the young) or culturally (race, ethnicity, religion, etc.).
There have been several successive versions of the scale used to measure SDO (SDO 6 can be found here), with slight changes in the statements used. Subjects are asked to rate their agreement or disagreement with the statements from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree). Statements from SDO-6 include:
- Some groups of people are simply inferior to other groups.
- In getting what you want, it is sometimes necessary to use force against other groups.
- It’s OK if some groups have more of a chance in life than others.
These are balanced with statements supporting equality, such as: