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The Conservative Psyche: How Ordinary People Come to Embrace Paul Ryan's Cruelty

Scientific research into the way we think explains the reasons decent people wind up supporting horrific policies.

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Even more frustrating for those who view politics as a rational pursuit of one's self-interest, facts don't actually matter that much. We begin evaluating policies emotionally, according to a deeply ingrained moral framework, and then our brains often work backward, filling in – or inventing -- “facts” that conform to that framework.



Dueling Morality Tales



It's long been understood that people evaluate policy ideas through partisan and ideological lenses. That's how, for example, a set of conservative, market-oriented healthcare reforms cooked up at the Heritage Foundation and pushed by Republicans for years can suddenly become a Maoist plot when embraced by a Democratic administration.



But according to George Lakoff, a cognitive linguist at UC Berkeley, one has to look beyond mere partisanship to really get the differences in how we process information. Lakoff describes what might be called a hierarchy of understanding, beginning with our conceptions of morality and then evaluating the details through that lens.

In The Little Blue Book: The Essential Guide to Thinking and Talking Democratic, Lakoff and co-author Elisabeth Wehling explain that the human “brain is structured in terms of what are called 'cascades.'”



A cascade is a network of neurons that links many brain circuits. All of the linked circuits must be active at once to produce a given understanding.

Simply put, the brain does not handle single ideas as separate entities: bigger context, a logical construct within which the idea is defined, is evoked in order to grasp its meaning.

Cascades are central to political understanding, because they characterize the logic that structures that understanding.


While liberals and conservatives often see their counterparts as horrible people these days, the reality, according to Lakoff, is that they're processing information through very different, and often diametrically opposed moral frameworks.



In a recent interview with AlterNet, Lakoff said, “Conservatives have a very different view of democracy, which follows their moral system.”



The basic idea in terms of economics is that democracy gives people the liberty to seek their self interest and their own well-being without worrying or being responsible for the well-being or interest of anybody else. Therefore they say everybody has individual responsibility, not social responsibility, therefore you’re on your own. If you make it that’s wonderful. That’s what the market is about. If you don’t make it, that’s your problem.



But it's not just about the moral imperative to be self-sufficient – that's always been central to the right's moral worldview. But beginning in the early 1960s, with the advent of the Right's deeply flawed “culture of poverty” narrative*, a defining morality tale about the public sector has been about how it does nothing but foster “dependency.” This, according to today's conservatives, makes virtually every form of government intervention in the economy profoundly immoral, as it keeps a segment of the population mired in poverty for generations.



This powerful story has only become more deeply entrenched in the conservative worldview with the growing influence of Ayn Rand. Rand wasn't only a schlock novelist, she was also the progenitor of a sweeping “moral philosophy” that justifies the privilege of the wealthy and demonizes not only the slothful, undeserving poor but the lackluster middle-classes as well. Her books provided wide-ranging parables of a world made up of "parasites," "looters" and "moochers" using the levers of government to steal the fruits of her heroes' labor.

While Ryan recently disavowed Rand's philosophy, he's on the record saying that Rand “makes the best case for the morality of democratic capitalism.” On another occasion, he said, "The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand."