This is Part 3 of my monograph on the motivations of political Leftists. The first and second parts of the monograph used both history and the present to illumine just exactly what Leftism IS. Part 1 can be accessed HERE.
"All the worth which the human being possesses, all spiritual reality, he possesses only through the State."
-- 19th century German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (pictured below). Hegel is the most influential philosopher of the Left -- inspiring Karl Marx, the American "Progressives" of the early 20th century and university socialists to this day.
"For a hundred years or more the defining division in politics, in Britain and elsewhere, was about the role of the state. Essentially progressives believed in its ability to improve society; Conservatives feared its interference stifled personal liberty.
-- Anthony Blair, Labour Party Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. (2006)
"To me, conservative means believing in a minimum amount of government and a maximum amount of freedom -- and keeping government out of people's lives and business -- and leaving people alone,"
-- Lyn Nofziger, long-time U.S. Republican insider (2005)
WHY ARE PEOPLE LEFTISTS?
By John J. Ray (M.A.; Ph.D.)
One answer in five words: "Leftists need to feel superior".
Or, as T.S. Eliot famously put it: "Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don't mean to do harm -- but the harm does not interest them. Or they do not see it, or they justify it because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves." (From the 1950 play "The cocktail party")
But now for the details:
What Eliot was pointing to is a major root cause of Leftism: narcissism. But as I think I should point out again, there are many reasons why someone might become a hater of the status quo but narcissism would seem to be a major and very pernicious reason. So I want to explore here how that works out by looking in detail at the things Leftists say and do and then show how narcissism can underlie that.
Narcissism is, in simplest terms, excessive self-love. That could in theory be harmless -- mere folly. But the narcissism of concern here is more problematical. I refer to self love that devalues others and leads to petulance that others do not have the same high evaluation of the person concerned. We also see that syndrome in psychopaths. Another term for the syndrome is a threatened ego -- i.e. a person feels threatened by the fact that other people don't think he is wonderful. So he desperately seeks praise and approval to prop up his ego or self-esteem.
And it so happens that Leftism is good for threatened egos. Because he has to cover up his destructive thinking and intentions in order to win power, the Leftist is always pretending to be all heart. He is always pretending compassion and whatever will win approval for himself -- regardless of what the long term consequences of his policies might be.
So Leftism is a natural home for narcissists. The narcissist too will say or do almost anything to gain approval. Leftists pretend to have superior feelings and wisdom and the narcissist likes the sound of that. He too is angry with society (for its indifference to him) and he too wants to make great claims of virtue.
So as I started out saying above, there are many reasions why people come to hate the status quo -- and, as we shall see, narcissism is a major one of those reasons.
So what the great majority of Leftist leaders say and do can be seen as fitting a common power-seeking and praise-hungry pattern -- power being the ultimate ego-boost ---- and that pattern is the one that is of greatest interest here. It will be seen that most Leftist policies can be traced back to that source.
The Sociology of Leftism: The leaders and the led
The Leftists referred to in this monograph are committed Leftists. It is important to realize that such people are only a small proportion of those who vote for Leftist parties (according to the Harris poll, in 2002 only 19% of U.S. voters self-identified as "liberal") and that what is true of committed Leftists may not be at all true of most people who vote for Leftist political parties. Leftist leaders and Leftist followers may sound the same -- there would hardly be a leader/follower relationship between them otherwise -- but to assume that leaders and followers are similarly motivated would be naive. If, for example, most of the people who vote for Leftists are good and kind people who just want to help others, the leaders have to sound as if they too are like that -- but the evidence is that the leaders are in fact very differently motivated from that, as we shall see.
Another complication is that vote may not reflect ideology at all. People sometimes vote for a candidate they do not in general agree with. It may be the exception rather than the rule but it is at least a large exception. A good first step in seeing that is the fact that, although most people tend to get more conservative as they get older, older people are in fact more likely to vote for Leftist parties. So we have conservatives voting for Leftists. And, of course, many working class people are socially conservative but vote for Leftists. And despite the many very rich people (such as George Soros, John Edwards and John Kerry) who are clearly Leftist sympathizers, a small majority of rich Americans do vote Republican. One interpretation of that would be that elites are basically Left-inclined but many vote Republican despite being inclined the other way. I will have more to say about that very shortly and I also have a separate article on it here.
What the surveys show about the VOTERS can be seen in this exit poll data from the U.S. election of the year 2000. You will note there, for instance, the preponderance of older people who vote Democrat. So why do so many who do not see themselves as "liberals" vote for Democrat candidates?
1). In part it is because ALL successful Presidential candidates (Democrat or Republican) are in fact centrists. They have to stay pretty close to the political centre (regardless of what their real, personal views might be) in order to maximize their appeal. No candidate can hope to win unless he appeals to a lot of centrist or "floating" voters and both candidates will try to offer something to everyone. The candidate can only be Right-leaning or Left-leaning rather than truly Rightist or Leftist. And there could be no clearer demonstration of that than Senator John "flip-flop" Kerry. In the 2004 Presidential campaign, he carried the attempt to be everything to everybody to a ludicrous degree. And George W. Bush too wooed "liberal" voters by stealing Leftist rhetoric and campaigning (in the year 2000) as a "compassionate" conservative.
Another sign of how centrist successful Presidential candidates have to be is that there is a quite respectable case for arguing that the U.S. government was more conservative under Bill Clinton than it was under George W. Bush: Work for the dole took off under Clinton and Clinton balanced the budget whereas George W. Bush oversaw a major welfare expansion (prescription drug benefit) and ran the budget into deficit. So in those respects the two men did exactly the opposite of what the ideologies normally attributed to them would lead one to expect. Both were conservative on some things and "liberal" on others.
So while it would be extremely odd indeed if conservative-leaning candidates were not preponderantly backed by conservative people, the correlation is rarely strong (the strongest correlation I have found in my surveys was 0.5 -- implying only a 25% overlap between ideology and vote). So George W. Bush would have got votes from all sorts of people for all sorts of different reasons: For instance, as well as getting votes from Christians and committed conservatives, George W. Bush would have got votes from centrists who liked his balance of "compassion" (i.e. being pro-handout) and caution about social change and from some genuinely compassionate "liberals" not because they liked his views in general but because they thought he would be most likely to bring about economic betterment for all (through economic growth etc.). A vote for George W. Bush was, then, only on some occasions an indicator of real voter conservatism. And a vote for Clinton/Gore/Kerry was on only some occasions motivated by Leftist ideological beliefs. In general, then, the centrist orientation of major candidates makes vote a poor indication of ideology. It is rather a wonder that a vote for a centrist indicates anything at all. Given the low level of political knowledge repeatedly displayed by voters in exit polls, many such votes could in fact be a result of essentially random factors.
2). Secondly, S.M. Lipset pointed out decades ago that vote is often determined more by perceived economic self-interest (what in Australia we call the "hip-pocket nerve") than by ideological affinity -- so that you can have socially conservative working-class people (particularly blacks in the U.S. case) voting for Leftist candidates solely because they believe Leftist promises that the Left will give them personally a better deal. They might want to castrate homosexuals but they want bigger welfare cheques even more. See here for some survey results on working-class ideology.
Conversely, the exit-poll data from the year 2000 show that the wealthiest Americans mostly saw GOP policies as better for them -- which is unsurprising given the characteristic attack on wealth by Leftists. So how come a large minority of wealthy people voted against the GOP? Obviously there was a big ideological pull among wealthy people that was influencing them to vote against economic self-interest. It shows that once you are well-off yourself, you are more likely to put money worries aside and concentrate on other goals -- such as telling the "peasants" what to do.
It has often been noted too (see again here) that it is education rather than occupation which is the major social class influence on ideology. Exposure to the current educational system is a Leftist influence. And the Gore/Bush election results do show that. Gore's strength was among both those with the lowest level of education (for economic reasons) and those with the highest level of education (for ideological reasons). Just why education is a Leftist influence is set out at some length again here and here.
Economic self-interest matters a lot to older people too. The Democrats are big advocates of welfare and older people are big consumers of wefare so it was no surprise at all that George W. Bush's share of the elderly vote was well-down in the year 2000. It was of course to help reverse his anti-welfare image among the elderly that George W. Bush sponsored the prescription drug benefit initiative. And that effort was duly rewarded in 2004 by a rise in the GOP vote among the elderly from 47% to 54%. Aging as such, however, is very strongly associated with conservative thinking. There is a list of some of the beliefs here that strongly differentiate the old and the young. You will see that what old people tend to believe is in fact rather amazingly Right-wing. Older people were likely to believe, for instance, that "Patriotism and loyalty to one's country are more important than one's intellectual convictions and should have precedence over them" and "Treason and murder should be punishable by death". They rejected views such as "Our treatment of criminals is too harsh: We should try to cure them, not punish them" and "People should be allowed to hold demonstrations in the streets without police interference".
So vote is the outcome of many influences and for most people ideology is not the crucial influence (remember that 25% maximum mentioned above). Ideology is important to party leaders and activists, however, so is still an important thing to study and analyse. I in fact have had over 200 papers reporting on aspects of it published in the academic journals.
As something of a footnote to the above, it may be worth noting that even self-identification as a "liberal" (etc.) may be misleading and unreliable. Not only vote but even self-identification may correlate poorly with ideology. Some 2004 Pew Research survey data (summarized here) shows that the views held by so-called "moderates", for instance, can in fact be very Leftist. And there are no doubt many conservatives who regard themselves as moderate too. In other words, what people see as conservative, liberal etc varies widely. If George W. Bush and Clinton are in fact both mostly centrists but are widely described as being of the Right or the Left, it should be no surprise that such confusions arise. It is only by asking questions about particular issues (as I did above in looking at the beliefs of the elderly) that one can have some hope of placing people realistically on an ideological spectrum. And it may be worth noting that when one does that, most people fall around the middle (in statisticians' terms, political ideology "approximates a normal distribution") -- which is why successful politicians head in that direction too.
And some people reading this (particularly libertarians) will no doubt want to argue that the very idea of a Left/Right ideological spectrum is simplistic and wrong. To answer that, however, I will have to refer readers elsewhere.
So the fact (already noted previously) that a centrist such as President Bush is hated with a passion by the ideologues among American "liberals" (really Leftists. Liberty is a very low priority for them) does at first seem puzzling. If you look at the legislation and policies that Clinton and Bush have supported and implemented, it would be a hard task to say which was the more Leftist. With his support for all sorts of expansion of government, I would definitely say that Bush is the more Leftist but the fact that the matter can be reasonably debated shows just how centrist both men are. But if Clinton and Bush have been so similar in their policies, why do the Left adore Clinton and loathe George W? And in the American politics of the period leading up to the 2004 election, I saw nothing directed towards Democrat Presidential candidate John Kerry by conservatives that remotely approached the rage and hate that was routinely directed towards Bush by the Left. Contempt for Kerry's dishonesty was common among conservatives but that was about all. So why do American Leftists hate a man who has done much of what they in the past have themselves advocated (e.g. expanded welfare and deposed a Fascist dictator)?
One key (but see also here and further below) to the answer is that, although a vote for the GOP is SOMETIMES a vote for conservatism, American politics are essentially interest-group politics. Each party has its client groups (particularly poor minorities in the case of the Democrats and particularly New Testament Christians in the case of the GOP) and it is speaking for them that brings in the great majority of votes -- which is why lots of GOP supporters who deplore Bush's expansion of government still voted for him and which is why American blacks who are conservative on lots of social issues almost always vote for the Democrats. It is only small minority of centrist (swinging) voters who decide which candidate will win or lose and that is a major part of the reason why both candidates themselves have to be centrist.
So, for the ideologically committed, it largely boils down to power. Does your team or the people you like occupy the top positions or not? Do the people in power sound like you? Are people you can identify with in charge? As this author put it:
"And unfortunately, in my own mind, when I hear of a gaffe or embarrassment for the party I don't prefer, I think, 'Oh good, a point for my side.' When 'my side' is called for a foul, I think that the officiating might be biased. So many recent events highlight the polarized context we are now operating in"
Orwell describes the extreme version of such loyalty very well. Excerpt:
"By "patriotism" I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.... Nationalism, in the extended sense in which I am using the word, includes such movements and tendencies as Communism, political Catholicism, Zionism, Antisemitism, Trotskyism and Pacifism. It does not necessarily mean loyalty to a government or a country, still less to one's own country, and it is not even strictly necessary that the units in which it deals should actually exist. To name a few obvious examples, Jewry, Islam, Christendom, the Proletariat and the White Race are all of them objects of passionate nationalistic feeling: but their existence can be seriously questioned, and there is no definition of any one of them that would be universally accepted.... Nationalism is power-hunger tempered by self-deception"And for Leftists, politics is NOTHING BUT power. They have no principles and openly ridicule (particularly via postmodernism) the idea that anything could be right or wrong. Policies that were once popular but which have become unpopular (such as eugenics) are abandoned so completely by Leftists that only historians know that such policies once had large-scale Leftist support. And with the way antisemitism is surging on the Left, the time will come when people will have forgotten that Leftists were for a time anti-racist. So for Leftists it is only party that matters and conservative thinkers such as myself and many others who take ideas, principles and ideology seriously are simply incomprehensible and fit only for ridicule. Leftist thinkers do very often work their way carefully through an argument or set of ideas but do so only if the conclusion of the argument is suitable for propaganda purposes. They want to persuade others that something which suits them is "right" but they themselves do not believe in "rightness" at all. And for many conservatives too, of course, their conservatism is more of an instinct than a systematic philosophy -- as R.J. White in The Conservative Tradition notes (see here).
But the appeal of Leftism to the average person is simple: The preacher of Leftism offers something for nothing. And that is always hard to resist -- fraudulent though it usually is. If the Leftist offers to redistribute somebody else's wealth into your pocket, that is one hell of an appealing scam. The Leftist's constant hypocritical preaching of equality does sometimes succeed in creating the impression that the Leftists will manage to give poorer or working class people a bigger slice of the national cake -- and poorer people must obviously find that at least initially appealing. This is of course why labour unions have always had strong affinities with the Left. Leftists appear to want a better deal for union members.
And this is partly why Leftists have recently become opponents of globalization. Globalization does tend to relocate simpler jobs to poorer countries and the Leftist's union allies tend to oppose the changes to employment that this brings about. Unlike other Leftists, unions generally dislike change. They dislike change because it requires workers to find new jobs and that is understandably distressing to the workers concerned even if at the end of the day the cheaper goods now coming from overseas mean higher living standards for all. The Leftist however feeds on discontent so conveniently turns a blind eye to the longer term benefits of globalization and assists unionists in opposing it. The change-loving Leftist assists change-hating unionists! The corrosive discontent and hatred of existing power centres that motivate the Leftist enables him to ignore the incongruity of this alliance. Leading a protest of any kind is far more important than what the protest is about. Ultimately, change too is just a tool for Leftists.
That Leftists can even oppose their beloved change if they think it will help them gain power was also very much on display in the 2004 U.S. Presidential elections. As this author rather mischievously pointed out:
"It was Bush's progressive agenda that kept him in office.... The left's conservative policies of get-along diplomacy with dictators and theocracies have been rejected in favor of more progressive and proactive strategies of freedom and pluralism..... Bush's victory was due to the fact that nationally the majority of voters was tired of the status quo, tired of the knee-jerk conservatism of the left and wanted a progressive administration. Kerry wanted to take us back to the ideas, policies and attitudes that prevailed before the 9/11 attack.... The majority of Americans wanted a candidate and an administration with new ideas and a plan, and the Democrats offered an administration that was anti-everything.... . The left has shown itself conservative and reactionary on the domestic front as well, resisting in political lock step such progressive ideas as the testing, standards and performance required by the No Child Left Behind Act, against any reasonable limitations on abortion, against any and all aspects of "ownership society" such as partial privatization of social security or health care savings accounts..."I expand on that a little more elsewhere.
As mentioned already, Lipset (1959) pointed out long ago, however, that poorer or working class people may in fact not only be change-haters in matters that affect them directly but also be conservative in other senses -- despite their (self-interested) vote for a Leftist political party. This tendency towards conservatism among working class people has been noted at least since the time of British Prime Minister Disraeli in the 19th century (McKenzie & Silver, 1968) and is so prevalent that it forms a vital electoral support for conservative political parties. How? Because something like a quarter to a half of working class people have always been so conservative (accepting of inequality etc.) that they resist the blandishments of the Left and vote conservative -- AGAINST what would initially seem to be their class self-interest (McKenzie & Silver, 1968; Ray, 1972c). So the primary concern of the present paper is with "real" Leftists -- people who subscribe to and promote a Leftist ideology rather than those who merely vote Leftist or support the Left solely out of self-interest.
Before I abandon discussion of Leftist supporters (as opposed to Leftist leaders and ideologues), however, I must make clear that not ALL mass support for Leftism is motivated by economic self-interest or group loyalty. It may be motivated by an immature desire to be looked after generally or, as I said at the outset of this section, there would appear to be large numbers of Leftist supporters who are genuinely caring people and who hate to see unhappiness in others and want something done about it QUICKLY -- and are misled by simplistic talk from Leftist ideologues into thinking that the Leftist candidate or ideologue can and will achieve something in that direction. It is they in fact who dictate what the Leftist has to advocate. Kind people in a hurry are the key part of his "market", the people for whom his apparent "quick fixes" are tailored -- and the rhetoric that serves that part of his market also of course pleases the rest of his market: those whom the Leftist claims he will benefit. And it is the good and kind average people who are susceptible to argument (by showing, for instance, that there ARE no shortcuts), where the Leftist ideologue is not. It is important to comprehend Leftist ideologues but not as a means of "converting" them. The best that can be hoped for is to isolate them by showing what really makes them tick.
For the sake of simplicity I speak above as if the leaders and the led were strict and mutually exclusive categories but there are of course intermediate cases -- for instance, people who are thoroughly imbued with the ideas or passions of their side but who do not evangelize for those ideas or passions in any way. Such people presumably share most of the motivation of their leaders but just do not have the opportunity, personality or talent to be anything but a chorus -- and perhaps helpers on election day. Whatever satisfactions they get from their side winning in some way, would therefore usually be vicarious rather than personal. But the general idea of most voters being a "market" for political ideas that come from an elite or from a leadership group is of course an old one. Schattschneider, for instance, suggested that voters are to parties as "customers" are to "merchants", mere choosers among competing alternatives in the electoral marketplace (Schattschneider, E.E., 1942, Party Government. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, pp. 53, 60)
So WHY does an ideological Leftist oppose the existing social, economic and political order? Why are they usually so keen on advocating change, no matter how irrational or counter-productive it might be? There can in fact be many reasons why and for many Leftists more than one of the reasons listed below will apply.
The simplest reason may simply be that one is BORN into a Leftist outlook. Being born into a Northern English or Scottish working-class environment, for instance, almost guarantees that one will favour a Leftist stance on many issues. Union activity and Leftist advocacy generally has been so strong for so long there that it has radicalized in many ways what might otherwise be a fairly conservative population and caused Leftist views to become simply traditional there. One might say that the explanation for Leftism there (for both leaders and followers) is a "sociological" one.
Another example of such a "sociological" cause for Leftism would be the way in which US college students are radicalized by the predominantly liberal academic environment of US humanities and social science schools. To be liberal in such an environment is almost a survival need (Sommers, 2002). And schoolteachers too, often seem to be Leftist. Many of those who lecture and control others in their working hours would seem to want to carry on doing so after work as well. (For more on that see here). So an ideological committment there may be simply learned behaviour.
Also, because of its pretensions to standing up heroically for various difficult causes, Leftism can seem "cool" to many of the unthinking young and not so young. Particularly in the worlds of the media and entertainment (as well as academe), being Leftist means being "in" with the "smart" crowd. Not to be Leftist is to be left out. How awful! Even if such people can see faults in Leftist thinking, they are afraid to come toward the Right for fear of losing the approval of others around them. So an ideological committment may in that case also be something of a survival need.
The focus in the present paper, however, is more on "psychological" causes. What makes someone "voluntarily" a Leftist? What makes someone a Leftist who does not come from a predominantly Leftist environment? What makes a Leftist that comes from inside the Leftist himself rather than coming from an accident of birth or social position?
The Psychology of Leftism
It should by now have become fairly clear that Leftist ideologues don't really believe in anything at all (see also my comments on post-modernism elsewhere and my comments on psychopathy elsewhere). They have no fundamental beliefs -- only postures that they adopt from time to time in order to make themselves look good, wise, kind, caring etc. Some postures (such as their devotion to "equality") are of durable usefulness to them because the posture concerned has lasting appeal (to envy etc.) but any posture (such as their former devotion to eugenics) can be abandoned if it falls out of popularity. So while it is important to point out the falsity of the many simplistic theories and assertions that Leftists put forward, it is a mistake to think that they will be seriously influenced by that. What they assert has, in other words, a psychological rather than a philosophical or systematic foundation.
It is submitted here that the major psychological reason why Leftists so zealously criticize the existing order and advocate change is in order to feed a pressing need for self-inflation and ego-boosting -- and ultimately for power, the greatest ego boost of all. They need public attention; they need to demonstrate outrage; they need to feel wiser and kinder and more righteous than most of their fellow man. They fancy for themselves the heroic role of David versus Goliath. They need to show that they are in the small club of the virtuous and the wise so that they can nobly instruct and order about their less wise and less virtuous fellow-citizens. Their need is a pressing need for attention, for self-advertisement and self-promotion -- generally in the absence of any real claims in that direction. They are usually intrinsically unimportant people who need to feel important and who are aggrieved at their lack of recognition and power. One is tempted to hypothesize that, when they were children, their mothers didn't look when they said, "Mummy, look at me".
This means that the "warm inner glow" that they obtain from their advocacy and agitation is greatly prized. So it is no wonder that anything which threatens to disturb it -- such as mere facts -- is determinedly ignored. This view of Leftism as a club of the righteous that must never be disturbed or threatened is set out by Warby (2002) in his essay "The labelling game". Excerpts:
"The key motive for self-replicating propaganda amongst the Western intelligentsia is status-seeking -- what in this context I have labelled moral vanity.... The benefits of being seen to be a member of what I call Club Virtue are clear enough -- a feeling of higher moral status buttressed by the mutual self-congratulation of peers, and the avoidance of the costs of non-conformity. Greater leeway for error is also possible. Club members tend to forgive or ignore mistakes if made in the name of a cause that protects the status of Club members (or if exposure of such lapses would undermine said status).... Moreover, because opinions and beliefs are substantially selected on the basis of their ability to confer and confirm status, such status markers have a natural tendency to part from reality.... One of the effects of the collapse of socialism as a serious locus of belief has been the snowballing reversion to the historically much more normal pattern of intellectuals despising the general populace. The terminology has been updated -- rednecks, xenophobes, racists, etc. instead of the mob, the rabble or whatever -- but the return to an age-old pattern is very clear.
Another sign of how the status games operate is the way so many of debates about totemic issues juxtapose concern with practicality against parading of intent. Dissenters typically raise concerns about how things are working in practice, while the response typically draws attention to intentions. For intentions are what mark moral superiority; concern for practical effects can only undermine such status-markers. Hence members of Club Virtue talk about intent, dissenters about practicality.... The genius of such status-games is that they appropriate the public good of open debate for the private good of status-seeking. What was once common -- and so owned by no-one -- becomes fenced off, and legitimacy in public debate becomes the shared property of Club members.... A public debate that is pervasively corrupted by this culture of status-through-paraded-virtue is a major problem for any democracy."
See also Warby, 1999. What Leftists do has also been described as "virtue signalling". Others may do a bit of it but it is a major preoccupation for Leftists. It's one of the ways they justify to themselves their Fascistic desire to control other people.
And they engage energetically in the mirror-image of it too: Demonizing conservatives. You probably have to be on the receiving end of it to believe the contempt and loathing that they pour out at conservatives. No conservative idea has a rational basis. All conservative ideas reflect a personality defect. And Leftist psychologists have laboured long and hard in a futile attempt to prove that. See e.g. here
Thomas Sowell sums it up well too, pointing out how the pursuit of ego reinforcement seems to go on with complete disregard for its consequences. It's an article that every living soul should read in full but here is an excerpt:
"Over the years, the phrase "unintended consequences" has come up with increasing frequency, as more and more wonderful-sounding ideas have led to disastrous results. By now, you might think that people with wonderful-sounding ideas would start to question what the consequences would turn out to be -- and would devote as much time to discovering those consequences as to getting their ideas accepted and turned into laws and policies. But that seldom, if ever, happens.
Why doesn't it? Because a lot depends on what it is you are trying to accomplish. If your purpose is to achieve the heady feeling of being one of the moral elite, then that can be accomplished without the long and tedious work of following up on results.
The worldwide crusade to ban the pesticide DDT is a classic example. This crusade was begun by the much revered Rachel Carson... Carson and the environmentalists she inspired have succeeded in getting DDT banned in country after country, for which they have received the accolades of many, not least their own accolades. But, in terms of the actual consequences of that crusade, there has not been a mass murderer executed in the past half-century who has been responsible for as many deaths of human beings as the sainted Rachel Carson. The banning of DDT has led to a huge resurgence of malaria in the Third World, with deaths rising into the millions.
This pioneer of the environmental movement has not been judged by such consequences, but by the inspiring goals and political success of the movement she spawned. Still less are the environmentalists held responsible for the blackouts plaguing California in the past year or the more frequent blackouts and more disastrous economic consequences that can be expected in the years ahead, despite the key role of environmental extremists in preventing power plants from being built.....
Advocates of rent control are not judged by the housing shortages that invariably follow, but by their professed desire to promote "affordable housing" for all. Nor are those who have promoted price controls on food in various countries being judged by the hunger, malnutrition or even starvation that have followed. They are judged by their laudable goal of seeking to make food affordable by the poor -- even if the poor end up with less food than before.
Some try to argue against the evidence for these and other counterproductive consequences of high-sounding policies. But what is crucial is that those who advocated such policies usually never bothered to seek evidence on their own -- and have resented the evidence presented by others. In short, what they advocated had the intended consequences for themselves -- making them feel good -- and there was far less interest in the unintended consequences for others".
See also Ridley (2002) for a good account of the way Lomborg's upsetting (to Leftists) but rigorously factual findings about the environment were greeted primarily by abuse rather than by any serious attempt at refutation. Ridley's earlier letter to The Scientific American in response to its attack on Lomborg is here (short PDF). See also "A Danish Galileo" for comments on later attacks on Lomborg.
And one of the more amusing results of the Leftist hunger to be noticed is the "naked" demonstration. Leftist women, in particular, often take their clothes off en masse to get attention. ANYTHING to get attention! See, for example, here or here.
And, of course, people who themselves desperately want power, attention and praise, envy with a passion those who already have that. Businessmen, "the establishment", rich people, upper class people, powerful politicians and anybody who helps perpetuate the existing order in any way are seen by the Leftist as obstacles to him having what he wants. They are all seen as automatically "unworthy" compared to his own great virtues and claims on what they already have. "Why should they have ........ ?" is the Leftist's implicit cry -- and those who share that angry cry have an understanding of one-another that no rational argument could achieve and that no outsider can ever share.
The Leftist's passion for equality is really therefore only apparently a desire to lift the disadvantaged up. In reality it is a hatred of all those in society who are already in a superior or more powerful position to the Leftist and a desire to cut them down to size. As Bob Parks observed:
"I was watching the responses from a political focus group the other night, and I have to admit it was depressing to see so many duped, whiners in one room. All of these economic experts KNEW we were presently in a recession. All of these economic experts KNEW that the tax rates were unfair, and the evil rich should pay more in taxes. How raising their taxes would improve the lives of the focus groupies was unclear. But it seemed as though they just wanted to get back at someone, and THAT would make their lives better."
This explains the common puzzle of why it is that modern-day "liberals" are still indulgent about the old Soviet system. As Amis (2002 -- review here) points out, the many people in literary and academic circles today who once supported Stalin and his heirs are generally held blameless and may even still be admired whereas anybody who gave the slightest hint of support for the similarly brutal Hitler regime is an utter polecat and pariah. Why? Because Hitler's enemies were "only" the Jews whereas Stalin's enemies were those the modern day Left still hates -- people who are doing well for themselves materially. Modern day Leftists understand and excuse Stalin and his supporters because Stalin's hates are their hates.
Nonetheless, it still is pretty strange how being a Communist can be regarded by apparently well-informed people as being so much more forgivable than being a Nazi sympathizer. I certainly cannot see that there is not much to choose between the two. Both were murderous Leftist sects. A reader sent one explanation to me:
You know how Hannah Arendt claims, in Antisemitism, that part of the reason why antiSemites hate Jews is that they fear that Jews might really be the "Chosen people"? Well, by the same line of reasoning, one could argue that the reason Americans hate the Nazis is this: Americans fear that the Germans might really be the Superior Race. That is probably why the U.S. Media focuses so much more on the crimes of Nazi Germany than those of Soviet Russia and Red China, despite the fact that Soviet Russia and Red China were each chock full of Concentration Camps too, and were at least as vicious and savage about how they had captured, tortured, and killed their victims.
I wonder if there is a grain of truth in that? I simply do not know. The idea that Northern Europeans are innately superior in any way is SO politically incorrect these days that one wonders whether a fear that the idea might have some truth in it might be part of the reason why it is rejected so furiously.
Another reason for the different evaluation of Nazis and Communists by opinion-makers, however, is that Communists are better hypocrites. They make good use of the distinction we make between intended and unintended crimes and pretend to be well-meaning and compassionate -- where the Nazis made no such pretence -- so people give Communists the benefit of the doubt. No-one who knows history would do so, however.
Much the same explanation applies, of course, to the similar puzzle of why the French military dictator, Napoleon, is to this day generally regarded as a hero even though practically every family in the France of his day lost a son in his wars. The figures for Napoleon's Russian campaign alone are horrendous. He took 600,000 men into Russia but brought back only 70,000. In terms of loss of life, Napoleon's wars were every bit as bad for France as Hitler's wars were for Germany but Hitler is universally (and justly) reviled whereas Napoleon is still admired!
But some French historians do perceive Napoleon for what he really was: Maturin sees Napoleon as a kind of early Stalin: "Yes, I do agree with Maturin. Buonaparte did France -a country that he hated as a youth- very great harm indeed, not only because he brought about the death of vast numbers of Frenchmen, far more than even Louis XIV, but because he left the country with a curiously vulgar notion of glory, which Louis did not. I do not think he restored French national identity at all, but superimposed upon it a trashy chauvinism that is still sadly active"
Napoleon, however, justified all his actions as extending the French revolution and its "enlightenment" to other lands and this explanation still resounds favourably with today's Left-leaning intellectuals -- bloodshed regardless.
V.D. Hanson has an interesting review of a recent book about Napoleon that also looks at why the murderous Corsican dictator is still widely admired -- even by his chief victims (the French). Excerpt:
"Indeed Napoleon's enduring resonance in some parts of contemporary Western society tells us as much about ourselves as it does the self-proclaimed emperor. Johnson's matter-of-fact chronicle of executions, grotesque battle losses, betrayal, and outright lying - stripped of Napoleonic fluff and bluster- reflects deeply-rooted Anglo skepticism about messianic killers, as the principled careers of Englishmen like Edmund Burke, the Duke of Wellington, Winston Churchill, and most recently Tony Blair attest. In contrast, for the insecure, megalomaniac, and duplicitous, Napoleonic power holds an eternal appeal."
In his post of November 13, 2002, Arthur Silber has also put up an excerpt from the same biography of Napoleon that points out how totalitarian Napoleon in fact was. And Leftists love power over other people with a passion:
"The [French] Revolution was a lesson in the power of evil to replace idealism, and Bonaparte was its ideal pupil. Moreover, the Revolution left behind itself a huge engine: administrative and legal machinery to repress the individual such as the monarchs of the ancien regime never dreamed of; a centralized power to organize national resources that no previous state had ever possessed; an absolute concentration of authority, first in a parliament, then in a committee, finally in a single tyrant, that had never been known before; and a universal teaching that such concentration expressed the general will of a united people, as laid down in due constitutional form, approved by referendum. In effect, then, the Revolution created the modern totalitarian state, in all essentials, if on an experimental basis, more than a century before it came to its full and horrible fruition in the twentieth century. It also became, as Professor Herbert Butterfield has put it, 'the mother of modern war...[heralding] the age when peoples, woefully ignorant of one another, bitterly uncomprehending, lie in uneasy juxtaposition, watching one another's sins with hysteria and indignation. It heralds Armageddon, the giant conflict for justice and right between angered populations, each of which thinks it is the righteous one. So a new kind of warfare is born--the modern counterpart of the old conflicts of religion.'"
Envy is a very common thing and most of us have probably at some time envied someone but, for someone with the Leftist's strong ego needs, envy becomes a hatred and a consuming force that easily accounts for the ferocious brutality of Communist movements and the economically destructive policies (such as punitively high taxation, price controls and over-regulation generally) employed by Leftists in resolutely democratic societies. So the economic destruction and general impoverishment typically brought about by Leftists is not as irrational as it at first seems. The Leftist actually wants that. Making others poorer is usually an infinitely higher priority for him than doing anybody any good.
We have some experimental evidence of that. There is a summary here by Ilana Mercer of some research in which the researchers gave people the opportunity of destroying wealth belonging to others as long as they accepted that some of their own wealth would be destroyed in the process too. So how much were people are willing to lose themselves if they could at the same time destroy the wealth of others? Lots! Impoverishing others is demonstrably worth a lot to some people:
The countless individuals who are at the receiving end of irrational malice from their lessers will agree with me that an experiment conducted at the Universities of Warwick and Oxford was more of a confirmation than an investigation of human nature. Ingeniously operationalized by Professor Andrew Oswald and Dr. Daniel Zizzo, the experiment demonstrated the lengths to which people will go to destroy the wealth of others, even if, in the process, they knowingly wipe out their own funds.... Whether or not they are aware of the indirect harm to themselves, a sizeable majority of people in society does indeed want to see the wealth of others burned
One suspects that most individual Leftists realize that no revolution or social transformation is ever going to put them personally into a position of wealth or power so the destruction of the wealth and power and satisfaction of those who already have it must be the main thing they hope to get out of supporting Leftist politics.
Such thinking goes some way towards explaining the really rather strange phenomenon of American anti-Americanism. As James Piereson says:
"From the time of John Kennedy's assassination in 1963 to Jimmy Carter's election in 1976, the Democratic party was gradually taken over by a bizarre doctrine that might be called Punitive Liberalism. According to this doctrine, America had been responsible for numerous crimes and misdeeds through its history for which it deserved punishment and chastisement. White Americans had enslaved blacks and committed genocide against Native Americans. They had oppressed women and tyrannized minority groups, such as the Japanese who had been interned in camps during World War II. They had been harsh and unfeeling toward the poor. By our greed, we had despoiled the environment and were consuming a disproportionate share of the world's wealth and resources. We had coddled dictators abroad and violated human rights out of our irrational fear of communism.
During the 1970s an impressive network of interest groups was developed to promote and take advantage of this sense of historical guilt. These included the various feminist and civil rights groups who pressed for affirmative action, quotas, and other policies to compensate women and minorities for past mistreatment; the welfare rights organizations who claimed that welfare and various poverty programs were entitlements or, even better, reparations that were owed to the poor as compensation for similar mistreatment; the environmental groups who pressed for ever more stringent regulations on business; and the various human rights and disarmament groups who pressed the government to punish or disassociate the United States from allies who were said to violate human rights. These groups took up influential roles in the Democratic party and in the Congress, and ensconced themselves in university departments from which outposts they promoted and elaborated upon the finer points of Punitive Liberalism.
The punitive aspects of this doctrine were made especially plain in debates over the liberals' favored policies. If one asked whether it was really fair to impose employment quotas for women and minorities, one often heard the answer, "White men imposed quotas on us, and now we're going to do the same to them!" Was busing of school children really an effective means of improving educational opportunities for blacks? A parallel answer was often given: "Whites bused blacks to enforce segregation, and now they deserve to get a taste of their own medicine!" Do we really strengthen our own security by undercutting allied governments in the name of human rights, particularly when they are replaced by openly hostile regimes (as in Iran and Nicaragua)? "This"--the answer was--"is the price we have to pay for coddling dictators." And so it went. Whenever the arguments were pressed, one discovered a punitive motive behind most of their policies."
Hurting their happily prosperous countrymen and making them suffer and feel guilty was the real goal of the American Leftists concerned. For a fuller account of the enormously destructive nature of envy see Schoeck (1969).
A book on globalization by Brink Lindsey is also relevant here. Lindsey points out that globalization is just an extension onto the international stage of the long struggle against government intervention in business activity generally. Now that we know how destructive and impoverishing government intervention in business is, we should not be surprised that government intervention in the international activities of business is equally counter-productive. So if Leftists WANT to keep the general population as impoverished as possible, they would oppose globalization. And they do!
Whether or not someone is important, rich, successful, famous etc., is however of course very much a matter of individual perception. If many of the world's most famous sports stars were introduced to me, for instance, I might well in all innocence proceed to ask them; "And what do you do for a living?". And while Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi is my personal hero, there are many, even in academe, who would never have heard of the Mahatma. This "relativity" of importance, prestige etc. would seem to explain why many active Leftists are in fact college or university professors. College or university professor is a generally high status occupation that provides an above-average income so might, on the face of it, be seen as already providing considerable recognition and praise. But if status is precisely why certain people have gone to the considerable trouble generally required to enter that occupation, it could well be that the ego need of that person is so big that even more recognition is then craved. A college professorship may be prestigious but still be seen as providing far too little power, public exposure and opportunity for self-display. "Seeing I am so smart, I should be running the whole show", is an obvious line of thought for such people. Just some power and fame is still not enough power and fame for them.
Robert Nozick's explanation of why most intellectuals oppose capitalism in general and the USA in particular is well worth a read. Basically, Nozick's point is that intellectuals think that our society does not reward them to the vast degree that they think they deserve. So in childish petulance they do all they can to denigrate that "unappreciative" society.
Eric Hoffer had a related idea. He pointed out that true believers were people of frustrated ego needs. Note this summary by Thomas Sowell:
Among Hoffer's insights about mass movements was that they are an outlet for people whose individual significance is meager in the eyes of the world and - more important - in their own eyes. He pointed out that the leaders of the Nazi movement were men whose artistic and intellectual aspirations were wholly frustrated.
Hoffer said: "The less justified a man is in claiming excellence for his own self, the more ready he is to claim all excellence for his nation, his religion, his race or his holy cause."
People who are fulfilled in their own lives and careers are not the ones attracted to mass movements: "A man is likely to mind his own business when it is worth minding," Hoffer said. "When it is not, he takes his mind off his own meaningless affairs by minding other people's business."
Egotism and hunger for power and attention do of course make a mockery of the Leftist's claim to be in favour of equality. Like the pigs in George Orwell's "Animal farm", the Leftist wants to be "more equal than others". He wants to rule or at least dominate. Beneath his deceptive rhetoric, he is the ultimate elitist. He actually despises most of his fellow men and thinks that only he and his clique are fit to run everything. The last thing he wants is to be lost in a sea of equal people. This was of course amply shown in the Soviet Union, where membership of the Communist Party became the only pathway to the good life -- conferring on the member all sorts of privileges and access to goods and services not available to other Soviet citizens.
And the converse also seems to be true. Not only are Leftists crypto-elitists but elites also tend to be Leftist. See here and here for more on why and how that is so.
One does not have to look far to see proof of the Leftist contempt for ordinary people and their ways. Leftists who gain unrestricted power (e.g. Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot) would not exterminate people by the millions if they respected them. But you do not need to look at Stalin to see the hatred at work. To take just one small instance that we never cease hearing about:
Ordinary people worldwide greatly enjoy McDonald's hamburgers. What McDonald's sells is a minor variation of basic Western foods (meat, bread, potatoes and salad) but the minor variation concerned is almost universally enjoyed. And Leftists hate that! They go green with envy at McDonald's enormous success. So they turn themselves inside-out to find fault in any conceivable way with the McDonald's version of meat, bread and potatoes and salad. Examples of the hostility are so common that they hardly need mentioning but this is just one. Excerpt:
"'Hey, hey, ho, ho, drugs in meat have got to go' chanted protestors outside a McDonald's in Maine. They held up massive 'pill burgers' (hamburgers with a big pill inside) and were joined by the Union of Concerned Scientists' Michael Khoo, who recently wrote an article entitled 'Want drugs with those fries?' While Khoo tries to scare the public about antibiotics in hamburgers, the organization he works for declares that it's a non-issue."
McDonald's is of course super-careful NOT to do anything that might harm their customers so the Leftists have to resort to criticisms that would condemn most family dinners if generally applied -- but that does not worry Leftists, of course. Their hatred of other people's success and of the simplicity of ordinary people submerges all else and causes them to seethe with destructive anger and to nitpick at McDonalds constantly. THEY want the success and acclaim that McDonalds enjoys.
But nothing above, of course, is meant to suggest that pressing ego needs, self-righteousness, envy etc are confined to Leftists. It is merely meant to say that Leftism is the principal political expression of such needs. Such needs can also be met by religion etc. and it must be noted that Communism was often described as a religion by its critics. Why people choose politics rather than some other means of meeting their ego needs would have to be the subject of a whole new enquiry but it seems possible that the potentially very broad exposure that politics provides to an individual might attract the people with the very highest ego needs. This high level of ego need among Leftists would also explain the generally much greater political activism of the political Left compared to the rather somnolent political Right.
It would also explain why Leftists so often have a "spare me the details" or "Don't worry about the facts" orientation. For most Leftists, it is the activism itself rather than what is advocated that is the main point of the exercise. As long as the cause advocated is both generally praiseworthy and disruptive to implement, that will suffice. The insincerity of the Leftist is of course an abiding theme in the many writings of Ayn Rand (e.g. Rand, 1957) -- who sees the hunger for power as the real motivation behind everything that the Leftist does. If he cannot have power, however, attention and praise are the next best thing from a Leftist's point of view.
The need for self-display does however in MOST people tend to decline as they mature -- which is part of the reason why graduates tend to be less radical than students and why older people tend to be much more conservative than young people (Ray, 1985). To misquote Lenin (1952) only slightly, much of Leftism would appear to be "an infantile disorder".
In that connection it might be worth noting that John Hudock has a fascinating summary of the ways in which "liberals" remind him of his 5 year old daughter. Excerpts:
She thinks everything in the world exists already and the only problem is distribution. I.E. How more of the stuff can get distributed to her.
She wants the government (me and my lovely wife) to solve all her problems and protect her from all harm but fails to see that this requires that we put severe restrictions on her activities.
It occurs to me that some Leftists may want to argue that it is normal to have a very hungry ego. "Everyone wants praise and to be noticed", they might say. And there may be some truth in that. It is whether the ego need is so strong as to take over all else that it the real issue, however. Note also that many people -- particularly conservatives, of course -- do NOT seek attention and praise. One everyday example (excerpt):
A true Christian conservative: "I attended the Memorial Service of Rev. Joseph Sheley yesterday. As I listened to speaker after speaker talk about Joe, it was clear that he was one of those who went to be with his Lord owning that most precious of possessions - a good name. Joe was not a flashy man. He was not one to push himself forward or to try to gain attention for himself. And he didn't have much in terms of this world's wealth. But he was a very rich man. He was rich in family who treasured him... Joe's children, grand-children, and great grand-children loved him, and with good reason. He loved them with all his heart, and taught them important life lessons that will stand them in good stead for as long as they walk the earth... He was rich in the esteem in which others held him. That was evident in the faces of the many who came to honor him at his memorial service... He accomplished many things for the Lord about which he could have boasted. I never heard him do so".
And a much less everyday example was of course Ronald Reagan:
"I think they broke the mold when they made Ronnie. He had absolutely no ego, and he was very comfortable in his own skin; therefore, he didn't feel he ever had to prove anything to anyone." --Nancy Reagan. And: "He was hated for precisely the same reasons he was loved. He had convictions and made those without them look weak. ... He knew who he was before he came to office; he did not need the office to complete him." --Cal Thomas
And Eamonn Butler (post of 7th. June, 2004) noted Reagan's lack of egotism too:
"The pompous conceit of the media Establishment is parried by Reagan's own epitaph on his administration, which reveals his own complete lack of both pomposity and conceit, tempering his pride in having changed minds and changed events: "Men and women across America for eight years did the work that brought America back. My friends, we did it. We weren't just marking time. We made a difference. We made the city stronger, we made the city freer, and we left her in good hands. All in all, not bad, not bad at all.""
But Jeff Jacoby sums up Ronald Reagan's humility best. A small excerpt:
"But one trait has gone largely unmentioned: His remarkable humility.... But if no man was his better, neither was he the better of any man. That instinctive sense of the equality of all Americans never left him -- not even when he was the one with fame and power. I don't think I have ever heard a story about Reagan in which he came across as arrogant or supercilious. In a number of reminiscences this week, former staffers have described what it was like to work for the president. Several have recalled how, even when they were at the bottom of the pecking order, he never made them feel small or unworthy of notice. To the contrary: He noticed them, talked to them, made them feel special. Reagan climbed as high as anyone in our age can climb. But it wasn't ego or a craving for honor and status that drove him, and he never lost his empathy for ordinary Americans -- or his connection with them"
And note a related comment about W.F. ("Bill") Buckley, another stellar figure in American conservatism:
"To the disappointment of his friends and admirers, Buckley decided some time ago not to try his hand at a straight autobiography. "I do resist introspection," he once wrote, "though I cannot claim to have 'guarded' against it, because even to say that would suppose that the temptation to do so was there, which it isn't." He is probably the shrewdest judge of himself in this respect...
Autobiography requires not only a certain kind of introspection that, rightly or wrongly, Buckley believes he lacks, but a certain kind of ego that, one suspects, he greatly disdains. Many years ago, when reviewing the memoirs of some self-important figure, Buckley dryly observed that the work fell into a literary category that might be labeled, "Waters I Have Walked On.""
But, although Reagan and Buckley have both been good examples of lack of egotism, even two swallows do not make a summer so maybe I should mention another example of an American conservative with vast influence but who nonetheless needs and seeks no praise or fame -- so much so that most people have never heard of him. I quote a few excerpts from an article about him by a Leftist journalist who, in a typically uncomprehending Leftist way, can only see the self-effacing manner of the man as "nutty"!
"If no one knows anything about Bruce Kovner, it is because he likes it that way. Yet the unassuming manner is camouflage for one of the most powerful people in the country, culturally, financially, and politically. Kovner, 60 years old and divorced, manages the largest hedge fund in the world and every year ratchets higher on the Forbes list of the richest Americans....
He's a neoconservative godfather. He is among the backers of the Manhattan Institute and the fledgling right-wing daily the New York Sun....
Most important, Kovner is chairman of the American Enterprise Institute. The right-wing think tank has supplied the government with the most powerful ideas in foreign policy in a generation...
This is perhaps Bruce Kovner's signal (and shared) achievement: to underwrite what had been extreme ideas and bring them into mainstream discourse....
Now and then, Kovner's spending is directly political; last year, he spent a lot to re-elect President Bush. But his main interest has been quietly strategic: the idea factory. "Bruce is an intellectual. He understands the world of ideas," says Norman Podhoretz, the legendary editor of Commentary....
But again there is his outward manner: self-erasing. His press has been mostly limited to financial journals....
A socialite who encounters him at the opera is surprised by his schlumpy dress and regular-guy mien: "You'd never know he's a jillionaire." "One of his distinguishing characteristics is humility," says Thomas Carroll, president of the Foundation for Education Reform and Accountability. "If you meet him on the street, you would never know who he was. There's no fanfare, no pomposity, no effort to get people's attention." ....
Kovner, over two decades, has underwritten the infrastructure the neocons have used to achieve their current prominence. On the fifth floor of the AEI building, the Project for the New American Century helped lay the ground for the Iraq war ....
He plays visionary and psychiatrist to the AEI board. "He's brilliant," says Perle. "He's intellectually rigorous, balanced, and thoughtful."....
I gained the impression that everyone I had talked to gave me: that of a thoughtful, unpretentious, and highly reserved person, a man with a musical voice and a self-effacing manner"
And one of the comments about Kovner that the journalist records is insightful. It is a comment from another whizz in financial trading:
"Kovner's objectivity made him great. "If you can find somebody who is really open to seeing anything, then you have found the raw ingredient of a good trader-and I saw that in Bruce right away." Weymar told me that one of the most important qualities of a trader is ego strength, the self-confidence that allows a person to acknowledge his mistakes and not fall in love with his ideas. "The biggest risk in trading is hubris."
So we see again that a really strong ego leads to humility. It is weak egos who need to boast and cannot admit that they are less than wonderful.
What has been said so far applies principally to Leftist ideologues. The motivations of the many working class people who vote for Leftist political policies are, however, also largely envy-based. In discussing an article by Neal Boortz, Peter Cuthbertson summarizes it well:
Haters of the rich exist everywhere and what Neal Boortz does is examine sympathetically the mindset of people who make bad decisions in life, most often taking the easy road, and end up working tough, boring jobs for little reward. Isn't it so much easier, he asks, for such people to blame the rich than for them to examine themselves and their choices critically? How much simpler and better for them it would be if it wasn't their own freely chosen decisions that led to their present state, but the conspiracies and exploitation of those who did better.
Please read the whole article, and bear in mind as you do the famous Economist statistic regarding American poverty - that your chance of being poor is 0.5% providing you do three things: (i) complete high school, (ii) marry and stay married and (iii) take a job, even at minimum wage. It's a figure worth remembering next time you cringe at someone saying that poverty is largely self-inflicted. For 199 out of every 200, it very nearly is.
Guilt, Compassion and "Limousine Liberals"
Another psychological motivation for Leftism that is sometimes mentioned is one that I have always had severe doubts about: Guilt. The claim is that affluent people feel bad (guilty) when they see how poorly others are doing and want to rectify that by getting handouts for the disadvantaged (but not from their own pockets of course). They are "limousine liberals". I have always seen this as just another Leftist hoax: They may sometimes explain their motives in such a high-minded way but if they really felt guilty there is plenty they could do to help others rather than agitating to tax them to the eyeballs. Their "guilt" is, in other words, really a "feel-good" statement saying "Look how sensitive I am". I submit that they are really Leftists because it makes them feel wise, clever and insightful to be able to oppose convention -- even if what is conventional happens to be good sense.
So the undoubted fact that Left activists and agitators (from the Bolsheviks on) tend to come from affluent families does not to me point to guilt as their motive at all. Rather the "limousine liberal" phenomenon shows me that those who have all that they want materially then seek other luxuries: such as self-righteousness, praise, power and excitement -- particularly the excitement of being demonstrators in the case of "rich kid" Leftists. And if the young limousine liberal can have praise and self-righteousness along with his/her excitement what a good deal it is! It is much the same motivation that causes self-made rich men (such as Bill Gates) to become highly philanthropic. Bill Gates has power and wealth so he now seeks praise and righteousness.
A good example of Left activism as a rich kid's craving for excitement is the Italian extreme Leftist, Feltrinelli. Born into affluence and himself a successful businessman we read of him:
"He craved excitement. He had run through four wives, he owned a castle-size house, he had enjoyed being a millionaire playboy (once he posed in Vogue), and he had proven he was a first-class professional. By his late 30s he was the man who had everything. He was giving himself a present of revolution."
Feltrinelli eventually killed himself while trying to blow up an electricity pylon.
Another explanation for the apparent guilt and self-hatred of affluent white American Leftists is an extension of what I have already said about envy. The idea is persuasively summarized by Jack Wheeler. Excerpt:
So here we discover the secret fear at the source of the suicidal liberal mind. It is envy that makes a Nazi, a Communist or a terrorist. It is the fear of being envied that makes a liberal and is the source of "liberal guilt."
This is most easily seen in the children of wealthy parents. Successful businessmen, for example, who have made it on their own normally have a respect for the effort and the economic system that makes success possible.
Their children, who have not had to work for it, are easier targets for guilt-mongering by the envious. So they assume a posture of liberal compassion as an envy-deflection device: "Please don't envy me for my father's money -- look at all the liberal causes and government social programs I advocate!"
Teddy Kennedy is the archetype of this phenomenon.
This is also why Hollywood is so liberal. The vast amounts of money movie stars make is so grossly disproportionate to the effort it took them to make it that they feel it is unearned. So they apologize for it. The liberal's strategy is to apologize for his success in order to appease the envious.
Liberalism is thus not a political ideology or set of beliefs. It is an envy-deflection device, a psychological strategy to avoid being envied.
Then there are those who are terrified of envy even though they have earned success themselves. Many Jews are liberals because such lethal envy has been directed at Jews for so many centuries that it is little wonder they consider avoiding envy to be a necessity of life.
Wheeler's account of the matter has the virtue of explaining both the apparent self-hatred of American middle class Leftists and the very real hatred of Islamic fundamentalists towards America. Wheeler's article actually adds up to a very short summary of a very large book that I have already mentioned in passing: Envy: A theory of social behaviour by Helmut Schoeck -- one of the few books that have made a big impact on my understanding of the world. I am not at all envious myself so until I read that book I had no idea that envy was such a fire inside so many people.
The basic thesis of both Wheeler and Schoeck is that envy is an enormous and destructive force in all human societies (and this article by Denis Dutton suggests an evolutionary reason for that being so). Excerpt:
One difference between a hunter-gatherer mentality and understandings needed today involves the nature of hierarchy itself. Hierarchies in the EEA [Pleistocene] evolved for a zero-sum resource environment: whatever was available was divided according to power or status. Trading in such circumstances is a zero-sum game: every bit of resource one person or family owns is something another family does not own. This default Pleistocene view of a zero-sum economy dogs our thinking today and results for the modern world in two undesirable features. First, we are prone to envy, to feeling dispossessed or cheated by the mere fact that others own what we do not own. We view the very possession of desirable goods and resources on the part of others as somehow unfair or even immoral, and we will look for evidence allowing us to regard the rich as unworthy of their "luck" and possessions. We are inclined to regard as "unjust" any inequitable allocation of resources. Second, zero-sum thinking, although it has given us a good intuitive grasp of what we call "fairness" in simple trading arrangements (my fruit for your fish), makes it hard for us easily to understand how trade and investment of capital can increase the sum total of wealth available to all. We are therefore not well adapted to make sense of today's economic system.
So avoiding being envied is an important thing to do. And a good way to deflect envy is to denigrate oneself or any successful group that one belongs to. Hence the "guilt" of so many "limousine liberals" and the Anti-Americanism of so many Hollywood stars. They don't really feel guilty at all. They think they are brilliant in fact. They are just trying to deflect envy and sound virtuous by criticizing their own society -- the very America that has made them so rich. As Wheeler puts it: "The Liberal's strategy is to apologize for his success in order to appease the envious. Liberalism ... is an envy-deflection device, a psychological strategy to avoid being envied."
And why is it the Left in particular who are so fearful of being envied? Because they themselves are burnt up by it so know from inside how potentially destructive it can be. To a Leftist no acclaim or success is ever enough. So even when such good socialists as Stalin and Saddam Hussein got complete power over their own countries, even that was not enough. They then went on to fill their country with statues and portraits of themselves. When you have an ego as hungry as that, you will always be envious of what others have no matter how much you have yourself.
Various US writers whose opinions I respect (e.g. Levite, 1998 -- review here) do however disagree with me about the genuineness of the Leftist's guilt so maybe I am missing something. I can only say that all the Leftists I have met in Australia have seemed to me much more angry and hostile than guilty. So maybe guilt politics is mainly an American phenomenon. Why? Perhaps because the USA was founded by religious fanatics whereas Australia was founded by convicts. Cultural attitudes could be long-lived.
There is however one variation on the Leftist guilt theme that might have more weight to it: The idea that some people want to be compassionate or believe that they should be compassionate but know that they really are not. This could perhaps arise from pressures put on them during their upbringing or from formal and informal pressures exerted on them by those they associate with in (say) their churches. Knowing that they themselves lack compassionate feelings, they do the next best thing and advocate loudly that the State (i.e. the taxpayer) should be more compassionate and thus absolve them from having to do anything compassionate personally. They might also hope that by loudly proclaiming their "compassionate" political views, their lack of personal compassion will be overlooked. This could explain the Leftist politics of many clergy in the Church of England (and in associated Anglican churches worldwide). Some "limousine liberals" could also fall into this category.
There is some support for this idea in the survey finding that the Americans who give the highest percentage of their income to charity are the very rich whereas those who give least are Leftists and liberals (Cooke, 2002). But this should not be surprising. From the French revolutionaries to Lenin, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot, Leftist "compassion" has never been evident in their deeds!
Anyone who thinks that claims of compassion necessarily indicate compassion might also consider the example of California's Rev. Jim Jones with his Leftist "People's Temple". The Rev. Jim Jones was much opposed to racism and devoted to equality and compassion for the disadvantaged but still managed to massacre hundreds of his followers in Guyana (See here). Jim Jones' actions make no sense as indicators of real compassion but make a lot of sense as indicating a frustrated love of power: Very Leftist!
And the many Leftists, even US Leftists, who, in the name of "anti-imperialism", actually voiced approval for the murderous onslaught on New York's World Trade Centre on Sept. 11, 2001 certainly showed their degree of compassion clearly enough. The great influence that US culture undoubtedly has on the rest of the world is seen as sufficient to justify the murder of thousands of US citizens innocently going about their business. It is again clear that a hatred of any power but their own is what drives Leftists, not compassion.
Another element in the limousine liberal phenomenon is that many of the people concerned are intellectuals of one sort or another. They either inherited their money or made it by means other than the hard work of normal business life (e.g. as bureaucrats). And, as Thomas Sowell puts it in one of his many admiring comments on the ideas of Eric Hoffer:
"Since the American economy and society advanced with little or no role for the intelligentsia, it is hardly surprising that anti-Americanism flourishes among intellectuals. "Nowhere at present is there such a measureless loathing of their country by educated people as in America," Eric Hoffer said".
Leftists just hate not being at the centre of attention and at the centre of power.
Leftism as a Religion
"Marxism scores over traditional religion for a certain kind of person because in Judaeo-Christian thinking you are supposed to examine your own conscience and feel bad about yourself; Marxism allows you to place all the blame onto other people and feel proudly self-righteous and anti-bourgeois when you do so. 'Mea culpa' becomes 'tua culpa'.
(Quoted from Cinderella Bloggerfeller, post of November 4, 2002)
For some people, Leftism appears to work as a sort of religion for atheists. There would appear to be a strong inborn need for religion in human beings. Even in the present skeptical, scientific and materialistic age about half of all Americans are churchgoers and years of indoctrination into atheism by the Communists seem to have left the Church stronger than ever in Russia and Poland. And even among people with no formal religious affiliations, very few are outright atheists. Christians such as Billy Graham sometimes say with some cogency that there is a "God-shaped void" in people. They would have to admit, however that some pretty Satanic things can get packed into that void sometimes.
So Leftism could be seen as a Godless religion -- a fixation or simplified explanatory system that meets the religious needs of those who for various reasons are dissatisfied either with other religions or with supernatural ideas in general. Not all religions have a dominant God or father-figure at their centre (e.g. Taoism, Confucianism, Shinto) and a religion that dispenses with the supernatural altogether is a smaller leap that it might at first seem -- though a non-metaphysical religion is perhaps better referred to as a "fixation" rather than as a religion per se. In psychiatry, "fixations" are obsessive belief systems and emotional ties which may or may not involve the metaphysical.
The identification of Leftism as a religion has often been made and the ability to believe in things that sound good but have very little supportive evidence would certainly seem to constitute a common core between Leftism and other religions. Both Leftists and the religious could, in other words, be seen as the wishful thinkers of the world: A very large throng. And, as a religion originally emanating from the economically successful "Western" democracies, Leftism is typical in being very proselytizing and intolerant of competing religions.
The analysis of Leftism given here also shows that Leftism and other religions have a common psychological root: Both fulfil ego needs. Most religions, from Christianity to Islam to Hinduism to Buddhism feature a belief in survival after death. The need to believe in such a thing would seem to constitute a large part of the "God-shaped void" in people that Billy Graham speaks of. Basically, the human ego finds it hard to accept its own non-specialness. Most people just cannot accept that something as wonderful as they are will one day just vanish like a snuffed-out candle flame (which is what biology assures us we essentially are). They need to believe that their own wonderful essence will survive after death and go on to greater things. So what do you do when you find for one reason or another (e.g. scientific or philosophical sophistication) that you cannot believe in all that? What if it hits you that there is no real evidence of survival after death and that this life is probably all there is? What many people do is become Leftists. They want their ego satisfactions NOW, while there is time. So Leftism does indeed fulfil exactly the same basic need as other religions. And note that the explanation I have just given also explains the high level of atheism/agnosticism among Leftists and the generally high level of education among Leftist ideologues. For one reason or another, high levels of education do often seem to lead to atheism/agnosticism.
Stanley Kurtz has a particularly persuasive treatment of Leftism as a religion in National Review -- pointing out that "liberalism" also gives a feeling of mission, of belonging and of being on the side of the angels in a struggle with "demonic" conservatives. He also shows how it offers relaxing simplifications of the real complexities of life in the way that a religion does. Excerpt:
Liberalism now functions for substantial numbers of its adherents as a religion: an encompassing worldview that answers the big questions about life, lends significance to our daily exertions, and provides a rationale for meaningful collective action.... Conservative opponents of affirmative action or slave reparations simply have to be imagined as monsters. Otherwise the religious flavor of the multiculturalist enterprise falls flat, and the war of good against evil is converted into difficult balancing of competing political principles and goods in which no one is a saint or a devil.
There is also a good article by Dennis Tourish about the "Militant Tendency" Trotskyist group that was very influential in the British Labour Party in the 1980s. Tourish specializes in the study of cults and shows that "Militant" is a good example of one. Excerpt:
There is a dearth of literature documenting the existence of cults in the political sphere. This paper suggests that some left wing organizations share a number of ideological underpinnings and organizational practices which inherently inclines them to the adoption of cultic practices. In particular, it is argued that doctrines of `catastrophism' and democratic centralist modes of organization normally found among Trotskyist groupings are implicated in such phenomenon. A case history is offered of a comparatively influential Trotskyist grouping in Britain, which split in 1992, where it is suggested that an analysis of the organization in terms of cultic norms is particularly fruitful.
The reader who drew my attention to the article commented: "One sees a lot of this same behavior by the Greenies also -- the Messianic sense of mission, the closed frame of reference, and the looming apocalypse that only they can avert." The article originally appeared in an academic journal. Dennis Tourish advises me that a revised version of the paper is also to be found in his book with Tim Wohlforth - On the Edge: Political Cults Right and Left, ME Sharpe, 2000.
And Revel sees Leftist anti-Americanism as offering religious rewards too:
"The anti-American cult provides its legions of drooling adherents with the crucial element of any faith: the illusion of meaning in an otherwise meaningless existence. That priceless psychological salve, in this case, is the comforting delusion that, no matter how hypocritical, backward, bigoted, ignorant, corrupt or cowardly the cult's followers might otherwise be, at least they are better than those awful Americans..... Thirty-four years ago, Revel was "astonished by evidence that everything Europeans were saying about the US was false"; sadly, this situation has not changed in the slightest in the intervening time".
And, since the fall of the Berlin Wall, some might argue that Leftism is now more than ever a secular religion. In other words, now that it is crystal clear how awful really Leftist governments are, only faith could keep anyone still believing in the desirability of Leftism.
And anyone who has spent much time among Leftist intellectuals (As I have. I spent 12 years teaching in a School of Sociology at a major Australian university) will be aware of how the writings of Marx are treated as a form of holy writ. Leftist thinkers constantly involve themselves in nitpicking debates about "What Marx really said", just as Christian sectarians constantly argue about "What the Bible says". In our universities, Marxism is undoubtedly a form of theology. So Leftism can even meet people's need for theology! And anyone who knows their mediaeval history or the history of the Byzantine empire will know how overwhelmingly important theology can sometimes be to human beings.
From a Christian point of view, of course, one could well see the Left as the Devil's religion. It denies God and wears the compassionate clothes of Christ to cloak the black and hating heart that its destructive deeds reveal. See also "Worshipers at the secular altar" by Klinghoffer. Excerpt:
For each element of Judeo-Christian faith, secularism has its counterpart.... There is even a flood story, told in the new movie "The Day After Tomorrow," wherein a modern-day Noah (played by Dennis Quaid) warns of an impending inundation brought on by global warming. As in biblical tradition, his neighbors pay no attention and subsequently perish. At the film's end, a few survivors are picked up by helicopter from the tops of Manhattan skyscrapers, just as Noah and his family survive when their ark is cast up on the peak of Mt. Ararat.... Centuries ago in Europe and the Middle East, intolerant faiths sought to suppress one another, erasing symbols of their rivals wherever possible. Churches were converted to mosques, their crosses removed. Synagogues were converted into churches, their Jewish symbols effaced. Today the church of secularism agitates against its rival, the Judeo-Christian tradition
And the religious nature of Leftism is not new. Note the following comments by Samuel T. Karnick on the French revolution:
"In Earthly Powers, British historian Michael Burleigh extends this story from the Enlightenment to the First World War. Burleigh explores the idea of political religions-the way in which modern-era politics have consistently taken on a cast of religious fervor among those who have no religion-and how moderns base non- and even anti-Christian dogmas on Christian ideas and customs. Burleigh's book counteracts the temptation to underestimate the extent to which Christianity permeates our culture and has done so even when that influence is least evident. His book thus questions the tendency to think that the past couple of centuries have brought a thorough or irreversible secularization of the West.
Burleigh notes that after 1789, Edmund Burke's "key insight was to realize that `a theory concerning government may become as much a cause of fanaticism as a dogma in religion."'2 In fact, it was in making secular progress into a religion that the French Revolution was perhaps most revolutionary. Burleigh points out that "it had its creeds, liturgies and sacred texts, its own vocabulary of virtues and vices, and, last but not least, the ambition of regenerating mankind itself, even if it denied divine intervention or the afterlife. The result was a series of deified abstractions worshipped through the denatured language and liturgy of Christianity."
Burleigh documents the myriad ways in which "the discourse of the Revolution was saturated with religious terminology: words like catechism, credo, fanatical, gospel, martyr, missionary, propaganda, sacrament, sermon, zealot, were transferred from a religious to a political context." The attempted adoption of a new calendar and the deliberate suppression of the Catholic Church and its clergy were both part of the same process: the removal of all competing institutions and even habits of thought and behavior that might impede the creation of a new type of human being, one fit for a society incarnating the Jacobins' "abstract vision of community, harmony and national unity."
Although Burleigh cautions us not to forget the distinctive nature of the Jacobins, he makes the obvious connection to modern efforts to remake the world through political religions, such as Soviet and Chinese communism and German national socialism. For example, mass murders of the political opposition, or those merely caught in the crossfire, were all too common during the Terror-and the methods employed were as efficient and coldhearted as those of modern regimes. When the guillotine was not fast enough in Lyons in early 1794, "the government's soldiers used cannonfire to gun down large batches of prisoners, with swordsmen finishing off those left half dead by rounds of grapeshot." That same year, the Jacobins used mass drownings in Nantes to kill off "enemies of the Revolution," claiming some 1,800 victims in this gruesome way. Burleigh notes that through these and other atrocities "up to a third of the population perished, a statistic roughly equivalent to the horrors of twentieth-century Cambodia."
Interestingly, the most powerful form of Leftist religion would appear to have been Nazism. As mentioned previously, Nazism ("National Socialism") was Leftist in that Hitler was an extreme socialist -- advocating worker interests and income levelling -- and in its heavy government control of industry and just about everything else in Germany. And like any Leftist, Hitler did not like sharing power with the churches or anybody else.
But Hitler was smart enough to make good use of people's religious inclinations rather than simply oppose them. He did this in two ways: He eventually made peace with the churches as long as the churches did not visibly oppose him. His concordat with the Pope is of course famous in that connection. His own Catholic education and often-expressed Christian beliefs obviously helped with that. So you could eventually be both a good Catholic (for instance) and a good Nazi. And secondly, Nazism itself was also self-consciously religious in that it promoted its celebrations of "Germanic" traditions as an improvement on and alternative to the churches.
And it did that well: Hitler often appealed to God so that was no cause for alarm (unlike atheistic Communism); Nazism had its holy book in the form of "Mein Kampf"; It had saints such as Horst Wessel; It had magnificent religious ceremonies such as its constant torchlight parades, huge rallies and impressive loyalty oath ceremonies; It had inspiring marching songs by way of hymns. It had its Messianic and undoubtedly inspiring leader in the person of Hitler. And the way the Hitler Youth and the Volksturm fought to the bitter end in Berlin is certainly the sort of committment that most churches could only envy.
Idealism in Leftist religion
And "religious" Leftists are not necessarily all attention-seeking and power-mad Machiavellians. Some are honest -- true idealists who simply know no better. But how does their idealism survive the reality that contradicts it at every turn? Prof J.E. Haynes explains how Leftist idealists routinely ignore the inconvenient reality of how destructive and inhumane Leftist policies always have turned out to be:
"Psychologically, they do not see what you see. They see the present and the past through a special lens. What is overwhelmingly clear to them is an imagined future collectivist utopia where antagonisms of class and race have been eliminated, the economic and social inequalities that have driven people to crime have been removed, poverty does not exist and social justice reigns, world brotherhood has replaced war and international strife, and an economy planned by people like them has produced economic abundance without pollution or waste. Coupled with this vision of the future is loathing of the real present which falls woefully short of these goals and hatred for anyone or anything that stands in the way of their illusion of the radiant future".
It is perhaps fitting therefore that Michael Jacobs, the current head (or "General Secretary". Stalin was also a "General Secretary") of that historic fountainhead of Leftism -- Britain's Fabian Society, seems to be one of the dreamy Leftists.
In his article called "Reason to believe" originally published in "Prospect" magazine datelined October, 2002, Jacobs bewails the loss of idealism in the British Labour Party. He sees the motivating force of his brand of politics as:
"the feeling that many people must surely have when looking at the world: that too much in the present order is morally wrong. A billion people living in absolute poverty, species and habitats being wiped out, many groups subject to systematic violence and discrimination, some people consuming vast amounts while others starve"
And one can hardly argue with that concern. The world is indeed far from an ideal place and is much in need of improvement. The only problem is how you go about doing the improvements. Conservatives want to gradually improve the world as a whole whereas Leftists want to immediately rip the goodies off those who already have them and give them to someone else who did not earn or create them. They are uninterested in doing any realistic policy analysis and want their ideal world yesterday, not in 20 or 50 years time. The now easily confirmable fact that the sort of rush into action that they preach will achieve the opposite of what they allegedly intend seems somehow not to bother them a bit.
And the article by Jacobs reveals one reason why realistic policy analysis is so alien to the Left. He frankly admits that to him Leftism is a religion, and a very dreamy religion at that. Let him speak for himself in the following excerpts from his article:
"Socialism was not merely the end-point towards which those on the left believed themselves to be working. For large numbers of activists and politicians, it was an animating force in their lives. People were socialists in the way that others (sometimes the same people) were Catholics or Jews: it was part of their identity. "Socialist" did not just describe a set of views you had. It was something you were.
This was true of the moderates as much as the revolutionaries. It is easy to forget this now, so accustomed are we to politicians who aim for nothing more than their pragmatic policy positions. Prior to the mid-1980s, the most mainstream Labour politicians talked often and without embarrassment about socialism. Here is Tony Crosland, Labour's principal revisionist of the 1950s and 1960s, writing about the central socialist value of equality in a 1975 Fabian pamphlet:
"By equality we mean more than a meritocratic society of equal opportunities... we also mean more than a simple redistribution of income. We want a wider social equality embracing the distribution of property, the educational system, social class relationships, power and privilege in industry."
The Fabian tradition is often thought of as the moderate end of socialism, but Fabian pamphlets from the Webbs through to the 1980s were full of statements such as this. This was how all Labour people thought.
[Tony Blair's] third way is not an ideology. It provides neither a guide to policy-making, nor a vision of the society towards which social democrats aim. New Labour is left with no more than piecemeal social reform.
Electorally, of course, this has been very successful. But within the Labour party it has had a devastating effect. This has gone largely unnoticed by those outside. But inside the party it is visible and widespread. It is not that the government's policies are too moderate --party members are used to this. Some of the policies in fact command widespread support, particularly now that they come with higher spending and taxation
One of the reasons that socialist ideology flourished in the past was that it fitted the tribalism of a class society. Ideologies which came as whole packages of belief attached themselves easily to fixed, collective identities
So no wonder reasoning with Leftists is so unproductive. It is often an attempt to use reason to break down a religion: Never a promising task.
Heart versus head: Youthful Leftism
There is a well-known and much misattributed saying: "If a man is not a socialist by the time he is 20, he has no heart. If he is not a conservative by the time he is 40, he has no brain." It might be interesting to note that the earliest version of this saying is by mid-nineteenth century historian and politician Francois Guizot, who said: "Not to be a republican at 20 is proof of want of heart; to be one at 30 is proof of want of head". He was referring to the controversy over whether France should be a republic or a monarchy. France did of course have various experiments with monarchy even after the decapitation of Louis XVI. So foolish young people want Presidents and wiser old people want Kings? Perhaps.
Nonethless, it IS true that people who are Leftist in their youth often become more conservative as they get older. In one of my research reports, I found in fact that most older people are quite astoundingly Right-wing (Ray, 1985). So how come? What particular features of Leftism are the ones that attract the young?
I think that there are in fact a number of (sometimes interrelated) features of Leftism that are particularly attractive to youth:
The young do not know much so try sweeping generalizations in order to help them understand the world. Leftists supply such oversimplified generalizations ("All men are equal" etc.). So when one is young, the drastically simple "solutions" and mantras proffered by the Left simply seem reasonable. Leftism has the appeal of simplicity. When many a young idealistic person sees a problem and realises that he or she cannot fix it, the natural response is simple: "The government should do something". Given what they are constantly bombarded with through the media and the educational system this is an understandable response to the problems of the world. It is however based on the fairly amazing idea that we can create a Utopia through the actions of governments.
As Aaron Oakley (scroll down) once put it to me: The problem is that the arguments for individual liberty, free markets, limited government etc are complicated but correct. The Left have it easy. Their philosophies are simple but wrong. The public grasp simple ideas much more easily than complicated ones.
So some of the young are attracted to simple solutions to the world's problems. Most of the young do not bother, however. They are interested mainly in the opposite sex so just want politics not to bother them -- a thoroughly conservative response. Those who do adopt the Leftist simplifications do often eventually find through experience that the world really is a complex place so tend to give up the simplifications and Leftism along with that.
Some people in general, but particularly the young, are idealists -- and, as such, they find the imperfect state of the real world unsatisfying. And Leftists, because they vocally portray themselves as idealists, can prey on that. To understand Leftism, however, it seems essential that one NOT accept the Leftist's own account of what his/her motivation is. In the case of the young idealist, the account may be fair and accurate but in the case of the ruthless lovers of power (e.g. Stalin and the Communists) it would clearly be foolish to believe claims of idealism. The problem, is, of course, that one can not usually know which sort of Leftist one is dealing with. So claims of humane or idealistic motivations must always be treated skeptically. Given that the brutality of Communism has long been known, I tend to assume that even a young Leftist that I am dealing with is one of the dismally motivated kind. Sometimes I will be wrong of course. Many Leftists do move rightwards as they get older (Ronald Reagan and Winston Churchill, for example) and it is my view that all Leftists who really are idealistically motivated will eventually make that journey -- given sufficient information about the world. That there is some genuine idealism even among extreme Leftists is shown by the exoduses from Communist Parties in the economically successful "Western" democracies that followed the violent Soviet suppression of the East German, Hungarian and Czechoslovak uprisings against Communist rule in 1953, 1956 and 1968. Once the real nature of Communist regimes became too clear to be denied, honest decent people whose wishful thinking had led them to believe Communist protestations of benevolence and good intentions saw the light and abandoned Communism. In the USA (in New York particularly), some liberal intellectuals even saw enough in the Soviet actions of those times to cause them to abandon "liberalism" and found neo-conservatism. Similarly in Australia of the 1950s and '60s, the Andersonian libertarians of Sydney were also intellectuals who might otherwise have been Leftists but who were united by realism about Soviet brutality.
Just as dangerous to society as the idealist is the "practical" reformer. Some people in general, but again particularly the young, are genuinely outraged by things that they do not understand and are unwise enough to want to change those things willy nilly rather than endeavour to understand what is going on. They are impatient with what they see as "obviously" wrong. In particular, they may be genuinely grieved by the unhappy experiences of others and want to fix that ASAP without being wise enough to seek for means of fixing it that have some prospect of working or that are not self-defeating. They might, for instance, be disturbed by the impact of rising rents on the poor and propose rent-control as a quick-fix solution -- though a few minutes of thought or the most elementary inquiry should tell them that rent control will after a time also have the effect of degrading and shrinking the existing stock of rental accommodation and drying up the supply of new rental accommodation, both of which make the poor much worse off in the long run.
The young are ambitious, want to have it all NOW and want to get the top -- so see "The Establishment" as an obstacle to that. So the more unscrupulous and vicious ones use any tool to attack it: Radicalism as a path to power -- a very familiar theme in history. Leftists are intrinsically power-mad
5). Boredom relief:
Freelance Radical put this better than I could so I simply quote:
For many people, life is boring and nobody seems to care about anything too much and so they get kinda depressed just getting up in the morning. That is, until they decide to join the anti-war crowd and suddenly they're part of a group, a gang, an organization, and they've got a "home" and others care about where they go and how they'll get there and they're invited to join a bus trip, a flight to another city, a sign-making group, discussion forums, strategy planners ....... Wow!! life is no longer boring and they don't want this to end - not ever - and so, these liberal-lefty anti-war marchers have zero interest in ever finding out about any political truth that might ruin their new-found sense of belonging!
6). Sexual opportunism: The late
Andrew Ian Dodge is one of several people who have put to me that young men are attracted to Leftism because Leftist women are more sexually accessible. And certainly in my own youth the Leftist ladies did seem to be less attached to their pants than others. But that brings us to the next question: Why? I think the answer is pretty straightforward:
Leftism is intrinsically rebellious
Young people are instrinsically rebellious
Female sexual promiscuity is intrinsically rebellious.
So the three go together.
I have posted Andrew's email on the subject here (Post of 7th. February, 2003). It is worth a read. I think he even outdoes me for forthrightness!
Mainstream politicians are not unaware of the issue. It arose in South Carolina in 2001. Addressing the young men of "Boys State", the Democratic chairman, Dick Hartpootlian, declared that the Democrats were the party of "beer and girls". Not to be outdone, the Republican chairman, Henry McMaster, countered that the Republicans were the party of "cold beer and hot girls". You can imagine how the feminazi hens clucked over that one!
7). Institutional influences:
Ed Mick (scroll down) has also contributed a good post on why it is that young people tend to be more Leftist than their seniors. Ed sees youthful Leftism as being mainly the outcome of the institutional influences that young people are exposed to. He sees these as:
1) Immediate family
2) Education establishment
3) Mass media
And points out that the last 3 of these are very often Leftist these days. So young people learn Leftism just as they learn any other lesson. Ed spells it all out in detail. Well worth a read.
Tim Gillin (scroll down to post of Feb. 2nd.) has made a similar point: Young people are often Leftist because they have just been through or are just going through an educational system (both schools and universities) that vigorously indoctrinates them with Leftist ideas. Tim's words on the subject:
How much of this is due to 'wet behind the ears' idealism and how much is due to political indoctrination through the school system, or their greater exposure to the media? Idealism doesn't neccessarily have to be leftist. Youth generally are more peer oriented and the arts/intellectual/media world has a definite left/'progressive' slant. So indoctrinating them is easier. It's interesting that young "computer geeks' and Sci Fi fans are generally less leftist, they tap into a different media network.
Someone who had a very close-up look at the famous Leftist youth of the 60's has another idea why Leftism often appeals to youth. His email on the subject is fascinating so I have posted it in full elsewhere but I give an excerpt below:
I think I have another reason the Left attracts the young: Kids are protected. When things are wrong, grownups are supposed to fix them. When we have a war, it's bad. Somebody is supposed to fix it. Failure to fix (when the grownup is supposedly omnipotent) demonstrates that the grownup likes the war. Otherwise, the grownup would fix it. The Kids demand it. But he doesn't. Thus, it's the grownup's fault. Government is the grownup.
Eddie Thomas made a similar point on his blog by pointing out that families tend to be communistic. In a family we give to each according to his/her need. So it takes a while to adjust to an outside world that is not communistic and until that adjustment is made young people tend to believe that the outside world should be like what they have been used to at home.
And the old Leftist mantra "All men are brothers" reflects that. It is an attempt to model society on the family -- but ignores the fact that family ties are a very special case of human relationships. There is more on Leftism as a juvenile outlook in my article on psychopathy.
9). Parental indoctrination?
Leftist blogger, Tim Dunlop has suggested that I should add "parental indoctrination" to my list of causes. That would obviously be true in some cases, though youthful rebellion probably makes it ineffective pretty often. At any event, it does not explain the preponderance of young people among Leftists.
Various people have called into question the basic assumption underlying my reasoning about why young people tend to lean to the Left politically. They argue that young people do NOT tend to lean to the Left.
So I think I should re-emphasize that my academic paper that I cited above DID show a strong correlation between age and ideology. The research was based on random general population sampling and would not have got into an academic journal unless it was pretty rigorous. So Leftism DOES tend to be a folly of youth. I personally have always been conservative and there are many such lifelong conservatives but we all also know of many examples of age moving people to the Right -- from David Horowitz and the "neocons" generally in the USA to Paddy McGuinness in Australia. Not to mention Ronald Reagan and Winston Churchill. So there IS something there that needs explaining.
Other Causes of Leftism
There are, however, many other reasons for Leftism. Some that are as dishonest as the prime motivation (ego need) given above would appear to be:
1). Some Leftists just think themselves clever for being able to criticize and do so with no attempt at intellectual responsibility whatsoever. (By intellectual responsibility I mean looking at both the pros and the cons and putting up one's own alternatives to what is criticized). I suspect that Terry Eagleton is a particularly successful example of that (See previously). He has persuaded others that his criticisms are smart too -- and done very well out of it -- despite having nothing positive, constructive or original to put forward that one can see.
2). Some Leftists are simply cynical opportunists who see opportunity for themselves in change. I suspect that a lot of mainstream Leftist politicians and bureaucrats in the Western democracies fall into that category.
3). Hostility: Some Leftists are simply chronically hostile people. But they are clever about it. They hide their real hatred of their fellow man under a cloak of good intentions. They want to hurt their fellow man but need to change the system (a "revolution") to have any opportunity of doing so. Whacking day has a good insight into that sort of Leftist mind. Excerpt:
The mind of the revolutionary socialist endlessly stews in its own resentment of human aspiration and jealously of those who exercise the small freedoms of life - all those ignorant nobodies who just do not listen and cannot understand what is best for them.
The socialist mind is truly handicapped, completely incapable of seeing humanity as it is, for whom no horror is too great provided rote-learned principles from Marxist textbooks are given due attention. This mind never sees beyond it's own deep, psychotic raging hatred of human life in it's endless variance, it's perpetual evolution, it's refusal to comply with the conceptually crippled worldview of socialist principles.
Socialism is not the struggle to liberate humanity but rather a determination to extinguish it.
Usually, of course, the hostility is fairly well (and dangerously) concealed. But not always. Hostility is probably most evident (and hence least dangerous) in the more "revolutionary" and Trotskyite Left -- who often use the word "smash" in their slogans (e.g. smash racism, smash capitalism, smash various political leaders) so it seems probable that some Leftists simply lust to smash things. They seek a socially acceptable excuse for their barely suppressed destructive urges. They presumably are the ones who are responsible for the violence and destruction that often accompanies Leftist street and campus demonstrations. Violent change is what they are interested in. Presumably, in another time and place, many of them would have joined Hitler's Brownshirts.
But not all motivations for Leftism are as discreditable as the ones given above. Among the more reasonable motivations for Leftism would be:
1). A home for the weird: Some Leftists know that they themselves are weird by general social standards so preach change towards greater tolerance for all weirdness out of sheer self-interest. As George Orwell said in "The road to Wigan pier":
"One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words socialism and communism draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, Nature-cure quack, pacifist and feminist in England...
"We have reached a stage when the very word socialism calls up, on the one hand, a picture of airplanes, tractors and huge glittering factories of glass and concrete; on the other, a picture of vegetarians with wilting beards, of Bolshevik commissars (half gangster, half gramophone), or earnest ladies in sandals, shock-headed Marxists chewing polysyllables, escaped Quakers, birth control fanatics, and Labour Party backstairs-crawlers.
"If only the sandals and pistachio-colored shirts could be put in a pile and burnt, and every vegetarian, teetotaler and creeping Jesus sent home to Welwyn Garden City to do his yoga exercises quietly. As with the Christian religion, the worst advertisement for Socialism is its adherents."
2). Evolutionary biology: Another reason for Leftism that seems worth considering comes from biological theory. If there can be sociological and psychological explanations for Leftism, why not biological ones too? Martin & Jardine (1986) and Eaves, Heath, Martin, Meyer & Corey (1999) have reported strong genetic heritability for political orientation so the possibility of a biological explanation must be taken seriously. See also here. A possible biological or evolutionary explanation would be that Leftism is a remnant of the primitive hunter-gatherer in us. A liking for change might have been highly adaptive among hunter-gatherers because it caused them to wander around the landscape more and thus exposed them to a greater diversity of food-sources. Some support for this is the strong tradition, still occasionally observable today, for Australian Aborigines to want to "go walkabout" (leave their current environment) from time to time. Australian Aborigines were, of course, a purely hunter-gatherer people before the coming of the white man. Against this view, however, one must put the fact that hunter gatherer societies in general seem to be characterized more by changelessness than anything else. In hunter-gatherer tribes the same things are done in the same way for generation after generation. It could be however that a changeless environment usually prevents significant change in practices regardless of any desire for change. The corollary of this explanation, of course, is that a conservative orientation has been selected for by the requirements of civilization: People who are psychologically settled are needed to make civilization work.
3). Search for tribal unity and fellowship: There is a different account of Leftism as a biological phenomenon in an article by Daniel Klein here (PDF). He calls the phenomenon he has in mind "The Peoples' Romance" (TPR). Klein argues that because of our evolutionary past, people long to be part of one big group or "community". They in fact like to feel that everyone around them is on their side in some sense. It is a sort of genetic memory of the hunter-gatherer tribe supporting one-another against the elements. So people in whom that need is strong try to convert the whole of their country into one big brotherly tribe. To me as an instinctive individualist, it all seems rather pathetic and I have myself never knowingly felt that way. Being on good terms with just a few like-minded individuals is plenty for me. Nonetheless it is easy to see how such feelings must have evolved and I suppose the wonder is that such feelings are not strong among us all. So the idea is that Leftists are really trying to satisfy their primitive yearning for unity at the expense of all those who want no part of any such social straitjacket. It certainly helps explain the straitjacket societies developed under Hitler's national socialism and Stalin's "socialism in one country". An excerpt from the article:
Many people, particularly ones who in the American context would tend to vote Democrat or Green, are inclined to support economic restrictions such union privileges, occupational licensing, the minimum wage, housing market-controls, the postal monopoly, and import restrictions. Yet knowledgeable economists agree that these restrictions are bad for humankind.
Perhaps their support arises because TPR requires, as Bukharin and Preobrazhensky put it, that activities be statified. [not stratified] What seems primary is not often how well the program or policy achieves stated goals of improving education, mobility, opportunity, and so on but instead the collective endeavor itself.
Why do people who claim to be concerned for the poor so often support or go along with policies that are obviously and predictably bad for society and especially the poor? Why do they support government schooling, antidevelopment land-use policies, rail transit projects, and policies to discourage the use of the private automobile? TPR provides an explanation: these policies bind people together (like a bundle of sticks).
Many populists, right and left, oppose free trade, alleging that it will hurt low-skilled workers. Even if that claim were true, however, why do they leave out of their consideration low-skilled Chinese or Brazilians? Answer: TPR is about we Americans. "The People" excludes "the other people." TPR helps explain why "distributive justice" reaches only to the border. If you scratch an egalitarian you'll often find TPR.
I suspect that a large part of the impetus behind the welfare state is the yearning for a collective enterprise: "We" taking care of "Ourselves." In this theater, some have to be cast as the needy, helpless, disadvantaged, inferior, and so on. I suspect that one reason coercive egalitarians feel that "the disadvantaged" deserve government support is that the scheme demeans and exploits them, so that the assistance is a sort of compensation.
Why are people uneasy about globalization? The communitarian Alasdair MacIntyre rightly says: "Patriotism cannot be what it was because we lack in the fullest sense a patria. . . . In any society where government does not express or represent the moral community of the citizens . . . the nature of political obligation becomes systematically unclear (1984, 254). Globalization blurs the "we," dissolves political obligation, and deflates TPR.
Why are government officials and enthusiasts often hostile to leading corporations like Microsoft, McDonald's, Wal-Mart, and Martha Stewart? Why are they often hostile to other bases for independent private cultural power such as private builders, private schools, and talk radio? Part of the answer may be that they are jealous in guarding their role as medium and focal point in TPR. Why are they hostile to placeless "suburban sprawl," private communities, private shopping malls, the private automobile (especially big ones), gun ownership and toting, and home schooling? Because these practices are means of withdrawing from TPR and creating an autonomous circle of authority, power, and experience.
This theory does have very considerable explanatory power and has the additional interest that the "romance" concerned would appear to be one that can be seen in both leaders (from Hegel to Tony Blair) and followers -- which is not always the case. It would certainly seem to form a large part of the dreamy underpinnings of Leftism, even if it is not in the same class as envy and egotism as a main driver of Leftism.
4). Child-rearing practices: A final possibility among the more creditable motivations for Leftism locates the appeal of Leftism solely in its usual stress on equality. The French Leftist Todd (1985) has put forward anthropological evidence to suggest that Leftism has strong appeal only in countries where child-rearing practices stress equality of treatment between siblings. Thus Russia showed easy acceptance of Communism because Russian parents normally go to great length to treat all their children equally -- particularly by dividing up inheritances (property) equally. Whereas Britain has only ever had a tiny Communist party because of the traditional English practice of primogeniture -- where the eldest son gets almost all of the inherited property. English child-rearing practices have never had a devotion to treating siblings equally so the English do not usually expect or hope for equality of property distribution in later life. So your attraction to the dream of equality may reflect a childhood where parents imposed a rule of equality. Because of your childhood experiences, equality seems emotionally "right", regardless of its practicality. Note however, that the work by Martin & Jardine (1986) and Eaves, Heath, Martin, Meyer & Corey (1999) -- already mentioned above -- showing that Leftism is to a very considerable extent genetically transmitted rather than learnt militates against this as a general explanation for Leftism. Explanations of Leftism in terms of personality variables -- such as strong ego-need -- do not encounter this objection as the strong genetic transmission of personality characteristics has often been demonstrated (e.g. Lake, Eaves, Maes, Heath & Martin, 2000).
So although there can be many causes of Leftism and although all sorts of different people can be Leftist in one way or another, there would seem to remain a core Leftist type -- seen at its clearest among Leftist academics and intellectuals. Although such people form only a small fraction of the total population, their influence and their grasp on the levers of power in the media, in the bureaucracy, in the universities and, at times, in politics, make what they think, say and do very important indeed. And it is my contention that this type is eerily reminiscent of a well-known psychiatric category: The psychopath. So the ULTIMATE explanation for all the core characteristics of Leftism that have been described so far lies in many Leftists being sub-clinical psychopaths.
The topic of psychopathy is however a large one and, as an academic who has contributed to the literature on the subject, I am well aware of the still-limited nature of our understanding of it. I therefore give extensive and detailed coverage to Leftism as psychopathy here -- which readers should refer back to if what follows in the summary below seems too glib.
Below are the principal headings (you can click on them to go to a particular heading) in my psychopathy article:
Leftist amorality as sub-clinical psychopathy
Principles? What principles?
Psychopathic tolerance of brutality among "liberals"
A brief summary of Leftist amorality and indifference to suffering
Is Leftism juvenile rather than psychopathic?
Psychopathic Leftist reliance on lies and dishonesty
Leftists as practitioners of "the big lie"
Psychopathy, elitism and hate
Clinton as a psychopath
John Kerry as a psychopath
Summary of the psychology of the Left
All explanations simply push the need for explanation one step further back. If you show that Y is caused by X then the next question is obviously, "what causes X?". I think that what has been said so far has taken us through three such steps. We initially saw that ideologically-committed Leftists (as distinct from the much larger number of people who vote for Left-leaning political parties at election time) are motivated by dislike of the society about them and have a consequent devotion to change. As the second step we saw that many love change in part because it gives them opportunities to strut and feed their large but weak egos in various ways -- including giving them opportunites for gaining power.
Now however we have come to the point of suggesting that the emotional shallowness that a large but weak ego implies may in fact be just one symptom of a much broader and more serious emotional and intellectual deficit -- psychopathy. Psychopaths are after all renowned for their emotional shallowness -- to the point where they can at times seem entirely devoid of emotion. Additionally, we have seen that Leftists not only have the moral imbecility of the psychopath but in fact proudly proclaim it -- in their "postmodernist" doctrine (See here) that everything is relative and nothing is better or worthier than anything else (except when it suits Leftists, of course). We have also seen that the other major characteristics of the psychopath -- indifference to brutality and reliance on lies -- are present in spades among Leftists. And most of all, the sense of superiority to others and the masked contempt for others are at once very psychopathic and very Leftist.
In a basic sense, then, it has been proven that many Leftists are psychopathic: They have all the symptoms. To show that they and clinical psychopaths have similar brain function would be the next step but the study of psychopathy itself is still only in its infancy so that step would seem a long way off as yet. Psychologists might consider it a useful step to examine whether or not Leftists score high on standard questionnaires that are used to detect psychopathy but I have shown elsewhere the large problems in that.
In summary, then, Leftism at its deepest level would seem to be a form of sub-clinical psychopathy -- not normally severe enough to get the person into much trouble but severe enough to cause lots of trouble for others.
In my monograph on conservatism I have argued that conservatism too is primarily a psychological phenomenon, though not a pathological one. But if the Left/Right divide is a psychological one, it almost has to be ancient. We know from recent genetic research (e.g. here) that human evolution has been much more rapid and recent than was once thought possible but any claim that human psychology has changed markedly in (say) the last thousand years is highly improbable. So there should be signs of something a lot like our modern Left/Right division from long before the 20th and 21st centuries.
It is for that reason that my monograph on conservatism takes a heavily historical approach. I note there, for instance, the similarities between modern politics and the politics of Tudor England. But we can in fact go a lot further back than that. To see it, we need to remind ourselves of the perennial (if thoroughly mendacious) Leftist claim to be "for the little guy". This is quite explicitly a claim of class favouritism and functions mainly to give Leftists the warm inner glow that they need so badly. Leftists often seem to want to give us the impression that righteousness and virtue are somehow especially inherent in the poor. But, for whatever reason, the Left are adamant that the poor should somehow get special treatment, usually in the form of handouts or services that are not equally available to all. Free legal aid for the poor is merely one example of that which springs to mind but various sorts of exemptions from paying for your own health insurance are also of course now common.
But in its great tirade preaching the need for impersonal and objective justice, we find that Exodus 23 explicitly forbids such class favouritism. We read in verse 3: "Nor shall you be partial to a poor man in his suit" (RSV). The fact that such a prohibition was thought necessary clearly implies that even in early Hebrew times there were those who thought you SHOULD favour the poor. Biblical scholars differ on the antiquity of Exodus but we see that the loudly proclaimed partiality towards the poor that we hear from Leftists today clearly had predecessors many centuries before Christ. Leftism is indeed ancient, even if it is only in comparatively recent times that it has come to be called that.
Before we leave the psychology of the Left, however, it seems important to have one further look at each of two other major aspects of Leftist psychology: Egotism and denial of reality. Both characteristics are common in psychopaths but are of course far from exclusive to psychopaths and the less extreme Leftists may have ego problems without being psychopathic. So ego problems deserve some consideration in their own right. And, as the quote from the insightful T.S. Eliot at the beginning of this file suggests, denial of reality may be an important defence mechanism for those dealing with ego problems. So let us step right back and look at the basic nature of egotism:
There is no dispute that thinking well of oneself is in general healthy, normal and desirable. But it is very difficult to point an optimum level of self-satisfaction. That ego can very easily go beyond an optimum is nonetheless surely clear. It could even be argued that excess ego is the besetting "sin" of the human race, that people generally are far more in love with themselves than is wise. By this I mean that many if not most of our troubles can be traced to people thinking too highly of themselves. Let us consider some examples:
As perhaps the most obvious instance of egotism, crime involves the criminal thinking that he alone matters and that (for instance) the person who has worked to earn possession of certain assets is not nearly so entitled to those assets as the criminal (thief) who wants them. The thief is putting his wants far above any consideration for others.
In the post-Soviet world, one of the most pernicious forms of excessive ego is nationalism and racism. We all know how Hitler's incredible ego gave birth to the notion that he and his fellow Teutons were a superior race and thus justified and brought about the slaughter of some of Europe's best and brightest (the Jews). But even in the last decade of the second millennium there were Hitlers everywhere, from Serbia to Rwanda. Everywhere the folly of believing that those like oneself (i.e. those of one's own group, tribe, nation or race) are somehow better or more worthy is leading to mass slaughter of outgroup members. How much a little humility would do towards preventing such evils!
Perhaps it is my Presbyterian upbringing but it seems to me that another great evil that afflicts many in all societies I know of is gambling. It causes significant losses to many and is quite disastrous to some -- leading to poverty, broken marriages, crime etc. Yet even vision-challenged Frederick knows that the house always wins in the end and that 99% of gamblers lose in the end. Even those who win big at the lottery etc generally seem to blow it all and rapidly return to poverty. So why fight such extremely adverse odds? Why devote oneself to fighting losing battles? Why destroy one's hard-earned money so pointlessly? Ego. The gambler thinks he is special. He must (almost by definition) think that he can beat the odds. He thinks that he has special powers or special luck. What a fool! Gambling could then be seen as a rather pernicious form of mental illness if one did not understand that it is derived from our dominant human folly of excess ego.
Religion is perhaps the most pervasive expression of ego. Ego thinks that he or she is so important that he/she cannot really die and that the creator of the universe is concerned about his/her every thought and deed! How unrealistic! How ludicrous! How egocentric! If the universe does have a creator, such a creator is surely far above any human passions or concerns and has far bigger things to concern him/it than worry about what some priest does with his penis (for instance). And yet what evils have been perpetrated in the name of religion! Without excess ego, we would, for instance, have no Islamic fundamentalism.
And that secular religion known as Socialism or Communism is just another case in point. Some middle-class academic theorists were egotistical enough to think that they could with a little thought remake all of mankind's economic arrangements for the better overnight. They thought that they could repeal some of the deepest human passions by legislation and "education". From Lenin to Pol Pot they killed millions in their procrustean attempt to make humanity fit their preconceived notions. What towering ego and what a vast evil! Despite the now almost universally acknowledged failure of the Communist experiment, however, the ego that drove the Communists and their ilk has not gone away. In modern Leftists it still leads to pervasive "equalizing" follies, but on a less ambitious scale.
One of the great virtues of capitalism is that, in capitalism, excess ego is largely self-correcting. I may think I have this great idea that will enable me to sell millions of products or services and put everything I have into the project in the firm belief that I will make millions out of it. But if I am wrong and I am not as clever as I thought I was, people will not buy and I will go broke. I will learn a lesson in humility the hard way.
Conclusions: Humility versus Self-Esteem
So in the end I am again struck by the insight of that much quoted but little heeded wise man -- Jesus Christ -- in his preaching of humility and concern for others (e.g. Matthew 5:3-5; 18:4; 23:8-12). It does seem to be just what the human race needs. The "self-esteem" gospel that passes for wisdom among present-day psychologists is the antithesis of this in that it positively fosters the growth of ego. In Christian terms this psychological credo could perhaps well be characterized as the Devil's gospel. In my own personal terms, I would simply say that for the good of us all we generally need less self-esteem in people, not more.
The self-esteem gurus would no doubt argue that Hitler had to have LOW self-esteem to perpetrate his anti-social evils. If, however, the self-proclaimed "leader" (Fuehrer) of the "master-race" (Herrenvolk) was short of self-esteem, what meaning could the concept have? If Hitler had low self-esteem, how would we ever recognize high self-esteem? We would need some pretty circular definitions, I suspect.
This does however highlight the seeming paradox that many of those who seem to have very high self-regard also often seem to a have high need for that self-regard to be reinforced. The person with excess ego also seems to have a high ego-need. This is hardly surprising, however. There is much in the world and in life that tells each of us about our inadequacies, failures and mistakes so any person who has a high level of self-love has a lot of attacks on that self-love to fend off, counteract and defend against. The higher one's self-love, the more there is to attack and the more one will have a need to get it justified in some way. Humility would make life a lot simpler and realism a lot easier. It is no wonder that the inflated ego of the Leftist makes him/her an habitual denier of reality.
I myself rarely use the term "self-esteem" precisely because of the confusion over how we should describe self-esteem in people like Hitler. I speak of ego instead. So I would say that Hitler (like most Leftists) had a big ego but a weak one. He had a greatly inflated idea of how good he was but he was never confident in his self-assessment and needed bigger and bigger achievements and more and more adulation to prop up his self-assessment. Egotists, in short, are weak people who make a great nuisance of themselves in their search for praise -- as T.S. Eliot said.
So it would seem likely that there is in general an inverse relationship between ego size and ego strength. People who have a modest view of themselves and their own abilities can and do live fairly independent and happy lives untroubled by much self doubt -- so could in the confusing language of "self-esteem" be therefore said to have high self-esteem.
Coda: The Biology of Egotism
From the viewpoint of theoretical (evolutionary) biology, unrealistically big egos may once have been fairly adaptive. In pre-modern times, when human life was generally "nasty, brutish and short" (to misquote Leviathan by Hobbes), it took a big ego to carry on and think that one could survive and do well. Without a big ego, a rational man might well have been tempted in such times to "drop his bundle" (give up, cease the struggle, lie down and die). Only unrealistic egotism could support in him the belief that he could do better than the common lot of man at that time and thus keep on struggling and surviving. Now that survival and a good lifespan is for most of us more or less guaranteed and boredom is a far greater problem than enough food or other material basics, excess ego has lost its usefulness and has only negative consequences -- as outlined above.
"The most common of all follies is to believe passionately in the palpably not true. It is the chief occupation of mankind." (H.L. Mencken)
There would seem to be some possibility that excess ego can be curbed. The traditional Christian preaching of humility certainly assumes that. It is doubtful, however, that another underpinning of Leftism can be much influenced: Denial of reality.
Denial is perhaps best known through the work of Sigmund Freud as a classical neurotic symptom or coping mechanism. Instead of dealing with uncomfortable truths, the neurotic acts as if those truths simply do not exist. This is, of course, very maladaptive and creates at least as many problems as it solves.
Sadly, however, it would seem that reality denial is far from limited to psychiatric cases. Denial would appear to be in fact much more common even than excess egotism. Human beings generally do not handle reality well. That is why humans are such a drug-using species. Whether it be alcohol, cannabis, opiates, Khat, cocaine, nicotine or merely caffeine, few of us seem able to face life without chemical crutches. Straight reality is generally too much for us.
And at the risk of offending many good and worthy religious people, I have to say that from my social scientific viewpoint, religion too is essentially a reality denying exercise. As Marx famously said, it is the "opium of the people". Those of us with ultimately Judaic traditions delude ourselves into believing that somewhere there must exist some real counterpart to the omnipotent and benevolent father we thought we had in our early childhood and those of us influenced by Eastern religions generally believe that our elder family members continue to be able to help us even after death. We invent imaginary helpers and benefactors to replace the lack of real ones.
But WHY are human beings so uncomfortable with reality? Why do they use so many means to "escape" it? Again it probably goes back to more primitive times when reality was very oppressive and dispiriting. Only those who could escape reality in some way had the heart to carry on. So a talent for ignoring unpleasant truths was adaptive. In the modern world, however, reality is much more benign and, as Freud saw, denying it can easily descend into the psychopathological.
So any attack on the reality-denying habits of Leftists would appear doomed to failure. Even such an overwhelming reality as the utter collapse of the world's 70 year experiment with Communism caused them not at all to abandon their equalitarian mania but only to change their focus somewhat. The best we can hope for is to keep the self-deluded ones out of power. We need to deny them the one thing they so avidly seek, in other words -- very sad though that is.
Only a secondary attempt has been made here to define or study conservatism or the political Right. The focus has been on the political Left (in world terms) or "liberalism" (in North American terms). It is concluded that the one thing that all committed Leftists have in common (until they get into complete power) is a desire for change in society -- and that for many Leftists advocating change serves mainly to meet the Leftist's strong ego-needs -- the need for attention, praise and, ultimately power. Most Leftists are not therefore really much interested in the reality of what they advocate -- so normally greatly oversimplify any political issues that they debate -- often to the point of ignoring many of the facts of the matter. It is only their own glory and the imposition of their own ideas on others that matters to them. The stance they take on any issue will be entirely dictated by that -- not by any considerations of truth, realism or consistent application of principle. Evidence is also pointed out which suggests that Leftism is at the deepest level a sub-clinical form of psychopathy.
Do traits exist?
In all the above I have made the normal assumption that there are such things as traits. To the normal person, it seems obvious that people can be described as (for instance) kind, honest, foolish, neurotic, trusting etc. There are in fact a very large number of ways in which people can be so categorized. What seems obvious to most people, however, does not always seem obvious to intellectuals, and the existence of traits is one of the things that some philosophers and psychologists do call into question. If they could succeed in convincing people that traits do not exist, it would certainly put a sock in my calling Leftists egotistical, psychopathic etc. So I think I should shoot down that particular nonsense before I go.
There is a much-linked article on moral philosophy by Prof. Gilbert Harman of the Philosophy Dept. at Princeton -- titled "Moral Philosophy Meets Social Psychology" which espouses that claim. Judging by his publication list, Harman is one of the eminences of American moral philosophy. Since I did do a "major" in analytical philosophy in my student days, I felt confident to say that in my view his article is straight out of cloud-cuckoo land (with apologies to Aristophanes).
I have no idea of Harman's general political orientation but his argument on this subject is classic Leftist stuff. To oversimplify a little, he claims that there is no such thing as a stable personality trait in anybody and that "It's all situational". It is only people's environment that dictates how they behave. So there is no barrier to creating a "new Soviet man", for instance. He claims, in other words, that there is no such thing as a "kind" man, a "dominant" man a "selfish" man etc. etc. His reasoning seems to be the completely fallacious: "Because nobody is kind all the time, therefore nobody is kind most of the time".
His article is deceptive from the outset. He claims that his view is "widespread" among social psychologists. If one psychologist in half a dozen countries around the world held such a view, I suppose the view could indeed be described as "widespread" but that would not at all mean that it is a majority view. And to my knowledge it is in fact the view of only a small minority of psychologists. Such a view had some vogue in response to a paper by Mischel (Mischel, W. (1977) "On the future of personality measurement" American Psychologist 32, 246-254) but the vast majority of psychologists continued to talk of traits nonetheless.
Where Harman appears to have gone wrong is in his narrow view of social psychology. There are two strands of social psychology -- the experimental and the correlational. The typical method of the first is to tell lies to your students and see what happens next while the typical method of the second is simply to ask people what they think about a variety of topics. Almost all my papers are in the latter tradition. And the reason why I and many others do the sort of psychology we do is that we find the totally unknowable generalizability of the experimental work to be deeply unsatisfactory. Neither people nor situations are normally sampled in any way in such work so any attempt to draw general conclusions from its results is faith, not science. And it is the "faith-based" work that Harman relies on.
The more soundly-based correlational work, on the other hand, almost automatically has the means of examining the sort of assertion made by Harman. It has the data to tell (via factor analysis etc.) whether there is any trait-like consistency in what people report about themselves. And there is. People do report considerable consistency in how they behave from situation to situation. And not only that, but the consistency can usually be readily summarized by normal trait adjectives, and OTHER PEOPLE agree that the self-described consistencies of behaviour do exist in the individual concerned (e.g. here). Harman has simply not attempted to look at the evidence most relevant to his assertion. But unconcern about the evidence is of course hardly new among Leftists. I would even describe it as one of their "traits"!
I sent a copy of the above critique to Prof. Harman. He emailed me a brief reply, the key sentence of which was "My article was intended only to point to certain developments in social psychology" -- a much more modest claim than he in fact originally made. For instance, he originally said "Character based virtue ethics may offer a reasonable account of ordinary moral views. But to that extent, these ordinary views rest on error". A climbdown from "error" to "certain developments" is quite a plummet. Given the way he had ignored half the evidence on his topic, a backdown was of course all that was available to him.
Full citation details for all references used in this monograph can be found here