Thursday, December 29, 2005

A long days journey into caution

[updates may appear above the foot notes]

Sister Novena makes me smile even when she doesn't make me think. She has weighed in with her understanding of a common observation: That somewhere along the road to middle age, many who were identified and even self-identified as "liberal" in their youth, wind up voting Republican or even calling themselves "conservative".

I didn't have a good answer to Sister's riddle. And I may not yet, but her observations got me to thinking. This post will stand on two legs which may get crossed or trip over each other:
  • demonstration by citation and example that indeed this rightward drift occurs in some portion of us as we age and
  • an attempt to understand the phenomenon as a consequence of cognitive development.

Our aging American electorate and the rise in numbers of voters who identify themselves as conservative are probably not coincidence. While her observation is not isolated, mention of it in political blogging is uncommon enough to seem merely anecdotal, off the radar, so to speak. The clearest, most graphic documentation of it that I could find was buried on page 52 of this study [which is actually a mother lode for posts on gender equality, my emphasis]:
Much of the egalitarian shift in public opinion from the late 1970s to the mid 1990s resulted from more liberal recent cohorts replacing more conservative older cohorts. This cohort replacement effect continues even now to push average public opinion towards more liberal gender roles. Thus, the overall slight conservative shift seen in Figure 17 for the last decade masks a much stronger conservative shift within each cohort. Most individuals have become more conservative in the last ten years; this has been offset somewhat because younger generations have entered the public arena far more liberal than their grandparents. But after they entered, since the mid 1990s they have become more conservative as has the rest of America.
-Cotter, et. al.

I have observed that shift of focus and sympathy among a few of my own family, friends and acquaintances. It is a phenomenon worth understanding.

I have an idea for explaining Sister's observation which Churchill allegedly expressed as " Any man under 30 who is not a liberal has no heart, and any man over 30 who is not a conservative has no brains."
First, I offer two general observations about the nature of the maturing mind:
  1. Youthful foolhardiness: the young tend to think themselves indestructible. "NO FEAR" is good marketing here.
  2. Maturing includes surviving brushes with our mortality. "Know fear" is the hidden persuader here.
An example in my own life actually interrupted the writing of this post. Illustration helps, though nobody wants to be in this picture. We all know examples, I am certain.
My 20 year old son talked me into a Dec 26 scaling of Mt Washington. It rained on the 26th so we spent the day renting crampons and ice axes and climbing the easy half of the 1260 meters. Every damp thing having frozen solid, we got a late start on the hard climbing the next morning when temps were about 10 below freezing and winds were70 mph gusting to 100 above tree line. Just below timberline, a 300 meter ascent is, in places, practically vertical though not technical ice climbing. I balked. When I was 14 I nearly killed myself free climbing the crumbling face of a highway grade cut. I have never used crampons or ice axe and while they seemed to make an impossible climb possible, I could not imagine getting down without falling. He coaxed and coached. We kept on. We broke out of the trees and were repeatedly knocked off our feet by the wind as we alternately trudged and crawled across bare rock and drifts, ice chips blowing at us like buck shot. It was a unique and challenging experience for both of us, exhilarating for both of us but initially an ordeal for me. I did get back down. One short section was difficult enough to reignite my nervous caution but I just took it slow.
I had become the adult more fearful than the child, too sensible to not fear the new and too inclined to weigh heavily the potential risks. He was the child adventurer, not actually experienced with the ice equipment but a spider-like rock climber with a careful manner of studying and calculating just what is physically possible. I carry various healed fractures to remind me I once gave little thought to adverse outcomes. But it is also true those bones carry me, and I long considered them my better bones for the lessons they kept in my mind. Now I am not so sure about those bones. Time and my equipment were not in our favor and, within sight of the summit, we turned back. Fortunately he has a sense of when his plans are not a match to the realities and a graceful retreat from folly marks his character. The summit is not always the highest point of the climb.

I am not yet to the stage where experience of my own frailty has paralyzed me but it is a well documented condition of the elderly, reversible only by concerted effort and sheer will power.

The experience also shows me:
When I meet an older person, I may have to talk with them a while to discern whether they are living to a ripe old age or dying slowly. If that old person is me, I may not notice the difference.

Is there a link from the slightly neurotic aversions some of us learn from life's tough lessons to the emergence of conservative views in a substantial portion of us? Yes, there is. I will call it the politics of caution.

This is the weaker leg of my argument: that with age, we accumulate or learn of the harms life holds but the fear must be sublimated. I am hardly the originator of such ideas. Fear is an uncomfortable, intolerable state. The consciousness of vulnerability is quickly supplanted and covered by caution, hatreds, denial, avoidance, mistrust or combinations of those crutches. Caution is the most direct, most common and least pathological response to fear. It is often rational at its inception in the wake of experiencing something harmful. If the perceived threat is not rational, neither is the caution and even when it is due, it can be over done and with passage of time, I recon it typically is overdone.

How natural and instinctive it seems, to suppose that fear must produce some response appropriate to and protective against the perceived threat that gives rise to the fear. Fear is the great mistake. Caution and its less helpful allies are the great cover-up. If this over-learning of protective caution is our nature, are we stuck? Not entirely. I know some veer left with age, others to the right. I have seen that divergence in one house, among siblings. I have to assume we all learn different lessons from the same hardship. What nudges us to grow more conservative or more liberal could be a complex of genetics or sibling order , community and religious environment. However, those would all be factors affecting the way our minds or personalities incorporate experience into future judgments. Exact mechanisms and particular cases would fill a book and this is only a blog. I mainly sought to find if growing more conservative with age was a general trend, which it seems to be. The many factors that might play into the development of a political outlook will just be dealt with here as if they had some average when you considered a nation's voters as a whole. If I take that approach, then I give up accounting for my own drift to the left but on the other hand, I think I might not have to write a whole book [you know I like brevity] to argue that a general trend could betoken a general mechanism. A general mechanism to account for a change of attitude toward others, and about what priorities to put on threats present and presumed is basically a learning mechanism, the cognitive cogs that turn for us to acquire beliefs and learned responses. So it comes down to an argument that once burned, some people spend the rest of their life scanning the horizon for smoke and shivering on cold nights, some people resolve to learn how to juggle flaming batons but most people operate with diminished confidence, a reduced repertoire of fire handling activities and an increased preference for the company of men in firefighting uniform. The general mechanism I will suggest is simply an over reaction to threat. This might be worsened by political or religious leadership with something to gain from an alarmed constituency. Modeled as dysfunctional learning, it could be a whole range of mistakes from overgeneralization of threats to unnuanced perception of the original source of the threat. I don't find it hard to imagine making these mistakes myself.

Try these sentences on for size. Can you say them with a straight face? Where have you heard them? In whose conversations are they the subtext when they are not the text?
  • "They are out to get us. Really! They are!"
  • "Those people are going to take all my money and I won't have enough left to care for myself."
  • "Their loud music and strange's like we have been invaded."
  • "They work for peanuts...they'll take my job!"

Now these:
  • "Clearly, we need a strong military."
  • "People work hard for their money and the government should let them keep more of it."
  • "Why should the government tell bankers where they must make home loans?"
  • "Immigration quotas are the fairest way to balance everyone's interests, we can loosen up work visa programs in the future"

The point of that little thought experiment is that every fear can be turned into a plank in the political platform of the politics of caution. Is that so far fetched an exercise?

I give you three instances here, more would add little to the argument.

Though I am certain one exists, I could not find a study or poll on line that directly addressed concern about law and order and public safety in the US in general as it varied with age of those varies greatly north to south and urban to rural. I found such a study conducted in 1999 in Denmark. On page 18 it reports that 78 percent of the retirees are most worried about law and order and the number falls to 56 percent for the 30-somethings. Though the percent of US citizens who personally suffer a violent crime is a single digit number [we are talking averages here! and we are NOT saying numbers above 0 are "good"], the nightly local news usually starts with such items. Fear for ones safety escalates with age. And that translates into poll numbers.

Failing health, that doormat before the grave, addicts a population already addicted to hamburgers and barely weaned off smokes to another of our ugly national not-enough-for-everyone issues: health care. Liberal and conservative alike see both the rising costs and the rising demand like an incoming tsunami. Universal healthcare is the program wrought by those willing to share and by the fears of many who don't have money or any other qualification to afford treatment. What we have now in health care is probably the last years of a broken down or breaking scheme in which most of us are saying under our breath "thank god I have a job" and the rest of us pray under our breath "I hope I don't get sick". Caution comes out sounding like "it aint broke so don't fix it". Health delivery reforms have become essentially profit/loss improvements in a business so concentrated in the hands of HMO and insurance company boards of directors that even doctors, who mostly believe "first I heal, and then I bill", are almost out of the loop. Our fears are nearer the surface in these matters, fear by those with care that their care will be diluted, and fear by those with marginal access that they could be ruined by a single illness. Do the older voters have a more conservative voice on this issue? In 2000, a study by the Harvard School of Public Health found older voters were a distinct block focused on Medicare while the rest of us considered health care costs and the uninsured as problems.

To see as we grow old that our finances become shaky is one of the fears that has had a paradoxical effect...the same old voters who otherwise default to the Republicans, have a fear that makes them apprehensive of Dubya's money-grabbing "reforms" to social security: a stalemate of fears sets up a political doldrums. Where Dubya thought he could cut a wide swath of "conservative" improvement, he gets bubkes. This may have been a disappointment to his coach. If you consult the original draft of Rove's playbook, fear was supposed to be a great tool for forging political will. In the end, freeing yourself from fear, subtle and trying as that may be, is how you free yourself from political evil. You will not get a conservative to admit to practicing the politics of fear but they may volunteer to correct your presumption by telling you that the politics of caution is simply prudence in practice. This rejection of Dubya's raid on the social security piggy bank got support from the left but the AARP came out swinging too. On this issue the "people who don't want change" was a broader section of the population than could be conveniently labeled conservative. Resistance from older voters who were concerned that their money was in jeopardy was added to that of more liberal voters who just don't buy anything the Bush administration is selling.

UPDATES: Amanda Marcotte has done me and my hit counter a great favor by discussing this post on Pandagon. Unfortunately, Pandagon's switch-over to WordPress seems to have eaten the rather interesting commenting that went on there. I printed hardcopy of the commenting there when there were about 20 comments [I was at work and could not linger on line]...I will put up replys as I catch the time.

Foot Note: when conservatives take this quote for spin, they drive it in the ditch:
First of all, according to Wikipedia, the quote is apocryphal.

According to the Falsely Attributed Quotations page at the Churchill Centre, "there is no record of anyone hearing Churchill say this." Paul Addison of Edinburgh University is quoted as stating: "Surely Churchill can't have used the words attributed to him. He'd been a Conservative at 15 and a Liberal at 35! And would he have talked so disrespectfully of Clemmie, who is generally thought to have been a lifelong Liberal?"
  1. Any man who is under 30, and is not a liberal, has not heart; and any man who is over 30, and is not a conservative, has no brains.
  2. Show me a young conservative and I'll show you someone with no heart. Show me an old liberal and I'll show you someone with no brains.

Also, just read the quotes at the Wikipedia page. They are in chronological order. They appear to demonstrate Churchill had an abiding wit but racist and chauvinist streaks to his early sentiments faded out by mid career. His quotes are among the wittiest we have but we seem to like his misquotes better.

Of course, there are young conservatives...most seem to be clicking their heels together just to scare people, espousing violence, loudly preaching things nobody wants them to practice and of course, taking the "exact quote" backwards. Who they hate is clear to them. Why they hate is not clear. Factual news in support of their opinions is scant. Their mode is a gang-like encouraging of each other's denouncing and denigrating "liberals". I don't like this form of political "thought". Not from any side of the political spectrum. The chief force at work appears to be individuals identifying with a group and the reinforcing of ego through promotion of the group with which they have identified. The last thing that I expect to see in such a forum is any questioning of the values implied or efficacy of means espoused.

Conservatism embrittles and weakens religion as thoroughly as it does politics. The fundamentalist branches of a few Christian sects do most of the muddling and mixing of politics and religion in this if their god was not as powerful as the government and so political power was needed for them to live a religious life. The religion of youth is a borrowed thing, a parroting. The religion of older folks is the garment, shabby or fine, they have made with their own life. I do not for one second dismiss a religion that produces a mind like Paul Tillich or a conscience like Martin Neimoller. But I struggle to understand how a nearly universal but vague urge to gain a sense of life's meaning ossifies into exclusionary, sometimes paranoid absolutes. Unless they can get past the unconscious death-denial that masquerades as fervent belief in afterlife and entails an obsession with what one must do and "believe" to qualify for that afterlife, I am of the opinion that most fundamentalists and others who believe a well worked out mythology of afterliving are operating on fear. The fear of death is absent in most youngsters and dawns sooner or later in most adults. Its advent may even mark, along with sexual awakening, the threshold of adulthood. As this fear more tightly grips otherwise intelligent and constructive individuals, their "faith" has to kick in more and more unless they are tough enough to face the dark emptiness that, poised to swallow, looms all around their little flickering candle of life. As an example, here is the blog of an intelligent and not completely insensitive gentleman who considers his political and religious conservatism the right and proper maturation of attitude per his misquote of Churchill....he is a likable guy with musical tastes I share to read his blogging and yet he holds on to pictures of fear and hatred. I read a few of his posts and feel sorry for the man in his confusion: he would save egg and sperm as if the mixing of DNA made a soul yet posts careful
accountings of war dead like it justified anything. I read the thoughts of this man I do not know and think:
New killings justified by old killings, "our" dead in close-up, "their" dead in abstraction and indirection...these make the tight vicious circle of history's stepping stones: a self-perpetuating futility to banish death. How many are the ways you can fail to banish death? Only fear of death keeps trying and stops noting failures.
And the fear, deeply sublimated, is not present to make account of its responses.


Anonymous said...

'An ironic way of becoming more the master and less the victim of time is meditation. In ceasing to do anything short of being aware in a wordless and unresisting way of time's flowing by, you can step outside time, cease being like the fish that does not know it lives in water.'

Very well put. It's an annoying truth that private experience seems more real than 'social experience', yet it's from the social that we draw the stories of our lives.

There seems to be a constant tug of war between what we experience privately, 'wordlessly', and the flood of information we are bombarded with daily. Most of the time we make sense of our lives through the social sphere. We find our boundaries, we find our loves and our hates. But it often seems so illusory, a kind of agitation of the private wordless experience of the soul.

The way we cling to the social tells the story of our lives. Some people need to be angry, some people take it all philosophically, and some, often the least verbally gifted, seem to be the most alive. Civilization as containment. How easy to control the educated.

Please forgive me. 'Tis the season. I enjoyed your blog.

GreenSmile said...

Thank you Anon. Your remarks show careful observation. They appear to be the fruit of deep consideration and they will be the object of such consideration.

coturnix said...

Very good post. Thought provoking.

How about yet another alternative hypothesis: As the society evolves it becomes more liberal; liberals of yesterday are, thus, appearing to be more conservative in comparison to the younger generation.

Amy said...

Hell of a post, man.

GreenSmile said...

I would consider that a credible theory but perhaps only as an amplifier of more fundamental underlying mechanisms. It is a culturally relativistic argument and would not be easy to concretely demonstrate without a carefully designed and very longitudinal kind of social survey. The re-interpretation of the past, even by those who lived it, is a source of enormous distortion. My union organizing friends, some quite old, look back on the thirties as a harsh Eden in which their points of view were vindicated, while my dad, a dropout from a new-wealth industrialist heritage cursed all the socialism FDR saddled us with...They were there THEN, passing each other in the street and I was not. Even though the paragraph that precedes my page 52 citation in the Cotter study concludes a general cohort-on-cohort trend toward liberalism is measurable [more or less in agreement with your hypothesis], I point out the "aberration" of a net move to the right as recently measured in the ensemble of all american cohorts is still evidence that aging promotes a drift towards conservatism since we have a dominating cohort, the baby boomers, who are all getting a bit long in the tooth these days. Stable societies, with a continuity of government so framed as to permit some adaptations, certainly could evolve. I look at England as a great example of a society that evolved toward democracy from monarchy, to incarceration from execution, etc, for instance. The U.S. did outgrow slavery and finally gave women the right to vote but seems to have stalled out lately.

Evolution implies some overall way of trying things and keeping what works. Laws, traditions or traditional notions of what freedoms and what responsibilties are incumbant on citizens and institutions are the DNA of this is at best a fitful progress in this case. How to account for the emergence of fascism for instance? As if chickens suddenly began to lay dinosaur eggs! The DNA [documents of laws and practices] may make the most tractable form of evidence/data to study but the links in any evolutionary chain are the individuals: facing their challenges and living [or not] long enough to give rise to the next individuals. In the case of societies and cultures, how do you mark their birth, death and progeny? [Oh dear, I am supposed to be at work...this is obviously a lot more fun than what I get paid to do but I gotta go and do it now.]

Phoenician in a time of Romans said...

A much much simpler argument:

Progressive politics are built on a vision and desire for change. Conservative politics are built on a desire to preserve the status quo and avoid change.

As people get older, their desire for novelty and their ability to tolerate change tends to decline.

coturnix said...

I agree. I just wanted to add another factor into the mix. I also like Amanda's addition to this discussion and the comment thread is starting to look good there, too (and I hope your Sitemeter is enjoying the avalanche from Pandagon).

GreenSmile said...

That that is simpler, I agree. That it is an argument...I am inclined to argue with that.

As I understand progressive politics, yes, that politics does see that the world is, in its institutions, not perfect and that politics does hope those institutions are perfectable. But Conservative politics, in addition to what you correctly [imho] assert, must also have some corresponding idea: either the mores and institutions are perfect or were perfect at some past time for some identified group. The notion of perfection must be shared or it is not perfection: the conservative who seems to confess, in saying the world was never ideal, is setting up a justification for excluding some class from his charmed circle. The conservative is noise among the signal from the perspective of a liberal who begins with a heterogeneous world of classes none of whom is perfect. The liberal is a dog in the manger to the conservative. Ask Ms Coulter.
There is also the spiritual asymetry of the man with something to lose vs the man with something to win.
I cannot agree that a conservative is simply a person wishing to keep things as they are. Theirs is a deeper agenda.

"As people get older, their desire for novelty and their ability to tolerate change tends to decline. is an assertion much like my assertion but with without the primal element of fear. But what does that assertion explain? I didn't do a fantastic job of proving my point but I would ask you to try proving yours...we may all learn something.

If this seems a rude answer, please understand what prompts my challenge: I am not in any huf and delighted actually if I have merited your engagement...but...we seek here understandings that will hold up in more hostile courts.

Phoenician in a time of Romans said...

But Conservative politics, in addition to what you correctly [imho] assert, must also have some corresponding idea:

Simple enough - the status quo evolved for very good reasons, even if we don't fully understand them, and well meaning utopian attempts to change it are likely to lead to chaos through unanticipated consequences.

"As people get older, their desire for novelty and their ability to tolerate change tends to decline." is an assertion much like my assertion but with without the primal element of fear. But what does that assertion explain?

It provides an emotional basis for people feeling more uncomfortable with progressive and more comfortable with conservative stances as they age.

GreenSmile said...

...It provides an emotional basis for people feeling more uncomfortable with progressive and more comfortable with conservative stances as they age..
OK, I can accept that without any theorizing or ramification: I observe in myself and especially in my aging mother that change of almost any kind to routines, to diet, to whatever is less and less welcome as time passes. But it does not account, for instance, for my mom listening only to Bill O'Reilly and seeing nothing but virtue in Bush.

That a status quo evolves is a reasonable conception and supposing I know what you mean by that, I agree. Evolving depends on some constellation of environmental conditions and limits. In general, those can change. To say that the status evolves for a "good" reason betrays a bias toward things as they are being "things as they should be". I think of stati quo as states of balance like piles of boulders just at the angle of repose.

[are we getting closer here Phoenician? I appreciate the exercise]

Blue Cross of California said...

Universal health care can be a great aspect towards our health care system as we are in a major health care crisis with over 45 million which lack coverage.

donna said...