Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Anthropology of Modern Conservatives

French sociologist Émile Durkheim
Paul Krugman articulates my thoughts about conservative rage better than I can so I'll just outsource it to him.
[W]hat we’ve just seen [in the recent Rage Against the Pollsters] is a peek into the modern right-wing psyche, which is obsessed — more than anything else — with power. Policy is one thing; but equally or even more important is the sense of being with the winners, of being part of the team that will stamp its boots on the faces of the other guys. And while conservatives of that ilk would probably concede if pressed on it that there’s a difference between the perception of being on top and the reality determined in an election, emotionally they can’t separate the two: they perceive anyone suggesting that maybe they aren’t going to smash their opponents as a threat.
Krugman's paraphrase of O'Brien from Nineteen Eighty-Four
If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.  
is entirely appropriate.  The world for modern conservatives is made entirely of winners and losers (makers and takers).  There is nothing better than being a winner and nothing worse than being a loser.  And as the captain of the German bobsled team is rumored to have said,
Second place is just first loser!
There is no compromise, there is only victory.  And that human face under the iron boot?  Well, it's the generic face of all liberals and apostate conservatives (now, apparently, including Chris Christie).

It's all about that fleeting thrill of being a winner... That momentary high of Durkheimian "collective effervescence" that being on the winning team brings to the individual participant is a powerful drug.  But it becomes pathological to the modern conservative.

As Durkeim wrote in his masterwork The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, a Study in Religious Sociology, the transcendent emotions brought forth by the collective feeling (in this case, of winning) are very, very strong especially when you consider the context of that feeling as a religious one.

Feeling himself dominated and carried away by some sort of an external power which makes him think and act differently than in normal times, he naturally has the impression of being himself no longer.  It seems to him that he has become a new being: the decorations  he puts on and the masks that cover his face figure materially in this interior transformation, and to a still greater extent, they aid in determining its nature. And as at the same time all  his companions feel themselves transformed in the same way and express this sentiment by their cries, their gestures and their general attitude, everything is just as though he really were transported into a special world, entirely different from the one where he ordinarily lives, and into an environment filled with exceptionally intense forces that take hold of him and metamorphose him. How could such experiences as these, especially when they are repeated every day for weeks, fail to leave in him the conviction that there really exist two heterogeneous and mutually incomparable worlds? One is that where his daily life drags wearily along; but he cannot penetrate into the other without at once entering into relations with extraordinary powers that excite him to the point of frenzy.  The first is the profane world, the second, that of sacred things.
While all political systems, like religious systems, embody this form to one degree or another, it is particularly strong and overtly pathological in American conservatism these days.  We crave that collective feeling of power, of frenzy and, ultimately for the political conservative, of winning.  Take that away and you've literally taken away a powerful force that their psyche craves.

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