Conservatism eats itself: An irreverent look at the conservative mind by Deborah Talbot

by Deborah Talbot

Conservative politics are everywhere, but what is it, and what are they really like?

In the cities, you don’t notice conservatism. It’s there, for sure, but is pretty quiet about itself. Political parties of a more left persuasion don’t get a chance to do a bit of intense political ethnography, so we assume that everyone is pretty much on the same page, despite differences of opinion over issues.

It was only when I moved to one of England’s Southern regions that my immersion in political and social conservatism began. And I realised then what the Brexit culture wars were all about. Forget Cameron, Johnson, and Osborne. They are just metro decadents and a bit like us – conjured up to lull us into thinking the socially liberal consensus was here to stay.

Because real conservatism is not just a difference of opinion about issues (I support welfare; you think the poor should be made to work in chain gangs, kind of thing). It’s embedded in who they are – their psychology and identity. Which then dictates how they respond to issues.

So I thought it would be helpful to employ my ethnographic skills and do an eight-month investigation into the conservative mind – as it really is, not how it likes to portray itself in the media. Here are my results.

Conservatism is more than party politics

Conservatism is pretty wide ranging, though sometimes it does settle on a political party or perspective, like at the moment with the Conservatives, UKIP and Brexit.

But it doesn’t have to. People that have stayed in the same place for decades, haven’t experienced the significant changes over the past 40-50 years occurring in cities or just don’t get out much, tend towards the conservative. Being creates consciousness, and all that.

Even if they may have traditionally voted Labour for years, their prevailing attitudes to women, immigrants or any local thing they don’t like, makes them easy prey for the right-wing sociopaths.

They don’t like change

That’s right. Any change is met with a wall of muttering and complaint. It could be a good change, like a new building, or trying to sort out a failing transport system.

And despite having acres of space around them, they definitely don’t like change that involves new housing. Or immigrants coming in. Or Londoners. Or the post office down the road changing its sign. Or temporary road works. Or a new cycle lane.

It’s all the same. Change is bad.

Keeping it simple

There’s the sketch that Stewart Lee does about UKIP’s anti-immigration policy, where he says, for racists, ‘reality is too full, isn’t it….’

It’s truer than Lee knows. Conservative people just don’t get complexity, whether this is multi-causal chains of reasoning, evidence-based policy or large conurbations.

I guess it’s why change confuses them…because it adds a new variable.

Despite what they say, they don’t like community

Conservatives will make a song and dance about community, but mostly what they mean is that they want to keep it for people exactly like themselves, and to act with impunity.

Because contrary to what they say, conservatives are more likely to engage in anti-social acts, like leaving dog poo in the streets and speeding. Because it’s all about them – hang everyone else.

They parade family like a banner but don’t like children

You’d think conservatives, being all family, nation and work, would like children. But they don’t. Children, in their eyes, need to know their place. Be quiet, stop crying, man up.

Teenagers and even worse, youths, for your average conservative, are evil and it would be better if they were all locked up or forced to join the army (same thing).

Conservatives provide nothing for children and particularly teenagers to do and then castigate them for taking the initiative. Conservative areas are high on vandalism and street drinking (and even so, 99% of young people are lovely). Do they see the relationship? Not at all.

They do love babies though, probably because they are helpless and can’t talk back, which is just how conservatives like ‘em.

They never experienced identity politics

Conservatives of all hues just never went through the identity revolution that hit most cities in the UK and beyond. Because they never experienced it, they don’t understand it, and believe the Daily Mail when they are told it’s ‘political correctness gone mad’ and a ‘threat to the social order’.

The idea that it’s about giving people equality and respect, and not being abusive to people who aren’t like you, seems to have passed them by. Conservatives lack basic good manners, except when it comes to people just like them. Which brings me to…

Patriarchy reigns

Both men and women in conservative areas support a set of social practices and policies that perpetuate the oppression of women. In conservative areas, it’s not sexist to bully and troll women on social media, fail to provide job flexibility and childcare and shut women out of work and professional networks.

‘Her indoors’ gets to stay indoors.

I once innocently asked a local male politician from the ‘Independents’ (closet conservatives) how he could attend so many meetings when he has small children. He said, without batting an eyelid, “My wife does all of that.” There was no shame or irony.

Little provision is made for women who have small children and who want to go to work or meetings. In The Patriarchy, women need to know their place, which is firmly latched to the kitchen sink.

Call attention to it, and it’s very much a case of ‘calm down dear’, or you are called a raging fantasist.

Dislike of the arts and psychological sensitivity

Offered a choice between, say, an art gallery and a bus station, conservatives will opt for the bus station.

The arts are a threat to their narrow social order and need to be marginalised or if possible, crushed. They aren’t beguiled by the success of the creative industries; that’s just a liberal plot to shake them out of their boring shires and give it to young people and immigrants.

And you can’t have a world with things in it, remember?

Similarly, conservatives are very anti-emotion. Sensitivity is tortured out of children by bullying at schools and general ostracism. Because emotion is pinko stuff and real men don’t cry. But, and here’s a big but, some of them invite social media abuse. They are less comfortable with understanding and empathy. Hmm…

Difference, what difference?

Conservatives lack empathy. They simply can’t feel the presence of other humans and assume that those objects moving close to them (people) are simply inanimate or just an extension of them.

I think this is why in conservative areas people lack spatial awareness. Despite all the space they have around them, they simply don’t hear you coming or bump into you because they haven’t seen you. Weird right?

Aggression, anxiety and fear

Road rage, tailgating, noisy neighbours, train noise – the list of things people in conservative areas find annoying and anger provoking is extensive. One gets the impression if they moved to a city they’d have an aneurysm within a year. Or chill the hell out.

Beneath this lies a deep anxiety and fear. The world is a scary place for conservatives. Whatever bad things happen, the government had better do it to someone else rather than them. This is probably why they are so enthusiastic about folk devils and punitive policies.

“Do it to them, not me” should be the conservative motto.

Dislike of public anything

Public transport, public sector, public housing – these all strike fear into the heart of your average conservative. Because they are scared of what they’ll find in public spaces (they might stumble across, say, a person unknown to them personally), they want to destroy it for everyone else.

Conservatives are all about private spaces, first class carriages on trains, cars and roads, where they can pay to keep themselves separate – anything to avoid having an unpredictable encounter with another human.

Obedience is safer

I had a strange conversation with a conservative type who said that they’d voted for Brexit and now they had to go along with whatever May wanted. Anything she wanted, because they had to agree with it (sold their soul, was my interpretation). Conservatives love obedience because they are too scared to be independent. Rather than face that, they try and force everyone else to be obedient too.

But get this, conservatives. Some of us have gone and grown up and can cope with ambiguity and freedom. And do it with other people. We’re not pretending. We really can.

The love of obedience makes their pretend notion of taking back control completely fatuous. What they mean, of course, is hand control to their leader. And then shut your mouth, because the exercising of your democratic rights is making them uncomfortable.

It’s not the economy, stupid

Walking around a small local town with an avid conservative, he looked at all the shops and small business, and sneered, “It’s a bit commercial, isn’t it?”

And here’s the shocker. Your average conservative type doesn’t like economic growth and commercial activity. They don’t. They just pretend to in their manifestos and propaganda.

That’s because they are either retired, independently wealthy, employing other people to run things for them, living off rent, or unemployed. They are not even that keen on volunteering anymore, though remnants of an older conservatism are still out there. Working, volunteering or building a business requires engagement with human normality. Moreover, you need a functioning economy to thrive.

I bet if anyone did a calculation they could correlate declining economic participation with the rise in conservatism.

Think about Brexit. It’ll by all accounts tank the economy and push the UK into long-term shrinkage. Do Brexiteers care? No, because they don’t need an economy. So they believe. Obviously their savings would tank too, but that’s a while off. And remember, they can’t handle a multi-causal chain of reasoning – it’s all about that direct relationship between them and their personal pot of gold.

Their lack of caring about the economy and their dead-eyed love of authority is expressed in the continued conservative support for a hard Brexit. And no wonder they don’t like immigrants, who are generally entrepreneurial and energetic.

Conservatives are more like to say, “Where’s my deckchair?” than “This great new café has opened; let’s go.”

It’s Labour that has become the party of enterprise, which is all over the cities. Conservatives are disengaged. Surprising, eh?

More than any of the other self-defeating psychological dispositions I’ve talked about, the lack of enthusiasm for economic issues shows us that conservatism is eating itself.

Pea sized imaginations

Anyone that wants to hand this lot the reins of power needs to think again. They are myopic, careless and stuck firmly in a past that more suited their narrow-minded fear-obsessed world.

They don’t want to lead us into a new productive and democratic reality. They want to shrink the world, so it fits their pea-sized imaginations.

So if you are thinking about voting Conservative, but you don’t want people in power who have these traits, have another think. Conservatism is eating itself. Let’s just let it die.

Deborah Talbot is a freelance qualitative research and journalist, writing about society, culture and all things urban. Read more of her work on her blog Interurban Lines.


Categories: Committing Sociology, Rethinking The World

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5 replies »

  1. I need to read David Goodhart’s book on ‘somewheres-anywheres’ which this seems to resonate with. There’s also an implied nod to Haidt’s moral foundation theory as well. A great read, and although irreverent (good) I’m going to use this as discussion with my students.

    • Thank you for your comments. I’d love to see how that goes. This is definitely just one of my contributions to the election battle out there, so I hope it gets circulated. I’ve used some of these ideas to inform political debates, and it does work.

  2. What utter nonsense. Self indulgent echo-chamber liberal eliitist bull crap.

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