28 June 2014

Why Even Progress Isn't Promise Enough to Make Conservatives Embrace the Future

Pew unveiled some interesting data about the American polity. To me the most fascinating thing is data illustrating the difference between liberals and conservatives in their attitudes towards change.

This could partly be a function of age. The percentage of "steadfast conservatives" over the age of 65 is double that of "solid liberals." [Which I'll just refer to as conservatives and liberals for the rest of this post.] Or it could be a function of education. Twice as many liberals are college graduates, and liberals are 4X more likely to have post-graduate education than steadfast conservatives.

The most obvious, inescapable change is time. Asked about whether America's best days are ahead or behind us, liberals and conservatives are very different: 76% of conservatives think that our best days are behind us and 70% of liberals think our best days are still ahead.

Of course if you're 75, you are likely less impressed with the promise of the future than someone who is 35. Dreading future change is fairly personal (and rational) as you get older. I suspect it is harder to separate out fear about your own personal issues from the promise of life for the average young person in 25 years.

This difference of dread vs. hope for the future can explain so many things. For instance, the attitude towards debt. If you expect things to get better, you don't feel so hesitant to incur debt. If you suspect that things will get worse, the prospect of paying down debt in the future seems like it will just add to your burdens.

 Conservatives see our success as attributable to principles. Things that are constant, that don't change. Again, this is the mirror opposite of liberals. 79% of liberals think that the US is successful because it has changed; 78% of conservatives think we're successful because of our reliance on things that don't change.

This shows up in the most fundamental measure one could imagine: evolution. Conservatives are 4X more likely to think that human beings have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.

During the Dark Ages, the dominant belief was that the state of mankind had gone downhill since Adam and Eve's fall from grace, their expulsion from Paradise. The Renaissance was a major challenge to this belief, arguing that not only had Greeks and Romans made life better from before but adapting their approach to life and science could result in progress.

That conservatives are so gloomy about the future seems to confirm that they still don't trust in progress, in spite of the fact that trust in progress has quite steadily paid off since about 1500.
 This notion that we had pure beginnings that have only been corrupted over time shows up in conservatives' attitudes towards the Bible and the Constitution.
Conservatives are twice as likely as liberals to believe that the Bible is the word of God and 3X as likely to believe that it should be taken literally. It is the conservatives who point to scripture to renounce the claims of a Copernicus, a Darwin, or a feminist. Again, the constant here is that change represents a threat. What was captured in scripture two thousand years ago is still more reliable than today's experts or even an individual's own conscience.

Their preference for past experts is not limited to religion. For conservatives, the reality of current times are of less consequence than our founding fathers's reality.  88% of conservatives feel that what matters most is what our founding fathers intended. Again, liberals' results are almost a mirror image of that, with 84% believing that what matters more is what the constitution means for our own times.

The sad consequence of this aversion to change and dread about the future are voices like Glenn Beck's. Instead of a conversation about alternative futures, about what possibilities progress could create, conservatives get fear-mongering that speaks to their deepest fears. If your reference point is Colonial America or 1st century Israel, anything that modern experts would point to as progress has the potential to be a threat. Women free to work outside of the home looks like a breakdown of the family. Financing innovations that fund public works projects are threats to liberty, an invitation to crippling debt.  Even affluence makes us less self-reliant (as our founding fathers were forced to be) and less spiritually-minded. In the end, even progress isn't promise enough to make the future less threatening.


Lifehiker said...

This is especially interesting to me because I've been dwelling on the topic of "progress and religion" for a few weeks in preparation for filling in at our church on July 13. The old Westminster Catechism says, "the purpose of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever". Somehow this seems a rather slim goal for a god to require. Perhaps God might also have wondered if am intelligent creation could steadily progress toward a more loving and productive world.

Anonymous said...

I don't know if it's really a love of the past or a love of Order. I think they find it comforting to have a Rule Book- but of course, that's only a comfort if everybody plays by the same rules.

(I stuck a post up about religion today you guys might like. I didn't write it, I just transcribed an old clipping I'd saved. LINK)