Why Americans are essentially conservative
Change makes us anxious
Intellectuals tend to think in terms of ideas. Looking out at the world, we see grand clashes between ideologies. Populists of the left and right doing battle with neoliberal centrists. The political system buckling in response to polarization. Cultural revolutions bringing justice or terror to the workplace. White supremacy surging or ebbing. Libertarian moments dawning and receding. Socialism promising to redeem or threatening to destroy us.
Those who think and write about our public life for a living aren't hallucinating when they talk this way. The ideas describe something real. But what if the ideas conceal as much as they reveal? What if underneath the colliding of these great ideological ice floes lies a more fundamental reality rooted in psychology — more specifically, in the way Americans process and react to anxiety?
I have a hunch this is precisely what's going on for many of us — and that the thing triggering this anxiety is the perception of dramatic, destabilizing change. I also suspect this perception makes many of us angry or defensive because Americans are predisposed to be conservative.
If you're accustomed to thinking in terms of ideas and ideologies, it probably sounds like I'm saying something obviously untrue — namely, that Americans are inclined to be ideological conservatives of one kind or another, maybe Reaganite small-government conservatives or Trumpian nationalists. But that's not at all what I mean. I'm talking about conservatism understood as a psychological or temperamental disposition. English philosopher Michael Oakeshott described this sense of conservatism in the following, evocative terms:
To be conservative … is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss. [Michael Oakeshott]
Let's leave aside the knotty historical question of whether Americans have always been this way — along with the issue of whether, if this default conservatism is something new, it should be understood as a good or a bad development, a sign of national maturity or decadence. Let's just make an effort to see the phenomenon as it is — and to see what it might explain about our world and imply about how best to navigate it.
Twelve years ago, Barack Obama and his party in Congress undertook the most dramatic reform of the country's health-care system, and the biggest expansion of the welfare state, in decades. The Affordable Care Act became law in March 2010. Eight months later, Republicans gained seven seats in the Senate and 63 in the House. The latter was the largest shift in seats in 62 years. As the ACA began to be implemented through late 2013 and early 2014, it reached a low point of public approval — with support hovering around 40 percent and disapproval reaching a high of 56 percent. And this was despite polling through the decade prior to the passage of the ACA that revealed widespread dissatisfaction with the cost and extent of health-care coverage in the United States — not to mention the fact of Obama winning the White House on an uplifting (if vague) promise of "Change."
What if negative response to the ACA was less a product of distinctive failings of the new law — or an ideological impulse to reject government control over health care on principle — than a reaction to a divergence from the status quo as such? This would mean that, when confronted with the reality of major change, large numbers of Americans preferred to stick with a health-care system suffering from significant failings — because somehow the prospect of enduring the implementation of a new or substantially reformed system seemed worse. This might also help to explain why support for the ACA has steadily grown over the years as it has become the new normal. (It currently enjoys support from 52 percent of Americans.)
Now think about more recent examples.
My colleague Noah Millman recently suggested the country may well be hesitating to move beyond the COVID-19 pandemic precisely because it has gone on long enough for public-health restrictions to become a new normal that people have become used to. This could also explain why, despite selective expressions of anger, the broad-based response to lags in the distribution of vaccines and opening of schools has been so muted. Maybe people — or at least large numbers of people — are predisposed to prefer sticking with whatever is happening right now, whatever it is, to initiating or adjusting to a change.
Journalist Matthew Yglesias has likewise written on his excellent Substack blog about how similar tendencies toward complacency and even outright inertia have played out both in response to the pandemic and in the formation of public opinion on transportation policy.
Dispositional hostility to change may also help to explain in a new way how "woke" developments on the left side of the culture war could be fueling political reaction on the right. I'm thinking of everything from the rise of (for many) disorienting ideas about gender to the adoption of radical theories of antiracism by departments of human resources, with some prominent figures being fired for running afoul of new norms. Once again, the issue would be less one of substantive, ideological disagreement than a psychological response to feeling overwhelmed and anxious about rapidly shifting social expectations.
Change as such can be scary.
If this is true for many Americans — or even partially so — what lessons should be drawn from the realization?
For one thing, it might make sense for Silicon Valley and its many imitators throughout the economy and culture to pull back a bit from their embrace of moving fast and breaking things. "Creative destruction" might be an unavoidable byproduct of capitalism. But we needn't venerate socioeconomic and cultural disruption as a positive good. On the contrary, it might make sense to recognize that it can provoke and unleash a reaction that threatens to do considerable harm. The same goes for woke activists eager to find new fronts on which to prosecute the culture war.
When it comes to policymaking, one lesson to be learned from America's default conservatism would be: simple is better. We need to implement fewer Byzantine bureaucracies, regulations, and tax credits that need to be navigated and mastered, and instead write more checks that can flow easily and directly into the hands and bank accounts of citizens. At the same time, we might also consider adopting industrial and immigration policies that aim at managing and slowing demographic and socioeconomic disruption — once again, primarily as a means of soothing anxieties triggered by rapid change, which can breed reaction.
Recognizing America's essential conservatism doesn't at all imply the impossibility of reform and improvement. It just means that reform and improvement need to be undertaken with caution — and with an eye toward minimizing psychological turbulence.