The Liberal-Conservative Divide: Unworthy or Unlucky?

I’ve mentioned before that I grew up in a family/community of conservative Christian fundamentalists. Years ago, Sara Robinson wrote a series titled “Cracks in the Wall” in which she identified what defines that kind of authoritarianism and described how people find their way out of systems like that. I identified very strongly with what she wrote.

But the question that always comes up is “why me?’ It is rare for people to change their world views so radically and it is a very difficult process. Here is how Robinson describes it:

We must never, ever underestimate what it costs these people to let go of the beliefs that have sustained them. Leaving the safety of the authoritarian belief system is a three-to-five year process. Externally, it always means the loss of your community; and often the loss of jobs, homes, marriages, and blood relatives as well. Internally, it requires sifting through every assumption you’ve ever made about how the world works, and your place within it; and demands that you finally take the very emotional and intellectual risks that the entire edifice was designed to protect you from. You have to learn, maybe for the first time, to face down fear and live with ambiguity.

To answer the question of “why me,” one of the things that makes my childhood unique is that, for the first seven years of my life, we lived in Peru. Perhaps I wasn’t as exposed to the kind of early messages children get in this country and was constantly surrounded by people who looked different and spoke a different language. It is certainly true that the pockets of extreme poverty in Lima weren’t cordoned off from view as they are in the United States. My memories are fuzzy, but I have a vague recollection that there was an empty lot right across the street from our house where families were living in cardboard boxes. I didn’t understand why those of us who had so much didn’t do more to help them. Rather than assume that response came from some kind of innate sense of empathy, I think it was a much more logical question for me. It just didn’t make sense.

I thought of all that when I read this article by Tom Jacobs about the subtle bias that underlies the difference between conservatives and liberals.

When you are asked to judge a situation, do you instinctively reach for an inherent explanation, or an extrinsic one?

In other words, when you see a poor person (or community, or nation), do you assume their deprivation reflects the fact they’re less capable than others, or do you see it as due to circumstances beyond their control? Are they unworthy, or just unlucky?

As is probably obvious, conservatives tend to see poor people (and others who are disadvantaged) as unworthy and liberals as unlucky. The former is the more simple explanation while the latter brings nuance and requires more cognitive effort.

Jacobs goes on to point out that children begin to adopt these frames at a very early age—indicating that parenting and community values play a significant role in their development.

Applying this to our current political situation helps explain why conservative messaging is easier in this country. We have a long history of identifying people of different racial backgrounds as the “other” and so the simplified message that they are therefore “unworthy” is not a huge leap. Candidates like Ronald Reagan and Mitt Romney conveyed this more subtly with messages about welfare queens and people who only wanted “free stuff,” while Trump did it more overtly when talking about the threat posed by immigrants, refugees and criminal thugs.

The approach usually adopted by liberals is to point to the external forces that are at work. I suspect that message is destined to fail. Most people are able to see how forces beyond their control impact their own lives. But the key to finding someone unworthy is rooted in what some have called this country’s original sin: racism. It is the process of seeing people as “other” that gives the justification of unworthy it’s platform.

Interviewers from “Story of America” capture how this happens and provide encouragement as one person begins to challenge the assumption that others are unworthy.

That video provides a perfect example of someone who supports government programs for the disadvantaged and disabled, but believes that they are being abused by those “others”…until he is challenged to see that they are just like himself. That is the key to reaching voters like him.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.