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February 26, 2007 | by  | in Uncategorized |
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Academic Podium

Social and political psychologist Marc Wilson leads the first academic podium of the year with his thoughts on National party voter characteristics. Dr Wilson’s areas of interest include the Treaty settlement process, New Zealand national identity, and political preference.

Yes, National voters really are the bastards you always thought they were.

Well, more bastardly than other people, and it depends on how you define bastardliness.

If you’re a student, you probably already know this. After all, many students view National is the conservative, right-wing, epitomy of all that is ill with the world. Can the same be said of their supporters? In this case it’s a definite maybe. Yes, National voters are (on average) more conservative and right-wing than supporters of other parties. Other than ACT supporters, that is, but everything that goes for National goes double for them. In New Zealand, the relationship between being right-wing and being conservative is strong, so, for the purposes of this column I’ll lump them together under the term conservatism. Having cleared that up, the bad news (for the conservative) is that there’s a large body of research that suggests that conservatism is, if not the cause of all things evil, strongly associated. Conservatives are more racist, sexist, homophobic, punitive, scared, anxious, materialistic, addicted to meat, and old, than non-conservatives. If your definition of bastardliness is being conservative and right-wing, then Nats sure are bastards.

More interesting to me, as someone who spends a lot of bus time thinking about the psychology behind political behaviour, are the reasons behind holding conservative beliefs. Ultimately, these reasons also show why conserva- tism is associated with many of the things we, as a society, think are bad. One of my favourite academic papers on this topic (published in 2003 by Jost and colleagues) presented the thesis that political conservatism serves an ‘existential’ function. Holding conservative beliefs repre- sents resistance to change and justification of inequality, reflecting the motivation to avoid uncertainty and threat. Basically, the more you think the world should be hier- archical (good people like rich white men at the top, bad impoverished minorities and women at the bottom), the more you think people should do as they’re told and stick to ancient traditions, the more conservative you are. The most conservative people in New Zealand are the ones who are both hierarchical and authoritarian. That is not a good combination. Of course this was a controversial article (the authors also compared Ronald Reagan with Mussolini), and led to people responding with comments like ‘If you call us intolerant again, we’ll kill you all you commie pinkos’.

If this sounds like crap, consider the results of a 2004 study showing that people were more likely to support George Bush Jr after being reminded about 9/11. The fact that Dubya appeared unable to get through more than a couple of sentences without mentioning ‘9/11’ or ‘terror’ in the lead up to the last US election should come as no surprise. When I presented a general population sample of Welling- tonians with descriptions of a dangerous and scary future New Zealand, the same thing happened: people identified themselves as more conservative, and also increased their support for National. Appeals to fear work in New Zealand as well, it seems.

Does this mean that all National voters (or all conserva- tives) are baby-eating Lecter-types? Not at all. They’re just more baby-devouring and Lecter-like.

Extremism in any direction can belch forth misery and unhappiness, typically because extremists tend to be less ‘cognitively complex’ than the middle-of-the-roaders: they see issues as black and white. If your beliefs put you in the ‘conservative’ box, the take home message here is to be reflective about your beliefs. Why do you hold them? Avoid being a political fundamentalist. If you’re a rabid lefty, the same applies. If you’re a dreadlocked Greeny, satisfy yourself in the knowledge that, while you’ll never be in the political majority, you’re probably happier than National supporters. Why? Environmental concern is at odds with materialism and the more materialistic you are, the unhappier you are. Materialists also tend to be, um, larger around the middle.

Which brings me back to what we eat (because I know you’re really interested in this). I’ve done a bit of work on dietary behaviour, and because I tend to ask people a lot of apparently unrelated things in surveys to get more bang for my buck, I can now authoritatively state that National voters eat more red meat than voters for other parties. This partly comes back to the idea of hierarchy – just as this is associated with conservatism, so is eating meat. When asked about this on a radio show last year, Gerry Brownlee (then deputy leader of National) stated that this must be a load of rubbish, and in the next breath went on to say what a steak lover he is himself. A little reflection might have suggested that this only proves my point. I bet he’s a materialist too.

You can find the Jost paper online either at http://www.wam.umd.edu/~hannahk/bulletin.pdf or http://www.sulloway.org/PoliticalConservatism(2003).pdf

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