The Difference Between a Liberal and a Conservative

Of all the political theories used to understand our complex political system, one of the most useful is “Social Dominance Theory” (SDT) developed by Sidanius and Pratto. This is a sociological theory that seek to make sense of social hierarchies and how they are formed and maintained. To understand social hierarchies is to understand discrimination, oppression,  stereotypes, inequality, racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia, nationalism, and the like. In short, SDT provides a framework for understanding power and group inequality.
Sidanius and Pratto’s 1999 book, Social Dominance, exhibits high scholarly standards, and is considered a classic sociological text. For anyone who wants to understand human systems, including political-economic social systems, this is an excellent read. There work is particularly relevant for understanding the difference between conservatives and liberals. Essentially, a political conservative is someone who accepts group inequality—that is, when a small group of elites dominates the majority (the subordinate group). A liberal is someone who seeks more egalitarian social organization, with equal opportunity for all groups. SDT identifies the attitudes associated with conservative/liberal views by measuring a group’s “social dominance orientation.”
“Social dominance orientation” is the degree to which individuals desire and support group-based hierarchy and domination of “inferior” groups by “superior” groups. Individuals have varying degrees of social dominance orientation. Political conservatism, authoritarianism, racism, sexism, lack of empathy, acceptance inequality, patriotism, and the presence of oppressive and discriminatory behavior is strongly correlated with social dominance orientation. The following questions measure social dominance orientation (each item rated on a 1-7 scale, with items 9-16 reverse rated):
  1. Some groups of people are simply inferior to other groups.
  2. In getting what you want, it is sometimes necessary to use force against other groups.
  3. It’s OK if some groups have more of a chance in life than others.
  4. To get ahead in life, it is sometimes necessary to step on other groups.
  5. If certain groups stayed in their place, we would have fewer problems.
  6. It’s probably a good thing that certain groups are at the top and other groups are at the bottom.
  7. Inferior groups should stay in their place.
  8. Sometimes other groups must be kept in their place.
  9. It would be good if groups could be equal.
  10. Group equality should be our ideal.
  11. All groups should be given an equal chance in life.
  12. We should do what we can to equalize conditions for different groups.
  13. Increased social equality.
  14. We would have fewer problems if we treated people more equally.
  15. We should strive to make incomes as equal as possible.
  16. No group should dominate in society.

Social dominance orientation (SDO) is positively associated with the tendency to assign internal attribution (e.g, laziness, less intellectual abilities) for the misfortunes of low-status others, and negatively associated with external attributes (e.g., poor schools, effects of past discrimination) of the same (page 88). This is very similar to Ken Wilber’s distinction between conservatives and liberals:

…when it comes to the cause of human suffering, liberals tend to believe in objective causation, whereas conservatives tend to believe in subjective causation. That is, if an individual is suffering, the typical liberal tends to blame objective social institutions (if you are poor it is because you are oppressed by society), whereas the typical conservative tends to blame subjective factors (if you are poor it is because you are lazy). Thus, the liberal recommends objective social interventions: redistribute the wealth, change social institutions so that they produce fairer outcomes, evenly slice the economic pie, aim for equality among all. The typical conservative recommends that we instill family values, demand that individuals assume more responsibility for themselves, tighten up slack moral standards (often by embracing traditional religious values), encourage a work ethic, reward achievement, and so on.

The traditional conservative ideology is rooted in a conventional, mythic-membership…with roots as well in aristocratic and hierarchical social values and a tendency toward patriarchy and militarism. This type of mythic membership and civic virtue dominated cultural consciousness from approximately 1,000 BCE to the Enlightenment in the West, whereupon a fundamentally new average mode of consciousness…emerged on an influential scale, bringing with it a new mode of political ideology, namely, liberalism…

That is the great irony of liberalism. Theorists have long agreed that traditional liberalism is inherently self-contradictory, because it champions equality and freedom, and you can have one or the other of those, not both…Liberalism thus refused to make any “judgments” about the interiors of individuals—no stance is better than another!—and instead focused merely on finding ways to fix the exterior, economic, social institutions, and thus it completely abandoned the interiors (values, meanings, interior development) to the conservatives. The conservatives, on the other hand, fully embraced interior development (source).

This is obviously a simplification of the two perspectives, and it leave out some important nuances. Still, it is a useful distinction. Ask yourself why poor people suffer and you will know if you are a conservative (“it is their own fault”) or a liberal (“our society has put them in this situation”). Conservatives may emphasize internal traits and beliefs, but the focus is on one group (their own) having superior abilities and other groups as having inferior abilities. Sidanius and Pratto point out that, “Political conservatism has been consistently found to be related to racism, ethnocentrism, and generalized xenophobia. This pattern is so robust that it has been found even among the intellectually sophisticated” (page. 97).

The research is also clear that those with a high SDO—like political conservatives—have a stronger belief in the influence of genetics on success/failure and ability (justification for the ruling elite), as opposed to environmental/societal factors determining success or failure. This is ironic because many conservatives are against evolution and darwinism, but ideologically they support this social Darwinism or survival of the fittest view, where the strong dominate and the weak and inferior should be left to suffer and die. Not much of a “family value,” or Christian principle. It does, however, fit with the Gordon Gecko types on Wall Street (Yes, Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street 2” is almost out…go see it!). Thomas Frank pointed out in “What the Matter with Kansas?,” that conservatives “talk Christ but act corporate.” If they actually believed in the teaching and principles of Christ, as set forth in the New Testament, they might no be the heartless blame-the-victim, help-the-rich, xenophobes that they are, and would score much lower on the scale of social dominance orientation. But back to social dominance theory.

Here are some additional—and brilliant—in sights about power that these fine researcher have found, through rigorous empirical research.

The Nature of Social Hierarchies (from the book “Social Dominance”):

  • Iron law of oligarchy: All social systems are inherently undemocratic and are ruled by a small elite who rationale their power by use of some system of justifying ideologies (23).
  • All societies are made up of two groups: one or a small number of dominant groups at the top, who possess a disproportionately large share of social value (such as resources); and one or more subordinate groups at the bottom, who possess a disproportionately large share of negative social value  (page. 31-32) ; in the modern U.S., dominants are the wealthy and powerful, subordinates are the poor and minority groups.
  • There are natural hierarchies (age and gender) and socially constructed, arbitrary-set social hierarchies (clan, ethnicity, nation, race, caste, class, religious sect, political party, etc.) (page. 32-33).
  • Societies that produce an economic surplus tend to have arbitrary-set social hierarchies—dominants and subordinates (page. 35).
  • Social systems are subject to two counterbalancing influences: (1) hierarchy-enhancing forces, and (2) hierarchy-diminishing forces (page. 38).
  • A “myth” appears to be true because there are enough people in society that behave as if they were true (p. 104); “Legitimizing myths” provide moral and intellectual justification to maintain hierarchal inequalities (page. 39, 45, 104)
  • There are two primary means by which dominant groups maintain their hegemonic position over subordinate groups: (1) the threat or actual naked force, and (2) control over ideology and the contents of “legitimate” social discourse…Control over discourse is usually preferred. (This same point has been made by Noam Chomsky many times over the past 30 years: In democratic societies physical force was no longer acceptable, so they had to figure out how to control people’s mind instead)
  • Ruling elites largely control the contents and framing of social discourse. Because of this control of social ideology, ruling elites are not only able to convince themselves but, more importantly, their subordinates of the legitimacy of their rule. This means the ruling class can exercise near hegemonic control over the social system without serious resistance from , and often with the cooperation of, the working class (page 22).
  • It is exactly those features that are more obviously exhibited by elites that will come to be defines as “mertiorious” (27)
  • By institutionalizing the differential allocation of various kinds of job to different social groups, societies create and maintain groups-based social dominance (page. 150)
  • Groups hierarchal societies are set up in ways that make life relatively easy for dominants and relatively difficult for subordinates (page. 227).
  • Dominants behave in ways that are more beneficial to themselves than subordinates do (page. 227,), that is, subordinates tend not to act in their own interest to the same extent as dominants do; (page. 306); ingroup favoritism is stronger among dominants than among subordinates
  • The persistence of group-based dominance rests on the coordination and choreographed actions of both dominants and subordinates alike (page. 307).

These finding help us to understand the importance of smart regulations and sound social policy that helps to minimize social dominance of one group over another. This kind of dominance limits freedom—a concern of all political parties. Throughout our history, we have steps forward and steps backward. But we can be hopeful that the trend has kept moving in the right direction. And it will continue to move in this direction (in spite of the TeaBaggers).

Be sure to check out the book!

Click on this link to view the book:
Social Dominance: An Intergroup Theory of Social Hierarchy and Oppression