Reflections on the intersection of economics, history, politics, psychology and science

The Inherent Corruption of Conservatism

Author's Note: this article was originally written in 2020

The 2019 film Bombshell was an extremely powerful and moving film about a number of women at Fox News who struggled with, and eventually confronted, sexual harassment by CEO Roger Ailes. The power of the film lies not only with the strong performances by the actors but with the multiple layers of the human condition upon which the story sits. Watched in one way, the story is an all-too-familiar tale about men in power and their use of that power over women in particularly repulsive ways. But as nauseating as the sexual harassment is, the movie depicts something much deeper – how the quest for power and the maintenance of that power force entire institutions to build a bubble of misinformation and corruption.

We label Fox News as a politically conservative media outlet which supports conservative ideas and candidates associated with those ideas. However, it’s more interesting to examine the definition of a “conservative” in a more literal, non-political, sense – someone who eschews “progress,” or more simply put, has the goal to “keep tomorrow looking just like yesterday.” This conservatism is very understandable and in fact wired into our psychology. Humans, by their nature and their own self- interest, need to be a part of a community. As social animals, we make very specific decisions to join certain communities at discreet periods of time, whether it is moving to a town, taking a certain job, or joining a congregation. We generally make these choices based on the then-current conditions and available information (e.g., what would be like to live in this town *now*).

It is practically difficult (if not impossible) to envision or predict the likelihood of all of the possible future states of these communities, so we tend to ignore them. But the day after we make our choice, our information is already outdated as conditions inevitably change beneath us. Whether we welcome such changes or not, it’s not what we agreed to do, and at same time life is too “sticky” to constantly adapt to such changes (move, take a new job, etc.). Therefore, it is only natural for humans to be instinctively nostalgic for yesterday and concerned for tomorrow.

Our changing personal circumstances are just an instantiation of the larger phenomenon, that clinging to the status quo goes against the intrinsic nature of biology, sociology, and even economics. There has been no time in natural history or human history where things have remained completely static – organisms evolve, human belief systems change, the environment changes, and technology changes, albeit sometimes faster and sometimes slower. Whether these are largely changes for good or for bad is beside the point – stasis is a short-lived or non-existent state. Of course, a big part of the human experience is molding changes in ways we think are positive, but those who renounce change altogether will inevitably be disappointed.

Ironically, those who wish to return to a “better” bygone era are just picking a different point in the past that itself was the end result of thousands of years of change before it. It’s also important to recognize that nostalgia is often a filter of selective memories about what was “better” in the past and almost always ignores issues that at the time may have more negatively affected other cultures, races, and genders. We each pick our own beginning from when to track changes in our society, but graphs always look dramatically different depending on where the Y-axis crosses. This habit to cherry-pick one’s starting point gives America its long and absurd tradition of new immigrants coming to this country who then, within a generation or two, denounce all of the new immigrants coming to the country.

This uncertainty and fear create a phenomenon where people welcome progress in the abstract, but often fight against it when it becomes specific. In our local school district, for example, we went through a year-long effort to build a new strategic plan to modernize the educational experience. With the participation of hundreds of constituents from different vantage points, including students, teachers, parents, administrators, and residents, we gained almost universal agreement on two key principles: (a) so much of the structure and pedagogy of education hasn’t changed in a century, and (b) modern educational research and technology required us to completely re-think the public school experience. There was also near-total agreement on many specific ideas on how such a new approach could be implemented. However, when we began the process of actualizing these new ideas, we received a ton of pushback. Many parents didn’t want their children to be the first ones in this new “experiment,” and many teachers didn’t want to alter the certainties about work rules and compensation. Even though the intellect is willing to change, the gut wants things to stay the same.

Unfortunately, fear is easily exploitable politically, and in fact we invite this manipulation to believe tomorrow can look like yesterday. But if change is an unstoppable force, then it must take an immovable object to hold the status quo. There is of course no such thing, but we can try to approximate it. This is where conservatism comes strongly into play.

The first tactic of the conservative in this Quixotic quest to slow down inevitable change is to first deny the change is inevitable. At the same time, one must build a power structure that can provide enough energy to resist the change and try to make the denial self-fulfilling. This combination both constructs a “bubble of misinformation” and influences and/or legislates resistance to progressive ideas. This strategy and its (at least short-term) effectiveness are then amplified by a feedback loop in the symbiotic relationship between conservative media outlets and politicians.

This is how we get objectively disprovable “alternative facts” around climate change denial, fear of immigrants, the “war on Christmas,” and many other topics. More generally, attempting to keep tomorrow looking like yesterday must inherently shun science, intellectual curiously, and learning, because all of these threaten to teach us new things and potentially modify our perspective on the world. The fact that in the modern era, when the sum of human knowledge is at each of our fingertips, ”anti-science” has made such inroads into our politics and public policy is testament to the power of this conservative movement. Jim Inhofe, a U.S. Senator from Oklahoma, wasn’t laughed out of the room when in 2015 he brought a snowball into the senate to “disprove” that the planet was warming – somewhere along the way, this “point of view” became normalized.

Although mendacity is inherently corrupt, the power structure required to slow down change is further corruptive. Most people do not build up a power base to be corrupt per se – they are building it to protect the status quo. However, the act of doing this too often concludes with pushing discriminatory, anti-democratic, self-serving, or other corruptive policies ranging from something as narrow as serving the specific needs of wealthy donors to as broad and impactful as voter suppression.

Fox News is the epitome of an attempt to create this immovable object, and it has largely been successful in amassing and consolidating power by exploiting the intersection of fear and conservatism. Whether its original goals were political or merely economic, it has carved out a place in the U.S. media by sending a message to a subset of the American public that change can be slowed down. It has created both an internal culture and an external presence that eschews normal journalistic approaches and scientific inquiry but rather builds a bubble of misinformation consistent with maintaining and expanding its economic and political power. But as the old saying goes, power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. As so clearly represented in Bombshell, Roger Ailes was not just a sexual harasser; he was a fundamentally corrupt human drunk on his own power. In order to maintain his position, he continually had to wield his enormous influence on his own staff and on politicians, all while his organization repeatedly gaslighted his own viewers. Although his harassment victims certainly weren’t culpable for his behavior, they were either witting or unwitting participants in what is inherently a corrupt enterprise. Megyn Kelly was absolutely a victim of Roger Ailes, but she was a willing participant in racial demagoguery, transphobia, and ironically the questioning of sexual assault claims by other victims.

But conservatism in our definition doesn’t just include people and organizations which we describe as politically conservative. The political left isn’t immune from conservatism either, the most obvious example being labor unions, which in part exist to promote the inherently conservative impulses of predictability and stability for its members. Whether their larger political goals are “progressive” or not, labor unions are generally very conservative organizations focused on maintaining the status quo. This is why even thoughtful and incremental discussions of labor reform – originating from either side of the political aisle – are quickly squashed as they are seen as a threat to the union’s power.

In the above scenario of our local school district’s strategic planning process, it became clear to all (including union members) that we had a mid-20th century construct for managing staff in schools even though the 21st century has given us updated pedagogical approaches, significantly advanced technology, and changing population demographics. For example, no one could thoughtfully argue that we should have a single category of teachers all who get paid solely on years worked, all who have the same work schedule, and none who can be evaluated (or even terminated) in any serious way. Yet despite our conceptual consensus around change (including from most individual members of the union), any meaningful reform was derided as a non-starter. Fear of change creates mistrust, eschews logical dialog, and ignores or distorts otherwise irrefutable data. This powerful organization is dedicated to maintaining the status quo and convincing members that the status quo is in all of their best interests. However, in this effort to minimize risks and uncertainly, they may actually be holding down opportunities for the members it purports to serve.

A more recently recognizable example of union conservatism is the police union, upon which a spotlight has been placed in the wake of multiple police killings of unarmed Blacks in 2020. Although certainly some have argued for dramatic police reform (or even “defunding” or “abolishing” the police), even discussions of relatively incremental reform have produced massive pushback from police unions. As an example, it is actually amazing that in 2020 there is still resistance in some jurisdictions about whether police should have body cameras (of course made possible by the march of technology).

Perhaps due to the multitude of power structures in the entire criminal justice system (including both government actors and private businesses with a strong financial incentive in the current system), there is a general lack of scientific inquiry around criminal justice reform. For example, why do we still have cash bail in a world where tracking devices are ubiquitous and cheap? Why do we incarcerate a far greater percentage of our citizens than every other industrialized country in the world? We don’t even investigate the answers to these questions because the collective power structures (including the bail bonds industry, private prison operators, and politicians who rely on their support) have an interest in maintaining the status quo and by using the public’s fear of change to maintain it. Being in any position of authority while serving one’s own interest is the very definition of corruption.

This corrupting force of conservatism doesn’t just apply to institutional culture, but also to personal behavior. Personal scandals involving marital infidelity, drugs, sexual assault, financial misdeeds, fraud, perjury, or other malfeasances are unfortunately too commonplace, but those actions don’t seem to be randomly distributed among the population. It’s not your imagination that the ones more likely to be caught up in these scandals are conservative politicians, religious leaders, businesspeople, or others in power (from 2010-2019, 68% of U.S. federal sex scandals were committed by Republicans).

Of course, progressives can be corrupt as well, but the Roger Ailes of the world always have a lot more to hide. Why? Because their conservatism forces them to create an alternate reality, and the subsequent power required to propagate that reality gives an individual a sense of invulnerability. Roger Ailes harassed women with impunity. Jim Bakker stole money from his religious followers. Jerry Falwell Jr. had an extramarital sexual scandal while simultaneously preaching hardline morality. The Catholic Church has had literally centuries of scandals, yet why do we never hear about scandals from Unitarian Universalist ministers? The latter has no need to hold on to power to stop the world from turning.

Another reason why religious leaders (or politicians who try to impose their morality on others) seem particularly prone to scandal is the greater likelihood of hypocrisy. Even if vices were evenly distributed throughout the population, a scandal is more of a scandal if such vice contradicts one’s preaching.

Bill Clinton, no political conservative, had his famous scandal (no doubt related to the corruptibility of his power as President), but imagine his corruption if his raison d’être was not just to have the power of the presidency but to use that power to hold back the tide of change. This is why Donald Trump is the most exaggerated example of this phenomenon. Interestingly, it’s likely that Trump isn’t actually a “conservative” in the classic political sense, but rather an opportunist who seized the conservative political movement because it was inherently so corruptible.

Buoyed by Fox News who helped create this bubble of misinformation and supported by traditional conservative politicians who saw his support as the only way to bolster their own power, Trump fabricated an alternate reality that is unmatched in modern history. He can contradict himself, be shown the tape of it, and still deny that he said it. Echoing autocrats throughout history, his corrupt use of power makes both citizens and politicians behave in a way that would have been unthinkable in any other time. He has convinced evangelicals to support a terribly unpious individual, families to support policies that would take away their own health care coverage, “patriots” to support a man who denigrates those who serve in uniform, and Americans to sit back and allow enemies to attack our own democracy.

Trump’s handling of the COVID-19 epidemic is a master class in how this conservative stance is incredibly corruptive. When the President learned of the coronavirus threat in late 2019 and then continued to learn more in early 2020, his driving motivation was fear. He was so concerned about the potential negative change in his own political standing that he was forced to create an alternate reality by downplaying the virus, saying it would “magically” disappear in April, arguing with his own scientific experts, and never publicly acknowledging the danger of the biggest public health threat in a century (while conceding the danger in private). He then used his power not to ensure that we had universal testing and enough personal protective equipment to fight the virus, but rather mocked mask wearing, social distancing, and other measures that would slow down transmission. He encouraged meat-packing businesses and other enterprises to open prematurely on the belief that economic activity would bolster his personal standing. His behavior wasn’t just a leadership failure in dealing with a public health threat; he actively facilitated others getting infected by holding rallies and events where hundreds of maskless, not-distanced attendees created super-spreader events. Is there anything more corrupt than that?

As is often the case where someone ignores science and data, the resistance to change actually accelerated it. The fear of the hit to his political standing actually became self-fulfilling, while a more competent science-based approach to battling the virus would have certainly improved health outcomes, economic conditions, and his political capital. Although in a way it was completely predictable, in a last bit of self-satire, the Denier-in-Chief contracted the virus himself.

Another irony of the modern conservative political movement is that although it waives the banner of capitalism as a core principle, it ignores the fact that the nature of capitalism is, by definition, progressive. Capitalism dictates that buyers, sellers, and markets continually adjust dynamically – the fact that it’s always changing is why it largely works – it adapts how resources are allocated. Socialism, on the other hand, it actually quite conservative – it assumes a relatively static view of the world where a central planning entity can decide how resources are correctly allocated. Socialism doesn’t work because (a) it is near impossible for this central entity to devise the most efficient resource allocation scheme, and (b) even if it could on any particular day, it would be wrong on the following day.

Just as politically non-conservative people and institutions can actually be conservative (such as labor unions), some politically conservative people and institutions may not actually be conservative by our non-political definition. For example, believing that government taxes and spending should be lower is an economics choice, not necessarily a promotion of the status quo. We associate that viewpoint with a politically conservative camp, but it’s fundamentally neither conservative nor progressive. The same goes for gun rights, abortion rights, and many other issues. So, although there is certainly a Venn diagram with a material overlap between political conservatives and our conservatives, they most closely align around cultural and social issues, human rights, and environmental issues.

But, wait, wouldn’t environmental conservation actually be conservative, as the goal is to “conserve” the environment? In our analysis, conservatism refers to human actions and culture, so “keeping tomorrow looking like yesterday” would mean not changing our behavior (which happens to have the effect of not conserving well the planet we live on). Ergo, being an environmental “conservationist” is actually quite progressive because it promotes the inevitable change in human behavior and societal structures that would rationally come from the progress of scientific inquiry. Contrast that with the conservative approach to resist the change in human behavior, which as in our other examples requires an inherently corrupting power structure. However, it’s important to note that at times people have co-opted the banner of environmental protection to actually serve their own interests, for example by pushing policies to restrict housing development that had more to do with preserving their own status quo rather than protecting the environment. This is why conservatism and progressivism are messy and context-dependent and don’t fall neatly into political buckets.

Until we embrace change as natural part of living and a natural (and mostly positive) movement of our culture and society, we will continue to invite corruption among those of us that believe that we can hold back this inevitable tide. While such efforts can be successful for a period of time, this type of conservatism is inevitably doomed to fail. Even if these conservative forces prevail over a long period of time, they will likely find that their circumstances just changed in other, unpredictable, ways (and not necessarily in their interest). Actions have reactions, and the status quo is always in the rear-view mirror.