Many conservative priorities flow from an ancient narrative built around one planet-busting idea—and progressives sometimes fuel it.
This article is the first in a series about political and cultural narrative.
Human beings are story tellers. We make sense of our lives and the world around us by weaving tales—typically with ourselves and people like us as protagonists and heroes or—when things don’t go our way—victims. Narrative organizes our thinking so that a single concept or sentence can evoke a bigger set of ideas and related emotions. That is why the title of this article invokes an epic story.
Political movements, like other groups, organize themselves around stories—grand narratives scripted to answer questions such as these: What is the plot of history? Who matters? Who are the heroes and villains, and who do they protect or hurt? What is our quest, our promised land, and how do we get there?
Sometimes this might be better phrased in more selfish terms—Who is in our tribe, and how do we come out on top? Often though, idealism and self-interest get mixed together, and because we humans are so centered in our own experience and so good at self-deception, it can be difficult to tell the difference. Within the stories that organize our thinking, we all see ourselves as good guys, even if history will later disagree.
Conservatives—including otherwise fair-minded and decent people–sometimes have priorities that defy my sense of reality and morality. As conditions evolve and these priorities don’t, I believe they put at risk not only the future of American democracy but also the future of our planetary life support system. When I, as a psychologist and writer, try to wrap my brain around what’s going on, I find myself bumping up against an ancient story, one that imbeds an idea so bad and yet so appealing that it may ultimately prove to be a planet buster.
A word of disclaimer: The word conservative doesn’t mean the same thing to all who describe themselves that way. For example, libertarian conservatism has different roots from cultural conservatism. For some folks, fiscal prudence or personal responsibility is the organizing principle their conservative worldview. But deep in the minds of many self-described conservatives lies an ancient, archetypal narrative that has shaped human societies for millennia. The basic story can be told in religious or secular language, but these two have been woven together for most of history, so I will tell the Western monotheistic version believed by my parents and our conservative Evangelical community:
The Ancestral Story
With God in his heaven and his appointed authorities in their appointed positions, all is well with the world. Hierarchy provides order and stability, and each of us has his or her place in the proper order of things. From the beginning, this has meant men over women over children, bosses or masters over workers, “chosen” bloodlines over others, powerful tribes and civilizations over weak, and humans over other animals. Creation is man’s for the taking because it was made for us, who were made in the image of God, though some more so than others. Heaven on earth–or as close as we can get–is when everyone recognizes and lives properly in accordance with divinely-appointed roles and rules. Wealth and military victories accrue to the righteous.
In one form or another, with one god or many or none, some version of this narrative has been the dominant paradigm for millennia. I call it the Ancestral Story because it is the story believed by our ancestors and because it is the ancestor of most modern political theories, which split off as either reactions against it, defenses against those reactions, or reactions against reactions.
It can be traced as far back as the Iron Age, where it underlies the familiar stories and laws of the Hebrew Bible and Quran; and in some parts of the world today, roles it defined then have changed little in the intervening centuries. What liberals may think of as a genetic lottery, much of humanity has been seen as part of a divine plan that properly confers power on chosen men, bloodlines, or tribes thus creating stability and wellbeing for society.
Since the Ancestral Story stretches back in time, which makes it the story of the past and the present, people who believe this story are fundamentally change-averse—in a word, conservative. Many harken back to golden ages, real or imagined, when this model was ascendant and provided social order, stability, and prosperity to those who most mattered.
Because this script for how society should work is hierarchical and male-centric, cognitive linguist George Lakoff called it the strict father theory of politics. It should be noted, though, that the organizing principle of the story is more primal than the words “strict father” might imply. Human relationships—and our relationships to other species—in this narrative, largely trace back to biology and to one simple concept: might makes right. (At its biological root, the strict father model of the family derives from the same underlying principle. Men both protected and ruled women and children because they were physically stronger; masters ruled slaves because they could.)
Since winners write history, we view historical events through a lens that further binds together might and right. We tend to think that good guys win and, conversely, that guys who win are good—because that’s how winners tell the story. Strength and virtue end up closely paired, and hierarchies that evolved eons ago from might makes right end up seeming intuitive and natural.
Modeling an individual life or a political system on the Ancestral Story doesn’t necessarily lead to a dog-eat-dog way of life. It can. But within the overarching structure, exceptions and nuance abound, and through the ages, humanity has developed words for these exceptions like grace, mercy, charity, pardons, or noblesse oblige. Religions that sanctify the traditional power hierarchy also encourage people to temper their use of power, and people who are religiously or culturally conservative often care deeply about those they perceive as weak—women, children, the poor and ill— those that Jesus in the Gospel According to Matthew calls “the least of these.”
The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me. –Matthew 25:40 NIV
But aspiring to a benevolent hierarchy, one that treats the weak with kindness, is different from thinking the weak have a right to band together and insist on equality. And voluntary self-restraint on the use of power feels very different from external restraints imposed by law and regulation.
One Theme to Bind Them
Today, defenders of traditional hierarchy and derivative priorities often deploy reasoning that doesn’t invoke theology, and most wouldn’t explicitly endorse the idea that might makes right. Even so, the lineage of their thinking can be traced back through cultural institutions and sacred texts to the Ancestral Story and the human (or, perhaps, pre-human) tendency to confound power with virtue. Some, of course, make no bones about the fact that their priorities derive from Iron Age texts.
Once you superimpose the Ancestral Story and derivative social structures, seemingly unrelated or contradictory conservative priorities cohere: strong military, gun rights, nationalism, the sanctity of the patriarchal family (including opposition to child protections and female-controlled contraception), racial favoritism, the ambivalent courtship of church and state, oligarchic government, low taxes for the wealthy, unfettered capitalism, resistance to worker rights, minimal safety net programs, freedom to pollute or use up natural resources, and a deep wariness of outside tribes that might compete for power.
Liberal social policies benefit many conservative voters, especially those who are struggling to get by, but they almost all, to some degree, threaten the conservative cultural narrative. To people who have internalized that narrative and played by its rules, expecting specific perks from society in return, that threat can feel personal and visceral.
As we all have read or heard many times, the Tea Party and the Trump voting base include people whose lives haven’t played out as they hoped or whose wellbeing feels fragile. That alone is a hard burden to bear, but on top of that stress, many feel their social contract has been violated. The give and get promised by the Ancestral Story relies on assumptions of stability and continuity. But that is not what we’ve got. Familiar extraction and manufacturing jobs have become obsolete; many main streets are boarded up; young people move away and abandon the church; a young man often can’t afford to support a wife and children on a single income like his father did; some families are downwardly mobile; and change is accelerating with no end in sight.
These cultural and economic trends have many causes—globalization, consolidation, automation, resource depletion, and—not the least—policy decisions. But rather than finding explanations in some objective set of data (which is really hard for any of us), we humans tend to interpret our experiences through the lens of scripts we have trusted all along. And for believers, the Ancestral Story points to a set of culprits.
Women are claiming their own bodies, poor blacks are challenging authority, marriage is being reshaped, atheists are scorning the sacred, and immigrants who sneak across the border are receiving scholarships to colleges that working class white kids can’t afford. According to the Ancestral Story, it’s all very wrong. And from any point of view, the consequences for both individuals and our culture at large are enormous. Small wonder these violations of the old order generate anxiety, alienation, and, sometimes, rage. Small wonder many conservatives deploy the power they have in an effort to set things right.
The Lure for Progressives
Conservative efforts to live and legislate the Ancestral Story seem obvious to many progressives. What may be less obvious is this: When progressives don’t notice that might makes right is the reactor at the heart of the conservative death star, we sometimes fuel it—usually by sending double messages—even though it is fundamentally at odds with liberal or progressive aspirations.
It’s easiest to see this, perhaps, in some of the fantasy stories that we love. Consider two recent movies that have shattered barriers by upending the traditional power hierarchy, Wonder Woman and Black Panther. Both movies broke through iconic blockages; they were literally block-busters, and I hope Black Panther wins Oscars next year. But both, in a way that is deeply satisfying to conservatives and progressives alike, also underscore the linkage between physical strength and moral strength and so send mixed signals.
In Black Panther, the scene where the two prospective kings wrestle at the side of a cliff takes might makes right back to its most primal roots in human history: May the best man win, where strongest fighter and best suited to rule are synonymous. At an archetypal level, the epic battles in both movies—or Star Wars or Lord of the Rings—fit the NRA playbook: the only way to stop a bad guy with a big bad weapon is a good guy, or now woman, with an even bigger, badder weapon. (These well-loved epics also reinforce a second dimension of the Ancestral Story—that some bloodlines are special and should rule others—but that is a different article.)
I point this out not because I think that these two movies could or should have been different, given what they set out to do and the genre. Nobody can tackle everything at once, and the satisfaction we get from stories that fuse right with might help draw crowds to the theaters to experience the novel ideas on offer. Also, Black Panther pivots the heroes from winning power to sharing it. It repudiates the human pattern of power-hoarding, while in Wonder Woman, metaphorically, truth and peace defeat war. I have no desire to challenge the movie writers; but I do want to challenge fellow progressives to be self-aware.
Sometimes, perhaps, the only effective challenge to brute force is brute force. Sometimes, perhaps, only the master’s tools can dismantle the master’s house. But we must never forget that is what we are using, because what those tools can’t do is build something radically different. Beating force with greater force can flip a dominance hierarchy, but unless something truly novel happens afterwards, that is just a new variation on an old storyline.
Worse still, reality being what it is, might-makes-right storylines inevitably in the long run advantage those who traditionally have held power: the men with the biggest weapons. Men will always, on average, be physically stronger and more aggressive than women. Wealth will always be stronger than poverty. Humanity is unlikely, any time soon, to abandon a global arms race that traces all the way back to sticks and stones.
Ultimately, then, the only way to create real and durable change is not to flip who is on top—the future is female, brown is the new white—but to flip our gut reaction to the fundamental premise underlying most of human history, to restructure our thinking and emotions to the point that we no longer find might-makes-right stories intuitive and satisfying.
This article is the first in a series about political narrative. To read the second, “Why Progressives are Tearing Each Other Apart,” click here.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including The Huffington Post, Salon, The Independent, Free Inquiry, The Humanist, AlterNet, Raw Story, Grist, Jezebel, and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.