Creeping Conservative Brain Syndrome: Am I Going to Become a Republican, Really?Photo by David McNew Politics Features Conservatives
About 10 years ago, my Dad dug out his old record collection and gave it to me. It’s full of classic albums, some common and some rare. There’s Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On from 1971, and there’s the folk singer Fred Neil’s second album, 1967’s Fred Neil, with the original version of “Everybody’s Talkin’,” that Harry Nilsson would cover and make famous. The edges are frayed and the sleeves are worn; I can see how many times my Dad must have listened to both records.
But listening to them myself, now, causes me a very particular kind of heartache. I know that the young man who once loved all this protest music went on to vote for Donald Trump.
How exactly do you go from “only love can conquer hate” to “grab ‘em by the pussy” and “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters”? How can a person’s political beliefs change that much over just a few decades? I know I’m not the only Millennial or Xer child of Boomer parents who’s wondering this. Since November, this is what I’ve discussed with friends by text and over drinks.
I’ve never told anyone this, but my single biggest fear about aging is that it’ll happen to me too—that I’ll go from being a young liberal to being an old conservative the way that my Dad did. I close my eyes and see it playing out like The Metamorphosis: as Catherine Baab-Muguira awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, she found herself transformed in her bed into a gigantic Republican.
Yet I know that, in reality, the change must be more gradual. You don’t wake up an old Republican. You grow that way slowly, over time. (Maybe “grow” isn’t the right word.) I call this phenomenon Creeping Conservative Brain Syndrome.
To be clear, I don’t have a background in neuroscience or any other science. And I’m aware of how wildly insulting and pejorative my theory is, linking a rightward move with senility and mental decay. But listen: I’m not speaking of the sort of conservative who warms to a detailed discussion of The Federalist Papers. I’m not speaking of conservatives like my longtime friend Alan, who is a historian by profession, and who’s been the reason I picked up Jacques Barzun, Robert Nesbit and G.K. Chesterton—all extraordinarily rewarding conservative thinkers who will make anyone smarter and sharper for having read them.
You know the kind of conservative I mean. They’re not poor but they are angry, and it’s clear that their anger has led them to their opinions, not the other way around. A lot of them have gray hair, and they’ve all got this air of being fed up with the silly P.C. customs of listening to other people or treating them with respect. I can easily call to mind the worst ones—those who wear “fuck your feelings” t-shirts, who bid at auction on the gun that killed Trayvon Martin—and I expect you can too. This is to say nothing of Trump himself. Is it really so out of line to ask if there isn’t something organically, biochemically wrong with them?
Yeah, probably. And yet…
Winston Churchill is supposed to have said, “If you’re not liberal when you’re young, you have no heart; if you’re not conservative when you’re old, you have no brain.” But it was Francois Guizot who, circa the French revolution, wrote the original version of the aphorism. And John Adams said something similar even before Guizot. What I wonder is, is it possible these commentators were intuiting 21st-century medical science?
In the last 20 years, more than a handful of studies have been done on the relationship between age and cognition, brain structure, personality and one’s beliefs (even self esteem). This 2010 meta-analytic study reviewed links between cognitive styles and capacities for acceptance and tolerance. This 2011 paper concerns age, brain structure and political belief. And this 2017 gerontology paper looks at the relationship between self-view and worldview.
Lest that seem like hand-waving, let me explain what happened when I asked an expert about this research. David Demko is a clinical gerontologist with a PhD from the University of Michigan. He was appointed to the White House Conference On Aging Under Reagan, and taught at Miami Dade College. He’s now in private practice.
After I sent him those links, he wrote back, patiently and politely savaging the studies’ methodologies. “The aging process is apolitical,” he told me. “A personality is fairly consistent. People form their political behavior based on the social and personal circumstances existing at the time they became politically active (reached voting age, etc.).” And most maintain that allegiance throughout their lifetime, he said.
On the phone, Demko was slightly more willing to speculate, though he continually assured me that it was just speculation. The “role-less role” of the retiree can leave some older people lonely and seeking tribal ties such as they enjoyed while working and raising families, he said. And with fewer things to care about, older people sometimes become more vehement in their political beliefs. Risk aversion and a growing sense of frailty and mortality can map onto one’s worldview.
“Yeah, then you just start seeing doom everywhere,” I interrupted. “Not that older people are the only ones to see the world as doomed or feel, uh, wary of the general trend. I mean, it’s not the case that older people have a monopoly on irrationality or fearfulness. Or insight.”
Right. In any case, he insisted, early experiences are what really shape how one votes. Today, we’re simply seeing a generational glut of people whose formative experiences included voting for Republicans. (Nixon among them, I want to point out.)
Pew Research has concluded much the same thing. “While different age cohorts do have markedly different profiles, the relationship is considerably more complex than young=liberal and old=conservative,” according to a 2014 article. “Surveys over the past two decades also have found compelling evidence that generations carry with them the imprint of early political experiences.”
Even giving full weight to the Nixon thing, can early experiences really account for support of Trump and Bannon? Isn’t there, in fairness, still a leap to be made? (I remember a friend calling me drunk about 11 PM the night of the election. “We’re off the goddamn map!” he wailed, then laughed hysterically. Like in the old sense of hysterically.)
A seriously thorough explanation might incorporate a more comprehensive look back at historical patterns, super-cycles of sorts. Or what you might less tendentiously call recurring human impulses, ones which we know cropped up as far back as the Enlightenment, and sometimes further back than that. In his history of reactionary thought, 2016’s The Shipwrecked Mind, Mark Lilla draws a firm line between conservatives and reactionaries, describing the latter’s worldview this way:
“His story begins with a happy, well-ordered state where people who know their place live in harmony and submit to tradition and their God. Then alien ideas promoted by intellectuals—writers, journalists, professors—challenge this harmony and the will to maintain order weakens at the top… A false consciousness soon descends on the society as a whole as it willingly, even joyfully, heads for destruction. Only those who have preserved memories of the old ways see what is happening. Whether the society reverses direction or rushes to its doom depends entirely on their resistance. Today political Islamists, European nationalists, and the American right tell their ideological children essentially the same tale.” (Bolding is mine.)
This does help explain “Make America Great Again” and it could also explain why older people are so visible in the #MAGA faction—aren’t they the only ones old enough to have preserved memories? According to me, the Trump-rally crowd may represent a confluence of a generational cohort and a not-unprecedented reactionary response to the progressivism of the ‘60s and ‘70s, from Stonewall and the sexual revolution, to the civil rights movement and the hippies’ anti-commercial streak.
In several months of pondering the question, this is the best explanation I’ve come up with. It’s hardly proof of my Creeping Conservative Brain Syndrome theory.
Frankly, I already knew the theory to be unfair, if only in my Dad’s case. My Dad is a perceptive, intelligent guy, in addition to being as loving and generous as anyone I’ve ever known. He raised seven children (“all by the same woman, too,” as his coworkers used to joke). And he’s a wonderfully capable writer who did it professionally for four decades. Whenever I’m stumped by a journalism question, I call him. His advice is invariably about what is most ethical.
He voted for Trump. And he also coached me through the delicate process, seven or eight years ago, of leaving a job because my boss kept referring to my female colleagues as “bitches” and “prostitutes” in my presence. I grew up watching him offer his seat to pregnant women in church and helping strangers broken down by the side of the road. I know him to be a person of conscience.
Beyond the much-loved record collection, no one in my life has ever given me such thoughtful presents. When I was 18, Dad sensed how much I longed to go to New York, so he took me there for my high-school graduation. After we landed at JFK and piled into a cab, he reached across the seat and squeezed my hand. “Your first New York cab ride,” he said.
Years later, walking me down the aisle, he leaned over and whispered praise of George W. Bush. I burst out laughing. At the reception, we danced to “My Girl.” I have that on vinyl too, thanks to him.
So part of me is ashamed to admit that for weeks after the election I could not look him in the eye, that through Thanksgiving and Christmas I couldn’t enjoy the food or the company at all because I was bracing myself for some stray comment. And that, for a while, I privately entertained ideas about mental decay directing his vote.
I even know he shares this sadness—a version of it. In the past, I’ve sensed that the heartache I feel when I contemplate his politics mirrors the heartache he feels contemplating mine. He seemed genuinely surprised when, a few weeks back, I emailed to ask him about his rightward turn. Until then, we hadn’t spoken about politics in years. I think we both found it too painful.
Still, he responded with a thoughtful, 1100-word email. His turning Republican was “a development over a fairly long period of time and included many influences, from the right and the left, and my own political thinking about reality as I saw it,” he wrote.
He talked about his own parents, and his experience coming home from Vietnam and as a young reporter in South Carolina in the ‘70s. He told me how he’d worried about crime and the possibility of nuclear war, and how he’d read a George Will column in 1986 about Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
“I know this may be hard to believe, but I think I have finally given up on the idea of trying to influence anyone about politics ever again,” he wrote. “The right and the left were not nearly so far apart when I began my political/philosophical journey, but unfortunately it has only grown since then. The gap now really seems to leave no room even for discussion—and that is not good.”
On that point, we can agree.
If my Dad and I have disappointed each other with our politics, it’s just one more profound truth he’s taught me about love—that we do disappoint each other sometimes, and we go on loving each other anyway. At least it’s all going a bit better for us than it did for poor Marvin Gaye and his father. What a horrific waste it would be to spend the limited time we have left together arguing about how we vote.
And anyway, if by some unseen development my CCBS theory turns out to be true, then even this effort to tie myself to the mast now by writing this—going on record so that later I can’t claim I never really had liberal convictions—won’t make a difference. The joke will be on me. Then my own as-yet-non-existent daughter will inherit my copy of, say, To Pimp a Butterfly and ask herself that age-old question, WTF happened?