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‘Class Warfare’ and the Conservative Brain


A recent study reveals that self-identified conservatives are more likely to experience fear and threat identification—because of their brains.

CREDIT: istockphoto

Why is it that so many conservative officials seem to be clinging to highly dubious talking points on the economy and job creation?

It’s the amygdala, stupid.

A recent study by researchers at the University College London found that the brains of self-identified conservatives have a larger amygdala—which processes fear and threat identification—than liberal brains. Meanwhile, liberals had a larger anterior cingulate cortex, a region that processes conflicting information as well as empathy.

In caveman division of labor terms, the reason for this difference is easy enough to imagine:

Liberal Zog finds new kinds of edible berries and resolves conflicts over who gets how many. Conservative Grog worries about the tribe not having enough to eat, or being eaten, so he hoards food as he scans the horizon for enemies.

Right now, conservative leaders are afraid. They’re afraid of giving up precious resources in the form of taxation, and they’re afraid of those resources losing value in the form of inflation. And so their neurological impulse is to hoard.

In the wake of President Obama’s proposal to reduce the deficit by taxing the wealthy the conservative rhetorical landscape is overgrown with cries of “class warfare” and warnings against burdening the country’s “job creators” with unnecessary taxes or regulations. Conservative leaders undermine their seriousness about bringing the deficits down by refusing to consider even a dollar of tax increases.

It’s unclear how, for instance, restoring taxes on the wealthy to the levels they were under President Clinton, when the economy flourished, amounts to either job killing or class warfare. Even some conservative economists agree with that much.

Andrew Samwick, who served as chief economist on President George W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers, talked to Ezra Klein of The Washington Post in May about Republican aversion to tax increases on the wealthy: “These are small tax changes we’re talking about. It defies any sort of logical reasoning that there’d be such large effects.”

And in his own defiance of logical reasoning, Speaker of the House John Boehner’s speech before the D.C. Economic Club placed the blame for the economic crisis on the government—never once mentioning Wall Street, foreclosures, weak demand, or any of the numerous other factors most agree to be at the heart of the crisis.

It makes sense that a Boehner-style response to the economic crisis would be one of fear and hoarding—austerity for government and tax cuts for the wealthy.

Never mind that austerity does not boost short-term growth. Never mind that we are seeing the painful truth of that unfold in Europe right now.

And never mind the American jobless.

Boehner—along with Senate Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl—wrote a letter to Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke that was unprecedented in its attempt to put partisan pressure on the non-partisan agency. The letter urged the Fed not to consider the additional stimulus measures.

As Matt Yglesias of ThinkProgress put it, the letter is “urging the Federal Reserve to keep unemployment high.”

The reason is fear of inflation, which has been unusually low under Bernanke while unemployment has skyrocketed.

Conservative leaders are afraid for the wrong reasons and the wrong resources. They see their own success and wealth reflected in that of the country’s well-to-do. They fail to think about the needs of the poor or of the country as a whole—needs that go hand in hand, since high income inequality kills economic growth.

It’s a failure of vision and of empathy, the kind that was viciously on display during last month’s GOP presidential debate when the crowd raucously cheered for the death of a hypothetical uninsured man.

Anyone with half a brain can see it is a failure the country cannot afford.

Emily Crockett is a reporter with Campus Progress. Follow her on Twitter @emilycrockett.

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