Conservative Obsession With Purity

Brigadier General Jack D RipperJonathan Chait wrote an interesting article this morning, How Obamacare Violates the Conservative Cleanliness Fetish. In it, he tried to get to the bottom of the conservative opposition to Obamacare given that it is, after all, a conservative law. He posits the idea that it is all about the conservative obsession of political, social, and ideological hygiene. But he doesn’t go very far in explaining it, so let me take a crack.

You may remember Phil Davison, the man whose overwrought speech for the Republican nomination for Stark County Treasurer went viral. What you may not remember is what he said was the problem with the treasury department: infestation. Or as he pronounced it, “In-fes-tation!” Behind this is the concern about lack of purity: the treasury department had been invaded by impurities. The same thing is going on with Brigadier General Jack D Ripper in Dr Strangelove who only drinks rainwater and “pure grain alcohol.”

Chait quotes a study that show that the greater one’s obsession with cleanliness, the more likely he is to be politically conservative. I believe this goes way back. The literal idea of the proverb “cleanliness is next to Godliness” is about spiritual purity. But people apply to it to the physical world. This is most notable in the 12-step cult where the body being clean of drugs is equivalent to being spiritually clean.

It is not, therefore, surprising that conservatives would be obsessed with purity. Whether they are religious or not, conservatives believe in social standards—the idea that norms are given. Of course, it is curious that Republicans are almost always the first to abandon political norms in their efforts to establish what they think are the given social standards; but this is just because Republicans have become revolutionary in their political fights on behalf of conservatism. From the conservative perspective, if laws do not come from on high, what stops the nation from breaking into one big orgy?

There is a clear germophobic aspect to this. This is the idea that even the smallest impurities harm the body. And the ultimate expression of this is the slippery slope argument. Even if most people don’t see the problem with Social Security, the conservative sees it not as a policy end, but simply as a stepping stone to the Nazis rounding up all the Jews.

What’s more interesting is that fascism itself was obsessed with purity. And most of the conservative remedies to keep the nation “free” lead us far more directly to fascism. InfamousBrad over at Reddit wrote an interesting comment in a recent post, What is Fascism? It read in part:

Dr. Robert Altemeyer has surveyed huge numbers of people, and other researchers have followed up on his work by cross-checking his surveys against neuro-psychology, and they’ve concluded that right-wing authoritarianism, or fascism, is a psychological phenomenon, driven by three things:

  • Fear of filth and impurity
  • Fear of change from “ancient tradition”
  • Obsession with unambiguously knowing one’s place in any hierarchy

Neurophysiologists who’ve studied the brains of people who self-identify as far-right or fascist have argued that you can simplify the first two points: a fascist is someone who has an exaggerated emotional reaction of disgust when confronted with the possibility of anything “clean” coming in contact with anything “unclean.” Hence the fascist obsession with the word “purity”: ethnic purity, religious purity, artistic purity, national purity, sexual purity, cultural purity, etc.

So for conservatives, it isn’t that Obamacare in itself is all that bad. It is just another element of impurity in the body politic. It won’t kill us off, but it is just another poison to make us weaker and move us along the road to Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia. Think about this the next time Paul Ryan talks about how the social safety net is making able bodied men dependent. It’s all about purity. Or: “In-fes-tation!”

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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