You are Going to Die
What’s Eating Grandpa?
This post was inspired by commentor Mike Dwyer who, in responding to my article on national identity, opined that the older workers at his company were getting “angry and less tolerant.”
Most are close to retirement and my director even told someone recently that he wasn’t going to fade away, he was going to ‘go out swinging’. I can’t help but wonder if the same dynamic is what drives much of that stuff you are talking about surrounding Trump. It’s the last gasp of the Baby Boomers before they all head off to the nursing home.
So I will be blaming Mike in all of my subsequent comments. Seriously though – like Dan Quayle I stand by all my misstatements.
Conservatives, Fear and Evolution
One of my mentors, John Hibbing, claimed that the evolutionary story for conservatism is easier to explain than for liberalism. Conservatives see the world as a dangerous place. They prefer “tried and true” solutions. They are the natural heirs to a world where experimenting gets you killed. React to a stranger in fear 10 times and you are safe, even if it’s an unnecessary precaution 9 of those times. Conversely, react with a friendly hand extended and 9 out of 10 times you make a friend. That 10th time results in your shrunken head decorating another clan’s game room.
So, in his view, modern liberalism is an evolutionary luxury brought on by mothballing Malthus through stability, affluence and tamping down disease and violence. When violence threatens large groups (as in terror attacks) there is a general shift right. It’s temporary but it’s measurable. Our survival mode leans conservative.
The Fear Response
Is it possible that this could explain the shift to conservatism observed as people age? Please note, I’m not saying “conservative” here to mean a basket of pet policy ideas (pro-life, small government, 2nd amendment etc). I’m not suggesting that Margaret Atwood is going to hit 80 and suddenly show up at the march for life. I’m speaking of conservatism in the sense of ideological rigidity characterized by slow pace of change and maintenance of the status quo.
When we stop innovating and become “set in our ways” we are protecting a heritage. That heritage could be the 2nd amendment or Roe Vs. Wade – but it is the idea of protection of the status quo that is conservative, not the policy itself. In that sense the cause for or against a particular issue may itself become conservative in a sunk-cost way. Nancy Pelosi as an anchor for “establishment Democrats” could be conservative in this definition. Indeed, the solutions that establishment Democrats propose are often ideologically atrophied – recycling, not innovation – and therefore conservative by my behavioral definition.
In “It’s Even Worse than you Think” (2013), Mann and Ornstein showed that the most liberal Republican is now more conservative than the most conservative Democrat. We are not more vicious than in the past, but we are further apart and more distinct in our views – as parties we are more “set in our ways”. I’d like to propose a crazy reason for why positions on either side are hardening. It’s inspired by Mike’s “last gasp” comment. It’s the fear of pending death. You decide for yourself if there is a payoff, but if you are intrigued read on dear reader!
The Great Equalizer
Our population is aging. A host of boomers is already wearing high-waisted pants, eating the early bird special and using phones with giant buttons. Meanwhile, studies show that one out of one people will die. Human life has a number of pedal tones – underlying bass notes that pull on us as background noise. Death is the loudest. Like a rumbling low tonic at the end of a fugue, death drones louder as we near the finish line. Modern man is a master at playing over the note, but no matter how full our arrangement, death will be answered. It is a note that demands to be resolved. It eclipses all other motifs.
The Psalmist said that man’s days are like a flower in the field that withers:
the wind blows over it and it is gone,
and its place remembers it no more.
(Psalm 103 verse 16)
Is it possible that the idea of death tickling at the back of our mind is pushing us to be more ideologically rigid as our population ages? Is fear driving our new partisan gulf? As a thought experiment let’s be brave and think about death for just a moment. Let me set the mood.
I visited my Great Grandma when I was seven. It was the only time I remember seeing her alive. She lived alone until age 93 and then moved into a nursing home where we visited. I remember an antiseptic smell. It seemed so alien. It was the smell of the closet – of fragile things put away. She was tall in her day, but by the time I met my great grandmother she was shrunken. She shuffled along with tiny steps as I held her hand. She smiled at me and said “My… ain’t you all grown up? I saw you once when you was a baby.” Her yellow dentures clacked up and down. It startled and disturbed me. I couldn’t take my eyes off of those teeth merrily clattering away in her mouth with a mind of their own. I smiled warily and thanked her.
Her room was a spartan rectangle with tiled floors and a throw rug. Bright tube-aluminum rails framed the bed. Those same bright tubes corralled the tub and toilet in the small bathroom. She had a plant on the window shelf carefully placed on a lace doily. As I look back on it now I can see her flower was fading. Her place on the earth had already begun to forget her even before her journey was complete. The baking of warm bread on a summer afternoon or the planting of flowers in a tidy garden replaced by grey tiled floors and aluminum tubes.
She was a tintype, antique picture of woman burdened with 96 years, living out the remainder of her days in a small room waiting to die. Wow, I really have to stop reading post-romantic Russian authors. “Ok”, you say, “I get it. We are here a short time, we all die. Either make a point or include the number to dial-a-shrink.”
Stay brave for just a bit longer. Let’s listen to that pedal tone together. Don’t block it out. You are going to die. Nothing you do can prevent it. You may be healthy and satisfied. You might come from a line of ancestors with terrific longevity. You may be anticipating marriage or a new job… In the end, you will die. You will spend your life chasing something but it will end in the grave as all lives have ended (so chase something big and force your mourners to acknowledge you lived!).
And…how Does that Make you Feel?
If you are like me this makes you squirm a little bit. That angsty feeling is common to all of us. Consider how this pending event grows and gnaws at us as we age. Fear like that can makes us fiercely protect what we have earned. We want to maintain our gains and minimize our losses. Perhaps fear of death makes us more prone to stand and less prone to move. Perhaps it helps drive the ideological rigidity of both the establishment left and right. Parties find fear hardening positions among its most loyal group, leading to institutional rigidity. That hardening means parties atrophy and continue to calve splinter groups – Bernie folks, Tea Party, and of course, Trump.
It’s a thin theory at best – probably crackpot. I’ve located no study to help me justify or disprove it. There’s plenty of research on conservatism being anchored in system justification (justification of the status quo). There’s great work on fear and the behavioral immune system – that fear’s evolutionary purpose is to keep us safe and minimize risk. And finally, there’s additional work on how aging tends to make us more rigid and results in a shift to the right. It’s not really a shift – more like maintenance of settled belief while the world itself moves on. But it’s perhaps a stretch to bring death into the picture.
Still, it’s worth noting that more young people voted for Bernie Sanders than Trump and Clinton combined. It’s not that Bernie’s ideas are new, but they sure seem new to a horde of young people getting their first taste of politics. And they sure seemed risky and “unrealistic” to folks over 50. Risk taking is for the young.
If I’m right, the world will move on again and the two sides will drift closer together as the bell begins to toll. I’m not sure I’ll be around to see that, but I’m going to ignore the organ for now.