When leaders think like teenagers: Conservatism
I just viewed a very popular (4.6 million views) PragerU video shared by a relative of mine. It shook me, partly because it was being promoted by someone I care about, but also because its content is so fundamentally un-American. The narrator (Dennis Prager, thought leader with 2.7 million followers) presents a chilling straw-man comparison of conservative and liberal ideologies. Prager suggests that being a conservative involves a largely uncritical acceptance of everything America (United States of America) does, based on the idea that even though America isn’t quite perfect, everything we do is better than (or at least as good as) anything any other country has ever done. This video represents American exceptionalism on steroids. So, of course, citizens who are critical of American activities are presented as America haters—in other words, Liberals. And not too far underneath this, there’s the strong implication that conservatives are patriots and liberals are traitors.
My first reaction to the video was pure outrage. After all, according to Prager, I can’t be a conservative or even a patriot unless I believe America is better, in just about every way, than any other country in the world. When did that become a hallmark of conservatism?
What about Lincoln? Prager lauds Lincoln, but fails to mention that had Lincoln believed America did not require fundamental change, slavery wouldn’t have been abolished in 1865. Moreover, Prager fails to recognize that if our founders had believed America would never need to make changes—fundamental changes—there would have been no need for a First Amendment designed to guarantee the right to express critical perspectives. In fact, there would have been no need for constitutional amendments at all. I could go on…
But my second reaction—curiosity—was potentially more constructive than my first. There was something underneath Prager’s arguments—a complexity structure—that helped me understand how he could think about patriotism in such black-and-white terms. As you may already know, my professional expertise involves determining the complexity level of people’s thinking. The main purpose for doing this is to build educational assessments that support optimal learning, but this skill is also used in research, as demonstrated in the National Leaders project articles on Medium. One National Leaders article — What if a U. S. President thought like a teenager —presented evidence that Trump’s arguments have a black and white quality similar to the arguments Prager makes in his video. In that article I also contrasted Trump’s arguments with the kind of arguments made at the next developmental level —a level in which thinking has become more complex and nuanced—more shades of gray than black and white.
Let’s look at an example from Prager’s video. A little over halfway through, he claims that the United States “is the least racist, least xenophobic country in the world.” This is a typical black and white statement. It makes a strong claim that sounds provable, like “Today, apples are the most popular fruit on the planet.” The thing is, you can actually provide adequate proof for the popularity of apples. People pretty much agree on what an apple is and is not, and there are likely to be sales records that show how many apples are sold relative to other fruit.
Racism and xenophobia are nothing like apples—they are states of mind, and are demonstrated by a wide range of behaviors. That’s enough to make racism and xenophobia too complex to be treated like apples, but the complexity is even greater because people disagree about which of these behaviors count as evidence of racism and xenophobia. For these reasons alone, a more complex thinker would not make a black and white factual argument like the one made by Prager. A more complex thinker would be more likely to say something along the lines of, “Racism and xenophobia are very difficult to measure, so it’s impossible to say how well one country is doing relative to another. But we could compare how many people (as a percentage of the population of their destination country) immigrate to different nations annually.”
I could make this kind of comparison for every claim made in Prager’s video. Prager makes many black and white, seemingly factual, statements that simply can’t be supported. This is not conservative thinking. It is what my colleagues and I call level 10 thinking—the kind of thinking exhibited by many high school students.
If you‘d like to see some good examples of complex (level 11) conservative thinking, I suggest looking at the arguments of conservative supreme court justices. The pro and con arguments for Roe vs. Wade are a good place to start.
Would you like to help us develop more level 11 thinkers? Consider supporting the DiscoTest Initiative—even though we make tests and you may no longer be able to claim a tax deduction ;).