Aspirational Delusion Syndrome: What it Says About the Right

04/26/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The indispensable George Lakoff has been very illuminating on the topic of the political brain this week. He explains how what appears irrational to liberals is experienced without a whiff of irony by the conservatives. One of the glaring inconsistencies I've noticed is the Tea Partiers' insistence that the bank bailout was wrong and evil, coupled in the same breath with a denunciation of higher taxes on the rich. If I understand correctly, they think Wall Street should have lost its shirt, but damned if the extra tuxedo they bought with all those tax dollars should be returned.

The vast majority of conservatives, like most Americans, are not rich. So why should they be so devoted to the interests of a class they don't belong to? The explanatory term I've come up with is "Aspirational Delusion Syndrome." This is defined by a tendency to measure one's present well-being by the yardstick of one's desired economic status. The poster-boy of ADS was Joe "the Plumber" Wurzelbacher. Evidently, he was so afraid of the tax burden on his future business that he never even started it. (Perhaps he should've asked for some start-up capital from Sarah Palin. I hear she's in the money these days--although not enough to pay for her grandson's health insurance, evidently.)

I do have to admit that of all the cockamamie contradictions to be churned out by the right, this one has the most historical pedigree. The "American Dream" was not an invention of marketers; it reflected a very real 20th century trajectory, for millions, from the working poor to the upper middle class. The Depression interrupted this upward spiral, but only temporarily. For most of the past 100 years, most American generations did, in fact, do better than their parents.

But this era of endlessly rising expectations has run smack dab into the realities of a changed world. Nine billion people compete for the same resources that used to be divided among half that number; Europe and the United States together have less than the population of China, who wants its fair slice of the pie. Our prosperity was always contingent on an outsized share of the world's wealth--this will only shrink as we go forward.

Democrats (for the most part) have realized the party is over, that the only remote hope for a return to a modicum of mass prosperity is to correct the massive Republican redistribution of wealth upwards during the Bush administration. A sane reaction of anyone in the bottom 98% would be to support this, especially as it's the only way to finance the crying need for infrastructure investment and clean energy without which Uncle Sam will eventually become an arthritic, second rate ex-Superpower.

Conservatives understand on a gut level that the future ain't what it used to be, just as they know they can't turn the clock back to 1955. So they take refuge in magical thinking. They seem to believe if they (and Glenn Beck) scream loudly enough, in a few years the President will be a white Republican again, the deficit will disappear, and we'll have tortured enough terrorists to scare them into surrender. Most importantly, lower taxes will have unleashed that entrepreneurial spirit bottled up by the socialist policies of Obama, and wealth will flow back again to those who "earn" it. (As if it ever left.)

It's never explained how the police will be paid, prisons staffed, teachers hired, soldiers armed, and all the other functions of government fulfilled. But as Lakoff points out, the highest conservative value is preserving and empowering their moral system itself. Logic that runs counter to that priority is an inconvenience to be ignored.

What, I kept asking myself, did this kind of thinking remind me of?

And then I realized where I've seen this propensity for delusion, denial, and magical thinking. In children. Ever argue with a 9-year old? They have no trouble insisting that you could afford that video game if you just wanted to; that they do badly in school because the teacher hates them; that cereal is just as nutritious as vegetables. They know their fantasy of becoming the next Shaun White won't be easy, but insist their sincere intention that it will happen should be given enough weight that homework can be skipped.

At the risk of being accused of typical liberal condescension, I submit the difference between the liberal and conservative brain is parallel to the difference in thinking of an adult and a child. Of course, adults makes mistakes all the time, but, as a rule, what makes us grown-up is that we've gained a minimal amount of understanding of the link between cause and effect. We grasp the idea of consequence. We can see that all the policy suggestions coming from the right were already employed to disastrous effect under the previous administration. We drive with our hands on the steering wheel instead of the rear view mirror.

As the adults in the room, we have a choice. Are we going to be blackmailed by the right-wing temper tantrums? Or, to the Party of No, shall we be the Party of Know Better?