The GOP Brain Explained: Why Cliff Stearns Wants to Subsidize Successful Companies

JR:  In Stephen Lacey’s original post, we noted that Stearns’ notion of subsidizing successful companies is how the 1% operate.  The rich get richer. And that’s one reason inequality is growing in this country.  Roberts takes the analysis one-step further to discuss the self-justifying rationalizations of the 1%.

by David Roberts, in a Grist cross-post

Yesterday I sketched the sort of personality type most likely to identify as conservative: those who prefer stability to change, order to complexity, familiarity to novelty, and conformity to creativity. This sort of personality type is drawn to clear lines separating in-groups from out-groups, highly aware of social hierarchies, suspicious of change, and strongly inclined toward system justification, i.e., seeing the prevailing socioeconomic regime as worthy and desirable

I often think that the actions and rhetoric of today’s conservative politicians are easier to make sense of at this level, the level of temperament and worldview, than at the level of stated principles and policy proposals. Seeing through this lens can help make sense of a lot of stuff that otherwise looks hypocritical or absurd. In particular, it can help make sense of the political fight over climate change and clean energy.

The other day, Stephen Lacey flagged some comments from Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) that I found extremely revealing:

So what I’m trying to do is say, the government should not be picking winners and losers, let the private sector determine the winners and losers, and then … when somebody is successful, then you give them the subsidies and the tax credit.

This makes absolutely no sense relative to the small-government, fiscal conservative principles Stearns purports to hold. Nor does it make sense as energy policy. But it does make sense at a deeper level.


Remember, system justification means seeing the current socioeconomic status quo as necessary and desirable. To see it that way, one has to view the outcomes produced by that system as just. That is why conservatives have such a deep attachment to the notion that those who succeed are those who deserve it. Success, to conservatives, is just a measure of desert. This (via Will Wilkinson) is from an interesting paper by Mark D. Harmon in which he rounded up previous studies in this area and …

… test[ed] their conclusions against six U.S. public opinion polls. Secondary analysis found consistent and strong relationships. Conservatives and Republicans overwhelmingly attributed poverty to the personal failings of the poor themselves (lazy, drunk, etc.) while Democrats and liberals consistently offered social explanations like poor schools and lousy jobs for poverty. Later he looked at the inverse question, the reasons respondents give for others obtaining wealth (2010b). Generally he found that Democrats and liberals attributed wealth to connections or being born into a wealthy family, while Republicans and conservatives declared wealth comes from hard work.

This is really a foundational part of the difference between liberals and conservatives. It helps explain the enormous support within the conservative grassroots for policies that overwhelmingly benefit a very small number of very rich people. The rich, after all, are the winners. They are smarter. They work harder. They reached the top of the hierarchy. They deserve to be rewarded.

As conservatives see it, instead of being rewarded, the rich are beset by losers trying to take what they earned to give to those who couldn’t hack it. For the true conservative, all out-groups — socialists, environmentalists, feminists, immigrants, unions, homosexuals — are manifestations of the same phenomenon: losers try to cheat, trying to rig the system, to get what they couldn’t win fair and square and don’t deserve. Takers leeching off of Makers, as Paul Ryan would put it.

Obviously this mindset is relevant to the energy debate. Fossil fuels are the status quo. They are the winners. They deserve their dominance. Renewables are just another out-group, just another bunch of Takers looking for handouts from Makers.

Here’s a helpful heuristic: When a conservative politician or pundit says “market” (or “private sector”) in relation to energy, mentally substitute the phrase “status quo.” It will make much more sense. After all, no country, the U.S. included, has an energy sector that bears any resemblance whatsoever to a “free market.” Energy markets are ubiquitously shaped by laws and regulations and quasi-public monopolies and taxpayer-funded infrastructure. More to the point, they are comprehensively rigged in favor of fossil fuels. So when it comes to energy, saying “let markets decide” is, more often than not, tantamount to saying “leave the status quo as it is.”

Seen through this lens, Stearns’ comments make more sense. For Stearns, indeed for most conservatives, the role of government is not to pick winners, it is to reward winners. Winners are picked by the “market,” aka the status quo. Companies that succeed thereby earn the public spoils: “when somebody is successful, then you give them the subsidies.”

Indeed, this helps make sense of the political battles over cap-and-trade, loan guarantees, Solyndra, and green policy generally. It’s not that conservatives favor “free markets” and liberals don’t. It’s not that conservatives are concerned about prices or consumers and liberals aren’t. It’s that conservatives are strongly inclined to support the status quo and reward those who succeed within it. In that light, Stearns’ comment is not hypocritical or absurd at all; it’s what he believes. More than that, it’s who he is.

David Roberts is a staff writer for Grist. You can follow his Twitter feed at This piece was originally published at Grist.

18 Responses to The GOP Brain Explained: Why Cliff Stearns Wants to Subsidize Successful Companies

  1. I’m pretty sure this analysis is also wrong. Obama as President is very much part of the status quo, but so-called “conservative” Republicans refuse to acknowledge his success or work with him, preferring to instead to go all obstructionist and “birther”.

    Perhaps, as I mentioned before, the true philosophy of Republicans isn’t conservatism, or libertarianism, but good old greed?

    — frank

  2. kermit says:

    This sort of thinking is not compatible with survival in a rapidly changing world; that requires the ability to think scientifically and adapt as necessary. Alas, since this largely describes the power elite, I fear they will pull the whole human species down with them.

    Perhaps it will be OK with them, since they will die in charge.

  3. Joan Savage says:

    Historically, government has reinforced Cliff Stearns’ conservative view. Large corporations of the military-industrial[+ energy] complex have been rewarded over and over with government contracts, for already being ‘winners’ supposedly serving national interests. Consider the exemptions from environmental regulation that are accorded to military contractors.

  4. Merrelyn Emery says:

    There is a still deeper level of analysis and that is the difference between open and closed systems thinking. Open systems thinkers acknowledge a social field external to the system under question and acknowledge transactions between the system and the field or environment: closed systems thinkers do not acknowldge either.

    Closed systems thinkers assume that the sufficient conditions for behaviour lie within the system while the open systems thinkers assume those conditions lie in system-in-environment. You can see the distinction clearly in the examples provided, lazy people versus low SES schools etc.

    This also explains why closed system thinkers like so many Republicans have so much problem with climate change: it requires them to acknowledge a transaction between system and environment. From their perspective, people and environment are quite separate systems and therefore, people cannot affect the climate and the climate must be changing itself. This explains their denial of anthropogenic effects and their insistence on natural cyclical causes.

    Now that reality is threatening their world view, most will gradually adjust to an open systems perspective but for those who have invested heavily in closed systems thinking throughout their life, we will see greater shrillness and extremism amounting to the cultish behaviour that was discussed here a while back. Thats why I am hoping that if the American people were so silly as to elect a Republican at this critical time, it would be an opportunistic flip flopper like Romney rather than a heavy investor such as Perry, ME

  5. catman306 says:

    I just have to share this:


    Twain wrote glowingly about unions in the riverboating industry in Life on the Mississippi, which was read in union halls decades later.[76] He supported the labor movement, especially one of the most important unions, the Knights of Labor.[77] In a speech to them, he said:

    Who are the oppressors? The few: the King, the capitalist, and a handful of other overseers and superintendents. Who are the oppressed? The many: the nations of the earth; the valuable personages; the workers; they that make the bread that the soft-handed and idle eat.[78]

  6. Tim says:

    Before Reagan took office, I would have considered myself a centrist. These days I’m a flaming liberal. Funny thing, if you divide liberals and conservatives according to the criterion offered by Mark Harmon (the first blockquote after the break), then I’m still a centrist. Both (and neither) are correct. Another funny thing: in a society where the liberal view has held sway for a long time, I think the conservatives tend to become more correct. However, for the past thirty years the conservative view has dominated, and the liberal view is definitely closer to being correct.

    I do wish the battle between liberals and conservatives really was one fought between between these poles, because then I could have more respect for my opponents. Conservatism is now so thoroughly corrupt, I have no respect for them at all.

  7. Theodore says:

    I certainly understand the psychology of conservative thinking. My parents suffered from this condition and I acquired it from them. Fortunately, I recovered at about the age of 12 and moved on to a normal life. For afflicted adults, there is little hope of recovery. It will be with them for the rest of their sad, sick lives. Perhaps some sort of drug therapy could help them.

  8. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    catman, I have a well-worn tome, published in Moscow in 1960 by ‘Progress Publishers’, entitled ‘The Socialist Writings of Mark Twain’. A right old Bolshie was your Sam, and a grand writer. I love his description of Australian history, (tales of which he was regaled with while visiting our shores) as sounding like a series of ‘the most beautiful lies’. Alas, times change, society regresses and humanity devolves, and, today, the lies are simply ugly and uglier.

  9. john atcheson says:

    I think this is true for the hard core conservatives — in fact, MRI studies support this framing. But they compose a relatively small (25%) portion of the population. And of course, these temperaments are a spectrum, with people exhibiting varying degrees of bias in one direction or another.

    Much of the rest of the shift toward conservatism can be attributed to clever manipulation of people through fear. Conservatives have managed to create bogeymen of various kinds — big gubmint’; immigrants, gays, gay immigrants etc which reinforce even weak tendencies toward the authoritarian personality traits.

    This is true especially if there is no counter narrative being offered — if people don’t understand that immigrants give more to the system than they receive, for example. Or if they are not informed that government’s track record at picking winners is actually quite good, or if they don’t know that economic mobility in the US is diminishing and has reached levels below society’s with strongly reinforced class systems, so that the marlboro man myth — the strong individual winning at life — is just that now, a myth.

    And of course, the Democrats have been cringing in cowardice rather than confronting the Conservative myths.

    In short, temperament may be destiny for some, but the vast majority of people operate from a less rigid framework, and can be influenced one way or another.

    Our real problem is that we don’t confront demagoguery and when we try, we’re bad at it.

  10. Pete Dunkelberg says:

    “Obama as President is very much part of the status quo,….”

    Frank, you forgot something. He’s bl**k. There are people who don’t forget this. a bl**k who becomes a hard core rightist may be welcome, but failing that a bl**k with power is a big no-no.

  11. Pete Dunkelberg says:

    “Perhaps it will be OK with them, since they will die in charge.”


  12. Chris Winter says:

    Indeed, and there is a group called “National Association for the Advancement of Conservatives of Color.” I just learned of this from reading Over the Cliff: How Obama’s Election Drove the American Right Insane, by John Amato and David Neiwert.

    And yes, many white conservatives are unable to forget Obama is black.

  13. Dick Jacobs says:

    If you want to “learn” about the difference between the Republican Blacks and the Democratic Blacks, as claimed by some Republicans, watch the 11/2/ Daily Show,

  14. Raul M. says:

    He probably isn’t allowed to talk about how Florida was caught speeding in trying to change election law.
    Better to try to explain why Florida thinks it’t ok to be way speeding?
    Seems there are many changes in Fl gov. He isn’t allowed to tell people about?

  15. Raul M. says:

    i looked at cliff stearns’ web page but I couldn’t find where he mentions what the relationship between the national deficit and the wars fit into his agenda.
    Also I didn’t find mention of the course he will take in addressing Florida’s sticky situation with the voting laws being consistent throughout Florida.

  16. Raul M. says:

    Someone once said to me when I started to ride the I’m better because I’m white wagon back in the 60’s- did you wake up from your nap and find you had turned black? Seems a smart response to such a dumb way. Soon people started to notice that being out in the sun caused tanning or even a sunburn.

  17. Raul M. says:

    But to this day I think it best that one who voted no to the wars became President of the United States.
    I have heard that much repair has been accomplished in world attitudes to the US since he became President.

  18. Joe Romm says:

    Not so bad? Where do you live?