A progressive friend (non-woke) asked me why the bench of conservative intellectuals is much shallower than those on the Left/progressive side. I believe there are two broad reasons, building on each other.
First, if you are a high IQ individual you are more amenable and comfortable with abstraction, system-building, and rationality. Various forms of Leftism, liberalism, and libertarianism have something to offer you immediately since they start with rationalized systems. Historical materialism, Rawlsian political philosophy, and neoclassical economics or Natural Rights. Conservatism is a less clear and distinct option because it does not present a grand universal rational system. Rather, it leans on custom, tradition, and disposition. History in an empirical sense, not theoretical. There is suspicion of excessive rationalization of cultural practices and mores. Conservatives argue that you shouldn’t overthink things! You don’t understand the ultimate big picture. Intellectual conservatism, ironically, cautions against dense, clear, and compact answers.
That’s pretty infuriating for someone whose raison d’etre is to understand in a rational manner. Thinking is exactly what intellectuals are good at. Making systems where they have reflective access to the guts of the machine and the chains of cause and effect.
The conservative argument would be that this is not really possible in a deep way when comes to human affairs, as opposed to the natural sciences. Social and cultural practices have within them embedded wisdom accrued through trial and error. That is, it’s a natural Darwinian process. Bottom-up, not top-down “intelligent design.”
Joe Henrich’s The Secret Of Our Success has one of the best illustrations of systems that embed rational purpose but are totally opaque to those who continue practices due to custom and tradition. Manioc was introduced to West Africa from Brazil in the 16th century. Today, there are all sorts of steps and customs associated with manioc preparation in West African societies. The reason is that unless prepared in a specific manner, manioc is toxic. It seems that West Africans through a process of trial and error came to a set of established cultural scripts that made manioc both palatable and safe. But, it turns out that the people engaging in the practice today don’t know why they do what they do. It’s just custom and tradition. They are blind to the purpose on the individual level, even though there is purpose on the social level.
One could today put manioc preparers through a course that explains the reason for every step. But it’s really not necessary. Taboos and traditions constrain the manner in which manioc is prepared and make it so it is not toxic. Taboos and traditions serve proximate functions in relation to the ultimate adaptation. You don’t know need to know how ligaments and tendons work. Just to use them.
Of course, there is a balance between rational understanding and going on trust embedded through cultural knowledge. Most of us are comfortable getting in airplanes to travel, but we don’t know the engineering details. But someone does know the details, at least at the high level. I say “high level”, because it is likely that many complex engineering products today are designed by groups where individuals may know parts to a high degree of competence, but the whole process of rational comprehension is now distributed across institutions and collectives.
The same applies to the academy. Professors assume people in other fields know what they’re doing, and are producing good scholarship. They trust in the system of academic peer review, and tenure promotion. They don’t know all the details in a rational sense.
I think this goes to my second reason for why intellectuals are mostly progressive: humans tend to conform to their ingroup. All things equal progressivism appeals to the cognitive comforts and experiences of intellectuals more than conservatism. But there will be deviations from this expectation. But, in a group where 60% start out as progressive, over time more and more will become progressive due to pressures to align oneself to group identity. Only the most disagreeable will hold out, at least in public. I’ve seen this myself over the last ten years, as many people who were centrists or moderately liberal have now gone fully “woke.” There was no particular moment, rather, the whole subculture simply changed and most people moved along with it. These “woke” intellectuals often express great displeasure when I bring up their old pagan beliefs, before their baptism. They have been born anew in Justice.
Again, this is due to something which conservatives appreciate: you follow the norms of your group because they embed collective wisdom. You eliminate cognitive dissonance with people you like by adhering to their views, eliminating tension (I’ve also seen this happen with conservatives who are secular but eventually become Catholic like all their peers).
Finally, let me end with an empirical illustration of these various issues. In the 2000s Richard Dawkins was the bête noire of organized religion. He mused about whether religion was the “root of all evil.” Today, to a great extent we live in a world more to Dawkins’ liking, as religion is far less influential and powerful as a social force. The United States has gone through a massive wave of secularization beginning in the 2000s.
But many people who were New Atheists, and had a dim view of religion, are now revisiting their opinions. Dawkins himself has been denied platforms many times now because of the reality that he has had some harsh things to say about groups like Muslims. Many people who believed Dawkins was admirable in 2006, now find him “problematic.” The world has passed him by.
It is not unreasonable to suggest that perhaps organized religion serves as an institutional check upon the passions of the people. Contrary to being the “root of all evil,” religion was a “social technology” which channeled human impulses, sometimes in a negative direction, but often in a positive one. The most furious and hateful denouncers of Richard Dawkins today are not traditional believers, but proud atheists who are creating quasi-religious communities, because their lives abhor the godless vacuum, even if they won’t admit it to themselves. These new fanatics won’t even bother asking “What if you’re wrong?” They believe the question itself would lend credibility to the pagan, whose soul is damned….