There is a certain species of political theory and public policy analysis which is marked by an inability to understand context and/or a denial of it, difficulty with using abstract thinking and concrete thinking in the correct situations, deep knowledge in very narrow topics, difficulty in understanding other perspectives, repetitive use of set phrases, and an inability to identify or think about groups or shared interests. People who routinely produce such content tend to have a troubling need for routines, a lack of empathy, and difficulty in processing social cues. Analysis that suffers from some (or even all) of these shortcomings can be found all over the political spectrum to varying degrees. While it is most common among libertarians, such myopic content is produced by many conservatives as well, particularly those who are politically connected.
The term political autism has come into use as a descriptor for this phenomenon because the above symptoms are commonly found among autistic people, particularly the high-functioning or mildly autistic. Other symptoms, which are more common in severe cases of autism, do not manifest politically because they are socially crippling, keeping a person from organizing in the political realm to advance one’s interests. Therefore, let us focus on the autism symptoms which manifest among some conservatives and impair their intellectual output. We will examine each of these symptoms, then consider how they typically manifest in order to provide a guide for self-diagnosis and self-treatment to the afflicted. Finally, we will compare and contrast autistic conservatism with the related but distinct phenomenon that has been labeled cuckservatism.
People who have autism spectrum disorders typically have a lack of interest in sharing achievements, emotions, or interests with other people. They frequently lack empathy for other people’s feelings and have difficulties in forming and sustaining relationships. They can have difficulties in understanding other perspectives as well as non-literal speech. These personality problems amplify pathological political positions taken by certain subsets of conservatives, frequently denounced elsewhere as neoconservatives, Beltway bandits, chicken hawks, and imperialists. In argumentation, these symptoms manifest when conservatives answer leftist rhetoric with dialectic, or vice versa. A related problem is the use of faith-based persuasion toward the faithless. The autistic conservative is unable to process the operational mode of the opponent and is therefore only able to frustrate leftists.
Context Problems, Abstractness, and Concreteness
As with many other disciplines, there is a dichotomy between abstractness and concreteness, between theory and practice in politics. Given the human element which is necessarily present, a multitude of variables are introduced, some of which will escape account by even the best theorist. Furthermore, peoples’ lives are only ever lived in context; there is no such thing as human existence devoid of setting. It is thus only natural that a theorist should present a simplified model of the world for the purpose of illustrating an argument. Doing so avoids presenting a cacophony of background noise, distracting the recipient with instances of his own ignorance, and maintains the presenter’s frame of reference. Political autism takes this several steps further; the politically autistic will not only neglect certain elements of context, but will ignore important parts which fundamentally alter the calculus of a policy decision. More extreme examples will present completely abstract arguments devoid of any real-world considerations.
Depth Without Breadth
A related problem is the practice of delving deep into the weeds in a narrow topic while missing the larger picture. Again, there is a lesser version which naturally occurs for understandable reasons. As Carl Schmitt writes,
“Every religious, moral, economic, ethical, or other antithesis transforms into a political one if it is sufficiently strong to group human beings effectively according to friend and enemy.”
This insight broadens the breadth and depth of knowledge required to be a general expert in politics far beyond that which any one person can possibly acquire. Accordingly, political theorists and commentators will specialize in certain aspects of statecraft. Political autism frequently involves taking this to the extreme of knowing almost everything there is to know about an esoteric, even trivial topic while being unaware of the larger context in which such knowledge could be useful. This hampers the political autist’s efforts by peppering one’s work with useless details that do not advance the case being made and reducing one’s ability to predict future results. Notably, this aspect almost never occurs in the absence of the others, so the issues tend to overlap.
Another symptom of political autism is the tendency to view other people as being similar to oneself, and other nations as being similar to one’s own despite overwhelming contrary evidence. In other words, the political autist denies Schmitt’s insights into the nature of the political. Charles Krauthammer termed this behavior plural solipsism, writing:
“Solipsism is the belief that the whole world is me, and as mathematician Martin Gardner put it, its authentic version is not to be found outside mental institutions. What is to be found outside the asylum is its philosophic cousin, the belief that the whole world is like me. This species of solipsism—plural solipsism, if you like—is far more common because it is far less lonely. Indeed, it yields a congenial world filled with creatures of one’s own likeness…
The mirror-image fantasy is not as crazy as it seems. Fundamentally, it is a radical denial of the otherness of others. Or to put it another way, a blinding belief in ‘common humanity,’ in the triumph of human commonality over human differences. …Its central axiom is that if one burrows deep enough beneath the Mao jacket, the shapka, or the chador, one discovers that people everywhere are essentially the same.”
This predictably causes serious problems, but is understandable. Humans have a very small amount of genetic variation, such that one would have to delve two or three levels below that of species in order to classify subgroups of humans. In terms of lived experience, many people in the modern world are surrounded in their daily lives by people who are sufficiently similar to them so as not to get into violent conflicts. This is especially true of people who write essays in political theory. Many people also live within a rather small bubble compared to the scale of international relations, so plural solipsism is a naturally occurring heuristic that allows people to devote mental resources to more pressing concerns.
“If the whole world is like me, then certain conflicts become incomprehensible; the very notion of intractability becomes paradoxical. …The more alien the sentiment, the less seriously it is taken. Diplomatic fiascoes follow… To gloss over contradictory interests, incompatible ideologies, and opposing cultures is more than anti-political. It is dangerous.”
A more realistic approach is thus required, as Krauthammer describes:
“Ultimately to say that people all share the same hopes and fears, are all born and love and suffer and die alike, is to say very little. For it is after commonalities are accounted for that politics becomes necessary. It is only when values, ideologies, cultures, and interests clash that politics even begins. At only the most trivial level can it be said that people want the same things. Take peace. The North Vietnamese wanted it, but apparently they wanted to conquer all of Indochina first. The Salvadoran right and left both want it, but only after making a desert of the other. The Reagan administration wants it, but not if it has to pay for it with pieces of Central America.
And even if one admits universal ends, one still has said nothing about means, about what people will risk, will permit, will commit in order to banish their (common) fears and pursue their (common) hopes. One would think that after the experience of [the 20th] century the belief that a harmony must prevail between peoples who share a love of children and small dogs would be considered evidence of a most grotesque historical amnesia.”
Once more, a politically autistic person takes a mechanism which is beneficial in moderation for certain purposes and applies it in excess toward purposes for which it is unwarranted. It is also worth mentioning that one can engage in plural solipsism in one aspect of one’s thinking while being fully cognizant of the fallacy in another aspect.
Another symptom of political autism is a sort of hyper-individualism in which a person seemingly lacks the ability to identify or think about groups or shared interests, as well as make collective judgments. This is put into stark relief by the fact that rightist, conservative, reactionary, and other such labels specify a political group identity based on a common value set. This hyper-individualism hinders the ability of conservatives to organize into groups to accomplish tasks which are too difficult to complete on one’s own and to recognize large-scale threats in the form of demographic shifts which will alter their culture to be hostile to their interests.
Seeing and judging people as individuals rather than as stereotypes of a collective identity is the best approach whenever it can be employed, and bigotry frequently manifests in an ugly manner. But there exist situations in which one lacks the time and resources to judge each person individually, thus a collective decision must be made. In a sense, hyper-individualism is also a form of context denial. Identity politics and intersectionality have been successful driving forces on the left, but have been denounced by the conservative establishment. Refusing to use an effective weapon that the enemy gleefully employs leaves one’s side at a disadvantage. Additionally, no one living in civilization is truly an atomized individual, as everyone has collective ties to some degree.
A thought-terminating cliché is a phrase that is used to end a debate prematurely without addressing all important points. These do have legitimate uses; one may employ them to avoid repetitious arguments against points that have already been refuted a thousand times, to end an engagement when one no longer feels like participating, or simply because the cliché is a true statement that applies to the subject being discussed. It is important to distinguish between proper and improper uses so that one does not incorrectly accuse others of using logical fallacies.
That being said, autistic conservatism frequently manifests in the use of abbreviated talking points, snarl words, and triggers. This is done to create a Pavlovian response in voters and activists to get them to denounce leftists and their policies absent the reasoned arguments which should accompany such references. Political autism is thus exacerbated by democracy, for denying the masses a political voice would eliminate the need for such behavior. Note that such clichés need not be true; indeed they can be outright fabrications and conspiracy theories.
With the symptoms covered, let us turn to current instances of political autism among conservatives. Context denial is the most common symptom of political autism. Two examples at the time of this writing are the establishment conservative positions on trade and social media censorship. Mainstream conservatives pay lip service to free trade, arguing that it would be best for the economy if no nation enacted tariffs or embargoes against any other. In a perfect world, no protectionism would be justifiable, but that is neither this world nor the world of the immediate future. The current context is that other nations have high tariffs against the United States which are not reciprocated. One means of lowering tariffs in the long term is to respond with an equivalent counter-tariff to attempt to even out the discrepancies caused by another state’s tariffs, with an aim toward negotiating reduction or abolition of the tariff on both sides. In this view, tariffs do for trade policy what nuclear weapons do for foreign policy; their primary purpose is to alter the behavior of other states by serving as a deterrent. The threat of a trade war by way of tariffs and counter-tariffs helps to keep the economic peace, just as peace through mutually assured destruction does with nuclear weapons.
Although free trade usually provides more net benefit than protectionism in the long run, people do not live in the long run; they live their lives and feel economic pain here and now. Furthermore, a net benefit does not mean that each individual person benefits; only that the sum of all benefits and malefits is a net positive. It may be the case that a minority sees great gains while a majority suffers somewhat smaller losses, and this would explain why a democratic system would produce protectionist policies. Political autism also manifests here in the form of the lack of empathy for those who are harmed by free trade in the short-term, the difficulty of understanding their perspective, and the inability to think properly about individuals versus groups.
The recent censorship of conservatives by social media companies has also produced a great amount of context denial. Establishment commentators typically declare that these technology giants are private companies and should be free to deny service as they see fit. According to them, anyone who disagrees with the terms of service can go build their own platform. Real-world conditions thoroughly contradict such a view. Those who have tried to build their own platforms find themselves stymied by domain registrars and payment processors who refuse to host their websites and handle their assets, as well as the ability of established companies to use their platforms for anti-competitive practices, such as keeping their upstart competitors out of search results and application stores. This can keep their competitors from gaining the brand recognition necessary to build the user base to become successful social media platforms. This was less of a problem in the early days of social media when turnover of the most popular sites was higher, but the near-monopolies of the largest companies are no longer as vulnerable.
As for private companies, the technology giants are not as private as mainstream conservatives seem to believe because all of these companies are incorporated. A corporation is a legal fiction created by the state to shield business owners from full financial liability and ease the enforcement of laws upon those businesses. Without registering or chartering a corporation under the laws of a state, it is impossible to establish such an entity as we know them. The closest one could come would be to negotiate recognition of a business entity with limited liability with each customer of that business, but this would not be identical to a state-recognized corporation in terms of its interaction with the state or its liabilities for negative externalities. Two results directly follow from this. First, registering a corporation amounts to participation in a government program. Second, state-recognized corporations are not truly private businesses, but public-private partnerships in which the state provides limited liability through its monopoly on courts and the private business fulfills its purpose, whatever it may be. Because taxpayers are forced to pay for the legal structures that corporations use, any funding grants or bailouts they receive, and any public works they perform, to let taxpayers be denied service by these entities compounds the injustice of taxation.
As mentioned earlier, plural solipsism occurs most prominently in the efforts of liberal democracies to proselytize their civic religion to non-democratic governments, often violently. The West, from ancient Athens onward, produced a unique set of values that led to liberal democracy. This occurred in a distinct historical context; enough particular people living in particular environments eventually came to view liberal democracy as, in Winston Churchill’s words, “the worst form of government, except for the others that have been tried from time to time.” People of different genetics in different environments need not and have not developed the same values, and there is no logical reason why they should. Indeed, there is no logical reason why the West need retain democracy in light of the loss of essential liberty that has occurred under its watch and the degree of havoc its adherents have wrought upon non-democratic countries.
A second example of plural solipsism is that of conservative strategy versus liberal strategy. Liberals tend to view conservatives as being evil, while conservatives tend to view liberals as merely wrong and assume similar good faith. Leftists simply ask who can do what to whom, while what passes for the right gets bogged down in concerns over civility. The political autist lives in search of a neutral referee to penalize leftist transgressions, unable to discern that no such creature can possibly exist, and if it did, it would instead be the field being played on or the goal being scored on. A less autistic approach would recognize the difference and change course accordingly.
Hyper-individualism is best evidenced at the time of this writing by open-borders advocacy by big-business conservatives who enjoy cheap immigrant labor at the expense of native populations that must deal with lower wages, higher crime rates, and cultural dispossession. Recall that lacking empathy for others, difficulty sharing achievements with them, and not understanding other perspectives are part and parcel of political autism. That the people who seek to import massive numbers of culturally incompatible immigrants are typically shielded from the adverse effects thereof by their location and wealth make this behavior more prominent and reprehensible.
Finally, the thought-terminating cliché has recently taken the form of Make America Great Again, despite the lesser degree of political autism in Trumpism vis-à-vis establishment conservatism. Although this is a grammatical shorthand for a wide range of quasi-right-wing populist policy measures, it is also a rallying cry for low-information voters to excite them enough to vote Republican, whatever that may ultimately mean for them, as well as a means of accusing opponents of opposing American greatness.
Autism Versus Cuckoldry
Although there is some overlap between autistic conservatism and cuckservatism, they are distinct phenomena. Now that the former has been described thoroughly, let us compare and contrast the two.
Both autistic conservatives and cuckservatives pay lip service to the defense of traditional conservative values, but recommend policies which work against those values. However, the disposition of each is different. The autist has intellectual handicaps, while the cuckservative prioritizes establishment respectability over implementing conservative policies. For example, the same argument for an open-borders immigration policy can be autistic or cuckolded, depending on whether the arguer cannot understand the potential dangers to one’s own people or is too afraid to argue for the preservation of one’s people out of fear of being called a racist. Another issue on which both produce the same misguided arguments is that of corporations, but while the autist will confuse them for purely private businesses due to context denial, the cuckservative will oppose anything that threatens the power of corporations, even going so far as advocating a soft variant of fascism.
The two groups differ in their most common goals. The autistic conservative is more likely to defend incorrectly, while the cuckservative is more likely to attack incorrectly. The autist defends institutions and practices that conservatives should oppose because they do not understand the greater implications of what they are doing, while the cuckservative spends more time punching right than punching left. The autist will attempt to strictly adhere to principles that no one else observes because they are useless handicaps in the political arena. Meanwhile, the cuckservative may articulate a set of principles, but will seldom stand by them in the face of criticism from the left.
Both autistic conservatives and cuckservatives are tolerated by the leftist establishment and occasionally paid well, but for different reasons. The autists are useful idiots who are incapable of doing serious damage to the Cathedral, while the cuckservatives are false opposition who take up valuable political space in a two-party system in order to keep real opposition from ever gaining power through democratic means. For all of the above reasons, autistic conservatism is more forgivable than cuckservatism, as ignorance and innocence are more forgivable than malice and subterfuge.
Political autism is perhaps best interpreted as a tragic flaw, the result of normal human behaviors taken to extremes which produces poor results precisely due to their immoderation. Although autistic conservatives present works which are predictably incorrect, they are not usually doing so in bad faith. The best way to handle them is to correct them when they go astray, with the aim of helping them to recognize their political autism and check it as needed so that other, non-autistic rightists no longer have to do so for them.
- Schmitt, Carl (1932). The Concept of the Political (Expanded ed.). (George Schwab, Trans. 1996). The University of Chicago Press. p. 37.
- Krauthammer, Charles (1983, Aug. 15). “The Mirror-Image Fallacy”. Time.