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Diagnosing the Republican Brain

Fact: Conservatives deny science and facts. But there's a reality check that liberals need too.

| Fri Mar. 30, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

The Iraq War. The mid-2000s saw the mass dissemination of a number of falsehoods about the war in Iraq, including claims that weapons of mass destruction were found after the US invasion and that Iraq and Al Qaeda were proven collaborators. And political conservatives were much more likely than liberals to believe these falsehoods. Studies have shown as much of Fox News viewers, and also of so-called authoritarians, an increasingly significant part of the conservative base (about whom more soon). In one study, 37 percent of authoritarians (but 15 percent of non-authoritarians) believed WMD had been found in Iraq, and 55 percent of authoritarians (but 19 percent of non-authoritarians) believed that Saddam Hussein had been directly involved in the 9-11 attacks.

Perhaps most alarming of all, in mid-2011 conservatives advanced the dangerous idea that the federal government could simply "prioritize payments" if Congress failed to raise the debt ceiling—risking economic calamity.

Economics. Many conservatives hold the clearly incorrect view—explicitly espoused by former President George W. Bush—that tax cuts increase government revenue. They also think President Obama raised their income taxes, that he's responsible for current government budget deficits, and that his flagship economic stimulus bill didn't create many jobs or even caused job losses (and that most economists concur with this assessment). Perhaps most alarming of all, in mid-2011 conservatives advanced the dangerous idea that the federal government could simply "prioritize payments" if Congress failed to raise the debt ceiling. None of this is true, and the last belief, in particular, risked economic calamity.

American History. Many conservatives—especially on the Christian Right—believe the United States was founded as a "Christian nation." They consider the separation of church and state a "myth," not at all assured by the First Amendment. And they twist history in myriad other ways, large and small, including Michele Bachmann's claim that the Founding Fathers "worked tirelessly" to put an end to slavery.

Sundry Errors. Many conservatives claimed that President Obama's late 2010 trip to India would cost $200 million per day, or $2 billion for a ten day visit! And they claimed that, in 2007, Congress banned incandescent light bulbs, a truly intolerable assault on American freedoms. Only, Congress did no such thing. (To give just a few examples.)

Science. In a nationally representative survey—only 18 percent of Republicans and Tea Party members accepted the scientific consensus that global warming is caused by humans, and only 45 and 43 percent (respectively) accepted human evolution.

In other words, political conservatives have placed themselves in direct conflict with modern scientific knowledge, which shows beyond serious question that global warming is real and caused by humans, and evolution is real and the cause of humans. If you don't accept either claim, you cannot possibly understand the world or our place in it.

 

But why? Why are today's liberals usually right, and today's conservatives usually wrong? I devoted a book to trying to understand the science behind the political brain—and though I first wrote about some of my findings in Mother Jones let me touch on a few of its findings here.

One possible answer is what I'll call the "environmental explanation." I've told a version of it before, in my 2005 book The Republican War on Science:

At least since the time of Ronald Reagan, but arcing back further, the modern American conservative movement has taken control of the Republican Party and aligned it with a key set of interest groups who have had bones to pick with various aspects of scientific reality—most notably, corporate anti-regulatory interests and religious conservatives. And so these interests fought back against the relevant facts—and Republican leaders, dependent on their votes, joined them, making science denial an increasingly important part of the conservative and Republican political identity….Meanwhile, party allegiances created a strange bedfellows effect. The enemy of one's friend was also an enemy, so we saw conservative Christians denying climate science, and pharmaceutical companies donating heaps of money to a party whose Christian base regularly attacks biomedical research. Despite these contradictions, economic and social conservatives profited enough from their allegiance that it was in the interests of both to hold it together.

In such an account, the problem of right-wing science denial is ascribed to political opportunism—rooted in the desire to appease either religious impulses or corporate profit motives. But is this the right answer?

It isn't wrong, exactly. There's much truth to it. Yet it completely ignores what we now know about the psychology of our politics.

The environmental account ascribes Republican science denial (and for other forms of denial, the story would be similar) to the particular exigencies and alignments of American political history. That's what the party did because it had to, to get ahead. And today, goes the thinking, this leaves us with a vast gulf between Democrats and Republicans in their acceptance of modern climate science and many other scientific conclusions, with conservatives increasingly distrustful of science, and with scientists and the highly educated moving steadily to the left.

Right-wing science denial is ascribed to political opportunism—the desire to appease either religious impulses or corporate profit motives. There's much truth to it. Yet it completely ignores what we now know about the psychology of our politics.

 

 

There's just one problem: This account ignores the possibility that there might be real differences between liberals and conservatives that influence how they respond to scientific or factual information. It assumes we're all blank slates—that we all want the same basic things—and then we respond to political forces not unlike air molecules inside a balloon. We get knocked this way and that, sure. And we start out in different places, thus ensuring different trajectories. But at the end of the day, we're all just air molecules.

But what if we're not all the same kind of molecule? What if we respond to political or factual collisions in different ways, with different spins or velocities? Today there's considerable scientific evidence suggesting that this is the case.

For instance, the historic political awakening of what we now call the Religious Right was nothing if not a defense of cultural traditionalism—which had been threatened by the 1960s counterculture, Roe v. Wade, and continued inroads by feminists, gay rights activists, and many others—and a more hierarchical social structure. It was a classic counter-reaction to too much change, too much pushing of equality, and too many attacks on traditional values—all occurring too fast. And it mobilized a strong strand of right-wing authoritarianism in US politics—one that had either been dormant previously, or at least more evenly distributed across the parties.

The rise of the Religious Right was thus the epitome of conservatism on a psychological level—clutching for something certain in a changing world; wanting to preserve one's own ways in uncertain times, and one's own group in the face of difference—and can't be fully understood without putting this variable into play.

The problem is that people are deathly afraid of psychology, and never more so than when it is applied to political beliefs. Political journalists, in particular, almost uniformly avoid this kind of approach. They try to remain on the surface of things, telling endless stories of horse races and rivalries, strategies and interests, and key "turning points." All of which are, of course, real. And conveniently, by sticking with them you never have to take the dangerous journey into anybody's head.

But what if these only tell half the story?

 

As I began to investigate the underlying causes for the conservative denial of reality that we see all around us, I found it impossible to ignore a mounting body of evidence—from political science, social psychology, evolutionary psychology, cognitive neuroscience, and genetics—that points to a key conclusion. Political conservatives seem to be very different from political liberals at the level of psychology and personality. And inevitably, this influences the way the two groups argue and process information.

Let's be clear: This is not a claim about intelligence. Nor am I saying that conservatives are somehow worse people than liberals; the groups are just different. Liberals have their own weaknesses grounded in psychology, and conservatives are very aware of this. (Many of the arguments in this book could be inverted and repackaged into a book called The Democratic Brain—with a Spock-like caricature of President Obama on the cover.)

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