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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

Nevertheless, some of the differences between liberals and conservatives have clear implications for how they respond to evidence in political debates. Take, for instance, their divergence on a core personality measure called Openness to Experience (and the suite of characteristics that go along with it). The evidence here is quite strong: overall, liberals tend to be more open, flexible, curious and nuanced—and conservatives tend to be more closed, fixed and certain in their views.

Scientists are already showing that average "liberal" and "conservative" brains differ in suggestive ways.

What's more, since Openness is a core aspect of personality, examining this difference points us toward the study of the political brain. The field is very young, but scientists are already showing that average "liberal" and "conservative" brains differ in suggestive ways. These differences may be related to a large and still unidentified number of "political" genes—although to be sure, genes are only one influence out of many upon our political views. But they appear to be an underrated one.

What all of this means is that our inability to agree on the facts can no longer be explained solely at the surface of our politics. It has to be traced, as well, to deeper psychological and cognitive factors. And such an approach won't merely cast light on why we see so much "truthiness" today, so many postmodern fights between the left and the right over reality. Phenomena ranging from conservative brinksmanship over raising the debt ceiling to the old "What's the Matter with Kansas?" problem—why do poor conservatives vote against their economic interests?— make vastly more sense when viewed through the lens of political psychology.

Before going any further, I want to emphasize that this argument is not a form of what is often called reductionism. Just because psychology seems relevant to explaining why the left and the right have diverged over reality doesn't mean that nothing else is, or that I am reducing conservatives to just their psychology (or reducing psychology to cognitive neuroscience, or cognitive neuroscience to genes, and so on). "We can never give a complete explanation of anything interesting about human beings in psychology," explains the University of Cambridge psychologist Fraser Watts. But that doesn't mean there's nothing to be learned from the endeavor.

Complex phenomena like human political behavior always have many causes, not one. Human brains are flexible and change daily; people have choices, and those choices alter who they are. Nevertheless, there are broad tendencies in the population that really matter, and cannot be ignored.

We don't understand everything there is to know yet about the underlying reasons why conservatives and liberals are different. We don't know how all the puzzle pieces—cognitive styles, personality traits, psychological needs, moral intuitions, brain structures, and genes—fit together. And we know that the environment (or nurture) is at least as important as the genes (or nature). This means that what I'm saying applies at the level of large groups, but may founder in case of any particular individual.

Still, we know enough to begin pooling together all the scientific evidence. And when you do—even if you provide all the caveats—there's a lot of consistency. And it all makes a lot of sense. Conservatism, after all, means nothing if not supporting political and social stability and resisting change. I'm merely tracing some of the appeal of this philosophy to psychology, and then discussing what this means for how we debate what is "true" in contested areas.

Now, conservatives won't like hearing that they're often wrong and dogmatic about it, so they may dogmatically resist this conclusion. They may also try to turn the tables and pretend liberals are the closed-minded ones, ignoring volumes of science in the process. (I'm waiting, Ann Coulter.)

But what about liberals? Aren't we wrong too, and dogmatic too?

The typical waffling liberal answer is, "er . . . sort of." Liberals aren't always right,but that's not the central problem. Our particular dysfunction is, typically, more complex and even paradoxical.

We often act as though right-wing misinformation's defeat is nigh, if we could only make people wiser and get them the medicine that is correct information. In this, we both underestimate conservatives, and we fail to understand them.

On the one hand, we're absolutely outraged by partisan misinformation. Lies about "death panels." People seriously thinking that President Obama is a Muslim. Climate change denial. Debt ceiling denial. These things drive us crazy, in large part because we can't comprehend how such intellectual abominations could possibly exist. I can't tell you how many times I've heard a fellow liberal say, "I can't believe the Republicans are so stupid they can believe X!"

And not only are we enraged by lies and misinformation; we want to refute them—to argue, argue, argue about why we're right and Republicans are wrong. Indeed, we often act as though right-wing misinformation's defeat is nigh, if we could only make people wiser and more educated (just like us) and get them the medicine that is correct information.

In this, we both underestimate conservatives, and we fail to understand them.

To begin to remedy that defect, let's go back to the Conservapedia-relativity dustup, and make an observation that liberals and physicists did not always credit. Whatever else Andrew Schlafly might be—and no matter how hard it is to understand how someone could devote himself to an enterprise like Conservapedia—the man is not stupid. Quite the contrary.

He's a Harvard law graduate. He has an engineering degree from Princeton, and used to work both for Intel and for Bell Labs. His relativity entry is filled with equations that I myself can neither write nor solve. He hails from a highly intellectual right-wing family—his mother, Phyllis, is also Harvard educated and, according to her biographer, excelled in school at a time when women too rarely had the opportunity to compete with men at that level. Mother and son thus draw a neat, half-century connection between the birth of modern American conservatism on the one hand, and the insistence that conservatives have their own "facts," better than liberal facts thank you very much, on the other.

So it is not that Schlafly, or other conservatives as sophisticated as he, can't make an argument. Rather, the problem is that when Schlafly makes an argument, it's hard to believe it has anything to do with real intellectual give and take. He's not arguing out of an openness to changing his mind. He's arguing to reaffirm what he already thinks (his "faith"), to defend the authorities he trusts, and to bolster the beliefs of his compatriots, his tribe, his team.

Liberals (and scientists) have too often tried to dodge the mounting evidence that this is how people work. Perhaps because it leads to a place that terrifies them: an anti-Enlightenment world in which evidence and argument don't work to change people's minds.

But that response, too, is a form of denial—liberal denial, a doctrine whose chief delusion is not so much the failure to accept facts, but rather, the failure to understand conservatives. And that denial can't continue. Because as President Obama's first term has shown—from the healthcare battle to the debt ceiling crisis—ignoring the psychology of the right has not only left liberals frustrated and angry, but has left the country in a considerably worse state than that.

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