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Understanding the Ideological Divide Between Liberals and Conservatives: Is it Possible for Us to Get Along?

Journalist Chris Mooney discusses his new book, "The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Reject Science -- and Reality."
 
 
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In his new book, The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Reject Science -- And Reality, science journalist Chris Mooney surveys this growing body of data and explains its significance. Mooney recently appeared on the AlterNet Radio Hour to discuss the book. Below is a transcript that has been lightly edited for clarity (listen to the whole show here).

Joshua Holland: Chris, the central point of the book is that the ideological divide we see not only in this country but around the world is not merely about what we see on the surface. Unpack that for me. Give me the central thesis.

Chris Mooney: I think that politics is so focused on interest groups and rivalries, following the money trail. When you stop and look at the field of psychology and what it is starting to tell us about politics, and how that's being extended into other fields, then you realize we're missing a whole large part of the drivers of why we're divided, why we disagree. In the book I start with the simplest science. Studying the human personality has shown that liberals and conservatives are different people on chief personality measures like openness to new experiences, which liberals tend to score higher on, and conscientiousness -- which is liking order and structure in your life -- conservatives tend to score higher on that. There are all kinds of ramifications of that. I argue that one of the chief ramifications is that they're going to process information differently. Different kind of arguments are going to seem convincing to them, and especially for scientific and complex topics liberals are going to be generally more comfortable with the nuance and complexity of the issue. Conservatives are going to be more decisive.

JH: They're going to want things simple, and in black-and-white terms?

CM: Especially if they are what we call the authoritarian type. That's not all conservatives. That's one type of conservative. Essentially, if you score very low on the trait "openness to new experience," which is the liberal trait that you like to try new things and also like new ideas. If you're on the opposite of that, it tends to mean more black-and-white thinking and, frankly, close-mindedness. The scientific term for that is the need for "closure." That means you want to have a fixed idea, and you'll definitely want to search for information enough so that you have that fixed idea, but then once you've got it you're not wanting to search anymore.

JH: As progressives, we often look at our ideological opponents in wonder. We see them as divorced from reality. Especially when you look at issues like evolution and global warming. But they're not really crazy in a clinical way, are they?

CM: No. None of the researchers that I talk to, the people who are running studies on the psychology of ideology, said that. There appears to be a normal range of human variation along a variety of traits, and all these things are in the normal range. If you think about it a different way authoritarians are quite prevalent in the United States. It's not like it's a rare personality type; it's very common. It's not half of the population or anything, but it is there, and it depends on how far on the scale of authoritarianism you go. It is certainly quite common.

JH: Now I'm going to come back to the different ways that researchers have described these different traits in a moment. I just want to first of all make sure readers understand that this is not a polemic. You looked at an enormous amount of research across several fields of study. You actually conducted some research for the book. This is a pretty robust body of research that a lot of people aren't familiar with. It goes back a while, doesn't it?

 
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