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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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CM: I think there are converging bodies of evidence. The most robust is what I started with, and I did that purpose. I want everyone to understand that there is this incredible body of research on personality being political.

Just to give you one example, there was a recent study done by political scientists at Yale and another institution whose name escapes me. They looked at 13,000 people and they just gave simple personality tests to test the basic five personality traits. They analyzed their level of income and education. Of course they analyzed their politics by self-identification, but also by asking them economic questions and social questions. What they found was that the trait "openness to new experience" was as big an effect on making you a liberal as a high level of education was, or a high level of income making you a conservative. So it's as big as these things that we always talk about. We know education makes you liberal and we know income makes you conservative. This is at least as big an effect.

JH: Now I want to dig into these different methodologies of understanding this a little bit. You recently wrote for AlterNet that even the most well-read liberals and progressives can be forgiven for being confused because the experts themselves have different ways of explaining what they call conservative morality or moral systems.

There's a lot of overlap here and I just want to go through some of these different ways that moral impulses govern the way we see the world, the way that that's described. Maybe one of the more well known among our audience might be George Lakoff, the cognitive linguist. He uses the metaphor of a family to understand the way we view the world differently. Tell me a brief summary of what that means.

CM: Sure. Lakoff says that we think in metaphor and we think about politics in metaphor. So we model our society on a family, and the problem is we don't agree because we have different family models. The conservative has the strict father family where there is one absolute authority who tells everybody what to do. It's kind of a dangerous world out there and the father teaches the kids to be tough so they can protect themselves. The father runs everything.

And then he says liberals are much more into a nurturing parent environment. This is really interesting because it correlates with how we now measure authoritarianism. The most recent ways of measuring it, and there have been a variety of revisions as the measurements have gotten better, are actually just questions that ask what you think a child should be like. The authoritarian tends to want an obedient and disciplined child, and the non-authoritarian is into things like creativity, that it would be great to have a kid who is creative. There's clearly a close parallel between those two things. I find that a lot of this research is overlapping in a lot of different ways. We have personalities differing between liberals and conservatives and we have values differing between liberals and conservatives. It's not quite clear which is more primary and more primal, but they seem to travel together.

JH: You say in the book that it's difficult to differentiate the roots from the trees. Now I think we should note that human cognition is not a simple thing, and none of this really cleaves neatly along ideological lines where you can say conservatives are all this and liberals are all that. It's more the case that liberals tend to display certain characteristics more frequently than conservatives and vice versa. I think that's a good way to get into Jonathan Haidt's work. He has a number of different attributes that we share to differing degrees. Tell me about Haidt.

 
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