Tea Party and the Right  
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Inside the Tea Party Brain: Can Science Explain Their Seemingly Irrational Rage?

Research suggests we may be a nation divided by different cognitive styles.

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Holland: Right. And it all seems fairly consistent to me. I’ve interviewed George Lakoff at UC Berkeley. He talks about how people don’t judge a political issue on its merits, but tend to filter the world through a moral lens. He talks about a “moral cascade,” where we connect policies with deep-seated values. All of this research seems to be very consistent with what other people are doing.

Mooney: That’s right. And you wouldn’t want to believe it if it were just one paper in just one journal by just one researcher. That’s what, as a science writer, we’re skeptical of. We look for multiple people working in multiple fields all converging and then we say, ‘okay, there’s knowledge here,’ something reliable is being discovered. With the psychology of politics – the psychology of ideology — it is actually surprising how rapidly all of this knowledge has come together. I don’t think we’re completely there yet, but I think that you can’t miss the fact that there are huge commonalities between Lakoff, Haidt and a lot of other people that we haven’t mentioned who are doing research in this same field.

Holland: Let’s dig a bit deeper into Haidt’s moral foundation theory. In your  Mother Jones interview with Haidt you have a graph comparing how liberals, conservatives, and then also libertarians score on what Haidt calls the “seven moral foundations.”


And when you look at the graph, the biggest disparities between liberals and conservatives — and, again, libertarians — are “purity” and “authority.” That’s where you see the biggest gaps between the groups. What is purity in Haidt’s reckoning?

Mooney: Purity is basically whether you feel moral emotions when someone does something you view as disgusting or indecent. A lot of this is going to involve your judgments about what’s sexually proper, but it could be other things that are disgusting. Basically, this is a way of measuring the emotion of disgust, and what this shows — this is the most striking disparity of all of them — is that liberals and libertarians really don’t sense disgust very much. And they’re together on that completely. There’s an amazing number of things that liberals and libertarians are together on. But conservatives feel it much more than either of them. And so this can explain a great deal in politics — it’s most regularly invoked to explain gay rights and how people respond to that, which I think is very appropriate. But I think it also gets into a lot of bioethical issues.

Holland: And we’ve discussed authority before. That’s really central to understanding the conservative mindset. There’s been a lot of research on the so-called authoritarian personality type, and I want to connect this with the idea of political polarization.

One of the things that we understand about authoritarians is that they have a stronger sense of the importance of loyalty to one’s own in-group. How does that factor into this equation, do you think?

Mooney: Again, this is an area where liberals and libertarians differ from conservatives markedly. Liberals and libertarians aren’t particularly tribal in the sense of having loyalty to their group, and they aren’t particularly authoritarian in the sense of thinking you have to follow a strong leader. And basically, authoritarianism is also associated with sort of black and white, ‘you’re with me or you’re against me’ thinking. But it’s also about deference to authority, whether that’s the police officer or your father or God. You must obey authority and if you don’t, that’s a moral wrong.

Holland: Jonathan Weiler at the University of North Carolina did a study which found that you can predict a person’s ideological leanings by how they answered just a few questions about child rearing. And one of the questions was whether someone values obedience or creativity more in a child. It’s really — it’s telling stuff.

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