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

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?

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.

CM: This is the most popular, and in some ways becoming more widely known than Lakoff's, way of differentiating liberals and conservatives. His book The Righteous Mind is popular right now. Let me first say the difference between my approach and his is that he is an actual academic researcher who has focused on moral differences between liberals and conservatives. His book is built on getting really deep into the morality. I'm a journalist, so I surveyed all of the scientists. Some do morality, some do personality, some do genetics, some do physiology, but all these things have ideological correlates. So with Haidt the thing is that he's finding these moral intuitions that differ from left to right. What's really important is that this is not a rational thing. These moral intuitions are emotional and automatic and they shape how we respond to situations before we even think about them.

The liberals' moral intuitions, and this will sound very familiar, is they care about fairness and they care about protecting from harm, especially the vulnerable. That means as soon as you hear about a situation that strikes you as unfair or as soon as you hear about a situation like a child being put into a situation of harm your emotions fire. Your buttons are pushed as a liberal. What he says is that conservatives' buttons are pushed by to some extent those things, but by a host of other things that liberals don't feel. That is a big difference. Among the things that liberals don't feel are that their button are pushed if someone is disrespecting an authority, their buttons are pushed if someone's betraying loyalty to a team or group, and their buttons are pushed when someone is doing something disgusting, especially sexually disgusting...to them I should add.

JH: Let me briefly ask and touch on another framework. That's the cultural cognition theory advanced by Dan Kahan and his colleagues at Yale. How does that divide us up?

CM: It's quite close. That's what I like. By taking a bird's-eye view of all this you can really see that we are making progress in knowledge about what separates left and right. It sounds a lot like Lakoff and it sounds a lot like Haidt. You've got again conservatives in authority, except he calls it hierarchy, which is really the same thing. Some people in positions of power over others, and this is a good thing. For him that is the opposite of equality, which is what liberals care so much about. That we're all equal. There's a close resonance there.

Then he's got another axis where conservatives are individualistic and liberals are communitarian. Individualistic means basically it's a good society where everybody has a chance and nothing gets in the way of it, but you either succeed or fail based upon your own merits. If you fail there's nothing that steps in and protects you. That's your fault. This is of course very strong in the Republican Party and the Tea Party -- the anti-government types.

Liberals are on the other end of the spectrum. They are communitarian, thinking that the government should take care of and protect us, especially the more vulnerable. It all matches.

JH: You also cite studies that show that there are physical, neurobiological differences in the brains of liberals and conservatives. Tell me a little bit about that. What sets our different brain centers on fire?

CM: If these personality traits and these values are so regularly differentiating liberals and conservatives, it was only natural that people would take another step and try to trace that in physiology and try to trace that to the brain. That's now what's happening. In physiology what they're finding is that liberals and conservatives, if you put an eye-tracker device on them and show them collages of pictures their eyes will go to different places instinctually and automatically before they know what's happening. The conservatives are looking at threatening images. Liberals are much more likely to look at happy things, like a bunny rabbit.

JH: And their fear centers are more developed, right?

CM: The eyes are going to the scarier, threatening things. Then they go to the brain and there are a couple of studies that find conservatives either seem to be using more or in some study just have a larger right amygdala, which is known to be the brain's fear center. I talk about this in the book and one of the researches on the amygdala explains that the amygdala plays the same role in every species that has an amygdala. It's a very old part of the brain that you find across the mammal kingdom. It basically takes over to save your life. It does other things too, but in a situation of threat where you cease to process information rationally and you're moving automatically to protect yourself. It's very good that we have this thing, and it's not surprising that we would have it.

JH: Let's pivot to how this plays out in our political discourse, in our debates, in our often contentious and increasingly unpleasant politics in this country. What is hot and cool reasoning? What is the difference between these two things?

CM: Hot reasoning is basically emotional reasoning. By the way, most of us are mostly doing hot reasoning, I think. There are two sort of systems of reasoning is the current thinking about how the brain works. Hot means that you're impelled to reason by things you are not aware of consciously, which are emotional reactions to situations, stimuli, or threatening arguments. And then you reason in a way that the emotions compel you to. Cold reasoning is theoretically the idea that somehow you manage to be not emotional, which is a hard thing to achieve based on the way we now know about how the brain works, which is that the emotional systems work faster and they tag everything emotionally.

JH: And in terms of the practical consequences of this, there is not a conservative/liberal divide over a fact that is not challenged that is not contested. We can all agree that it's going to be sunny tomorrow when the forecasters tell us that. Then you get into some of these contentious issues, you talk about climate change, and it becomes different. This is the basic issue. The thing that makes the polarizing issues more difficult to win on the basis of factual arguments.

CM: People can't be dispassionate anymore as soon as an issue affects their values because values are part of the identity and they've been going through their life emotionally tagging their world so that it fits their values. There's things I like and there's things that I don't like, and we all have slightly different things. As soon as you've got one of them that's got all this emotional resonance for a person, and that comes to be the point of focus, then you expect hot reasoning to occur. You expect defensive reasoning to occur.

I was just on MSNBC, and they had one conservative on the panel, S.E. Cupp. As soon as she responded to my argument she said, "I find this infuriating!" And I think, here we go. This is going to be hot reasoning. This is going to be emotion. You can tell by the tone in which a person talks. You can tell by giveaway words, like "infuriating." That's a pretty obvious one. Sometimes it's more subtle than that.

JH: Now let's get into something that's more of an ideological difference, or a difference that correlates with ideological differences. You talked about how conservatives are much more concerned with or respond much more to loyalty to the team, to the in-group versus the out-group, than the liberals. How does that distinction play out in our everyday discourse, because I know it's true with me. I don't have as much a sense of team. I don't have as much reverence for tradition and authorities. How does that impact our everyday political circus?

CM: I think that if you look at the Obama administration you see that essentially the right and the Tea Party decided that they were going to make him the enemy and they were going to block everything the president did with no compromise. They worked together in a concerted way to do this. I think it's that simple. I think you also see it in the idea that this is a Christian nation and that in some parts of the Christian right that Islam is a dangerous force. Whenever you get tribal affiliations by religion then it's you're with me or you're against me, and the team becomes the faith. I think you see a lot of that on the Christian right too.

JH: One of the more interesting findings of the book is that while conservatives and liberals both are capable of this motivated reasoning, ignoring information that conflicts with their worldviews or accepting dubious information that confirms them, conservatives appear to have a greater capacity for this, don't they?

CM: Basically where I came down at the end of the book is that I think that especially the educated conservative does. I don't say I think the liberal can't do it. I think the liberal does do it. There seems to be two ways the conservatives go: the educated conservative, who has a lot of knowledge in their hands, seems to be really good at arguing their point without changing their mind. The conservative that doesn't know as much seems to do something pretty different, which is to rely upon quick, fast, economical thinking and just default. It looks like when you do that there are a lot of default that make you conservative. It's actually two different processes is the way that I'm thinking about it. There does seem to be some uncertainty here in terms of just how much conservatives do it versus liberals, but if you look at the issues where conservatives are really really wrong you find a lot of evidence of a lot of motivator reasoning.

JH: This gets into the smart idiot effect, when conservatives especially are exposed to more information they can actually be more wrong. What is the double-down effect?

CM: It's related. If you double down, what we mean is that someone gives you a factual refutation to your view, whatever it is. That factual refutation makes you believe your view more strongly than you did before you heard it. This has also been called the backfire effect. This has been captured in some studies where they try to refute a belief that a conservative holds, like the belief that tax cuts increase revenue. A belief where really you can't hold it; it defies economic physics. There's a doubling down in one of the studies I talk about on that point.

JH: You talk about how the conservatives have a need for closure. The way this plays out, in the way that they've created an alternate information infrastructure, you talk in the book about Conservapedia. For listeners who don't know what that is, explain what Conservapedia is. Another question is: does the Bible have a liberal bias?

CM: (Laughs) I think the guy who writes Conservapedia thinks everything in the world has a liberal bias. Conservapedia is this fascinating baroque haven of conservative wrongness on the web. It's written by Andrew Schlafly and he's the son of the grassroots conservative activist and mobilizer Phyllis Schlafly, the anti-feminist. He writes these incredibly long entries and is clearly a smart guy. He writes these very long entries about all the brilliant and incredible reasons for rejecting what's obviously true -- for being wrong, but being wrong in this elaborate way that you could only be this wrong if you're smart.

JH: He went to Harvard, right?

CM: Yeah.

JH: And he's writing a conservative Bible?

CM: I understand that that's one of his projects -- to take "liberal bias" out of the Bible. It must mean liberal bias out of translations of the Bible. I don't know, but I'm assuming he thinks that the original Bible untainted would not contain liberal bias in it. Of course he thinks Wikipedia is a hot bed of liberal bias, which is why he created Conservapedia. I talk about the crazy case of the anti-Einstein, anti-relativity Conservapedia entry and say, yes, Conservapedia denies relativity. Not only does it deny relativity, Schlafly's got equations in his entry that are intended to refute relativity. This is the smart idea effect here. In some way you have to admire that he's not messing around here. He's refuting Einstein. Good luck to you.

JH: More power to you. This is another interesting point that you make -- it's not just that Fox viewers are more uninformed than viewers of other media outlets, but that they actively seek out the comfort it provides. Is that fair to say?

CM: That's the argument that I make. I both provide the evidence, which is pretty staggering, that Fox increases your risk, like if it was smoking a cigarette increasing your risk of cancer, of being wrong. That's clear, but the question is why? It's obvious that actually contains misinformation. That's part of the risk. I say that part of it is that conservative needs Fox, so a conservative is opting into the risk. A conservative, in a sense, I argue craves this. They crave it especially if they're an authoritarian, because we have evidence that authoritarians need belief affirmation and they selectively expose themselves to information that agrees with them. I talk about some of the research showing that. It makes sense showing from what we know about authoritarians that they would do this, because it's all about black and white, right and wrong, intolerance of uncertainty and ambiguity. So where do you get your information? You get your information from a source that is on your side.

I should say that we all selectively expose ourselves to information to an extent. I do cite a number of studies suggesting that authoritarians in particular do this.

JH: Again, this is not clean lines between liberals and conservatives. These are matters of degree, risk factors, as you say. One of the things I find fascinating about all of this in your book is that I've always seen this conservative distrust of academia and the media as kind of a conspiracy theory. These are institutions that provide a semblance of objective reality, and I don't think they are perfectly objective, but a semblance thereof. I always thought they were dissing them because they were telling them things they didn't want to hear, but it goes beyond that. Tell me about expertise, about how the open personality ends up basically through a natural selection process to be over-represented in these fields?

CM: It's kind of like conservatives being over-represented in Fox viewers. They have an affinity, they go, and it feels natural. Liberals have an affinity for academia; it feels natural. If you are an open personality then what do you want? You want to try out new things, like taking a class in that and I want to learn to cook. I want to travel to Bangladesh. Whatever it is this is like you have this craving for novelty in some cases. Academia is a really great place for that. You hang around, you meet people of all different backgrounds. It's a naturally liberal environment. I do believe that conservatives are right that universities are liberal. I talk about the data on the politics of professors. But how could it be otherwise? This is a liberal institution of society. It normally is that way. Is it brainwashing that universities are liberal, or is it that liberals choose universities? I think it's more the latter than the former.

JH: It's interesting because I remember my conservative professors were not typically wingnuts. They did have that same open personality. None of this cleaves cleanly along ideological lines.

CM: I should say there's an open conservative personality. Not all conservative personalities are closed. Some libertarians are highly intellectual, open-minded conservatives. You get contrarian conservatives. I think William F. Buckley seems like a very open and nuanced conservative. They'll rebel against their own sometimes.

JH: This all comes with a rather depressing realization, doesn't it? That it really doesn't matter that the so-called facts have a liberal bias that we are simply never going to win ideological debates by mustering the facts. Where does that leave us? Is it simply hopeless? Can we not talk to each other and come to some common ground? Should we get a divorce and let the red states secede? Where does this leave us?

CM: No, I don't think any of those things should happen. I think this is helpful. I know that people find it incredibly frustrating that facts don't reach people, especially people who disagree with you. We all kind of knew that already, let's face it. We've all been in arguments in our personal lives, in our relationships, where you couldn't get somebody to change their mind by putting out your point of view very strongly and there was something else that was the roadblock. Politics is just the same. If you're aware of that then you're in a much better position to figure out what does work. You don't have to have the sterile argument over facts where everybody gets angry, everybody doubles down, and nothing is achieved because really the disagreement is carried out through facts, but isn't about facts. It's about something deeper that nobody's admitting. If you start to admit these things, then I think ultimately there could be more acceptance of difference. That should be the goal. The problem is I don't know whether conservatives are going to as much as liberals are going to admit these things for some of the reasons we've discussed.


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