How Conservative Brains Are Wired Differently and What This Means for Our Politics
President Obama has famously declared that Americans are not as divided as our politics suggest. But recent discoveries about the political brain seem to indicate that liberals and conservatives may be divided from one another by intrinsic brain chemistry.
Over a dozen different studies have come to the same conclusion: liberals and conservatives are simply wired differently. The differences are numerous, from sleep patterns (liberals have zanier dreams and more fitful sleep) to conflict resolution (progressives are more likely to alter their behavior in response to cues) to social judgments (conservatives show more brain activity in making complex social evaluations.)
But by far the biggest and most often-studied difference between the conservative and liberal brain is their response to stimuli invoking fear and disgust. Conservatives tend to react much more viscerally to negative stimuli than do liberals, and they are likelier to interpret new information as having a negative or dangerous effect on their lives.
The latest of these studies, conducted by researchers at Virginia Tech, indicated that the predictive effect is so strong that they could accurately determine a person's politics by their brain's reaction to even a single disturbing image:
P. Read Montague and his coauthors wrote in the study that their results "invite the provocative claim that neural responses to nonpolitical stimuli (like contaminated food or physical threats) should be highly predictive of abstract political opinions (like attitudes toward gun control and abortion)." Indeed, watching the brain's reaction to a single disgusting image was sufficient to guess each subject's political orientation. Montague said in the press release, "I haven't seen such clean predictive results in any other functional imaging experiments in our lab or others."
This information has a variety of distressing implications. We already know that conservatives tend to have culturally different moral reasoning than progressives, and that even supposedly simple words like "freedom" have deeply different meanings to people depending on their political perspective.
But if our politics is also hardwired in our genes, then our familiar red-blue/urban-exurban geographic divisions may not just be a cultural gulf, but a separation between two different types of people whose minds function in fundamentally different ways. For whatever reason, a high number of Americans seem to be intrinsically responsive to messages that rely on judgmentalism, fear and disgust as primary motivators. Not much is likely to change that, because those responses aren't simply a cultural overlay but hard-coded into the brain.
It is a truism of liberal politics that progressives appeal to people's hopes and dreams, while conservatives appeal to their fears. But if the brain science is right, it may simply be that, no matter what people's policy preferences might be, the voters to whom fear appeals most outnumber those who base their vote on more aspirational emotions.
Some historians might be inclined to contest this premise. After all, political fault lines in America were more muddled prior to the Reagan era. Today's highly conservative Deep South was an integral part of FDR's progressive coalition that famously rejected "fear itself" and expanded the social safety net.
But the New Deal and the decades that followed only masked America's internal divisions by glossing over racial and gender injustice with a Leave It to Beaver smile. Conservative whites were, in essence, happy to strengthen the country's infrastructure and social protections as long as the benefits didn't accrue to people that activated their amygdalan fight-or-flight responses. Fear and loathing were mostly reserved for Nazis, Communists and decadent wealthy elites. The Civil Rights era changed all that: with the empowerment of minorities and women who didn't fit the traditional mold, conservative fear and anger turned toward domestically oppressed groups--and the do-gooder coastal liberals who were, in essence, forcing a Second Reconstruction on them against their will. America has been stuck in a politically divided rut ever since.
The path forward for liberals isn't to try to deactivate conservative fear-based responses by using more powerful frames based on hope and change. That seems nearly impossible. Would it be possible instead to reorient the target of their anger and fear toward the very wealthy elites on Wall Street who are actually damaging their economic well-being by hollowing out the American economy in favor of the asset class?
An economic populist approach has the advantage of being right on policy and on politics. The aspirational liberalism championed by President Obama is destined to disappoint in an era of rampant political obstruction designed to deflate hope and blockade real change. The rhetoric of the Elizabeth Warren wing of the Democratic Party, by contrast, is unafraid to make sharp contrasts and define villains. The instinct of the neoliberal wing of the Democratic Party is to pretend that there are no villains in the economy, only temporary obstacles to inclusive growth; the instinct of the more economic populist elements is to clearly define the perpetrators of the decline of the middle class. Their very "divisiveness" is what allows voters motivated more by anger and fight-or-flight instincts to identify with political warriors who will solve problems by taking down the real bad guys.
This is not to say that decades of cultural coding will go away overnight or radically reshape the electorate. For most of the public, entrenched sociological assumptions about who is scary and who isn't will endure. But it would not take more than a minor shift in the attitudes of some swing voters—particularly combined with an upsurge in progressive turnout inspired by a more muscular brand of economic messaging—to seriously change the electoral calculus.
Polling shows that the vast majority of voters, including many conservative ones, distrust large corporations and Wall Street financiers. Republicans themselves have adapted to this anti-corporate populism within their own party by railing about "crony capitalism," essentially deflecting the blame for corporate misbehavior onto government collusion. Part of the challenge for Democrats is that many of these voters might be inclined to vote against Big Money, but they don't trust the Democratic Party to actually stand up against it instead of (supposedly) take their tax dollars to support people they culturally fear and resent. These voters must hold their nose to vote for either party at the moment. Winning a significant share of them back can be accomplished not by reducing the Democratic Party's commitment to social welfare, but rather by increasing its credibility as the champion of the middle class.
FDR provides a working historical precedent for this approach. While his administration did admonish directly against fear itself, it also pulled no punches in channeling the anger of dispossessed Americans toward the plutocrats who opposed him in ways that are strikingly sharp in tone to a modern ear, but find echoes in the language of combative moral authority we typically only see from conservatives today. Consider FDR's 1936 Madison Square Garden speech, and how little in common it has with the neoliberal rhetoric of modern Democrats:
We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace—business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering. they had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob. Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred. I should like to have it said of my first Administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match. I should like to have it said of my second Administration that in it these forces met their master."
That was a speech designed not for the more rational parts of the brain, but straight for the amygdala, the so-called "lizard brain." FDR used rhetoric like this in combination with aspirational speeches to build a large and broad coalition that appealed to Americans across the aisle.
Obviously, practical challenges lie ahead with any move toward economic populism. Money has never talked as loudly in American elections as it has today, and the prospect of facing off against the combined power of both conservative groups and Wall Street is daunting. No one seems more aware of this than probable Democratic frontrunner for the 2016 presidential nomination Hillary Clinton, whose neoliberal economic messaging and coziness with Wall Street are no secret.
Even so, America has seen its share of corrupt Gilded Ages and irrationally exuberant greed before. We have responded each and every time by strengthening middle-class economic protections without sacrificing progress on social equality. That sort of approach can yield dividends for progressives again.
In short, it will be easier to convince conservative-leaning brains that Wall Street plutocrats are more to be feared than minorities or empowered women, than to convince them that there are no enemies to be feared at all.