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Is being liberal a choice?

It’s become something of a fad of late to apply neuroscience to partisan behaviors. A recent brain scan study distinguished the Republican from Democratic amygdala: The first is more driven by fear and reward, the latter by more generous-spirited emotional connectivity. In several books, the well-established linguist and cognitive scientist George Lakoff argues the basis for Republicans’ attachment to a rigid concept of paternalistic discipline and enforced obedience to an idealized authority.

Then there are last year’s two similarly inspired treatments: journalist Chris Mooney’s "The Republican Brain" and moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s "The Righteous Mind." Despite their different training, both authors approach modern tribalism from a similar angle. Mooney wears his partisanship as a proud badge, making much out of the wider-ranging libraries of liberals and the inability of conservatives to accept science as an agent of positive change. Haidt, if liberal-leaning, steers a middle course, advising Democrats to “stop dismissing conservatism as a pathology and start thinking of morality beyond care and fairness.”  In other words, you don’t have to endorse fear and loathing when you show compassion for the conservatives who reserve their compassion for the group of like-minded folks with whom they identify. There is, potentially, he says, a way to find common ground – and not just as there was when liberals joined with conservatives in the climate of fear after 9/11.

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