Psychologists and others have been trying to figure out why people have opposing political views. Why are some of us stalwart liberals or progressives, and why are some of us “conservatives” or right-wing nincompoops?
Personally, I leaned right when I was a teenager, moved left in college and have maintained that position through thick and thin. The people who study this question aren’t interested in individual stories, however. They’re trying to explain why these different political perspectives exist at all and why they have such staying power.
The Washington Monthly has a long review by Chris Mooney of two books on the subject. These are the two key differences Mooney cites:
— Liberals tend to score higher on openness (the willingness to explore, try new things and meet new people), while conservatives score higher on conscientiousness (the desire for order and stability — and as I’ve read elsewhere, although the article doesn’t mention these characteristics — loyalty or a sense of duty).
— Conservatives pay more attention to negative stimuli than liberals. For example, when conservatives are shown images of alarming, threatening or disgusting things, they tend to look at the images more closely and have stronger physical reactions.
There is evidence of a partial genetic basis for these differences. Researchers suspect that:
What is ultimately being inherited is a set of core dispositions about how societies should resolve recurring problems: how to distribute resources (should we be individualistic or collectivist?); how to deal with outsiders and out-groups (are they threatening or enticing?); how to structure power relationships (should we be hierarchical or egalitarian?); and so on. These are, of course, problems that all human societies have had to grapple with…. Inheriting a core disposition on how to resolve them would naturally predispose one to a variety of specific issue stances in a given political context.
It’s possible, therefore, that the two-dimensional diagram posted here earlier this week that labels voters as populists, conservatives, libertarians or liberals based on their social and economic preferences may measure the underlying dispositions described above.
If it’s true that conservatives experience the world as more threatening than liberals do, there may be little point in trying to convince them otherwise, as Mooney points out. Their perception of the world is built-in to a great extent. Likewise, of course, if liberals perceive the world as less threatening, there is little point in trying to convince them it’s more dangerous than they think. Despite this apparent difficulty, Mooney ends his review with a call to action:
We run around shutting down governments and occupying city centers—behaviors that can only be driven by a combination of intense belief and equally intense emotion—with almost zero perspective on why we can be so passionate one way, even as our opponents are passionate in the other….Ideological diversity is clearly real, deeply rooted, and probably a core facet of human nature. Given this, we simply have no choice but to come up with a much better way to live with it.
I tend to be more skeptical. If these tendencies are actually so deeply-rooted, there’s probably little we can do to surmount them. In fact, the only option may be to keep pounding away at the facts, hoping to persuade people whose dispositions aren’t so deeply-rooted to move in our direction. And by our direction, I mean toward the perspective that is more open to new possibilities, less fearful of people who don’t belong to our tribe, and more egalitarian.
Our other option is to wait for evolution to do more work, for despite the fact that there are benefits to having people in your group who are more fearful and others who are more adventurous, it seems likely to me that human progress has partly consisted in liberal tendencies edging out conservative ones. These two specimens, for example, appear to be remnants of an earlier stage in human development:
As I was saying:
Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida addressed the Conservative Political Action Conference today:
The presidential contender urged that “young people” in the crowd “extrapolate what the world would look like in ten years if [the current international situation] continues forward.” … “If you inherit a world where the Chinese get to decide who gets to ship products to the South China Sea and all the countries in that region are tributaries,” and “North Korea can blow up California” with nukes, and “Iran can reach the East Coast of the United States, and can wipe Israel off the face of the earth,” and “Russia continues to hold its neighbors hostage” through both its military and its oil.
The only thing we have to fear is everything.