Conservatives disagree with me? Must be a biological flaw

In a desperate attempt to avoid reading the vast conservative library or quickly glancing at The PillarsChris Mooney at the Washington Post releases a classic of the “Why the heck do conservatives think the way they do?!” genre:

“Follow the money.” As a young journalist on the political left, I often heeded this well-worn advice. If conservatives were denying the science of global warming, I figured, big fossil-fuel companies must be behind it. After all, that was the story with the tobacco industry and the dangers of smoking. Why not here?

And so I covered the attacks on the established scientific knowledge on climate change, evolution and many more issues as a kind of search for the wealthy bad guys behind the curtain. Like many in Washington, I tended to assume that political differences are either about contrasting philosophies or, more cynically, about money and special interests.

Mooney should’ve stopped at “contrasting philosophies”. The Global Warming, turned “Climate Change”, turned “Global Weirding” push has always been about government control of another aspect of the economy, in this case energy.  Conservatives are distrustful of ballooning government power, not science. And liberals basing the climate issue on a cartoon movie by Al Gore, erroneous hockey sticks, and politically influenced climate scientists has not helped the movement’s credibility.

There’s just one problem: Mounting scientific evidence suggests that this is a pretty limited way of understanding what divides us. And at a time of unprecedented polarization in America, we need a more convincing explanation for the staggering irrationality of our politics. Especially since we’re now split not just over what we ought to do politically but also over what we consider to be true.

Mooney’s description of current polarization in America as “unprecedented” follows my scientific theory that liberals’ biology leads them to fall asleep in history class, especially the parts about the American Revolution, the Civil War, or any of the (literal) fistfights that took place on the floors of Congress. Furthermore, disagreement over truth is nothing new, quite naturally leads to political differences, and has existed since the time of Aristotle.

Liberals and conservatives have access to the same information, yet they hold wildly incompatible views on issues ranging from global warming to whether the president was born in the United States to whether his stimulus package created any jobs. But it’s not just that: Partisanship creates stunning intellectual contortions and inconsistencies. Republicans today can denounce a health-care reform plan that’s pretty similar to one passed in Massachusetts by a Republican — and the only apparent reason is that this one came from a Democrat.

Oy, that last paragraph hurt my science-hating brain. To pretend birtherism is a central tenet of conservatism is simply dishonest. Why not use 9/11 trutherism, which 33% of democrats believed (including former Obama czar Van Jones), as an example?  Differing opinions on the the importance of the nuclear family, or the effect of incentives created through tax policy, would have been much more apt examples. And only purposeful ignorance leads Mooney to designate party-affiliation as the only apparent difference between Romneycare and Obamacare.  Romneycare is a citizen-approved, state-level act passed by a majority of Democrats in deep blue Massachusetts.  Obamacare is a citizen-rejected, national-level one-size-fits-all takeover of one-sixth of the United States economy. Current conservative critiques of Obamacare are based on a well-catalogued litany of principles, as well as the lesson that Romneycare hasn’t controlled costs as promised.  Contrary to popular mythology, conservatives learn and adapt to new information.

None of these things make sense — unless you view them through the lens of political psychology. There’s now a large body of evidence showing that those who opt for the political left and those who opt for the political right tend to process information in divergent ways and to differ on any number of psychological traits.

Perhaps most important, liberals consistently score higher on a personality measure called “openness to experience,”… That means liberals tend to be the kind of people who want to try new things… and new ideas…

Conservatives, in contrast, tend to be less open — less exploratory, less in need of change — and more “conscientious,” a trait that indicates they appreciate order and structure in their lives. This gels nicely with the standard definition of conservatism as resistance to change — in the famous words of William F. Buckley Jr., a desire to stand “athwart history, yelling ‘Stop!’ ”

Those interpretations certainly fit in line with liberal self-congratulation of their own wonderfulness, but sound less positive when viewed in light of political, not personal, beliefs. Liberals consistently propose more government control through increased regulation and spending, whereas conservatives advocate economic freedom and self-reliance. Who is open and closed there? Liberals can’t go a day without being “open-minded” about another grand government intervention into the economy, creating economic uncertainty. Conservatives recognize the importance of structure and continuity in giving businesses confidence to make investments. More examples abound.

The bottom line is that Mooney’s condescending effort to chalk up disagreement with his worldview to a biological flaw is an escape from the debate. Few dispute that people are wired differently, and in ways that bias their political leanings. Some people on both ends of the spectrum are stubborn and hopeless. But many liberals would prefer to use this as an excuse to ignore the intellectual seriousness of conservative philosophy. Instead of taking conservative arguments head on, Mooney ends up right back where he started, finding a new way to impugn his opponent’s motives.

Finally, he might want to consider this recent musing by Thomas Sowell:

People who believe in evolution in biology often believe in creationism in government. In other words, they believe that the universe and all the creatures in it could have evolved spontaneously, but that the economy is too complicated to operate without being directed by politicians.


7 thoughts on “Conservatives disagree with me? Must be a biological flaw

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