The Democratic Chronicles:
WHY WE ARE DIFFERENT
What make a person a conservative or a liberal? Is it nature or nurture – or some combination? I have pondered this question for years. Recently social science has evolved to the point where it has begun providing some answers.
Research, based on hard science, not philosophical speculation, such as The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt, Liberals, Conservatives, and the Biology of Political Differences, by John R. Hibbing, Kevin B. Smith, and John R. Alford, and Our Political Nature, by evolutionary anthropologist Avi Tuschman, are terrific examples of what science is now finding about the psychological, biological, and genetic differences between those who lean left and those who tilt right.
Looking at the evidence with an open mind, it is hard to deny that science is revealing a very inconvenient truth. Long before people become members of different parties, liberals and conservatives appear to start out as very different individuals. Jonathan Haidt writes, “Bedrock political orientations just naturally mesh with a broader set of orientations, tastes, and preferences because they are all part of the same biologically rooted inner self.” The research demonstrating this is so diverse, coming from so many disciplines, with so many points of overlap and consistency that you either have to accept that there’s real science providing answers, or else start spinning a conspiracy theory to explain it all away.
The most rock-solid understanding, because it has been shown so many times in so many different studies, is that liberals and conservatives have different personalities. Again and again, when taking the widely accepted Big Five personality traits test, liberals tend to score higher on one of the five major dimensions—openness: the desire to explore, to try new things, to meet new people. And conservatives score higher on conscientiousness: the desire for order, structure, and stability.
Interlocking and supporting bodies of evidence can also be found in the fields of moral psychology, genetics, cognitive neuroscience, physiology and cognition.
Several research groups have shown that conservatives have a greater focus on negative stimuli or a “negativity bias”. They pay more attention to the alarming, the threatening, and the disturbing aspects of life.
Liberals and conservatives, conclude Hibbing and his co-authors, “experience and process different worlds.” No wonder, then, that they often cannot agree. Thus the answer to another of my questions: how can different people look at the same set of facts and come to completely different conclusions?
These experiments suggest that conservatives actually have a perceived world-view that is more frightening and threatening. And trying to argue them out of this mindset is pointless and naive. It would be like trying to argue them out their sexual orientation.
Some scientists don’t think these psychological and attentional differences simply reflect learned behaviors, or the influence of cultural assumptions, but are based on genetics. Some complex social traits may emerge, for instance, because they are a by-product of other, more fundamental traits laid down by Darwinian evolution.
In this context, Hibbing and his colleagues consider a variety of potential explanations for the stubborn fact that there is large, politically relevant psychological and biological diversity among people. They ultimately settle on a combination of learned behavior and genetics.
They assert, conservatism is probably more basic and fundamental, because it is more suited to a Thomas Hobbs world in which life is “nasty, brutish, and short.” Being defensive, risk aversive, hierarchical, and tribal makes sense when the threats around you are very real and immediate. They go on to say, “Liberalism may thus be viewed as an evolutionary luxury afforded by negative stimuli becoming less prevalent and deadly.”
Avi Tuschman differs. “Political orientations are natural dispositions that have been molded by evolutionary forces,” he asserts. If he is correct then a dramatically new window opens as to who we are and why we behave as we do. And thus we enter the realm of full-blown, and inevitably highly controversial, evolutionary explanations.
This naturally makes today’s conservatives more tribal and group oriented. This then makes today’s liberals more adventurous and cosmopolitan. Tuschman emphasizes that conservatives, and especially religious conservatives, want to control and restrict reproduction and other sexual activities more than liberals. He also suggests that other aspects of the liberal-conservative divide reflect evolutionary challenges and different strategies of responding to them. He traces left-right views on hierarchy and equality to the structure of families
In the end, what’s so stunning about all of this is the tremendous gap between what scholars are learning about politics itself and politicians. 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 are be so passionate in one direction, even as our opponents are equally passionate in the other.
Ideological diversity is clearly real, deeply rooted, and, in all probably, a core facet of human nature. Given this, we simply have no choice but to come up with a better way to co-exist.
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