Conservative Morlocks, Liberal Eloi — does psychology explain politics?

As the U. S. settles in for six months of Romney v. Obama (with an interruption for the Zimmerman trial in Florida), all of the psychologists who want to be political pundits — and all of the political pundits who want to be psychologists — are wasting no time getting their message out there.

And last week’s loudest message was a rehash of research that purports to show that we’re not conservative or liberal because we’re rational beings who have been convinced by the merits of the arguments for and against.

Oh no. We were, in the words of almost every headline writer, “Born This Way.”

(I’m so old that at first I thought that the title was a riff on Aerosmith, but I’ve since been made aware of a more recent song by a female entertainer.)

I might be more convinced if I weren’t a zig-zagging exception, an order-seeking lefty who apparently didn’t crawl just one way or the other. And I suspect that many conservatives will find their portrayal to be a lot less attractive than the picture of the typical liberal. But more on all of that later. For now, let’s take a brief look at the claim that politics comes from the cradle, not the credo.

The first article with the de rigueur title is Susan Issenberg’s New York Magazine piece, “Born This Way,” published April 8th.

Issenberg recapitulates much familiar research, from twin studies that purport to show that up to 40% of political difference is innate to studies showing that the social butterflies in preschool turn out to be liberals, while the fearful criers in the corners grow up to be conservatives. (I told you that the conservative portrait was going to be less flattering!)

Rather than plow through all of the studies, it’s more efficient — and more interesting —  to report some of Issenberg’s more general comments, like the observation that the conservative-liberal split has been a consistent feature of the politics of a changing world for more than 200 years. Why, Issenberg reasons, would the same kind of split persist despite seismic changes in the forms of governments and the nature of party politics, if the “left – right” split didn’t reflect a more basic human division?

Issenberg — and the many psychologists upon whom her report relies — believes that the basic split has little to do with specific policies, or even with differing general ideologies. The split is more basic, having to do with a genetic bent toward stability or change.

Conservatives have tidier dorm rooms. Liberals like modern art. Stuff like that. The list  goes on and on, but you get the idea.

Issenberg notes that some people become quite agitated when it’s suggested that their cherished political beliefs are, at their base, little but an extension of their core emotional orientation toward fear or innovation, but she counters this reaction with the challenge to explain why “politics was the only sphere of human existence immune to hereditary influence.”

According to this theory, conservatives should be naturally disinclined to accept an idea that threatened their stable self-image, but some studies suggest that those same conservatives would be obsessed by the charge that they are fearful change-avoiders from birth. It seems that besides having more waste baskets and cleaner sheets, conservatives are fascinated by that which disgusts them. They look at disagreeable images faster, and longer, than liberals do. Liberals are positively attracted to pictures of people they like, while conservatives are drawn to pictures of people they hate.

I told you that conservatives weren’t going to like the way they’re pictured in these studies. Fearful, anal, and turned on by their own disgust. What’s not to like?

Much of last week’s stir over the inborn character of political character was due to the recent publication of Jonathan Haidt’s new book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion. An excerpt from the book was published by Reason on April 10th. Of course, the title of the article was “Born This Way?”

Rather than deal with the excerpt, I’ll leave Haidt’s treatment of the subject until I’ve had time to read The Righteous Mind. Better to assess the whole than to extrapolate from the summary. After all, politics will remain a hot topic until November, so I have a little bit of time to read.

For now, though, let’s recognize, as Haidt and Issenberg and all the researchers willingly do, that to talk about a left-right political split is to deal in gross averages. There are many, many gradations of left and right, and many, perhaps most, people would not see themselves as strictly one or the other.

I’m no exception, although in one sense I am. I’m not exceptional in the sense that I don’t observe in myself traits associated entirely with one side or the other. But I am a bit unusual, in that I have a number of strongly conservative personal habits and traits but am markedly liberal when it comes to politics and social issues. Informal observation tells me that it’s more common for a slob to be a conservative than for a socialist to keep his CD’s in date-of-issue order.  It’s been my observation that it’s more common for a trailer park redneck with a side yard full of the remains of dead motorcycles to be an anti-tax, anti-gay marriage, pro-gun Yahoo than for a business-suited accountant to support the Rainbow Coalition.

I’ve always been this way. Disorder, illogic, and thoughtless impulse annoy me. That makes me a conservative, right? Then how to explain that for all of my adult life I have voted and lobbied and organized for political parties that make Ted Kennedy look like a Wall Streeter?

So, count me among the exceptions that might prove the rule, if the rule turns out really to be a rule.

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One thought on “Conservative Morlocks, Liberal Eloi — does psychology explain politics?

  1. Surely genetic studies should help here in showing similarity in political inclinations between closely related individuals, assuming that it is accepted that genetically influenced traits are more important than cultural influence.

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