For many (though certainly not all) Republicans, the root of knowledge is a bedrock certainty about the inerrancy of a literal reading of the Bible. This provides them with clear, absolute answers – that gay marriage is wrong, that modern science is suspect, and that much of what we see on earth is a struggle between good and evil.
When the 2012 Republican Party platform stated that we should “reaffirm that our rights come from God,” that reflected a sincere and genuine sense of bright-line natural law.
That kind of certainty in faith, which so often draws good/evil lines on theological issues, very naturally supports a similar outlook on political issues that aren’t directly rooted in the Bible. Faith, after all, if it really is faith, structures the way we view and interact with the world.
It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that some American conservatives tend both to see their opponents as evil and to catastrophize potential political losses.
If the world is locked in a battle between good and evil, and our side is good, that leaves only one possibility for our opponents.
Science journalist Chris Mooney became well-known — and controversial — after his debut book, 2005′s The Republican War on Science, which charted the extraordinary, decades-long assault by the U.S. conservative movement on scientists, scientific institutions, and inconvenient scientific results (see: climate change). He admits to some level of naive hope that a full accounting of the phenomenon would lead to change. But, he says, no one changed their mind about anything. The right just retrenched.
For his new book, The Republican Brain, he set out to discover why. That led him into a burgeoning body of research on the roots of political ideology in deeper psychological traits, brain structures, and even genes — correlations that show up again and again in different circumstances and in different countries. Social scientists, it seems, are busy confirming our gut sense that conservatives and liberals do not merely disagree on matters of policy, but are different kinds of people, who process information differently.
On average, conservatives prefer simplicity and clear distinctions, where liberals display “integrative complexity” and are more comfortable with ambiguity and nuance. Conservatives are “hierarchs” and highly sensitive to in-group/out-group distinctions, where liberals are egalitarians. Conservatives come to decisions quickly and stick to them; liberals deliberate, sometimes to the point of dithering. Conservatives are more sensitive to threats while liberals are more open to new experiences.
The last 30, 40 years is the story of the conservative revolution in America. Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler measured how authoritarianism became concentrated in the Republican Party over time. One can have social change with psychology underlying some aspects of the change. The best explanation is going to be a nature/nurture amalgam
Conservatives have their own evidence, and the growth of the conservative media echo chamber, which has the same effect, more on a mass scale. The echo chamber has the think-tank experts on, but the think-tank experts are mainly for the sophisticated. These are ideology-reinforcing mechanisms. They make you really sure that you’re right.
If James Hansen goes and protests at a coal plant and Fox News attacks him for it, who made conservatives not like climate science? It’s complicated. But in most cases where conservatives are being told now that scientists are their enemy, I don’t think the scientists did anything at all to merit it. If you take something like Climategate — the scientists were being ordinary people who weren’t careful enough in their emails.
A problem like climate change is incremental, ambiguous, and ridden with uncertainty and complexity; It implies huge changes in the status quo. It looks like liberal psychology is better suited to grappling with it.
When Jefferson said we need a well-informed public as a foundation for making policy — that view doesn’t understand people very well. There can be reasonable deliberation in certain circumstances, but with all that we now know about identity and reasoning, it’s uglier than that.
We have sectors of society that are more rational than others. It’s tough to talk about now with the Supreme Court case, but in general the legal system is more accurate and deliberative. It does find ways to put checks on some of this stuff, although there’s still a lot of biased views and bad judges and lawyers. There are ways of reforming it to make it more rational. If journalism enforced some norms, like it used to, then a lot of this stuff could be weeded out.
There’s ways we can set up different structures of society — journalism, legal system, scientific community — where there’s reputational risks to not being accurate. There’s a lot of value to that. You lose that if you have echo chambers where you get patted on the back for saying something like, global warming is phony.
In terms of polarization, just arguing facts all the time really does seem to be a trap; it really does seem to just inflame passions on both sides. Because facts are never really what it’s about. Values are what drive the argument. And personalities process information differently.