The Republican Brain

Philosopher Rony Guldmann writes in his work in progress Conservative Claims of Cultural Oppression: On the Nature and Origins of Conservaphobia:

* Much of the new conservative phrenology is summarized in science writer Chris Mooney’s The Republican Brain, which offers an intriguing physiological explanation for why conservatives may be less well-disposed than liberals toward “expressive moderation.” Mooney reports that magnetic resonance imaging reveals that whereas conservatives tend to have a larger right amygdala, the evolutionarily more ancient part of the brain that generates immediate flight or fight responses to threatening stimuli, liberals tend to possess more gray matter in the anterior cingulated cortex (ACC), the evolutionarily newer system that suspends such automatic responses in order to assess facts and detect errors.33 While conservatives tend to be more instinctive and given to immediate reflex actions, liberals are more reflective and cognitive, able to suspend automatic fear responses in order to undertake a more careful evaluation of the facts. The ideology of conservatives, says Mooney, is “reflected in their physiology.” Every human, just like every animal, possesses a “fear system” capable of “rapid-fire defensive reactions.” But that system appears to be stronger, more predominant among conservatives.34

The physiological origin of political disagreement was confirmed by a study in which patrons exiting a bar were flagged down and offered blood alcohol tests in exchange for completing a short questionnaire about their political beliefs. The researchers discovered that alcohol shifts us to the right politically, as blood alcohol level was correlated with the expression of more conservative views among self-described liberals and conservatives alike.35 The explanation, one researcher suggested, was that “people’s cognitive architecture is more consistent with conservative ideology, because that’s the way brains are built.”36 Conservatism, then, may represent the more “natural” human (and animal) state which has for whatever reasons become comparatively suppressed among liberals—with the disinhibiting effects of alcohol temporarily resetting the latter closer to the default setting in which evolutionarily older rapid-fire reactions overwhelm the ACC.

This “amygdala theory of conservatism” was also supported by a University of Nebraska study, which discovered that tough-on-crime, strongly pro-military conservatives “have a more pronounced startle reflex, measured by eye-blink strength after hearing a sudden loud noise.” Conservatives also exhibited greater “skin conductance”—a moistening of sweat glands indicating sympathetic nervous system arousal—when shown threatening images like maggots in an open wound or a large spider on someone’s face.37 By contrast, “[i]ndividuals with measurably lower physical sensitivities to sudden noises and threatening visual images were more likely to support foreign aid, liberal immigration policies, pacifism, and gun control.”38 The theory was also corroborated by an Italian study demonstrating that conservatives more than liberals displayed “automatic selective attention to negative stimuli.” When shown a series of positive and negative words in different colors, conservatives proved less able to recall the colors that accompanied negative words—like “vomit,” “horrible,” “disorder,” and “disgust.” They were more than liberals distracted by the negativity, and so were less attentive to their surroundings.39

Mooney believes that conservatives’ larger amygdalas affect how they process information in general and political information in particular. Liberals and conservatives differ, not only in the contents of their beliefs, but also in the degree of rigidity and inflexibility with which they hold these beliefs.40 A large body of studies across many countries has revealed that “conservatives tend to have a greater need for closure than do liberals.”41 Whereas the preeminence of the ACC in liberals affords them an “Open personality,” the more robust amygdala of conservatives endows them with a “Closed personality.” Given its “high need for closure,” this personality-type will tend to “seize on a piece of information that dispels doubt or uncertainty, and then freeze, refusing to admit or consider new information.”42 This is why so many conservatives could have believed against all the evidence that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and that Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden were collaborators, “finding themselves unable to escape the quagmire of unreality even after several years had passed.”43 It is also why conservatives tend to “select themselves into belief-affirming information streams” like Fox News or rightwing talk radio,44 through which they shield themselves against the “belief challenges” leveled by what they dismiss as the liberal media.45 Conservatives’ angry defensiveness before inconvenient truths is the predictable consequence of their particular neurological make-up. With their strong amygdalas pressing for immediate reactions and their comparatively weak ACCs incapable of restraining that impulse, conservatives are less able to suspend judgment. But being more tolerant of ambiguity and capable of integrative complexity, the Open personality of liberals is “much more accepting of change and new ideas,” much more prepared to suspend judgment in the absence of evidence or to alter their judgment with the arrival of new evidence…

* Mooney doesn’t deny that there exist intellectually sophisticated conservatives who know how to construct arguments and cite evidence. But even here the ACC is subservient to the amygdala, because these sophisticated conservatives are merely “smart idiots” who employ their sophistication to rationalize what they already want to believe. This was confirmed by a study showing that college-educated conservatives are more skeptical of climate change than their less educated brethren.46 By contrast with these “smart idiots,” sophisticated liberals are just plain smart. Unlike conservatives, they can apportion their beliefs to the weight of the evidence, weigh counterarguments, and modify their views accordingly.

Being human, individual liberals may go astray here and there, as when their countercultural impulses lead them to air false claims about vaccination, nuclear power, fracking, or the efficacy of holistic medicine. But all is not equal between liberals and conservatives. Liberal ideologies will seduce some liberals some of the time. But the liberal psychology and culture operate as effective checks against the cognitive derelictions of individual liberals. Liberal ideologies do not generate large followings because the Left’s psychology of disobedience and anti-authoritarianism ensures that those making empirically unsupported claims “will be challenged, sometimes quite vigorously or even viciously.”48 Whereas conservative elites encourage their followers’ motivated cognition, their liberal counterparts can be counted on to condemn whatever hokum grows out of their own ranks.49 This is rarer among conservatives, whose “pro-authority biases” drive them to be “more unified and supportive of their political ‘team.’” Conservatives are “less willing to pick a fight with their friends, less likely to issue a corrective when they need to issue one, less motivated to step out of rank and call out bogus
assertions.”50 By contrast, liberals do not place a premium on obedience and group solidarity.51 Being “children of the Enlightenment,” they “don’t bow to authority, or pledge allegiance to a team.”52

This Enlightenment heritage is why even the most ideologically passionate liberals “remain allied with scientists, who just aren’t going to put up with any nonsense in their fields of expertise.” Liberals and scientists are usually on the same side of the issues because liberals’ Open personality—with its curiosity, tolerance, and flexibility—disposes them toward the scientific method, compelling a respect for scientists that is rarer among conservatives.53 Whereas conservatives routinely dismiss science and expertise, it is “hard, psychologically,” says Mooney “for liberals to buck what scientists say, and to withstand the intellectual beating that is sure to follow if they do.”54 By contrast, conservatives’ Closed personalities land them in overwhelming conflict with the scientific consensus on a host of issues.55 Hence the wide “expertise gap” between liberals and conservatives in the modern world.56

Seeking to close this gap, conservatives now foster their own “counterexpertise to thwart mainstream knowledge.”57 Sustained by think tanks and other well-funded institutions, this counterexpertise sustains “an alternative reality on the right,” providing conservatives with the “evidence” and “arguments” needed by their ideologically motivated cognition.58 Having seceded from the common reality occupied by liberals and independents, conservatives have “their own ‘truth,’ their own experts to spout it, and their own communication channels—newspapers, cable networks, talk radio shows, blogs, encyclopedias, think tanks, even universities—to broad- and narrowcast it.”59 All these serve the “belief affirmation and ideological activation”60 that ultimately drives conservatives, cloaking the promptings of their amygdalae as rational responses to bedrock truth. Being embodied human organisms, liberals have their own neurologically driven psychological needs to satisfy. But those needs include “the need for cognition and the need for accuracy, as well as the need to distinguish oneself from others and stand out, to be unique rather than part of the herd.”61 Liberals are as attached to their core values emotionally, but these values happen to include “the Enlightenment belief that if you can’t get the facts right, you can’t solve the problem and make the world better.”62

At the same time, these Enlightenment convictions have also kept liberals from truly understanding conservatives. Against all the evidence, liberals persist in the naïve faith in the rationality, or potential rationality, of conservatives, believing that the right, properly formulated argument will somehow, someday bring them around. Though this hope has been dashed time and again, many liberals retain it. As children of the Enlightenment, they have projected what is a specific cultural dispensation —the demand for reasons, arguments, and evidence—onto human nature as such, including the conservatives in whom this faculty has yet to be liberated. But this is a distortion, Mooney argues. Conservatives’ amygdalae cannot simply be argued away, and liberals will never succeed in enlightening conservatives without first taking this into account. This would involve, not logically tighter dialectic, but defusing conservatives’ natural fear and defensiveness toward the unknown and untried. And this means being more attentive to the pre-rational, identitarian motivations to which the children of the Enlightenment give short shrift.

* By remaining tied to an “Old Enlightenment” framework according to which reason is “conscious, literal, logical, universal, unemotional, disembodied,”70 liberals have shown themselves out of touch with the actual springs of our political allegiances, inadvertently reinforcing liberalism’s reputation as foreign and elitist.71 The American public may not agree with conservative policies. However, those policies are never evaluated in the abstract, but always in the context of particular frames whose resonance for us is a function of the broader neural systems they activate. And conservatives have been adept at systematically cultivating those systems which serve their cause.

Though cognitive science has amply discredited the Old Enlightenment view of reason, we have yet to digest the full implications of what we already know:

“It should come as no surprise then that the ideas that our embodied brains come up with depend in large measure on the peculiarities of human anatomy in general and on the way we, as human beings, function on our planet and with each other. This is not surprising when discussed in vague abstractions, but it is remarkable in detail: even our ideas of morality and politics are embodied in this rich way—those ideas are created and carried out not merely by the neural anatomy and connectivity of our brains, but also by the ways we function bodily in the physical and social world.”

* In its broadest sense, Enlightenment means respect for facts. And it is a fact that our embodied reason is “shaped by our bodies and brains and interactions in the real world,” and that our conscious thinking is “shaped by the vast and invisible realm of neural circuitry not accessible to consciousness.”93 Being part of the “permanent furniture of our brains,” narrative and metaphor cannot be erased and replaced by “cold, hard reason.” We can, however, become more aware of this furniture, better able to make intelligent use of it.94 The New Enlightenment is simply a rational response to discoveries that could not have been anticipated in the Eighteenth Century, and is ultimately consistent with the Enlightenment’s original promise.

* But does the New Enlightenment truly redound to the liberal cause? Or does liberals’ grasp of its implications remain distorted by Old Enlightenment prejudices—just like Kahan’s sophistication about cognitive illiberalism remains distorted by his rationalism? As we shall now see, the nature of this distortion is revealed by conservative claims of cultural oppression, which embody the ultimate in sophistication that the New Enlightenment thus far lacks.

What Mooney calls the “amygdala theory of conservatism” comports with the mutation counter-narrative in crucial respects. As we have seen, the buffered identity emerges from the porous one through the suppression of the wilder instinctual and affective oscillations of the pre-modern self, with its immediate fear responses to an uncertain, often hostile environment. And conservatives’ greater “skin conductance” and more pronounced “startle reflexes” can be viewed as the modern residue of this pre-modern personality structure. Responding to what Elias describes as “the incurable unrest, the perpetual proximity of danger, the whole atmosphere of this unpredictable and insecure life,” this personality structure was very often in the grip of immediate fear responses. The amygdala theory of conservatism therefore reveals the biological substratum, not only of conservative (and liberal) thinking, but also of the changes in the overall human make-up chronicled by the mutation counter-narrative. These changes involved the progressive imposition of a new discipline, and this now turns out to be the disciplining of the amygdala by the ACC. We cannot travel back in time to medieval Europe in order to measure its amygdalae against our own, of course, but the amygdala theory of conservatism provides concrete physiological correlates for what I have described as the progressive buffering of the human agent. We might say that the mutation counter-narrative historicizes the amygdala theory of conservatism, just as the amygdala theory of conservatism neurologizes the mutation counter-narrative.

This is why the New Enlightenment can both illuminate and be illuminated by conservative claims of cultural oppression. As saw in an earlier chapter, Sean Hannity charges that liberals are prepared to bring “the full force” of their “rhetorical firepower” to bear in their attacks against conservatives. And the New Enlightenment suggests that the metaphor of “firepower” reflects an accurate intuitive appreciation of the neurological stakes, where the usual distinction between force and persuasion is dissolved. Mooney criticizes the traditional Enlightenment view that beliefs are “somehow disembodied, suspended above us in the ether.” Having misunderstood the nature of beliefs in this way, we imagine that “all you have to do is flip up the right bit of correct information and wrong beliefs will dispel, like bursting a soap bubble.” But the truth is that our “[b]eliefs are physical,” and that “[t]o attack them is like attacking one part of a person’s anatomy, almost like pricking his or her skin (or worse).”95 If liberals shrug off the suggestion that they are engaged in an “assault” against conservatives and their values, this can only be because they remain under the spell of the Old Enlightenment, imagining that beliefs are “suspended above us in the ether” and therefore immune from assault. Frank writes that when conservatives complain of their “persecution” by liberals, what they actually mean here is “not imprisonment or excommunication or disenfranchisement, but criticism,” like editorials expressing disagreement with them.96 But understood naturalistically, this “criticism” can be a rather intrusive thing, an endless pricking away at conservative identities that slowly erodes the synaptic strength of the neural connections underpinning Strict Father morality. This is surely a kind of “assault,” which is why the New Enlightenment endows conservative claims of cultural oppression with a new credibility.

In a talk addressing whether conservatives can “reclaim the culture,” Goldberg concluded his remarks by advising his audience of young conservatives:

“Be happy… right. There is nothing, nothing that pisses off the Left more than a happy conservative. It violates all the things that they believe in… The place where liberals win the most, where the Left wins the most, is at the level of claiming that to be a truly realized and happy and joyous person you have to be on the Left. And the amazing reality is how utterly untrue that is.”

Liberals will surely dispute that the misery of conservatives figures so prominently on their agenda. What pisses them off, they will retort, is racial, sexual, and economic inequality, not the possibility of joyous conservatives. And where they have prevailed, this has been by offering solutions to just these problems, not by marketing liberalism as the superior therapy, as Goldberg seems to be suggesting. However, the New Enlightenment places Goldberg’s allegation in a new light, as a premonition of liberalism’s ultimate aims. For the victory of liberalism would mean the unraveling of the social structures that sustain conservatives’ synaptic make-ups. And to deactivate these is also to deactivate those persons constituted by them, conservatives. This may not be tantamount to imprisonment or disenfranchisement. But understood naturalistically, it is an attack on the foundations of the self. And this cannot make for a happy conservative. Liberals may not actively relish the misery of conservatives. But their tacit agenda of synaptic rewiring has that misery as its corollary, a hopeful sign that conservatives’ synaptic networks are becoming unraveled and devitalized. This is why Goldberg can urge happiness upon conservatives as a kind of political act, because he is implicitly operating within the framework of the New Enlightenment. Lakoff is correct that organismic self-maintenance isn’t identical to the rational self-interest of homo economicus. But the requirements of organismic self-maintenance go well beyond mere breathing, eating, and physical safety and encompass the preservation of the neural patterns that sustain our hero-systems and identities. As we have seen, liberals will dismiss these as merely “symbolic” concerns. But Becker observes:

“Anthropologists have long known that when a tribe of people lose the feeling that their way of life is worth-while they may stop reproducing, or in large numbers simply lie down and die beside streams full of fish. Food is not the primary nourishment of man, strange as that may sound to some ethological faddists.98
[S]hort of natural catastrophe, the only time life grinds to a halt or explodes in anarchy and chaos, is when a culture falls down on its job of constructing a meaningful hero-system for its members. The depopulation of Melanesia earlier in this century, as well as the loss of interest by the Marquesan Islanders in having children, did not puzzle anthropologists: in the face of inroads from white traders and missionaries upon everything that gave them a sense of value, the islanders simply gave up.”99

These are extreme cases, clearly. Culturally oppressed though they may be, conservatives are not about to stop reproducing and lie down to die besides streams full of fish. Nevertheless, the anthropological record serves to blur the neat lines that liberals would draw between the merely symbolic and the truly substantive, revealing the ways in which they are profoundly intertwined. And this is consistent with the New Enlightenment. Mooney writes:

“If we have strong emotional convictions about something, then these convictions must be thought of as an actual physical part of our brains, residing not in any individual brain cell (or neuron) but rather in the complex connections between them, and the pattern of neural activation that has occurred so many times before, and will occur again. The more we activate a particular series of connections, the more powerful it becomes. It grows more and more a part of us, like the ability to play guitar or juggle a soccer ball.”100

This neural activation is why conservative claims of cultural oppression are sincere rather than contrived. What liberals would dismiss as conservatives’ “vague premonitions of erosion or unraveling” of some ethereal social fiber is, translated into non-anthropocentric terms, the gradual unraveling of a neurologically encoded heroic narrative, the erosion of its synaptic strength at the hands of a hostile cultural environment that fails to activate, and indeed works to de-activate, the synaptic connections that underpin conservatives’ identities and hero-system. These connections are as much a part of us as are our limbs, organs, and bank accounts. Such harms may not be clearly visible and incontestable, like the harms of famine, disease, or stagnating wages. But this does not make them any less “real” in the context of the sophisticated scientific understanding of human nature to which Lakoff and presumably all liberals aspire.

While liberals’ commitment to non-anthropocentricity keeps them from accepting Strict Father morality’s concerns about “Moral Order” at face value, it also provides them with an alternative language in which those concerns can be reconceptualized non-anthropocentrically. Grievances that might be dismissed as “merely symbolic” are, neurologically speaking, as substantive as anything. Lakoff charges that Strict Father morality prioritizes metaphorical morality over experiential morality. But Strict Father and Nurturant Parent moralities are equally “experiential” at this most basic of levels. The ideals of Strict Father morality may be subjective and metaphorical. But that morality itself—qua neurological system integrated into embodied organisms—is not. The highest ideals of Strict Father morality may not track human flourishing in the direct sense that Lakoff associates with Nurturant Parent morality. But the frustration of Strict Father morality can have consequences for some people’s flourishing. Frank writes that while conservative polemics against liberalism “might get the facts wrong, they get the subjective experience right.”101 This is an Old Enlightenment distinction, however, because the New Enlightenment tells us that the subjective experience is correlated with certain facts that are just as tangible as the economic realities that liberals privilege as uniquely “substantive.” This is why the New Enlightenment gives conservative claims of cultural oppression a new credibility that they lacked under the old one.

If Mooney and Lakoff fail to see this, this is because their analysis is compromised by the epistemological framework, which always militates against a deeper understanding of conservative claims of cultural oppression. Mooney casts the “alternative reality on the right” and its “counterexpertise to thwart mainstream knowledge” as expedients serving some general need for “belief affirmation and ideological activation.” But these phenomena are more profoundly understood as specific responses to the prestige of the buffered identity, to the particular social and cultural conditions under which this identity is neurally activated. Conservative counterexpertise exists to advance, not only deeply held beliefs, but also something deeper than deeply held beliefs. It is the assertion of one cosmological orientation against another—not the brute refusal of certain “disinterested representations,” but a protest against certain forms of “nonexplicit engagement with the world,” as Taylor says, or against certain ways of “function[ing] bodily in the physical and social world,” as Lakoff says. Mooney characterizes conservatives’ quest for “ideological activation” as a special defensiveness vis-à-vis cherished convictions, but this activation is ultimately the defense of one affective-instinctual structure against the imposition of another. It is the activation, not only of a belief-system, but of a hero-system, the activation of the entire organism against social meanings that threaten to undermine it. Fixating as he does upon the “epistemological fragment of man,” Mooney must trivialize a cosmological grievance and physiological protest against the civilizing process as petulant defensiveness vis-à-vis certain consoling dogmas. However, conservatives’ larger amygdala is politically relevant, not only because it engenders a higher need for closure, but also because those amygdalae are being targeted by the disciplines and repressions of the buffered identity. The latter may be second-nature to, and unnoticed by, those with more gray matter in the ACC. But for others, they constitute an alien imposition, a transgression against human nature’s default setting. Hence Harris’s ornery American, whose protests will be misunderstood by those lacking this ultimate in sophistication.
Sophisticated though they may be, Mooney and Lakoff both fail to achieve the ultimate in sophistication because both overlook the supra-epistemological implications of a naturalistic, neurologized political science. This reveals a conflict, not only between rival systems of belief-formation, but more primordially between the rival human make-ups of which these belief-systems are expressions. Though Mooney ostensibly follows Elias in contextualizing “changes of ideas and forms of cogitation” within broader changes in the “overall human make-up,” his scientism reduces the latter to the status of an explanation for the former. And so he cannot see how it is the actual subject matter of political controversy. Liberal advocates of a New Enlightenment may have repudiated the Old Enlightenment view of reason. But just like Kahan, they retain the Old Enlightenment view of man as first and foremost a reasoning being, as an epistemological subject. And so they necessarily misunderstand conservatives, who as relative pre-moderns see what lies underneath the epistemological fragment of man.

* The heavenly vision of the eighteenth-century philosophers is precisely what could be expected of a hero-system that disguises itself as the transcendence of all hero-systems. Mooney identifies the “liberal culture” with scientific skepticism. But the mutation counter-narrative reveals that the naturalistic outlook developed, not only as a conception of the world but also as an ideal of authentic selfhood and properly human dignity. This is what the “children of the Enlightenment” are ultimately striving to uphold. Taylor observes that while the practitioners of science view themselves as “motivated fully by epistemic considerations… a big part of the motivation resides in the prestige and admiration surrounding the [scientific] stance itself, with the sense of freedom, power, control, invulnerability, dignity, which it radiates.”139 And it is the need to bask in this stance—the ethos of disengaged self-control and self-reflexivity—that compels liberals to see conservative claims of cultural oppression as confused and contrived. Being inflected by the buffered identity, the Enlightenment’s particular brand of empiricism isn’t culturally neutral, and was rather crafted in reflection of a hero-system. Its function is to uphold a set of social meanings that will ratify the ethos of disengaged self-control and self-reflexivity as essential human nature, as the “true self” that lies dormant or suppressed among the unwashed masses. The light with which Becker’s “emancipated ones” believed the world was freshly flooded is none other than this, none other than the buffered identity. This identity is not an actual datum of experience, but rather the silent, unquestioned backdrop against which experience, including the meaning of harm, is now conceptualized, transforming whatever falls outside it into the object of scorn and incredulity.

* On one level, the New Enlightenment recognizes the “epistemological fragment” of man to be just that, a fragment. But just like Kahan, Mooney and Lakoff treat this fragment as the core in relation to which the rest of man should be understood. They recognize the irrational in human nature. But they reduce this irrationality to the coefficient of adversity with which the epistemological subject must reckon, and so they cannot see it as a reason to move beyond the epistemological framework itself and achieve the ultimate in sophistication. This would be to recognize that the issue is not the epistemological subject but what lies underneath it, not dogma but dopamine, the activation of the neural circuitry that sustains us in our hero-systems. This is what the culturally inflected naturalism of liberals cannot see.

* Mooney attributes to liberals an evolved “need for cognition” and “need for accuracy,” as well as a need to distinguish themselves from the herd. But what are after all needs can be expected to yield the “cognitive elitism” bewailed by Harris and other conservatives, producing a culture in which those trained and groomed to bear the appropriate cultural markers are anointed as “intellectual” and accorded a deference that is withheld from others who lack these markers. We know that our evolved capacity for disgust can become culturally misdirected with the consequence that homosexuality becomes viewed with a visceral repugnance that would be more appropriate for telltale signs of bacterial infection. And I am arguing that the intellectualism of the liberal elites may be vulnerable to a similar kind of cultural misdirection. Just like disgust, our evolved “need for cognition” or “need for accuracy” as embedded in the angular cingulated cortex may have been culturally harnessed to imperatives that provide the desired neurological stimuli at the cost of intellectual substance and honesty. Indeed, Mooney acknowledges that liberals find it “hard, psychologically” to buck what the scientists say. This inhibition is not the product of individual reflection, but rather a reflexive, socially inculcated responsiveness to “the rhetoric and airs of an intellectual,” to the language, style, and demeanor of the New Class, which symbolically articulate the original spiritual vision of the buffered distance.

Codevilla complains that “[f]or our Ruling Class, identity always trumps truth.”180 And this might be dismissed as just a hollow ad hominem. But like all conservative claims of cultural oppression, this lament carries a richer meaning in the context of the mutation counter-narrative. Thus understood, it is a reminder that our commitment to science arose, not out of any bare yearning for the truth, but as part and parcel of a contingent, historically constructed identity for which the scientific stance serves a spiritual function. As we observed with Taylor, the practitioners of science may understand themselves as “motivated fully by epistemic considerations,” but a “big part of the motivation resides in the prestige and admiration surrounding the [scientific] stance itself, with the sense of freedom, power, control, invulnerability, dignity, which it radiates.” And it is precisely this stance—the ethos of disengaged self-control and self-reflexivity—that fuels liberals’ dismissive indignation toward conservative claims of cultural oppression. Refusing to uphold this ethos as liberated human nature, these claims must be discredited accordingly. In this way does identity trump truth, the truth of the mutation counter-narrative, of which conservatives have only an under-theorized understanding. This understanding is being expressed when Codevilla notes that the “the notion that the common people’s words are, like grunts, mere signs of pain, pleasure, and frustration, is now axiomatic among our Ruling Class.”181 Those words do not respect the conventions of the peculiarly courtly rationality. And so they are assigned a merely animal status, mere grunts bereft of cognitive content, expressions of the “merely animal” in human nature. This judgment is simply a concomitant of the buffered identity, which must see its opponents in this way.

It must also deny that it is seeing them in this way, deny its own identitarian motivations. Operating out of a sublimated, intellectualized, and etherealized hero-system, liberals can always proceed with plausible deniability, by relying on the unstated or understated mores of the liberal culture to make their case for them.

Mary Midgely observes:

“Probably few philosophers – or indeed other academics – ever realize how much of their influence is conveyed through expression and tone of voice, rather than through argument. Certain nuances of disappointment and contempt can often do more to direct a student than a ton of good argument.”

* Conservatives are different from liberals, as Mooney insists. But as Catherine MacKinnon notes, differences are “inequality’s post hoc excuse, its conclusory artifact, its outcome presented as its origin, the damage that is pointed to as the justification for doing the damage after the damage has been done.”190 The irrationalities of conservative claimants of cultural oppression are cited as evidence for the correctness of liberal judgments. But this evidence is itself the product of liberal judgments. While conservatives will dismiss the stereotype of conservatives as anti-intellectual as a liberal prejudice, it is more accurate to say that this prejudice is so powerful as to have become something more than a prejudice, as to have become truth, something that liberal domination has forced conservatives to internalize.

Here’s a review on Amazon:

Chris Mooney’s book also sees our emotional brains as a big part of how we see the world, and part of why we become a Democrat or Republican.

When an emotion bubbles up from our subconscious brain, we rationalize, not reason. Or as Mooney puts it, “we’re not scientists, we’re lawyers trying to ‘win the case’, especially if we’re emotionally committed to an idea”. We start to become little lawyers when we develop motivated reasoning around the age 4 or 5. That’s when we start siding with the groups we belong to — our family, friends, neighbors, church, and political party.

I doubt many Republicans are going to read this book. They ought to. Mooney is thoughtful and insightful. Compare his evidence-based book with the Republican counterpart, Ann Coulter’s ” If Democrats Had Any Brains, They’d Be Republicans “. Some chapter titles:
* Teddy Kennedy: apparently fat, drunk, and stupid is a way to go through life
* Liberal “argument”: hissing, scratching, and hair-pulling,
* Liberalism and other psychological disorders
* Liberal tactics: distortion, dissembling, deception–and the rest is just run-of-the-mill treason
* Baby-killing: Abort liberals, not children
* Blacks: the only thing standing between the democrat party and oblivion
* Christians: must Reproduce More
* Communism: a new fragrance by Hillary Clinton
* Environmentalism: Adolf Hitler was the first environmentalist
* Evolution, Alchemy, and other “settled” scientific theories

Some good news: not everyone is equally biased. Many of us are capable of listening to others and changing our views. But this varies a lot from person to person, because people differ in their need to defend their point of view, in their need to have convictions that must not change, in their need to believe their group is right, and in their need for unity with their group. If you’re wired and strongly motivated to have unwavering convictions, it will be almost impossible to change your mind with any facts, logic, or reason. Mooney makes the case that this kind of person has a conservative mind, and is therefore likely to be a Republican.

Mooney likens someone with a strongly held opinion that’s being challenged to experiencing a physical attack, because these beliefs are physically embedded in the brain.

Which means you can’t expect to come up with undeniable, irrefutable facts and suddenly change someone’s mind, since their strongly held beliefs are wired in their brains. Linguist George Lakoff, at the University of California, Berkeley, says that to think you can change someone’s beliefs with well-reasoned arguments is not only naïve, it’s also unwise and ineffective.

Reasoning is emotional, what psychologists call hot reasoning. We are not coldly rational. Not even scientists are immune. But what makes science the most successful way we have of testing reality is the scientific method, since peer review, experimental replication, and critiques from other scientists mean that eventually the best ideas emerge despite any individual’s biases. Within scientific circles, it’s considered admirable to give up cherished ideas when evidence shows you to be wrong.

Mooney believes this is a key difference between liberals and conservatives. Scientists are overwhelmingly liberal — they have to be, or they won’t get far in their profession. Please note this does not mean that their scientific discoveries are liberal or democratic. Scientific findings aren’t political, they’re reality, and only become “political” when spun that way. The opposite of a scientist is a religious, authoritarian, political conservative, because they tend to have a strong need to never modify their deeply held beliefs, or to ever appear to be uncertain and indecisive.

Since most of the most important problems that need to be solved require scientific literacy, which less than 10% of Americans have, here’s how Mooney says scientific news is interpreted by the other 90% of the public:

“When it comes to the dissemination of science–or contested facts in general–across a nonscientific populace, a very different process is often occurring than the scientific one. A vast number of individuals, with widely varying motivations, are responding to the conclusions that science, allegedly, has reached. Or so they’ve heard.

They’ve heard through a wide variety of information sources–news outlets with differing politics, friends and neighbors, political elites–and are processing the information through different brains, with very different commitments and beliefs, and different psychological needs and cognitive styles. And ironically, the fact that scientists and other experts usually employ so much nuance, and strive to disclose all remaining sources of uncertainty when they communicate their results, makes the evidence they present highly amenable to selective reading and misinterpretation. Giving ideologues or partisans data that’s relevant to their beliefs is a lot like unleashing them in the motivated reasoning equivalent of a candy store. In this context, rather than reaching an agreement or a consensus, you can expect different sides to polarize over the evidence and how to interpret it”.

If you’re going to make the strong claim that Republicans deny science and reality, you’d better back that up. First, he tells the history of how Republicans and the Christian Right have built institutions of propaganda and recruited false experts for decades. Then he shows how these institutions have influenced issues like climate change, evolution, women’s rights, health care, economics, falsely rewritten history, and so on.

Republicans have created a closed world view for their followers so they’re never exposed to ideas outside this universe of Fox TV, hate talk radio, and other right-wing and Christian propaganda. What’s presented is carefully crafted to appeal to conservative minds and provides them with certainty and closure.

This means there can never be a moment of clarity like when Joseph Welch told McCarthy live on ABC television in 1954 “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?” and suddenly people woke up to the evils of right-wing McCarthyism and made it go away.

But this is not a book about what’s wrong with the world and how to fix it, or how you can change a Republican’s mind now that you know how they operate. It’s more of a Carl Sagan “Science as a candle in the dark”, shining of light into the dark corners that lurk within closed minds, and groups of closed minds, shut off from reality. Mooney casts light with the latest scientific findings and critical thinking skills.

The Big 5 Personality Traits and how they predict which party you’re likely to join

Scientists have tried to boil personality research from the past decades into a unified theory and have come up with the “big 5″ personality traits (see wiki or my book review of Daniel Nettle’s book, ” Personality: What Makes You the Way You Are “).

Some of the liberal/conservative correlations with the big 5 personality traits:
* 71% of liberals have an open outlook
* 61% of conservatives are high in conscientiousness
* 59% of the highly educated are liberals
* 56% of those with very high incomes are conservatives

But these traits are not destiny. Overall, our political views are 40% genetic, 60% environment. There is no democratic or republican gene, but dispositions that predispose us one way or the other.

If you walked into someone’s home, you could probably tell which way they swing – liberals and conservatives hang out at different places, dress differently, date differently, listen to different music. Liberals have more books and music, which ranges across a wider breadth of topics and styles than conservatives. Liberals have more art supplies, travel items, movie tickets. Conservative homes are tidier, with more sports paraphernalia, American flags, and cleaning supplies.

How to Avoid Giving up a Cherished Belief

Goal post shifting. Mooney defines this as demanding ever more evidence, or tweaking your view to avoid giving up a belief despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

My expert is better than your expert. Allows you to ignore what the other person is saying because you’ve found an expert who says the opposite. So when conservatives deny climate change, it’s because they think their experts are the best — the most realistic and truthful.

Stop seeking out more information. Republicans have a much higher need for closure, so they are likely to seize upon information that pleases them and stop looking for more information or spend time thinking about that issue.

Republicans are More Biased than Democrats

Basically, conservatives are more strongly motivated to defend their beliefs, and are far more likely to cling to wrong views tenaciously when presented with incontrovertible evidence they are wrong (Backfire effect). Really smart, educated republicans are even better at coming up with incorrect facts to defend their beliefs, what Mooney calls “the smart idiot effect”. The opposite is true of Democrats – the more educated, the more likely a democrat will change his/her mind when evidence proves them wrong.

Why are we so Irrational?

Mooney makes the case that reasoning didn’t evolve to make us good logicians but to make us persuasive speakers, finding evidence to support whatever our case is, and to see the flaws in other people’s arguments.

Reasoning doesn’t exist for us to get at objective truth, it’s there to defend our position in a social context. This is why we go to such elaborate lengths to defend wrong beliefs, and come up with truly bizarre “religions” like Scientology.

There’s an evolutionary advantage to being able to talk other people into doing what you want and helping you out. There’s also an evolutionary advantage to be able to poke holes in other peoples arguments and discerning whether a speaker was reliable and trustworthy.

We may not be perfect at reasoning, but not everyone is bad at it or unwilling to change their minds based on new evidence. But it does appear that conservative minds are more likely to strongly defend their beliefs against any argument, and to persist in sticking to their incorrect beliefs no matter what evidence challenges their ideas.

The entire group benefits when all sides of an issue are aired, with everyone able to speak up about the flaws in others arguments. Groups that don’t allow this, where the leaders aren’t challenged, can go very astray. People or groups who insulate themselves from different opinions can end up like crazy hermits.

Conservatives are much more likely to be “crazy hermits” and follow conservative authorities who are dead wrong. Their minds can’t be changed because of their need for closure, not seeking out new information, and the backfire effect, all of which make them more likely to hold wrong views. Conservatives strive harder to be unified with their teams, so even if a conservative changes his/her mind, s(he) has little motivation to speak out or pick a fight with friends, family, and other groups. Plus conservatives are far more likely than liberals to ostracize dissenters.

Mooney strives hard to find examples of bias in liberals to contrast with the extremely strong and incorrect biases of conservatives, but try as he might, he can come up with very few liberal biases. One way that liberals might be biased is in overstating harm to prevent environmental damages.

Why are conservatives conservative?

Researchers say that conservatism satisfies normal, deep human desires to manage uncertainty and fear by finding beliefs and values that are certain, stable, and unchanging. The need for order, structure, closure, and management of threat are normal. Other normal tendencies that conservatives have are patriotism, decisiveness, and loyalty to friends and allies.

On pages 107-109, Mooney makes the case for conservatism being the default position, by showing how you can turn democrats into republicans in certain situations.

Partisan Democratic and Republican brains differ

Partisan Democratic and Republican brains are different. Democrats have a larger anterior cingulated cortex (part of the frontal lobe connected to the prefrontal cortex). This is the area that makes corrective responses, that can override the automatic emotional system 1 and bring in system 2 reasoning.

Republicans have a larger right amygdala. The amygdala is at the epicenter of our fear and threat center, a central component of our emotionally-centered brain. Those with greater fear “dispositions” such as distrust of outsiders and people of different races, tend to be politically conservative.

What are the three kinds of conservatives?

Mooney breaks them down into Economic, Status-quo, and Authoritarians. Economic and Status-quo conservatives are intellectual and principled. Authoritarians are more primal, driven by visceral negative responses to otherness and a desire to impose their way of doing things on others. All three types have a resistance to change.

From The Financial Times:

This means that pre-existing beliefs are often more significant than facts in determining what evidence people will be persuaded by. Indeed, factual arguments may trigger what Mooney calls a “backfire effect”, where those with strongly held beliefs “not only fail to change their mind but hold their wrong views more tenaciously after being shown contradictory evidence”.

Mooney is careful to avoid a slide into reductionism; repeatedly emphasising that while insights from psychology, neuroscience and even genetics are relevant to understanding the causes of political disagreement, they don’t provide simple or complete answers.

To reinforce this point, he devotes a section of the book to wider factors in US political culture, such as the rise of rightwing think-tanks and partisan media, such as Fox News, which “interact with conservative psychology in such a way as to make the misinformation problem worse”.

He also highlights how liberals can display their own patterns of biased reasoning. Yet, despite these attempts at balance, and an admission that writing the book left him with a “new-found admiration” for conservatives, Mooney anticipates that many on the right will attack the book without properly reading it – observing wryly that this behaviour will only reinforce his case.

Chris Mooney writes in 2012:

As the new research suggests, conservatism is largely a defensive ideology — and therefore, much more appealing to people who go through life sensitive and highly attuned to aversive or threatening aspects of their environments. By contrast, liberalism can be thought of as an exploratory ideology — much more appealing to people who go through life trying things out and seeking the new.

All of this is reflected, in a measurable way, in the physiological responses that liberals and conservatives show to emotionally evocative but otherwise entirely apolitical images — and also to images of politicians, either on their own side or from across the aisle.

To show as much, the Nebraska-Lincoln researchers had liberals and conservatives look at varying combinations of images that were meant to excite different emotions. There were images that caused fear and disgust — a spider crawling on a person’s face, maggots in an open wound — but also images that made you feel happy: a smiling child, a bunny rabbit. The researchers also mixed in images of liberal and conservative politicians — Bill and Hillary Clinton, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.

While they did all of this, the scientists measured the subjects’ “skin conductance” — the moistening of their sweat glands, an indication of sympathetic nervous system arousal — as well as where their eyes went first and how long they stayed there.

The difference was striking: Conservatives showed much stronger skin responses to negative images, compared with the positive ones. Liberals showed the opposite. And when the scientists turned to studying eye gaze or “attentional” patterns, they found that conservatives looked much more quickly at negative or threatening images, and spent more time fixating on them. Liberals, in contrast, were less quickly drawn to negative images — and spent more time looking at positive ones.

Similar things have been found before — but the big breakthrough in the new study was showing that these tendencies carried over perfectly to the different sides’ responses to images of politicians. Conservatives had stronger rapid fire physiological responses to images of Bill and Hillary Clinton — apparently perceiving them much as they perceive a threat. By contrast, liberals showed stronger responses to the same two politicians, apparently perceiving them much as they perceive an appetitive or positive stimulus.

As the authors concluded, “The aversive in life is more physiologically and cognitively tangible to some people and they tend to gravitate to the political right.”

What does this mean?

To my mind, it means it is high time to grapple with a fact that we like to conveniently ignore: the left and the right are deeply asymmetrical actors in our politics. If we could acknowledge this, it might explain an awful lot.

…The big question lying behind all this, of course, is why some people would have stronger and quicker responses than others to that which is perceived as negative and threatening (and disgusting). Or alternatively, why some people — liberals — would be less threat aversive than others. For as the University of Nebraska-Lincoln researchers note: “given the compelling evolutionary logic for organisms to be overly sensitive to aversive stimuli, it may be that those on the political left are more out of step with adaptive behaviors.”

And thus are we drawn to the only context in which we can make any sense of any of this — the understanding that we human primates evolved. As such, these rapid-fire responses to aversive stimuli are something we share with other animals — a core part of our life-saving biological wiring.

And apparently, they differ in strength and intensity from person to person — in turn triggering political differences in modern democracies. Who knew?

For now, I’ll leave it to others to speculate on the root causes of these differences. But whatever those may be, the perceptual gap between left and right certainly seems less than “adaptive” at the present moment. It may be the fault of biology that we’re now misfiring so very badly — clashing in ways that, as with the debt ceiling fiasco, could have gravely harmed everybody in America, regardless of their particular ideology.

The Nebraska-Lincoln scientists interpret their results as a powerful argument in favor of greater political tolerance and understanding — and I agree with them. Politics isn’t war, and it isn’t zero sum. It requires negotiation and compromise. Surely our public debates should be guided by something more than threat responses and fight-or-flight.

So how do we get beyond our political biology? Well, the implication for liberals seems obvious: If they want to fare better politically, they need to learn to go against their instincts and stay focused and committed.

And the lesson for conservatives? Well, here it is tougher. You see, first we’d have to get them to accept something they often view as aversive and threatening: The theory of evolution.

Steve Sailer wrote in 2011:

In a much praised article, Chris Mooney writes in Mother Jones about “The Science of Why We Don’t Believe in Science” in which he explains why Republicans hate science. To be fair, he then goes on to ask:

So is there a case study of science denial that largely occupies the political left? Yes: the claim that childhood vaccines are causing an epidemic of autism. Its most famous proponents are an environmentalist (Robert F. Kennedy Jr.[29]) and numerous Hollywood celebrities (most notably Jenny McCarthy[30] and Jim Carrey). The Huffington Post gives a very large megaphone to denialists. And Seth Mnookin[31], author of the new book The Panic Virus[32], notes that if you want to find vaccine deniers, all you need to do is go hang out at Whole Foods.

Right! Autism and vaccines  is the example of science denial on the left. What else is there? The hounding of James D. Watson and Larry Summers out of their jobs for politically incorrect statements about the science of intelligence pales in comparison to the actions of noted leftwing intellectuals Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey regarding autism.
Look, the people who are most worked up over the theory that vaccines cause autism are the parents of children with autism. It’s not a left wing plot or the failure of leftist ideology. It’s a bunch of parents with tragic problems that mainstream science hasn’t done a good job of explaining. (Jenny McCarthy has an autistic child and Jim Carrey was her boyfriend for a while.) They latched on to an idea that wasn’t terribly implausible at the beginning, which gave them a little hope, or at least some notion of cause and effect. It didn’t turn out to be right, but that doesn’t have much to do with the Left.
You can’t make the same excuses, however, for the most honored commissars of political correctness, such as Stephen Rose and Morris Dees.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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