By Jay Hansen
As a nation and as a society, we tend to focus on our differences rather than our similarities. Over time, I’ve accumulated stories and discussions regarding the differences between progressives and conservatives when it comes to just general mindset, rather than specific ideology, and gained fascinating insight. I’ve already shared my beliefs of libertarianism in my posts Libertarian Smoke (and Mirrors), as well as The Undermining of America, but now I’d like to start with a more general, top-down approach to the issues, starting with the very foundations of the human mind.
In late 2010, a British neuroscientist named Dr. Rees scanned the brains of college students and two Members of Parliament to see if there were any significant differences between conservatives and liberals in terms of brain structure. He did so mostly as a joke after an interview with Radio 4’s Today Programme. In his experiment, he discovered that conservatives had larger amygdalae, whereas liberals had larger anterior cingulated cortexes. The amygdala is the part of the brain responsible for primitive emotions such as anger and fear, which Dr. Rees believes can help explain why conservatives have more aggressive, simplistic policies and ideologies. The anterior cingulated cortex, however, is the part of the brain responsible for rational cognition, decision making, empathy, and other more complex emotions. Naturally, this would lead liberals to having more complex, nuanced, logic-driven ideologies and policies, whereas conservatives are much more emotion driven. This could also lead conservatives to be more susceptible to propaganda, and fear or war mongering. Think about it; spreading xenophobia against Muslims is all about making people afraid of them – so afraid of them they don’t use logic and adhere only to their emotions, acting irrationally. The same is true for war mongering; make people fearful of Iran’s stockpile of ballistic missiles, coupled with creating fear of their Islamic culture and promotion of the idea that they are going to attack us when there’s absolute no evidence of that, riles up conservatives into an aggressive fury, and once again, manipulates them into acting irrationally and wanting to strike at Iran based on nothing more than appealing to their emotions.
While this study isn’t very reliable given its sample size, it did fit well into what we already see in conservative and progressive ideology. It was a good discovery worthy of further investigation, which I hope Dr. Rees did, but not too long ago another story came about that reminded me of his research. A study was published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin that found the more someone drinks, and the more intoxicated they become, the more conservative and right-wing their ideology shifts. Essentially this theory was based on the same principle; liberal positions are complex, detailed, and logical, which, while often the better choice in the long-run, is too hard for the uneducated or emotionally-driven to understand. Chris Mooney wrote this exact thing in Rolling Stone, saying:
“In other words, you could argue that liberals are really the outliers here. They’re the ones in the position of having to spin out complex, nuanced explanations for their views – explanations that, to much of the populace, feel like so much fancy-pants posturing. And while this may work for academia and wonkland, it can also get in the way of political effectiveness and leadership.”
When you’re drunk, you don’t care for facts or details. You’re all emotion, and significantly more careless and less capable of empathy with others (which we learned from the first study mentioned in this article). If you were to ask two people; one sober, one drunk, about what we should do with increasing tension with Iran, what do you believe their responses would be? The sober person would (hopefully) lean towards diplomacy or non-military action, or at least put more thought behind his or her answer. The drunk person, on the other hand, would be much more inclined to just say “I don’t know, bomb them.”
Now, what are generally considered the liberal and conservative positions on the issue of Iran, or any foreign nation with which we are having a dispute? Liberals favor diplomacy, usually by pressuring the government with economic sanctions to be more reasonable in negotiations, often appealing to the United Nations and NATO for further diplomatic support, and using minimal military action such as in Libya, where we used mostly naval power to enforce a no-fly zone, allowing us to leave there without a single lost American life. Now, the conservative position on foreign tension? In the words of my good friend George Carlin, “They have bigger dicks [than us]? BOMB THEM!”
I exaggerate, but nonetheless you get my point. More than that though, conservatives view this complex positioning of liberals as “weak” because they try as much as possible to avoid a physical altercation. Again, this feeds in perfectly to these two studies; conservatives are less likely to use logic, and telling someone that their idea is weak or stupid is somewhat cathartic because it feeds into a person’s emotional desire to be right. Whether consciously or unconsciously, conservatives may be more likely to not want to take the time to understand how they can be wrong because it’s emotionally displeasing to be wrong. So why would they go to the lengths of understanding your highly complex, detailed idea if that only means they will prove themselves wrong? This could be why conservatives dislike complexity entirely, and use it as an excuse to demean liberal ideas. In their instinctual mind (which some human beings don’t think much further beyond), complexity is nothing more than someone making up excuses because they don’t want to go to war, or get into a fight, and therefore, appear to conservatives as weak and cowardly.
The studies I shared in this piece are very informal and arguably unreliable, but given how well it fits the molds of conservative and liberal it wouldn’t shock me if there is some truth behind them. Despite this, reading over them and analyzing them has brought me to the interesting realization about why conservatives don’t like complexity. If you think about it, a great deal of conservative ideology is very simple-minded, even for the more complex issues. The primary one that comes to mind is the income tax. Many Republicans and Libertarians oppose the income tax altogether, and one of their primary arguments as to why it should be done away with is because it’s too complicated; figuring your annual income, total asset worth, factoring in deductions, how much in what account warrants reporting to the IRS, and if you’re off by one penny you risk an audit from the federal government which is exceedingly more complicated. This is part of (but not entirely) the reason why many conservatives, particularly the uneducated, favor a sales tax or a flat tax rate. Flat tax rates could allow someone to figure out how much they owe the federal government on a single piece of paper and a few punches of a calculator, and a sales tax takes all calculation responsibility off taxpayers entirely and leaves it in the hands of businesses. Many conservatives (again, especially among the uneducated) would actually prefer these systems despite the fact that doing so would dramatically raise taxes on the lower and middle classes by forcing them to sacrifice significantly more of their annual income than the wealthy, expect the poorest citizens to contribute equally the same amount as those that are more than capable of giving more and still having a huge chunk leftover for themselves (not to mention eliminate or greatly reduce the number of deductions for taxpayers).
This is perhaps the fundamental flaw with how conservatives think. They do everything they can to avoid complexity, and keep issues black and white. The obvious problem with that way of thinking is that nothing in this world is black or white, and increasing complexity is inevitable. As humans become more accepting and inclusive of people, cultures, and lifestyles, we grow more complicated as individuals as we find out who we are and where we belong. Families are constantly growing more complicated as homosexual couples, or single parents, raising children increase, or as families expand to include more and more people, each one helping one another to accommodate for the rising cost of living and stagnating wages of the middle class. Governments must keep up with an ever changing society growing ever more complex to better protect and provide equal opportunity for all citizens. Conservatives don’t want things to change. They want them to stay the same, at their relatively simple levels, or even revert them to ages past where things were even more simplistic; white Christians good, everything else bad. Women weak, men strong. Homosexuality bad, heterosexuality good, but only for procreation. Having sex for any other reason might actually complicate society a little bit (what is considered decent, children born out of wedlock, re-defining the family, etc.), so ultra right-wing conservatives are against it.
Even when conservatives try to be simplistic, due to the complicated nature of man and society, it sometimes ends up in a train wreck of complexity that doesn’t even solve the problem, unlike liberal complexity. Consider Herman Cain’s tax plan when he was still running for President; he summed up his entire plan by saying “999.” It was short for 9% income tax, 9% flat tax, and 9% sales tax. It was short, sweet, had a nice emotional ring to it that appealed to conservatives, but in reality the entire plan didn’t even work. Economists literally didn’t understand how the plan would work to solve the horrible deficit problem in America, while at the same time it kept in place the complexities of the income tax and established two other new forms of taxation alongside it. Why? To this day I don’t understand Cain’s logic behind the plan, and can’t answer that question. All I know for a fact is that it sounded emotionally appealing because it sounded so simple, appealing to conservatives, when in reality it was anything but.
Complexity is inevitable. Progressives know this, and using logic and other forms of rational cognition they do their best to think of the big, long-term picture. They are better capable of empathy, making them more capable of defending the old adage “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” At the same time though, Mooney was also right on the political drawbacks of this way of thinking. People don’t care for specificity, long-winded logic, and long-term solutions. They want quick fixes, and respond to emotional appeals, at which conservatives are significantly better, reaping more political victories for them, even if not ideological or policy ones. Again, let’s just look at taxes. Conservatives are always calling for more tax cuts, claiming that it puts more money in the pockets of individual citizens and businesses; an immediate gratification, but what about the long term implications? Tax cuts mean less revenue for the government. Less revenue for the government means an unbalanced budget and the creation of deficits. Deficits lead to spending cuts. Spending cuts lead to fewer programs to assist the lower and middle class. Fewer of these programs mean a higher cost of living for people of these classes. Higher cost of living is a long-term issue for the working class that suddenly makes the short-term benefit of the tax cuts you got years prior not so worth it, and ultimately sticks you with a net loss. Worse yet, because there are sometimes years between the tax cuts and the spending cuts, people don’t even connect those two dots.
Progressives, on the other hand, believe that taxes should actually be raised. Yes, in the short term, it will hurt and cost money to everyday Americans, but in the long-term, the government will have more money, allowing it to balance its budget, provide more living assistance programs to the working class to lower their cost of living, which would then in turn give even the poorest citizens equality of opportunity (without giving them equality of wealth). On top of that, higher taxes could incentive business owners to re-invest in their company, rather than horde excess revenue as profits, to avoid that money being taxed, which then causes private industry to expand quite rapidly. So years down the line after tax increases, through the complexities of economics and government, citizens would actually have a net gain, making the increased taxes an investment, and not a burden (though I am aware there’s the question of how government spends our money, but that’s another issue entirely that I’ll save for another day). Despite this, how many politicians do you hear these days openly admitting they want to raise taxes? None. Why? It’s bad politics. Americans have been dumbed-down to the point where a significant majority (at least significant enough to influence elections) are incapable of thinking long-term, or with this level of complexity.
So the next time you’re thinking about how to vote, don’t just think about the implications of your vote tomorrow, next month, or even next year. Don’t just think about yourself and your bank account. Think about your neighbor, your parents, your children, and your friends. Think about the janitor at your child’s school, the small business owner across the street, the soldier soon to be deployed to the next war in the Middle East or the veteran disabled from the last. Think about the implications of your vote years and years down the line; will it be to the benefit of all people then? Will it still protect freedom, and create equality of opportunity far in the future?
Think about it, and think about it long and hard. Consider all angles, all variables, and all possibilities. Even if conservatives are hardwired one way, and liberals another, that’s still no excuse to not do your civic duty and vote in the best interest of your fellow American, and not just yourself.