Republican conservatism (complete rewrite)

by John Q on March 30, 2012

The first version of this was a trainwreck, as can be seen from the comments, so I’ve decided to rewrite it completely, trying to be as clear as possible about how I read Mooney and what I think myself.

Chris Mooney has a great talent for knowing just when to push the envelope. Back in 2005, when CT held a book event on The Republican War on Science, the idea that Republicans as a group were hostile to science and scientists was somewhere between controversial and unthinkable, as far as mainstream Sensible opinion was concerned. Now, it’s a truth universally recognised – even the professional Repub defense team doesn’t deny it, preferring the (demonstrably false) line that Dems are just as bad.

Now, with The Republican Brain Chris pushes the argument a step further with the question: why are Republicans  the way they are, and what, if anything, can be done about if? 

Before we start, I’ll observe that the set of “conservative Republicans” has changed over time, as have the specific set of policies associated with these terms and the general temperament that goes with this. On the first point, we’ve seen the disappearance of Eisenhower Republicans, the Southern realignment and the rise of the religious right, all of which have increased the concentration of dogmatic authoritarians in the Repub party. On the second, the emergence of environmentalism as a major political line of division is probably the most important development. The fact that Republicans/conservative are increasingly anti-science reflects both of these trends.

It’s also important to observe that Republican/conservative alignment can’t be explained simply in terms of class, geography and education though all these factors play a role. With a few exceptions (notably including blacks and scientists) a substantial portion of nearly every demographic group votes Republican and self-describes as conservative. So, explanations solely based on (for example) class interests, can’t explain voting behavior without a lot of (self?)deception, and that raises the question of why some people are more easily deceived.

Some people may regard themselves as Republican/conservative simply because they have adopted, without thinking too much about it, the political positions that are regarded as normal by their family, social circle and so on. Lots of people simply aren’t interested enough in either politics or science to devote a lot of thought to these issues. Typically, such people will hold a range of views that aren’t particularly consistent either internally or with any standard ideological line.

An obvious inference is that, if people could be given better information they would change their views. But, as Mooney shows, and has become steadily more evident thanks to the Internet, better educated and informed Republicans are more likely to hold crazy views consistently and less likely to change them in response to new information.

That leads to Mooney’s primary conclusion, that Republicans/conservatives don’t simply have different beliefs from liberals/Democrats (or, for that matter, leftists), or even different values. They have (bear in mind that this a statement about population averages) different psychological characteristics, summarised as high authoritarianism and low openness to ideas different from their own.

I find this pretty convincing. It seems to me that there is an authoritarian type of personality which, in the specific circumstances of the US right now, and for non-poor whites, produces a predisposition to Republican voting and “conservative” political attitudes. In particular this type of personality is (more) strongly associated with confirmation bias. That is, not only do they ignore evidence contrary to their initial position, they tend to reinforce their commitment as a result. The creation of an alternate universe in which this bias can be repeatedly amplified (Fox News, rightwing think tanks and so on) both reinforces this kind of thinking and encourages self-selection.

I don’t think there is the symmetry here that some of the commenters are suggesting. Looking at the standard examples of nuclear power and GM foods, it seems to me that, on the whole people on the left have been more open to evidence than in the corresponding cases on the right. In the case of nuclear power, it seemed for a while (say, from the mid-90s until a few years ago) as if the safety problems might be soluble at a reasonable cost in which case an expansion of nuclear power would be preferable to more coal-fired power stations. While the evidence pointed that way, opposition to nuclear power was muted. As it turned out, the problems couldn’t be solved, at least not at a reasonable cost, and Fukushima was the last straw.

In the case of GM foods, the evidence has mostly supported the position that the use of GM technology per se doesn’t create significant health risks, and AFAICT that has been fairly widely accepted on the left (Greenpeace is a notable exception, but I don’t think their position is representative of the left as a whole). That doesn’t rule out opposition to GM on ethical or aesthetic grounds, or opposition to the whole structure of the food industry – the whole point is that you can have preferences and beliefs without assuming that the facts will always be those most convenient to you.

Similar points may be made about “alternative” medicine, particularly opposition to vaccination. It’s primarily, though not exclusively (consider Michelle Bachmann), associated with liberals and leftists in the same way as creationism is primarily, though not exclusively, associated with evangelical conservatives. But, faced with scientific criticism, there hasn’t been anything like the political pushback and doubling down we’ve seen with creationism. The Huffington Post, which was a big outlet for anti-vaxers has started publishing one of their most vigorous critics, Seth Mnookin.

This brings us finally to the question that set off all the fireworks in the original post. To what extent are authoritarian personalities the product of environment, genes or some combination of the two. Again, it’s worth pointing out that, even if there is a genetic role in personality, there’s no such thing as a genetic predisposition to be a conservative/Republican. The content of these terms isn’t fixed, and the implications are very different depending on social circumstances. To take the most obvious case from comments: Republican policies and rhetoric appeal strongly to (US) white tribal/ethnic loyalty. So, US whites who respond well to in-group appeals are likely to vote Republican and call themselves conservatives. US blacks with similar predispositions obviously won’t vote Republican and are unlikely to call themselves conservatives.

To take another example from Mooney’s book, authoritarian attitudes in the US are typically associated with support for free-market/pro-business economic policies and virulent hostility to “socialism”. By contrast, in the former Soviet Bloc, the same attitudes are associated with support for the old order and positive feelings about “socialism” (I’m using the scare quotes to indicate that, in both cases, the term is something of a blank canvas, onto which all sorts of things can be projected). And indeed, in this context, the term “conservative” is commonly applied to hardline members of the surviving Communist parties.

Following up on a comment, this way of looking at things has a lot of similarities with Corey Robin, and The Reactionary Mind. The difference between Robin’s choice of Mind and Mooney’s choice of Brain is significant. As I argued when I looked at his book, I think Robin doesn’t take enough account of personality/temperament. While most soi-disant “conservatives” are authoritarian reactionaries, there is a genuinely conservative temperament which will tend to align with political conservatism in periods when the general tendency of politics is towards the left.

So, does the genetic part of the story matter. As (I think) Andrew Gelman has observed, in this context and many others, it’s just code for things we can’t change. As long as authoritarian personalities are stable over the adult lifetime of those concerned, it doesn’t matter much whether they are determined by genes, by toilet training (as in the caricature version of Freudian psychology I learned in my youth) or by some much more complex process. That said, I think the evidence that heredity (and therefore genes) plays at least some role in the determination of personality is pretty convincing.

The political implication, which has drawn some flak in the comments, but which I think is correct is that there is no point in political engagement with authoritarian conservatives. In a political environment where they are concentrated in one party,politics is going to be a matter the only strategy open to liberals is to outnumber and outvote them by peeling off as many peripheral groups (for example, those who deviate from the approved cultural identity in some way) as possible. Obviously, that’s an unpalatable conclusion in all sorts of ways, but I think it’s a valid one.