Let’s Just Say It: When It Comes to Science, The Right is the Problem

This weekend in The Washington Post, two deans of the Washington establishment, the Brookings Institution’s Thomas Mann and the American Enterprise Institute’s Norman Ornstein, finally stated what has been increasingly obvious: The problem with U.S. politics is coming from the right, not from “both sides.” In their piece, provocatively titled “Let’s Just Say It: The Republicans Are The Problem,” they note that Republicans and conservatives have become extreme and unwilling to compromise. And as they stress, this is not something the Democrats or liberals are “just as bad” at.

Hence, the whole approach of the mainstream or centrist media is myopic or, worse, complicit. “A balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon distorts reality,” write Mann and Ornstein.

Mann and Ornstein make allusion in their piece to the fact that conservatives have simultaneously become extremely anti science (witness climate change) and anti empirical. And indeed, when it comes to eschewing phony media balance, well, that’s something we science journalists have been recommending for a decade. In this, we’ve been way, way ahead of the game. We’ve had to be.

Mann’s and Ornstein’s piece is very important and a breath of fresh air; yet in truth, their approach is probably still too centrist. The problem is that their analysis is purely sociological and historical in nature—in some cases blaming Republican extremism on the actions of a few individuals, like Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist–rather than psychological.

Consider, for instance, some important new data (pictured here, click link to enlarge), cited by Mann and Ornstein, showing that House and Senate Republicans have become much more ideological over the past 30 years, whereas Democrats and liberals have not. That’s true and revealing, but why is it occurring?

Nowhere in Mann’s and Ornstein’s article (though perhaps it is in their new book) does one find a discussion of the phenomenon of psychological authoritarianism. According to an extremely important 2009 book by political scientists Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler—Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics—the chief reason for what Mann and Orenstein are lamenting lies in this psychological phenomenon.

As I explain in The Republican Brain (which cites Hetherington and Weiler), authoritarianism means seeing the world in black and white. It means refusing to compromise. It means being intolerant of ambiguity and uncertainty, and needing order and structure.

Authoritarians tend towards right wing politics and fundamentalist religion. They tend toward belief affirmation and ideological rigidity, rather than exploring new ideas or considering that other sides might have valid perspectives. For authoritarians, there is only one way of doing things, one right way—and one’s opponents are weak and absolutely wrong.

A wealth of social science data, presented in Hetherington and Weiler’s book, suggest that in the U.S., the Republican Party and the conservative movement have become increasingly authoritarian. So this is what Mann and Ornstein are really writing about, though they don’t acknowledge it.

Furthermore, this explains the growing gulf between the Republican Party and the “reality based community.”

Authoritarian styles of thinking are deeply inimical to scientific reasoning—one might even call the two cognitive styles natural enemies—which is why we now see so much denial of science and reality on the right. If you believe you’re absolutely right, and your opponents are absolutely wrong, then of course you’re willing to dismiss a large body of evidence against you as a conspiracy–as we now see in the climate change arena.

So give Mann and Ornstein about three stars out of four. Finally, centrist Washington observers are starting to acknowledge what is really going on out there. But they haven’t opened their minds yet to the full ramifications of their observation.

It is very likely that authoritarianism reflects a part of human nature that exists across countries and across time. It takes different forms in different contexts, and can be activated, or suppressed, by particular circumstances. But in no case is it what you might call a friend to science–which fundamentally requires the toleration of different viewpoints along a bumpy road towards more accurate understanding, and a better society.


Why does the author think conservatives are “authoritarian?” 

We conservatives want smaller government and more freedom. The left wants bigger governemtn and more regualtions. And the ultimate leftist government is communisim where you have a ruling class party in heavy control of the population. Why isn’t that form of government considered “authoritarian?”

Regarding our distrust of climate science, those scientists have only themselves to blame. 


So, yup. Republicans are Authoritarian. And Nope. The Left is not.  (Has anyone else noticed how focused conservatives are with what goes on in other people’s beds?  They are like uber peeping toms or something.)

I’m not sure why you’re attacking climate scientists, but here’s James Hansen’s TED talk about Climate Change;


Note the zero government republican economist approved solution to climate change.

“Why does the author think conservatives are “authoritarian?”“

Well, at least you didn’t come out with the ol favourite misnomer of the right, that the Nazi’s were Socialists.

“We conservatives want smaller government and more freedom.”

This is another myth from the right and the right use this effectively as dog whistle politics, while never actually reducing the size of government. They just say they want to, but never do so. The left have no problem with smaller government. But most are realists and realise that the private sector simply can’t and shouldn’t do certain things. They realise that for life to function with some sort of fairness and equality, plus provide us with the things the private sector can’t or wont do well, that government needs to step in. E.g Police, Ambulance, Fire, Military, Judges, Roads, parks etc. The private sector wont build a national highway because they would want to charge for doing so. There is no profit in it, but it’s something we need. Police need different roles, divisons, administration, heirarchy and it needs to happen nationwide. Pretty soon, in just that one public service, you already have big government. So you can see it’s entirely unnavoidable.

And freedom?!………..why wouldn’t anyone want freedom? Definitions of freedom are different though. I gather we both assume I should not have the freedom to shoot you if I feel like it? Regulations and laws are only in place because something went wrong at some point in time. They are there for the greater good, but for some, they feel restrictive.

“The left wants bigger government and more regulations”

Should we remove all regulations on banks? Here in Australia, the banks are very heavily regulated with what they can and can’t do with our money. The USA isn’t. You only have to see the result of the GFC to see why less regulation is not a good thing. The conservatives in Iceland sent their country bankrupt by taking such liberties and trust.

Should we remove regulations that permit companies to dump effluent into our dams or rivers? What about regulations that stop your neighbor dumping his rubbish in your yard? Or regulations on water quality or food inspections? I don’t think you take into account how much regulation protects the way of life you enjoy.

“Regarding our distrust of climate science, those scientists have only themselves to blame.”

There is not a single lobbyist, PR group or company that would have any interest in misrepresenting them, taking their words out of context or misconstruing facts? Just maybe?


An interesting line of enquiry Chris but the article doesn’t seem to quite answer the question it poses as to why the GOP has become anti-science in recent times.  They have always been reactionary but not always anti-science. 

I believe that two things have caused the change.  First, the fossil fuel industry realised that concerted action to counter climate change would mean that trillions in potential profits for them would be left in the ground.  Hence their funding of politicians who were their natural allies and their well documented (thanks to this website et al.) campaign of denial.  This was facilitated by media which readily abandoned all pretence of journalistic ethics to become propagandists for them.

Second,  in the 80s, the GOP decided to exploit the intensely religious masses in middle America who were hitherto relatively apolitical.  Through people like Jerry Falwell and his moral majority, they eventually succeeded in getting these people into the GOP tent.

From what they have just seen in the rise of the Tea Party and the surreal primaries, the old GOP may well be wishing now that they hadn’t been so successful. Not only did they grasp a tiger by the tail but they seem to be in the process of being consumed by it.  On the one hand, for ordinary people who have so much faith and a mistrust of science engendered by the evolution debates, climate denial propaganda merely confirms their prejudices.  So far so good, but on the other hand, what the GOP apparently didn’t realise was that the religious masses who they had seduced would expect them to be the standard bearer of their religious beliefs.  The old GOP probably would have preferred that Obama had not been gifted with contraception as an election issue.

These two factors would appear to mean that, for the foreseeable future, Republican presidential candidates will have an anti-science stance and be committed to limiting action on global warming, i.e. maintaining fossil fuel company profits, whatever the cost to humanity.  Whether they are electable is another matter.


Fortunately, the average American is not particularly ideological.  Instead, John Doe and Sally Roe are well furnished with a quality that Walter Bagehot believed the English speaking peoples to possess in unrivalled abundance:  ”Political stupidity”.  By this, Bagehot meant an incapacity for or aversion from abstract political thought, and a strong preference for ad hoc, let’s-see-if-this-approach-works solutions.  He thought that political stupidity was one of the main guardians of the civil freedoms of the British and American people.

The late Eric Sevareid advised journalists “never to under-estimate the intelligence of the American people, and never to over-estimate their information.”  Not bad advice for climate scientists to keep in mind as they try to explain the basic facts about climate science to a moderately interested but uninformed public.


“Fortunately, the average American is not particularly ideological.”

Wow, I didn’t realise American voter turnout was so low until I just looked it up….48%?!


48% of people decided what the whole should do? When you break that down into political factions, the winner is usally by only 51%, so that means it is either only about 25% of the population deciding what is best for all. Yikes.

We get fined if we dont vote over here, but still, voter turn out is 81%. That feels a little more representative of the whole, but it still doesn’t seem to change much. Iceland had a voter turnout of 89% and look what happened to them. It’s good to have everyone involved, but it’s no real safeguard to getting good results or representation it seems.

I think voters intrinsically know, that the political hustings and campaigning come election time is aimed at the voter. Promises promises promises. But once elected, politicians turn their attention to first scratching the back of whoever funded them or helped them out. While, setting their sights on weakening the people that fund their opponent.

Maybe thats why conservatives in the USA, Canada and Australia feel AGW is a hoax and it is all political? Because onthe surface, it would appear that progresives are directly attacking the profitability of the companies that contribute large funding to the conservatives, the fossil fuel companies.

The only problem with that theory is, a) science worldwide discovered the AGW findings and recommended action to both conservatives and progressives alike. b) Many conservative funded scientists have come to the same consclusion. c) Conservative led countries around the world are adopting CO2 mitigating policies and are gearing towards a cleantech economy.


“Watch this;


Hey, good doco, hadn’t seen it.

It’s funny how often I hear “we need small government” parroted by conservatives and they never stop to ask whether it has actually been achieved by the politicians who told them they would pursue small government. Or how much regulation was cut by conservative governments. They seem to get conned every time.

Here is Australia, there was lots of opposition to fracking by conservatives. I never put two and two together until after the recent election where conservatives won in the state of Queensland. The conservatives have now gone silent on fracking in Queensland. I hadn’t even noticed until afterwards that there was no opposition to fracking in conservative states, just progressive states. Now its a case of oh well. I asked a conservative friend of mine who was all about “we have to stop the fracking in Queensland!”. But after the conservatives had won, he is now saying ” Oh well, you can’t do much about it and its good for the economy”. Wtf?!

Or conservatives on minimum wage yelling and screaming that we need to protect the wealth of billionaires and remove as many benefits for themselves as possible. 


You’re describing what I consider standard politics, conservative or otherwise.

I was in fact hoping that that was all we were in for in Canada.  However you’ll find that Canada has had the same polster defining Canadian policies as well as American policies. 

Frank Luntz;



He’s also credited for having the republicans rename Global Warming to Climate Change.


I’d watch out for the import of divisive conservative politics. Its nasty stuff and they don’t work well with others.