I was on the road last week, so I couldn’t properly respond to this Daily Caller item, which is really sort of marvelous. Basically, it’s an attempt to use a handful of survey data points to turn the whole Republican Brain line of analysis on its head, and argue that it’s really Republicans who are the open-minded, well informed group in politics today.
Alas, the attempt crashes and burns, because 1) the evidence cited by The Daily Caller is sometimes being misused; and 2) even when it isn’t being misused, the massive body of counter-evidence (e.g., all the evidence presented in my book) is simply ignored and goes unmentioned–thereby presenting a dramatically skewed picture.
More specifically, the Daily Caller piece, by Neil Munro, purports to show that Republicans are “more open minded, better informed than Democrats.” Given the staggering amount of evidence showing the opposite—e.g., Republicans believe a vast amount of misinformation, and show higher need for closure and less openness to experience across studies—this is a pretty bold claim. So let’s go through the alleged evidence presented by Munro.
1. A Pew Survey Showing Republicans Have More Basic Knowledge About Politics Than Democrats.
The first study cited by Munro is here. It’s a recent Pew poll, showing pretty clearly that Republicans, as a group, know more basic facts about U.S. politics than Democrats (as a group).
I’m not going to critique the poll itself; I am sure its results are valid, and I myself rely on Pew surveys like this one all the time. However, in this case, the poll results don’t prove what Munro thinks they do–because of the ever-present “smart idiot” effect on the right, which goes unmentioned by Munro.
It’s one thing to show that Republicans know more basic facts, like which party wants to drill in ANWR, or wants to shrink the size of government. This is simply showing that they are more informed. But that’s very different from examining which party believes more political misinformation—e.g., believing that global warming isn’t real, or that President Obama is a Muslim from Kenya.
Believing right wing political misinformation often correlates with being more informed in general and, indeed, with watching Fox News. So without making the basic distinction between being informed, and being misinformed, Munro’s argument fails. These are two very different things.
And anyway, as Munro himself notes, the likely reason for the Democrats’ lower informational score in the Pew study is the party’s “bipolar political coalition, which combines well-credentialed post-graduate progressives who score well in quizzes with a much larger number of poorly educated supporters, who score badly.”
Most important, Munro nowhere discusses all the data on Republicans’ false factual beliefs—their staggering embrace of politicized misinformation, on issues ranging from climate change to the President’s place of birth. In an article on Republican open-mindedness, Munro ignores the counter-evidence!
2. Do Liberals Block People Who Disagree With Them More? And Why Do They Do So?
Munro then goes on to another Pew survey, which found that liberals were more likely than conservatives or moderates to block, un-friend, or hide someone on social media for reasons relating to politics. The justifications given for doing so were many and varied, but included too much political posting, political posts or comments that were considered offensive, and political disagreement and argument.
Now, this survey may be really detecting something closed-minded about liberals. But it also may be detecting something about how conservatives, versus liberals, present their views through social media.
It may be that conservatives are posting a lot of things that liberals find offensive, and getting un-friended, but liberals aren’t posting as many things that conservatives find offensive. I don’t really know if that’s what’s going on here. But I do know—and this will be discussed further soon—that conservatives have very different moral emotions than liberals. In liberals, egalitarian emotions are absolutely paramount. So posts being perceived as sexist, racially insensitive, anti-gay, etc, would be very likely to trigger very strong liberal responses, including blocking, banning, etc.
Do these data really show liberals being closed-minded, then? As someone who receives hectoring conservative comments all the time that are beyond the pale, and often has to moderate them because they debase the discussion, I’m skeptical. But I do agree that this is intriguing and deserves further exploration.
Even if the data do show what they purport to, though, the Daily Caller’s argument can’t be taken seriously. That’s because (once again) it ignores the vast body of directly relevant evidence showing left-right differences in “integrative complexity,” discussed in my book. On average, liberals and moderates tend to perceive issues as complicated and having different sides to them, and to integrate these perspectives to move towards a more nuanced position. Conservatives, in contrast, tend to see things more in black and white. (Although this effect may also occur on the extreme left.) So to argue that it is liberals who don’t see or understand opposite perspectives is pretty myopic, especially without citing the relevant evidence more broadly.
3. A Gas Prices Flip Flop?
Next up comes some interesting data showing that Democrats, more than Republicans, flip-flopped on whether the president had the power to affect gas prices from 2006 (when Bush was president) to 2012 (when Obama was president). In other words, they were more hypocritical in this particular instance.
Once again, this isn’t bad evidence on its face. Indeed, the data seem to be showing a classic motivated reasoning effect, where political party affiliation—tribalism, basically–is skewing political reasoning on both sides of the aisle. Both Democrats and Republicans show a flip flop in terms of believing whether the president can affect gas prices, based on whether it’s a president they support or a president they oppose. But the Democrats’ flip-flop is clearly larger.
Now, I am not sure why Republicans seem more intellectually consistent on this issue, but it’s important to note that there’s a huge cofounding factor here. Republicans generally don’t want government interference in markets; Democrats generally do. So if Republicans shifted their views less in this instance, this might be reflecting something inherent about their philosophy.
In any event, I am not surprised to find there are some issues where you can get more liberal bias than conservative bias in a motivated reasoning type of analysis. I discuss some other case studies of liberal bias exceeding conservative bias in my book. To get such an effect, you merely have to know how to push liberal buttons; typically, issues involving race and equality work the best for doing so. Maybe gas prices do too (though I’m not sure, on an emotional level, why that would be the case).
But in any case, the Daily Caller’s broader point once again misleads, for reasons of cherry picking. (Are we detecting a common theme here?) The gas prices evidence notwithstanding, there are a wealth of studies showing the opposite effect—conservatives doubling down on false beliefs more strongly than Democrats, growing more factually wrong with more education (the “smart idiot” effect), and so on. None of this is mentioned by the Daily Caller. For this research, please see The Republican Brain.
4. Do Republicans Understand Democrats Better Than Democrats Understand Republicans?
The last piece of evidence cited by the Daily Caller is based on Jonathan Haidt’s new book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided By Politics and Religion. I’ve read the book, and interviewed Haidt on my podcast. Basically, the book contains bad news for conservatives and liberals alike—but somehow, the Daily Caller has only found the evidence that makes conservatives look good!
Haidt’s book is about the moral differences between liberals and conservatives. This is only one way in which the groups differ, but it’s a very important one. And the punchline is that of the six moral intuitions studied by Haidt, conservatives respond to all of them, whereas liberals largely respond to concerns about equality, fairness, and freedom (but downplay respect for authority, loyalty to the group, and a sense of purity).
This is the basis for Haidt’s finding that (as the Daily Caller puts it) “conservatives better understand the ideas of liberals than vice versa.” Haidt himself describes the result in question here.
Once you get inside of Haidt’s argument, you realize that it isn’t actually that conservatives “understand” liberals better, on an intellectual level, than liberals understand conservatives. Rather, it’s that liberals cannot really relate to several conservative moral intuitions or emotions, such as their respect for authority and their sense of disgust. Whereas conservatives do feel liberal emotions, like a sense of equality and a sense of fairness. It’s just that they feel other emotions too. Therefore, liberals have a more limited moral palette; feeling politics from the conservative point of view is extraordinarily difficult for them.
There is certainly nothing wrong with this research; the problem is the Daily Caller’s attempt to interpret it as signaling that conservatives are “more open-minded, more empathetic” than liberals. Haidt actually says that conservatives show somewhat less empathy, overall. And of course, he endorses and supports the vast body of evidence, centrally discussed in The Republican Brain, showing that liberals are more open to experience and new ideas and information. As Haidt writes:
Liberals score higher on measures of neophilia (also known as “openness to experience”), not just for new foods but also for new people, music, and ideas. Conservatives are higher on neophobia; they prefer to stick with what’s tried and true, and they care a lot more about guarding borders, boundaries, and traditions. (p. 148)
Clearly, the Daily Caller is being very selective about what Haidt’s research actually means. Indeed, Haidt’s book contains some extremely bad news for conservatives when it comes to the matter of tribalism. This part is really scorching, if read closely. Let me quote:
The hatred of oppression is found on both sides of the political spectrum. The difference seems to be that for liberals—who are more universalistic and who rely more heavily upon the Care/harm foundation—the Liberty/oppression foundation is employed in the service of underdogs, victims, and powerless groups everywhere. It leads liberals (but not others) to sacralize equality, which is then pursued by fighting for civil rights and human rights. Liberals sometimes go beyond equality of rights to pursue equality of outcomes, which cannot be obtained in a capitalist system. This may be why the left usually favors higher taxes on the rich, high levels of services provided to the poor, and sometimes a guaranteed minimum income for everyone.
Conservatives, in contrast, are more parochial—concerned about their groups, rather than all of humanity. (p. 174-175)
Yup. According to Haidt, conservatives are “parochial” and, basically, tribal. They embrace an “in-group” morality, one that is less concerned about humanity as a whole.
These four critiques should suffice to show that the Daily Caller’s attempt to demonstrate conservative “open-mindedness” falls rather glaringly short. And I don’t think I have to do much more to underscore the deep irony here: If conservatives are so open-minded, then where is the Daily Caller’s discussion of all the relevant counter-evidence?
(Image source: Washington Post).