The Collected Thoughts and Musings of an Aspiring Political Philosopher

Sunday, August 16, 2009

(Most) Conservatives Aren't Crazy, They're Just Misunderstood

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Today's op-ed by Rick Perlstein in the Washington Post really did a wonderful job of expressing the wide chasm between liberals and conservatives. He brings an excellent historical perspective to the whole liberal-conservative argument, and especially to the rage and outcry from the right which seems to liberals to be unhinged craziness. It leaves liberals flabbergasted, unable to respond to the raw emotions and apparently irrational arguments, because liberals and conservatives actually see the world very, very differently.

I'm no psychologist, but I've done a lot of study of this seemingly impassable divide in the way liberals and conservatives think. I wrote a blog post a couple of days ago that tried to explore this divide, and I think I illustrated some good points, but I also think I let myself get caught up in the name-calling a bit there as well; I fell into the trap that so many liberals do, in believing that conservative thinking is simply irrational. True, it seems irrational on the face of it to angrily argue to keep government out of people's lives because it can't do anything right, while at the same time driving on the roads, using the electricity, relying on the fire department, or drinking the clean water that government provides quite efficiently. My post focused on how liberals and conservatives view taxation, and what that money actually does, but I believe there is much more to it than I covered there.

My own view is that liberals by and large have a natural tendency to see the "grey areas", to purposely try to grasp the "big picture", and to seek out alternate perspectives to help them think things through. They are libertarian in the sense that they prefer to make up their own minds, distrust authority, and like to look at all the facts before choosing a particular viewpoint on an issue. Though liberals as much as anyone tend to disregard information that doesn't fit their preconceived belief system, they tend to be more willing to accept a reasonable argument and are much more likely to change their views when the facts go against their preconceived belief systems. In extreme cases, some liberals will be so entrenched in their "grey areas", however, that they will view any attempt to nail something down to a right-wrong, yes-no answer as suspect and authoritarian (ie. people who insist that anyone who practices any form of organized religion are dupes and tools of the power-elite).

Conservatives, on the other hand, tend to be more accepting of authoritarian thinking, in the sense that they prefer to have issues boiled down to yes-no, good-bad siimplicity. While still claiming to be making up their own minds, in fact they are more likely to discard provable facts that disagree with their existing belief system. They dislike "grey areas", seeing people who are more comfortable with ambiguity or who change their minds on review of new information as "flip-floppers". To a conservative, issues are not subject to interpretation or ambiguity; it is either right, or it is wrong. It takes an enormous preponderance of evidence to the contrary to alter this kind of mindset; in extreme cases, even when handed proof-positive, unassailable evidence, some conservatives will prefer their own worldview (ie. people who dismiss the fossil evidence and have to come up with incredibly creative ways to twist the laws of physics to explain their belief that the earth is only 6,000 years old).

Conservatives sound alarm at these kinds of comparisons, claiming that liberals are insulting their intelligence, and are being snobbish and elitist to dare suggest that conservatives are less than open-minded. But this isn't snobbish or elitist; there is no aspersion against their basic intelligence. Conservatives and liberals share the same range of IQ's, and have the same ranges of test scores. And to be perfectly fair, conservatives and liberals are basically equal in the areas of stupidity and ignorance, just as they are in compassion and love of country.

It is basic psychology. This has been shown time and again through study after study: liberals and conservatives have very different "wiring", and see the world very differently. There are actually neurological and biochemical differences in the brains of conservatives and liberals, which theorists believe are brought about by a combination of genetics and environment. All humans share some aspects of both conservative and liberal thinking in varying degrees; when a person holds very strong opinions about this or that issue, it is because they have a mentality that is much more predisposed towards one side or another.

Those who have no particular leaning either way ("moderates") tend to have a more equal balance between the liberal and conservative psychologies; those who lean one way or the other have a preponderant strength in either conservative or liberal psychology, and less of the other side (much like people who are left-brained vs. right-brained; in fact, conservatives tend towards being left-brain dominant, while liberals tend to be right-brain dominant... a reversal of their political spectrums, but I doubt evolution planned it that way). Thus, things that make perfect sense to a conservative are baffling and infuriating to a liberal, and vice-versa.

For instance, where a conservative may believe that stiff prison sentences will reduce crime, a liberal sees enormous incarceration rates as a waste of taxpayer money and a breeding ground that reinforces criminal behavior. The conservative sees a simple solution: lock them up, keep them away from society; punishment should be enough motivation to prevent crime. The liberal sees the broader issues of rehabilitation as reducing recidivism and working on the root causes of crime (income inequality, educational attainment, and cultural and social factors).

So it comes down to this: how do we communicate with each other?

Liberals who denounce conservatives as stupid or ignorant are not only misguided and hypocritical, they are drastically hurting their cause. Yes, it is true that many people may indeed be ignorant of certain facts or lack certain information that liberals consider "common knowledge". But calling an opponent stupid immediately shuts down any chance for dialogue; entering into dialogue with the viewpoint that the opponent is irrational and crazy because they do not conform to the liberal concept of reality is just as pointless. No, for dialogue to exist, there must be an understanding of how the other person thinks. As painful as it is for both sides, it requires getting into the other side's heads and understanding what drives their interests, fears, desires, hopes, and expectations.

As Rick Perlstein says in his excellent op-ed, this dichotomy is nothing new, and tends to flare up most dramatically when liberals are in charge. This is largely due to the, well, conservatism of conservatives: change is suspicious, reforms are mistrusted, and things that happen rapidly (as they often do when liberals seek to right the wrongs they see in society) offend the very idea of conservatism, which prefers slow, moderate change over time.

Conservatives, seeing liberal efforts to ram their agendas down their throats, cry out and (from a liberal's perspective) actively work to defeat efforts at change that in every regard would probably benefit the opponents just as much as the proponents. This apparently irrational behavior is at the root of liberal frustration with conservatives, and is what often devolves into name-calling. But from a conservative viewpoint, their outcries are perfectly rational; they see rapid change as disruptive and an intrusion into their private lives, as well as possibly unnecessary: sometimes, things fix themselves if you let them be.

Getting into the heads of conservatives does not necessarily have to be painful for liberals. The key is to actively work to drop the assumption that conservatives are acting irrationally. A conservative is anything but irrational: to them, it is the most sensible thing in the world to resist disruptive, revolutionary changes in society, because maintaining stability and a sense of security in society is paramount to our freedom, progress, and long-term growth. Even liberals will have to agree that this outlook has merit; stability is essential to every society, for without it markets could not function, communities would break down, basic infrastructure would collapse, and trust in a better future goes out the window. But liberals moreso than conservatives see that sometimes rapid change and reform must occur in order to set right something that is wrong, and are willing to risk some temporary instability in order to bring about this change.

What then behooves liberals who wish to bring conservatives on board is to limit the scope of the desired changes to minimize the scale of the inevitable instability. Does this mean that liberals must give up some of their grandest ideas? Of course not. But liberals who wish to work with, rather than against, their fellow Americans who happen to be conservatives, must be willing to accept a middle ground, work to achieve their changes through cooperative means, and convince conservatives that the changes are necessary, will not disrupt society inordinately, and is in their best interests as well. If liberals can demonstrate, through incremental changes, that conservatives have nothing to fear and much to gain from these changes, they will be much more willing to work with liberals to achieve them.

Liberals have a real tendency to act like spoiled brats when it comes to their agendas: "We want change, and we want it now!", while conservatives have a real tendency to act like old fogies about their agendas: "These darn kids and their long hair and wild music!" But liberals do not live in a vacuum, and despite holding both the legislative and executive branches of national government and a majority of state and local government offices, we still must learn to work with, and not in spite of, our conservative neighbors.

Make no mistake: conservative politicians will continue trying to use scare tactics and corporate-sponsored talking points in a cynical bid exploit their constituents in order to block liberal political agendas (no matter what they are), and we should consistently speak out against these power-grabbing tactics. And yes, there are actually quite a few (both on the left and the right) who would be considered by the majority of society as irrational and "crazy" enough to believe some of the most outrageous lies, conspiracy theories, and propaganda out there. These are issues that must be acknowledged, and we must all make efforts to reduce the damage caused by the cynics and the crazies on both sides.

But we must also reach out to our own communities, talk to our neighbors, friends and families, and offer them far more credible sources of information than Beck and Hannity, Coulter and Malkin. We must reassure them that liberals are not all wild-eyed crazy hippies who want to turn society on its head or take away their guns and God. We do have common ground in these debates, in healthcare, climate change, and all the rest: for instance, pretty much everyone, conservative or liberal, agrees that medical costs are too high and that having anyone unable to receive medical care based on their ability to pay is simply wrong (whether you think it is 50 million or 8 million). Here, both sides agree that immediate change is needed.

The challenge then is to find those things we agree upon, build on them, discuss ways that substantive change can be achieved, back up our arguments with facts, statistics, and solid evidence, and work to keep the emotionally-charged rhetoric and name-calling out of the discussion. Only then can we either join together to enact a compromise that we all support, or if conservatives will not join us, then at least work to enact changes that will receive the tacit and grudging acceptance of our conservative fellow Americans.

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