Gerald R. Ford Leadership Forum

Why Liberal or Conservative

by Jeff Polet

I had at colleague at Hope College who was extremely liberal. I liked him very much, and we bonded early over our mutual love of classical music and opera — sort of the Scalia and Ginsburg of the college. Because we had developed a friendship with each other we also developed a capacity to talk across our political differences. I think I’m not telling tales out of school when I say I often found his positions predictable and he found mine unusual, if not on occasion surprising. The point of this story, however, is that one day he came by my office to talk about some political event, on which I gave my opinion, and he responded by expressing surprise and some dismay at my response. “I don’t know what to make of you,” I recall him saying, “I never thought I would meet a smart conservative.” (This story tells you a lot of what you need to know about college campuses.)

I’ll leave it to the reader to judge the accuracy of the “smart” caption, but there was no mistaking the pointed condemnation of conservatism, even if the term has become largely unrecognizable to me, given what’s passing for conservatism in America today. Ever since John Stuart Mill identified the conservatives as “the stupid party,” we’ve had to deal with that presumptive judgement. Lionel Trilling, in his well-regarded The Liberal Imagination, dismissed conservative thinking as little more than a set of “irritable mental gestures.” I think that’s harsh, but also clever and funny.

When Michigan’s Russell Kirk published The Conservative Mind in 1953 some snarkier critics couldn’t help but wonder if the title was an oxymoron. Kirk’s case was persuasive but not convincing, and conservatives have long had to deal with the supposition that they are rubes in comparison with their better-educated (and more enlightened) peers.

Recently, however, as the culture wars have heated up, and as conservatives have made some institutional inroads (say what they want, but no one can in good faith accuse Scalia or Roberts or Coney-Barrett of being stupid), social scientists have begun to reevaluate the basic cognitive impulses of conservatives and liberals. These assessments, however, typically operate from the fundamental premise of modern psychology: that human cognition and behavior mainly results from bio-chemical processes. They treat “mind” and “brain” as if it is the same thing. One understands the impulse behind embracing the model: it lets people off the hook. It also allows for behavior modification through medications.

Nonetheless, there have been some useful comparisons concerning the “natural tendencies” that might make a person liberal or conservative. Most famously, Jonathan Haidt argued in his book The Righteous Mind that while conservatives and liberals are both moral actors, they are operating off different “moral foundations.” As importantly, he argues that there are no criteria we could possibly employ to determine that one set of foundations is superior to the other. In any case, his book is in part an effort to pacify the culture wars by getting people to be more “empathetic”.

I recently ran across this newsletter by one Richard Hanania, and even though his presentation is much shorter than Haidt’s, I found it more compelling. He begins with a simple enough question: what makes liberals and conservatives different from one another? What he says next is, I think, empirically correct:

There are many ways to approach this question. One can discuss psychological predispositions, demographics, education, professional background, or a hundred other things. Political psychology interested in the question has fallen into two camps: narratives that flatter the left and insult the right, and those that work in the lab but don’t explain all that much in real life.

So if nature is not the answer, what is? Hanania offers a provocative thesis: “liberals live in a world dominated by the written word, while conservatism is something of a pre-literate culture.“ In some ways this would track prior comments that, especially in institutions dominated by literacy, conservatives would necessarily appear to be “stupid.” But does the evidence support the claim?

Hanania begins presenting evidence by looking at preferred means of consuming the news, with Democrats more likely to use print (or print-like) sources. I find this piece of evidence not very convincing in part because the print media have demonstrated a demonstrable bias. Why pay to be insulted? Sadly, the response has been to embrace bias in the opposite direction. He also offers this important caveat: “The arguments are mostly about the dominant forces among the politicized members of the public, not a way to think about everyone on one side or the other.”

Perhaps the more important distinction Hanania makes is that liberals tend to be “ideological” while conservatives tend to be “tribal.” Again, I don’t think the case is overwhelming, but I think it is suggestive enough to warrant reflection. “When we talk about a Democrat potentially getting primaried, it’s usually over their positions. Republicans, meanwhile, have been purging people for insufficient loyalty to Trump, not over any ideological principles.” All this stems from the fact, according to Hanania, that the right “is excited by personalities and bored by ideas.”

The essay certainly has some suspect arguments and questionable evidence; still, I find this, in particular, to be compelling, especially point 3:

  1. Liberal activists and the media start taking some far off position on a social issue (defund the police, trans rights, gay marriage).
  2. It makes elected Democrats uncomfortable, as Republicans gain some electoral advantage.
  3. No matter what happens electorally, bureaucrats, courts, HR staff, and other members of the managerial class make sure that the left-wing position wins.
  4. Public opinion moves left and accommodates the new reality. Democrats go all in on the new consensus.
  5. Conservatives rhetorically accept all the moral assumptions of the new position, sometimes arguing it was their idea all along, while in practice fighting its more stringent applications.
  6. Republicans start talking about opposing the next step liberals are taking, as the cycle starts over again.

To the author’s credit, there is plenty in the essay to offend everyone, even if not every judgement is fair. I’m not even convinced his explanation is the best one available for why some people are conservatives and some liberals, although I’m friendlier to this “nurture” explanation than I am to Haidt’s “nature” one. And, of course, there is the important question of what difference it makes if we know where ideas come from, unless we desire to preemptively correct “false” ones. That would be a dangerous path to tread.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why would it be the case that people who get their news from TV as opposed to print media tend to be more extreme and more tribal in their views?
  2. Do you buy the description that liberals are more interested in ideas and conservatives less so, but more interested in loyalty? Why, or why not?
  3. Independent of whether his central thesis is true of particular rank-and-file members of both movements, does it help explain the behavior of “elites” in both movements?

Sign up to receive new content from the Ford Forum.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: