Let’s be clear: This is not a claim about intelligence. Nor am I saying that conservatives are somehow worse people than liberals; the groups are just different. Liberals have their own weaknesses grounded in psychology, and conservatives are very aware of this. (Many of the arguments in this book could be inverted and repackaged into a book called The Democratic Brain—with a Spock-like caricature of President Obama on the cover.)
But what about liberals? Aren’t we wrong too, and dogmatic too?
The typical waffling liberal answer is, “er . . . sort of.” Liberals aren’t always right, but that’s not the central problem. Our particular dysfunction is, typically, more complex and even paradoxical.
On the one hand, we’re absolutely outraged by partisan misinformation. Lies about “death panels.” People seriously thinking that President Obama is a Muslim. Climate change denial. Debt ceiling denial. These things drive us crazy, in large part because we can’t comprehend how such intellectual abominations could possibly exist. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a fellow liberal say, “I can’t believe the Republicans are so stupid they can believe X!”
And not only are we enraged by lies and misinformation; we want to refute them—to argue, argue, argue about why we’re right and Republicans are wrong. Indeed, we often act as though right-wing misinformation’s defeat is nigh, if we could only make people wiser and more educated (just like us) and get them the medicine that is correct information.
In this, we both underestimate conservatives, and we fail to understand them.
To begin to remedy that defect, let’s go back to the Conservapedia-relativity dustup, and make an observation that liberals and physicists did not always credit. Whatever else Andrew Schlafly might be—and no matter how hard it is to understand how someone could devote himself to an enterprise like Conservapedia—the man is not stupid. Quite the contrary.
He’s a Harvard law graduate. He has an engineering degree from Princeton, and used to work both for Intel and for Bell Labs. His relativity entry is filled with equations that I myself can neither write nor solve. He hails from a highly intellectual right-wing family—his mother, Phyllis, is also Harvard educated and, according to her biographer, excelled in school at a time when women too rarely had the opportunity to compete with men at that level. Mother and son thus draw a neat, half-century connection between the birth of modern American conservatism on the one hand, and the insistence that conservatives have their own “facts,” better than liberal facts thank you very much, on the other.
So it is not that Schlafly, or other conservatives as sophisticated as he, can’t make an argument. Rather, the problem is that when Schlafly makes an argument, it’s hard to believe it has anything to do with real intellectual give and take. He’s not arguing out of an openness to changing his mind. He’s arguing to reaffirm what he already thinks (his “faith”), to defend the authorities he trusts, and to bolster the beliefs of his compatriots, his tribe, his team.
Liberals (and scientists) have too often tried to dodge the mounting evidence that this is how people work. Perhaps because it leads to a place that terrifies them: an anti-Enlightenment world in which evidence and argument don’t work to change people’s minds.
But that response, too, is a form of denial—liberal denial, a doctrine whose chief delusion is not so much the failure to accept facts, but rather, the failure to understand conservatives. And that denial can’t continue. Because as President Obama’s first term has shown—from the healthcare battle to the debt ceiling crisis—ignoring the psychology of the right has not only left liberals frustrated and angry, but has left the country in a considerably worse state than that.