The Republican Brain: A Review


In his new book The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science and Reality, Chris Mooney purports to demonstrate scientifically what liberals have long suspected.  There is something seriously wrong with conservatives.  Their mental deficits as itemized by Mooney include such personality traits as a lack of openness to new experience, an inability to engage in nuanced, connected thought, intolerance of uncertainty, and fear of threat.  On the other hand, liberals are much more open to new experience, are capable of and in fact enjoy nuanced thought, are tolerant of ambiguity (since that’s the way the world does work), and less fearful, especially of the dreaded “Other.”  Much of this is no doubt true, as Mooney’s many examples show.  The conservative fear or at least deep dislike of change is verified by one John Boehner, who not too long ago complained that the Democrats are “snuffing out the America I grew up in.”  And the conservative denials of global warming, evolution, and other basic science strongly indicate a deep-seated resistance to new ideas that threaten their core beliefs and/or their way of life.  For example, people tend to deny global warming, and more specifically that human activity such as burning fossil fuels is a prime cause of climate change, because to accept global warming means that we will have to consume less, drive our cars and trucks less, use less electricity, and rein in the oil and coal industries.  Conservatives correctly recognize that all these measures, and others, would mean a drastic change in our economy and lifestyles.  Thus, it is better to deny that the earth is getting warmer than to face the prospect of such revolutionary change.

Liberals, on the other hand, accept the science of climate change and support legislative and regulatory measures to control carbon emissions and to prevent further demolishing of the rain forests.  Or at least we do in theory.  That a significant number of us are actually making the necessary radical changes in our own lives may be doubtful.  Are Democrats en masse turning off unnecessary lights, eschewing air conditioning except on the hottest days, driving less, or flying less frequently to all those experiential destinations we so love?  Well, sure, so and so drives a Prius, but all that does is move the burning of fossil fuel off site, so to speak, to the power plant outside town rather than to the engine in one’s own vehicle.  We also accept evolution even though most of us probably have a very naïve idea of how it actually works; mostly, perhaps, we accept it because it is not accepted by the extreme conservative right wing, especially the fundamentalists, whom we delight in satirizing.

Although Mooney marshals a great deal of apparently scientific evidence, including from neuroscience, to support his thesis, his characterizations of conservatives and liberals suffer from a problem of loaded words.  Take for example what appears to be one of his key personality traits, one that he seems to especially love, openness to new experience.  It does sound like a good thing—no one would want to admit to being its opposite, closed minded; I’m sure even conservatives would rather identify as open rather than closed minded, as the latter is clearly a negative trait.  But what if we change the label?  What if we call this personality trait “fickleness” or “failure to make up one’s mind”?  Then it wouldn’t sound so positive, would it?

And I’m not being facetious here.  “Open to new experience” is a value statement, not a factual one.  Do such people flit from one thing to the next, from yesterday’s fad to tomorrow’s, merely for the sake of change?  Do such people suffer from an attention deficit disorder of some kind?  Do they give up (on spouses, jobs, location, etc.) when things aren’t going their way, rather than sticking it out and working to improve the situation?  Here’s another question:  To what degree is being open to new experience a necessary trait for the good consumer?  Is it not true that the ideal capitalist-consumer is one who readily discards this year’s fad or fashion for next year’s?  Judging from the so-called experts called in to the popular talk shows to encourage us to make ourselves over, one would have to think so.  Among the first buyers of the latest electronic fad, what percentage would identify themselves as liberals?  I would like to see some sociologists study questions like that.  Or to inventory the consumer products found in the homes of liberals and conservatives.  Which group would have the latest products in the greatest number?  Maybe it would be an interesting study to compare the spending patterns of liberals and conservatives.  Frankly, I think we might learn far more fascinating things about both groups from such a study than we do from Mooney’s very partisan book.  We would get a picture of real world attitudes and decision making from such studies, rather than the canned results of snapshot self-reporting surveys and brain scans.  For people are far more what they do than what they say (the latter being prone to self-serving).

Despite these serious caveats, Mooney’s book does identify traits that appear to be characteristic of the right wing conservatives in today’s American politics.  Their resistance to facts, their ability to create an alternative reality, their extreme commitment to their ideology come what may, all point to a recklessness that bodes ill for our country’s future.  Contra Goldwater, extremism is always a vice, for extremists have radical goals and are all too willing to use radical means to achieve those goals.  When a political party gets to the point of consciously and deliberately refusing to compromise on any issue, it poses a threat to the entire country.

This grim fact raises the question of what to do about it.  Mooney wisely notes that responding to conservatives’ refusal to accept facts simply by swamping them with more facts has not and will not work.  Instead, he says we must construct a more compelling narrative, one that appeals to the emotions even more than it appeals to the mind.  I would add that such a narrative would have to reach the deepest concerns of conservatives.  If it is true, as the Boehner quotation cited above suggests, that conservatives are deeply concerned about the rapid changes in American society since the 1950’s, we as liberals will have to make the effort to understand what it is that they miss and to communicate why the changes that are so obvious in America are not threatening and may in fact be in America’s interests.  Just as one possible example, if it is true that back in the day, the husband was the breadwinner and the wife was the stay-at-home mom and domestic manager  (see Stephanie Coontz’s The Way We Never Were for an alternative narrative), are there other than ideological or self-serving reasons for saying that today’s two-worker families are a good thing?  Can it be argued that, because so much domestic labor is now performed by industry, women better serve the economy and the country by pursuing careers?  Isn’t it true that even among Republicans, women are making important public contributions to both the economy and the party (e.g., Sarah Palin, Jan Brewer, Michelle Bachman, et al.)?  And look at all the women on “The 700 Club”!  It seems to me that, at least to some extent, the concerns of conservatives have some legitimacy, at least on the subjective level, although I think that concerns about the federal deficit are not misplaced nor merely emotional.

Unfortunately, it may be too late for such an approach to work.  There is something deeply visceral about the radical right’s hatred of Barack Obama, something that may not be amenable to sweet reason no matter how it’s packaged.  At least in this election year, the only workable strategy may be to fund the Democrats as much as possible, get out the vote (no sitting at home and chanting “a pox on both their houses”) and guaranteeing Obama’s re-election and that the Democrats keep the Senate and reclaim the House.  Save the touchy-feely stuff for later.

 

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