It’s becoming an academic fad to study the culture, psychology and neurology of the most mysterious animal of all: The Republican. Since there are hardly any Republicans teaching psychology or brain science in American universities, the curiosity is understandable. Who are these people who think so differently than we do, they seem to ask, and why are they so wrong?
In one recent paper, researchers from three schools (University of Nebraska, University of California, Merced and University of Arizona) published the results of an experiment to see how voters would respond to Republican and Democratic candidates with non-stereotypical policy positions. What the results suggest is that Republicans may find it easier (than Democrats do) to disagree with their party.
The researchers asked the participants to identify themselves on the political spectrum from “very liberal” to “very conservative.” The participants were then hooked to functional MRI machines to monitor brain activity. All wired up, they were presented with four fictional political candidates (two Republicans and two Democrats) and a series of policy positions for each candidate. The participants were instructed to quickly respond to each of these policy positions as either “good” or “bad,” and the researchers timed how long it took them to respond.
About one third of the policy positions taken by these fictional candidates were non-stereotypical for their party affiliation. For example, a Republican candidate might say he does not support the death penalty or a Democrat might say he doesn’t support limitations on gun ownership. The researchers were most interested in how the participants would respond to these non-stereotypical positions. Would they say they were bad? How long would it take them to respond? And how much cognitive conflict would they have to go through before responding? The results were surprising.
The more conservative the participant, the less difference there was in the response time between agreeing and disagreeing with stereotypically of a candidate of their own party. In other words, conservatives were less reflexive in their agreement with Republican candidates in general, and they had less trouble disagreeing with them when those candidates crossed the party line. But, you may ask, doesn’t that just show that Republicans are doctrinaire and hold their candidates to the party platform?
That would be a reasonable conclusion except that conservatives were also quicker to agree with non-stereotypical positions from candidates of their own party. In fact, conservatives were even quicker (than liberals in a similar position) to agree with the stereotypical positions of Democratic candidates, such as legalizing prostitution or restricting the death penalty. This all suggests that the conservatives in the study experienced less internal conflict than liberals when straying from the party line.
The results seem to have baffled the researchers because political psychologists have concluded in recent years that political conservatives are less openminded that liberals. So, how could they be acting so independently?
I think the researchers of this study are conflating two distinct attributes: closedmindedness and clannishness. They seem to assume that people who are less openminded should be more likely to either (1) adhere to the party line or (2) demonstrate more reflexive agreement with candidates of their own party. But why? Isn’t it just as likely that the lauded open-mindedness of liberals makes them more likely to change their own views to match the platform of the Democratic Party – or the views of whatever Democratic candidate may be on offer?
While Democratic voters may be more heterogeneous in superficial ways like sexuality and race, Republican voters are more ideologically diverse. The modern Republican party was built on a Cold War alliance of religious conservatives, free-marketeers and anti-communists. It now also includes a substantial contingent of libertarians, war-on-terror partisans, and working-class whites sick of being cast as the villains in a social-justice melodrama. It’s a big, lumpy, factional party, and almost everybody in it calls himself a conservative. Because the Republican Party has more ideological diversity, its voters take for granted that they will regularly disagree with a GOP candidate or the party itself.
Those infamously closedminded GOP voters may not be open to persuasion from the progressive left. But neither are they taking marching orders from the GOP or other Republicans. They know what they believe and they don’t fret very much over who agrees with them. I guess you could call that “closedminded.” But you might also call it “principled.”
Unless otherwise stated, these are the opinions of RT Vaden.