What’s Wrong with What’s Wrong with Conservatives?

As we endure this excruciating election cycle, in which the most vile and regressive impulses in our culture have found a champion, it is harder than ever to imagine constructive dialogue across partisan and ideological lines. Naturally, those of us who long for such dialogue are always on the lookout for insights and practical tools. But we need to be vigilant. It is far too easy, especially on social media, to be seduced by the comforting notion that our ideological opponents are simply irrational or ignorant.

I rarely take those online personality tests where you answer a bunch of odd questions in order to learn something inane about yourself, like which “Scooby-Doo” character or “Golden Girl” you are. But, nudged by my sister and my own curiosity, I took one that purports to tell you whether you have the brain of a liberal or a conservative. The quiz is based on a 2014 study that found, according to the press release, “the way a person’s brain responds to a single disgusting image is enough to reliably predict whether he or she identifies politically as liberal or conservative.” Some clever person then designed a quiz that asks you how grossed out you are by various things, such as maggots or puke, and uses your answers predict your brain’s politics — the stronger your self-reported disgust, the more conservative your brain supposedly is.

I’m not going to comment on the quiz, except to note that it embodies all the rigor and reliability we’ve come to expect from online personality tests. Instead, I want to focus on the original study, which, despite being published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, has some serious problems of its own.

The biggest problem with the study is its apparent assumption that conservative ideology is an ahistorical universal, as if conservatives in every age in every society have shared the U.S. conservative movement’s opposition to environmental regulations, same-sex marriage, and labor organizing, while offering unwavering support for personal gun rights and national defense. The absurdity of this, I hope, is self-evident.

Another, more subtle problem is the implication, never quite stated, that there is a causal relation between disgust-sensitivity and ideology. According to the press release, the study merely shows that, “political ideologies … have deep connections to the way our bodies respond to threats of contamination.” This may be a true correlation, but what makes it interesting to the public is what it implies about causality. While the study does not explicitly assert that disgust-sensitivity causes ideological alignment, it does nothing to disabuse readers of that inference.

Had the authors consulted political historians, they might have learned the ways in which causality actually flows the opposite way, that conservative ideology in the U.S. is actually a product of a half century of deliberate political strategy. As Ian Haney Lopez and Thomas Frank document in their respective books, Dog Whistle Politics and What’s the Matter with Kansas, the politics of race, gender, and religion have been used for decades to attract those who might not otherwise support the agenda of the 1%. In the 1960s, political strategists began, intentionally but implicitly, to associate crime and welfare with black people and to equate the weakening of straight male hegemony with moral decline. The main target of this strategy is aging white voters, of course, and its primary emotional weapons are fear and disgust.

Unfortunately, the study seems to have ignored the role of demographics other than sex. An earlier study, which at least recognized the significance of geography, made the obvious observation that “a resident of Utah is far more likely to be conservative than a resident of Massachusetts, but it seems unlikely that Utah residents are dramatically more disgust-sensitive than Massachusetts residents.” Yet, neither study mentions race, despite the fact that, in every presidential election since 1952, the Republican candidate has received the majority of the white vote (with the possible exception of 1996). It seems unlikely that white people are just more disgust-sensitive.

I’m wondering who made up the (rather small) sample of 83 volunteers in the 2014 study. What were their class backgrounds? How much formal educational did they have? Was everyone white? It seems relevant to note that a recent meta-analysis of studies has shown that white undergraduate students in the U.S. make up the vast majority of all research subjects in the behavioral sciences. Since the authors of the present study mention nothing about race, class, or education, I can only assume they didn’t give them much thought. This is sort of shocking in a study about political attitudes.

The press release states, rather optimistically, “perhaps the new findings can help us find a way to a less-polarized political future.” I am definitely in favor of less polarization, but I fail to see how focusing on the irrational emotions that characterize only one pole of the polarity will accomplish this. The study purports to show that political ideology is influenced by emotions (does anyone still doubt this?), but the implicit message of this entire line of research on disgust-sensitivity is that conservatives are squeamish. This is an interesting finding, but what about the emotions associated with liberal/left politics? Are we to conclude that liberal ideology is just the result of a lack of squeamishness?

I am sure that many liberals are reassured by studies that explain what’s wrong with conservatives. But encouraging liberals to feel satisfied about their relative rationality does not seem like a very promising starting point for constructive political dialogue.

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