Kavanaugh and the Authoritarians

I don’t care too much about the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, one way or another. There doesn’t appear to be any hope of salvation in our present quandary, not for anyone involved (or uninvolved), far beyond who ends up on the Supreme Court.

But from a detached perspective of depressive realism, the GOP is on a clear decline, to a far greater degree than the Democrats which is saying a lot. Back during the presidential campaign, I stated that neither main political party should want to win. That is because we are getting so close to serious problems in our society or rather getting closer to the results of those problems that have long been with us. Whichever party is in power will be blamed, not that I care either way considering both parties deserve blame.

Republicans don’t seem to be able to help themselves. They’ve been playing right into the narrative of their own decline. At the very moment they needed to appeal to minorities because of looming demographic changes, they doubled down on bigotry. Now, the same people who supported and voted for a president who admitted to grabbing women by the pussy (with multiple sexual allegations against him and multiple known cases of cheating on his wife) are defending Kavanaugh against allegations of sexual wrongdoing.

This is not exactly a surprise, as Trump brazenly and proudly declared that he could shoot a person for everyone to see and his supporters would be fine with it. And certainly his publicly declaring his authoritarianism in this manner didn’t faze many Republican voters and Republican politicians. He was elected and the GOP rallied behind him. Also, it didn’t bother Kavanaugh as his acceptance of the Republican nomination implies he also supports authoritarianism and, if possible, plans on enacting it on the Supreme Court. Whether or not true that Trump could get away with murder, it is an amazing statement to make in public and still get elected president for, in any functioning democracy, that would immediately disqualify a candidate.

It almost doesn’t matter what are the facts of the situation, guilt or innocence. Everyone knows that, even if Kavanaugh was a proven rapist, the same right-wing authoritarians who love Trump would defend Kavanaugh to the bitter end. Loyalty is everything to these people. Not so much for the political left in how individuals are more easily thrown under the bus (or like Al Franken who threw himself under the bus and for a rather minor accusation of an inappropriate joke, not even involving any inappropriate touching). Sexual allegations demoralize Democrats, consider the hard hit it took with Anthony Weiner, in a way that never happens with Republicans who always consider a sexual allegation to be a call to battle.

The official narrative now is that the GOP is the party of old school bigots and chauvinistic pigs. They always had that hanging over their heads. And in the past, they sometimes held it up high with pride as if it were a banner of their strength. But now they find themselves on the defense. It turns out that this narrative they embraced probably doesn’t have much of a future. Yet Republicans can’t find it in themselves to seek a new script. For some odd reason, they are heavily attached to being heartless assholes.

This is even true for many Republican women. My conservative mother who, having not voted for Trump, has been pulled back into partisanship with the present conflict and has explicitly told me that she doesn’t believe men held accountable for past sexual transgressions because that is just the way the world was back then. Some conservative women go even further, arguing that men can’t help themselves and that even now we shouldn’t hold them accountable — as Toyin Owoseje reported:

Groping women is “no big deal”, a Donald Trump supporting mother told her daughters on national television when asked about the sexual misconduct allegations levelled against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

Among Republicans, we’ve been hearing such immoral defenses for a long time. There is another variety of depravity to be found among Democrats, but they at least have the common sense to not openly embrace depravity in their talent for soft-pedalling their authoritarian tendencies. Yet as full-blown authoritarian extremists disconnected from the average American, Republicans don’t understand why the non-authoritarian majority of the population might find their morally debased views unappealing. To them, loyalty to group is everything, and the opinions of those outside the group don’t matter.

The possibility that Kavanaugh might have raped a woman, to right-wing authoritarians, simply makes him seem all the more of a strong male to be revered. It doesn’t matter what he did, at least not to his defenders. This doesn’t bode well for the Republican Party. With the decline they are on, the only hope they have is for Trump to start World War III and seize total control of the government. They’ve lost the competition of rhetoric. All that is left for them is force their way to the extent they can, which at the moment means trying to push Kavanaugh into the Supreme Court. Of course, they theoretically could simply pick a different conservative nominee without all the baggage, but they can’t back down now no matter what. Consequences be damned!

Just wait to see what they’ll be willing to do when the situation gets worse. Imagine what would happen with a Trump-caused constitutional crisis and Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court. However it ends, the trajectory is not pointing upward. The decline of the GOP might be the (further) decline of the United States.

Motivated Reasoning in a Post-Fact Age

“Just as terror, even in its pre-total, merely tyrannical form ruins all relationships between men, so the self-compulsion of ideological thinking ruins all relationship with reality. The preparation has succeeded when people have contact with their fellow men as well as the reality around them; for together with these contacts, men lose the capacity of both experience and thought. The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.”
~ Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism

In this supposed post-fact age dominated by alt-facts, it has come to be questioned how much truth matters. This is hardly a new concern, simply because we have proud ignoramus as president, as Ron Suskind years ago wrote of Karl Rove:

“The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ […] ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do’.”

When ignorance is cynically wielded as a weapon, what power can truth have? The problem of ignorance isn’t only about what we don’t know but what we ignore, sometimes what pretend to not know, sometimes even to ourselves by way of dissociation or else by way of welcoming any comforting lie. There are cognitive biases and failures that we are prone to, as our shared human inheritance, but it has been claimed that some are more prone than others — as I’ve argued in the past (6 years ago):

Research shows that liberals are more willing to challenge authority and so lack the submissive attitude of unquestioning respect toward authority which is common among conservatives. For example, more liberals than conservatives state they’d be willing to slap their own father. ‘Openness’ is the main psychological trait that correlates to liberalism. What ‘openness’ is about is cognitive complexity, capacity for cognitive dissonance, intellectual curiosity, desire to experiment and explore, etc. But ‘openness’ also relates to being less inclined to fall into motivated reasoning (confirmation bias, backfire effect, etc)… on issues related to politics, anyway. I’ll point out the obvious fact that ‘openness’ can’t operate while submitting to authority. […]

Relatively speaking, liberals are more rational than conservatives when it comes to political issues (or so the research shows it to be the case in liberal democracies like the US). This is significant since the political issues that provoke the strongest motivated reasoning are always mired in moral issues, all of politics ultimately being inseparable from morality. In practical terms, this doesn’t necessarily mean liberals are more well informed for that has more to do with education and there are plenty of well educated conservatives; but what it does mean (as shown by research; read Mooney’s book for a helpful summary) is that liberals are less misinformed while conservatives are more misinformed. The odd part is that conservatives are more misinformed to the degree they are informed, what is described as the “smart idiot” effect. This also relates to how conservatives and experts (well educated conservatives fitting both categories) are most prone to the backfire effect which is when challenging info causes someone to become even stronger in their opinions.

Is that true? Does the evidence still support this assessment? That is what I’ll explore.

Let me be clear. One of my favorite hobbies is criticizing and complaining about liberals (e.g., Liberalism: Weaknesses & Failures) and increasingly left-wingers as well (e.g., Is there a balance point in a society of extremes?). I end up obsessing more about the political left than the political right and my conclusions are often far from kind, to such an extent that I’ve lost some liberal friends these past couple of years (even my sister-in-law, a good liberal and partisan Democrat, who likes me on a personal level admitted that she blocked me on Facebook because of my political views). I personally know liberalism as someone who is a liberal, having been raised in a liberal church and having spent most of my life in a liberal town. But when I speak of conservatism, I also do so from a personal perspective, having been raised by conservative parents and having spent much of my life in conservative places (even this liberal town is in a rural farm state that is conservative in many ways, the state government presently controlled by right-wing Republicans).

My picking on conservatism isn’t separate from my picking on liberals. One of the main irritations about liberals is how easily, under conditions of stress and cognitive overload, they begin thinking and acting like conservatives. Under those conditions, liberals will share the same tendencies and biases as conservatives. The difference is that it requires pushing liberals out of their preferred mindset to get this response from them. This interests me more, the conditions that create and change ideological mindsets — that isn’t exactly my focus here, but it relates.

My own view is more in line with Chris Mooney, as opposed to Jonathan Haidt (I should point out that when I first read about Haidt’s research many years ago I found it quite compelling or at least interesting, but I later changed my mind as I read his book and analyzed his arguments and data more closely). Some see these two thinkers as making the same basic argument. It’s true that they rarely disagree about much (at least, not strongly when the two dialogue in person), and Mooney goes so far as to praise Haidt while sometimes dismissing apparent differences. I understand how their their arguments resonate, as they both started from a liberal position and from there sought to understand the American ideological divide. They share a common goal, to improve understanding and communication. Still, I sense something fundamentally different not just about their views but how they approach and hold those views. Their ultimate conclusions diverge greatly, Mooney leaning to the left and Haidt leaning over backwards toward the right. As I see it, much of what Haidt says is way off the mark. And for this reason, he is an example of the kind of public intellectual that confuses and annoys me, despite his amiable personality and liberal-minded good intentions. Mooney, though also being a fairly standard liberal, has a way of being more direct and so what can seem more honest, calling a spade a spade (The Republican Brain, Kindle Locations 2075-2079):

“You will probably have noted by now that the moral intuition research of Haidt and Ditto is not fully separate from the [cognitive] research covered in the last chapter. It overlaps. For instance, take conservatives’ greater respect for authority, and their stronger loyalty to the in-group, the tribe, the team. Respect for authority, at its extreme, is hard to distinguish from authoritarianism. And viewing the world with a strong distinction between the in-group and the out-group clearly relates to having lower integrative complexity and less tolerance of difference (although it can also, on a more positive note, mean showing loyalty and allegiance to one’s friends, and more patriotism).”

As I compared the two elsewhere:

So, Haidt’s view of intuition being greater than reasoning has some truth to it while also containing much speculation. We know that all people are predisposed to motivated reasoning. Yes, such bias can manifest as post hoc rationalizations of our intuited moral values. What Haidt ignores or doesn’t fully acknowledge, intentionally or not, is that not all people are equally predisposed to motivated reasoning in all types of situations. Mooney’s book presents a logical argument based on damning evidence about how conservatives are more predisposed to motivated reasoning when it comes to political issues, and it is clear that political issues are inseparable from moral issues in these cases of motivated reasoning.

A major example of motivated reasoning is the backfire effect. It has been well researched at this point. And the research shows it to be complex and context-dependent, as is presumably true of any cognitive biases. One early result found was that two oddly paired groups were most prone to the backfire effect, conservatives and the highly educated with highly educated conservatives being the worst (I’ll further discuss this finding below).

What can we make of this? As always, it depends. It’s not that conservatives are inherently anti-truth and anti-fact, anti-intellectual and anti-science. If you go back almost a half century ago, conservatives actually had slightly greater trust in science than liberals at the time, the two having switched places over time (the same was true with average IQ, having been higher among Republicans under Reagan but since then having been higher among Democrats, but intriguing piece of data is straying too far afield).

Why is that? Why did this change occur? There might be a simple explanation for it. During the Cold War, scientists were highly respected and science heavily funded by government in the fight against communism. For conservatives, the Cold War was all about an ideological war and a defense of the American Way. A major form that took was a technological competition between the two global superpowers, a space race and a nuclear weapons conflict. Science was a tool of ideology and the ideology in question was in line with an authoritarian vision of establishment power and a socially conservative vision of a status quo social order (an era during which perceived leftist radicals and deviants were the victims of big gov and big biz oppression, targeted by witch-hunts, blackballing, COINTELPRO, etc). Government funding of science and technology was often directly linked to the the military (e.g., R&D that created an early version of the internet as a communication system that would survive a military attack), and hence proof and expression of American greatness as part of the Whiggish view of White Man’s Burden and Manifest Destiny. Liberal values were also useful in the fight against communism and, unsurprisingly, during the early Cold War even conservatives like Ike and Nixon would publicly praise liberalism.

Humans in general are swayed by consensus views as an indicator of social norms. But conservatives are particularly motivated, as consensus among authority figures can be useful for conformity within and enforcement of the social order. In the anti-communist mindset back then, science and liberalism were part of the status quo of idealized American greatness as embodied in the American Dream (industrialized technology being commodified and experienced through a growing middle class of citizen-consumers; e.g., “Better living through chemistry”), what supposedly differentiated us from the backward authoritarianism of the Soviet regime (the ‘progressive’ authoritarianism of neocon corporatism is so much better!).

As the USSR weakened and eventually the Cold War ended, that consensus was broken and there was no longer a foreign authoritarian power posing a real threat. Liberalism and science no longer served any ideological purpose for the conservative agenda. So, to the conservative mind, liberalism once again became the enemy and so scientists were treated as liberal elites to be opposed (of course, excluding all of the scientists working for corporations and right-wing think tanks, as the big money of capitalism washes away their sins of intellectual pride; and also conveniently ignoring the sizable proportion of scientists along with engineering and tech field professors in universities who are on the political right).

When the US lost its only major global competitor with the collapse of the Soviet Union, consensus seemed irrelevant. America ruled the world and the Cold War had pushed conservatives into power. Conservatives didn’t need to make any concessions or compromises with the ideological opposition, as decades of persecution had broken the back of the political left. Conservatives no longer felt a need to justify themselves or look for allies. But that is changing now that the American star is on the decline and new global competitors are taking the stage. We have the opportunity to put pressure back on the political right for they are vulnerable to persuasion right now by anyone who will take advantage of it.

This brings me back to some of the research on backfire effect. This pressure seems to work. In Cosmos Magazine, Jeff Glorfeld offers a happy thought: “The added negative effect of conservatism plus high education was completely neutralised through exposure to the fact of scientific agreement around man-made climate change.” Consensus prevails! What this means is that defeating backfire effect requires pulling out the big guns. Repeat, repeat, repeat the facts of consensus. Don’t be shy about it!

More generally, I must admit that the backfire effect research doesn’t allow for simple conclusions. Some of it even seems contradictory, but I suspect this is because of the multiple factors (many of them confounding) involved. There is no single population and single set of conditions and so it’s unsurprising that various studies using different subjects from different backgrounds would come to different results (and we aren’t even talking about the even larger biases and problems of this kind of WEIRD research). Some of what we presently think we know about backfire effect and similar motivated reasoning might turn out to be wrong, misinterpreted, or more nuanced.

Let me give an example. Related to the above discussion about consensus, previous research wasn’t replicated by recent research (see: Wood & Porter’s published The Elusive Backfire Effect; Guess & Coppock’s unpublished The Exception, Not the Rule?). It indicates backfire effect might not be so strong and common, after all (not that the original researchers ever claimed it was ubiquitous and, showing no backfire effect of their own, the original researchers have supported the publishing of this new data). Also, there is no new evidence of any ideological disparity, if anything demonstrating that moderates are the least prone to it (are we to assume moderates are the least ideologically dogmatic in the partisan sense or are they simply the most apathetic with fewer ideological commitments because of intellectual laziness, thoughtlessness, or whatever?). Does this disprove the prior research? Flynn, Nyhand, and Reifler responded with some commentary.

Whatever it might or might not mean, I wouldn’t allow this to comfort you too much. Even though “[t]his finding is contested by other research that finds limited evidence that corrective information contributes to such a ‘backfire effect,'” writes Jennifer Kavanagh and Michael D. Rich (Truth Decay, p. 83), “even this research suggests that altering preexisting beliefs can be difficult.” One of the authors of the published work, Ethan Porter, admits that what “Our work shows is that people do accept new information, but we have no evidence that this then affects their downstream policy attitudes.”

This latter suspicion was confirmed, at least among certain people. The original researchers collaborated with the challenging researchers. They again couldn’t find backfire effect, which seems to put the original research into doubt, although it is a bit early to come to strong conclusions. What they did find was maybe even more disheartening, as written about in a Vox piece by Brian Resnick — that “facts make an impression. They just don’t matter for our decision-making, which is a conclusion that’s abundant in psychology science.” And this is specifically relevant for the present: “there’s still a big problem: Trump supporters know their candidate lies, but that doesn’t change how they feel about him. Which prompts a scary thought: Is this just a Trump phenomenon? Or can any charismatic politician get away with being called out on lies?” It still doesn’t disprove the backfire effect, since it’s possible that they had already backfired as far back as they could go at this point: “Many of his supporters may have to come to terms with his records of misstatements by the time this study was conducted.” Further research will be required.

If we take this latest research as is, it would simply justify the view of backfire effect being the least of our worries. Backfire effect can only occur after facts are shown to someone and they look at them. But how often do political debates even get to the point where facts get exchanged, much less acknowledged?

“At least it’s nice to know that facts do make an impression, right? On the other hand, we tend to avoid confronting facts that run hostile to our political allegiances. Getting partisans to confront facts might be easy in the context of an online experiment. It’s much harder to do in the real world.”

* * *

Let me make a note. Ideological mindsets are as much social constructs as are races. They are part of a particular social order and cultural worldview. Conservatives and liberals didn’t exist until the Enlightenment. Any such labels are one of many possible ways of grouping diverse potentials and tendencies within human nature.

That might explain why, as research shows (in the American population at least), there is an overlap between conservatism and authoritarianism. But that is just another way of saying all authoritarians, left and right, are socially conservative (the reason why it is sometimes referred to as right-wing authoritarianism, as there is no such thing as socially liberal authoritarianism) — whereas fiscal conservatism has no known positive or negative correlation to authoritarianism (so-called fiscal conservatism simply being an old form of liberalism, i.e., classical liberalism). So, this is the reason authoritarians are mostly found on the political right in countries like the United States and on the political left in countries like Russia (left and liberal not being the same thing, as always depending on what specific ideologies we are talking about).

It depends on context, on definition and perception. There is no singular ‘conservatism’ for its just a general way of speaking about overlapping patterns of ideology, culture, personality, and neurology. The overlap of social conservatism and fiscal conservatism in contemporary American thought might be more of a fluke of historical conditions. Russell Kirk, the godfather of modern American conservatism, actually thought the two were fundamentally incompatible.

* * *

Why the Right Wing’s War on Facts Is Driving the Divide in America
by Sophia A. McClennen

A recent study by the Duke Reporters’ Lab shows that, in addition to a partisan difference in the frequency of lying, there is a partisan division over the very idea of fact-checking itself.

The researchers logged 792 statements mentioning fact-checkers and coded them as positive, negative or neutral. While a majority of citations (68 percent) were neutral, they found a dramatic divide in the source of negative comments. The study noted 71 accusations of bias against fact-checkers. Conservative websites were responsible for 97 percent of them.

The study shows that conservative sites take a hostile, negative attitude toward the practice of fact-checking. In some cases the tone is hardly subtle. In one example, they cite Jonah Goldberg of National Review Online, who noted that Hillary Clinton’s record with the truth was far from spotless. “Even PolitiFact, the hackiest and most biased of the fact-checking outfits, which bends over like a Bangkok hooker to defend Democrats, has a long list of her more recent lies.”

Goldberg seems pleased that Politifact has a list of Clinton’s lies, but at the same time he feels compelled to denigrate the fact-checking operation that produced the list. In fact, the Duke study shows that even when conservative sites are happy to reference fact-checks that bolster their ideological perspective, they often still find a way to denigrate their sources.

How Campaign Messages Are Received and Processed
by David Helfert

Left Brain, Right Brain

Other neurological studies seem congruent with Westen’s findings. In the 1980s, pop psychology began to describe people as either left or right brained and suggested that the characteristic determined whether they tended to be more artistic, sensitive, thoughtful, creative, emotional, or analytical, depending on which lobes of the brain dominated their thought processing and behavior. The theory that everyone is either one or the other has been roundly disputed in recent years. Now, however, it appears there may be something to the basic idea after all, and that the unique characteristics of the left and right lobes of the brain may have consequences in political communication.

Journalist and author Chris Mooney has written extensively on how different kinds of political messages are received and processed by different people. Mooney has built on Westen’s research about neurological differences in processing varying kinds of messages. In his 2012 book The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science—and Reality, he points to research that finds the predisposition to process stimuli in one lobe of the brain or the other is due to an actual physical difference in the size of the respective lobes.

Some people, says Mooney, actually have a larger right brain lobe, including the limbic system, which supports emotion, behavior, motivation, and long-term memory. Other people, he says, have a larger left brain lobe and tend to process most information through their prefrontal cortex, the lobes that help in reasoning and logical processing.

Mooney suggests that this neurological difference can reflect political tendencies. In The Republican Brain, Mooney describes “a recent magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) study of 90 University College of London students that found on average, political conservatives actually had a larger right lobe, including the amygdalae, while political liberals had more gray matter in the anterior cingulated cortex (ACC),” part of the brain’s frontal lobe, with many links to the prefrontal cortex.

This seems consistent with studies conducted in 2013 by Darren Schreiber, a researcher in neuropolitics at the University of Exeter in the UK, and colleagues at the University of California. Their research was described in “Red Brain, Blue Brain: Evaluative Processes Differ in Democrats and Republicans” in the international online journal PLOS ONE.

The study used data from a previous experiment in which a group of people were asked to play a simple gambling task. Schreiber’s team took the brain activity measurement of eighty-two people and cross-referenced them with the participants’ publicly available political party registration data. They found that Republicans tended to use their right amygdala, the part of the brain associated with the body’s fight-or-flight system, when making risk-taking decisions; Democrats tended to show greater activity in their left insula, an area associated with self and social awareness.

Schreiber claims the insula/amygdala brain function model offers an 82.9 percent accuracy rate in predicting whether a person is a Democrat or Republican. In comparison, the longstanding model using the party affiliation of parents to predict a child’s affiliation is accurate about 69.5 percent of the time. Another model based on the differences in brain structure distinguishes liberals from conservatives with 71.6 percent accuracy.

Mooney cites other academic research findings indicating that people whose limbic system is more involved in processing information are less likely to change their minds. Once they have arrived at a position on an issue that is congruent with their belief system and values, they are unlikely to change their minds even when presented with irrefutable evidence to support a different viewpoint. They will actually reject or discount facts or attempt to discredit the source of facts that conflict with their position.

Motivated Reasoning

A series of related behavioral concepts could shed light on why different people seem to react differently to various political messages. One of the best known concepts is motivated reasoning, which is based on research findings, such as that described by Mooney, that some people tend to process most information through the prefrontal cortex of their brains while others tend to receive and process information through the limbic system.

Other research has found that subjects who tend to process information through the prefrontal lobes of the brain tend to be more open to new information, and to be more politically liberal. Those subjects who tend to process information through the emotion-centers in the brain tend to be more politically conservative.

How Warnings About False Claims Become Recommendations
by Skurnik, Yoon, Park, & Schwarz

Telling people that a consumer claim is false can make them misremember it as true. In two experiments older adults were especially susceptible to this “illusion of truth” effect. Repeatedly identifying a claim as false helped older adults remember it as false in the short term, but paradoxically made them more likely to remember it as true after a three-day delay. This unintended effect of repetition comes from increased familiarity with the claim itself, but decreased recollection of the claim’s original context. Findings provide insight into susceptibility over time to memory distortions and exploitation via repetition of claims in media and advertising.

Misinformation lingers in memory: Failure of three pro-vaccination strategies
by Pluviano, Watt , & Sala

People’s inability to update their memories in light of corrective information may have important public health consequences, as in the case of vaccination choice. In the present study, we compare three potentially effective strategies in vaccine promotion: one contrasting myths vs. facts, one employing fact and icon boxes, and one showing images of non-vaccinated sick children. Beliefs in the autism/vaccines link and in vaccines side effects, along with intention to vaccinate a future child, were evaluated both immediately after the correction intervention and after a 7-day delay to reveal possible backfire effects. Results show that existing strategies to correct vaccine misinformation are ineffective and often backfire, resulting in the unintended opposite effect, reinforcing ill-founded beliefs about vaccination and reducing intentions to vaccinate.

Sometimes busting myths can backfire
by Bethany Brookshire

But bursting mythical bubbles can also backfire. The first problem is that people are easily persuaded by things they hear more often. “The mere repetition of a myth leads people to believe it to be more true,” notes Christina Peter, a communication scientist at the Ludwig Maximillian University of Munich.

And unfortunately, our brains don’t remember myths in a very helpful way. “There’s a lot of research that tells us people have a hard time remembering negations,” says Stephan Lewandowsky, a cognitive scientist at the University of Bristol in England. We remember myths not as myths, but rather as statements that are additionally tagged as “false.” So instead of remembering “cheese is nothing like crack,” our brains remember “cheese is like crack (false).” As our memories fade, the qualifier on the statement may fade too, leaving us with the false idea that brie really is the next cocaine.

Peter and her colleague Thomas Koch decided to find out how best to combat this backfire effect — our tendency to misremember myths as fact — when confronted with scientific information. They recruited 335 volunteers and asked them to read three newspaper articles. The first and last were decoys. The important one was in the middle, and concerned a new in-home bowel cancer test. The article included eight statements about the new test, with each immediately identified as fact or myth, and with an explanation of why the items were true or false.

The scientists also asked the participants to focus on different things. They asked one group to form an opinion about the articles as they read them. They asked another just to study the language.

After all the groups were done reading, Peter and Koch presented them with the eight statements from the bowel test article, and asked them whether they were true or false. Then the scientists asked the participants those questions again after five days to test what they retained.

Readers who focused just on the language of the articles suffered from the backfire effect.  They were more likely to remember false statements as true than to remember true statements as false. This backfire effect got stronger when they saw the statements again five days later, and it influenced what they thought of the bowel test. The articles described the test in a slightly negative light. But if people remembered more of the myths as facts, they ended up with a positive view of the test. Oops.

But the backfire effect changed if participants formed an opinion as they read. Participants who were making up their minds on the fly made errors half as often as those who were reading only for language.

Peter says the results suggest that when presenting readers with new information, “try to avoid repeating false information,” since that may be what remains in people’s minds. And in some situations, Peter says, asking readers for their opinion or getting them to form an opinion as they read might help them distinguish between what is truth and what is myth. Peter and Koch published their results in the January Science Communication.

Backfire Effect Not Significant
by Steven Novella

For me there are two main limitations of this study – the first is that it is difficult to extrapolate from the artificial setting of a psychological study to an emotional discussion around the dinner table (or in the comments to a blog). It seems likely that people are much more willing to be reasonable in the former setting.

Second, we have no idea how persistent the correction effect is. People may immediately correct their belief, but then quickly forget the new information that runs counter to their narrative. That would be consistent with my personal experience, at least some of the time. It seems I can correct someone’s false information, with objective references, but then a month later they repeat their original claim as if the prior conversation never happened. I would love to see some long term follow up to these studies.

So if people do not respond to ideologically inconvenient facts by forming counterarguments and moving away from them (again – that is the backfire effect) then what do they do? The authors discuss a competing hypothesis, that people are fundamentally intellectually lazy. In fact, forming counterarguments is a lot of mental work that people will tend to avoid. It is much easier to just ignore the new facts.

Further there is evidence that to some extent people not only ignore facts, they may think that facts are not important. They may conclude that the specific fact they are being presented is not relevant to their ideological belief. Or they may believe that facts in general are not important.

What that generally means is that they dismiss facts as being biased and subjective. You have your facts, but I have my facts, and everyone is entitled to their opinion – meaning they get to choose which facts to believe.

Of course all of this is exacerbated by the echochamber effect. People overwhelmingly seek out sources of information that are in line with their ideology.

I think it is very important to recognize that the backfire effect is a small or perhaps even nonexistent phenomenon. The problem with belief in the backfire effect is that it portrays people as hopelessly biased, and suggests that attempts at educating people or changing their mind is fruitless. It suggests that the problem of incorrect beliefs is an unfixable inherent problem with human psychology.

Mick West says:
January 4, 2018 at 11:52 am
The primary problem with this study is that it is only measuring the IMMEDIATE effect of corrections. As they say in the final sentence of the discussion, there’s little backfire effect to correcting ideologically biased misinformation “at least for a brief moment”. It tells use nothing about what might happen weeks or months later. In fact the design of the study seems more like a reading comprehension test than about measuring changes in belief.

I’d recommend people have a look at the overview of backfire effects in The Debunking Handbook by Cook & Lewandowsky (free online). They identify three types: Familiarity Backfire, Overkill Backfire, and Worldview Backfire. Worldview backfire (which the Wood & Porter study measures) is more manifest as a disconfirmation bias, something which Wood and Porter dismiss, but don’t measure – not because people are too lazy to come up with alternative explanations, but because the immediate nature of the study does not allow the participants time for any mental gymnastics. The other two forms of backfire are likewise things that happen over time.

So I’d not put too large an asterisk on the backfire effect just yet.

B.S. says:
January 4, 2018 at 2:35 pm
I think that the backfire effect is most likely an emotional response. I’m reading “Crucial Conversations” right now and this book describes emotional responses to uncomfortable conversations- attacking someone who disagrees with you (perceived as an adversary) and defending yourself without thinking are a huge portion of this book. This model seems to fits both anecdotal observations of the backfire effect and this new research.
The mechanical turn questions appear to be emotionless and have no cues from an opponent with an opposing view. The corrections were all “neutral data from [cited] governmental sources.”. I’d bet that changing the factual correction to “No it isn’t you asshole! President Obama has deported illegal immigrants at twice the rate of Bush!” (note no source cited, because we rarely remember them in conversations) would elicit some sort of backfire effect that would likely be even larger if delivered emotionally and in person by an “adversary”. Maybe this all means that the key to eliminating any backfire effect is removing emotion from your response and accurately citing neutral sources. Maybe this means that dispassionate real-time fact checking of politicians could actually make a difference. Regardless, this is an interesting addition to the literature and conversation. It restores some of my hope.

NiroZ says:
January 4, 2018 at 11:37 pm
I’d wager that the reason for this would be in line with the research for motivational interviewing (a therapy technique) as well as the research around stigma, shame and vulnerability. Basically, when people make arguments that appear to be part of the ‘backfire’ effect, they’re actually responding to the feeling of being cornered, the loss of control and power in find found incorrect and the possible sense of alienation they feel about identifying with an ‘incorrect’ belief. If this is correct, it’s likely that these people would, under the right circumstances/ to people they feel safe with, admit that X belief is wrong, but they need adhere to it for other reasons (to belong in a group, to annoy someone they dislike, to avoid losing face).

Nidwin says:
January 5, 2018 at 3:41 am
From my experience the backfire effect kicks in when folks can’t say “woops, was I wrong on that one”.

Folks only change their minds as long as the subject doesn’t breech their little personal cocoon. And even then it’s often FIFO (first in first out).

One Purity To Rule Them All

What is with purity and a particular kind of thinking on the right?

There are the Tea Party types who attack RINOs (Republicans In Name Only). There are other ideological purists like S. Freeman with whom I was discussing JFK.  As he said in our discussion (quoted in full in part 4 of my JFK series):

People would have a MUCH clearer understanding of the political system, of politics in general, and of the ideological orientations (including the basic conservatism of Kennedy) IF people did not work constantly to muddy the meanings of ideological terms, and if we did a much better job teaching ideology in our education institutions.

That fear of muddying and the complaint about the lack of necessary ‘education’ to ensure right-minded thinking. Those damn liberals don’t even know what liberalism is with their constantly getting everything a “little bit muddy”. Freeman seems a bit obsessed with mud and ideological uncleanliness.

A similar thing is found with ethnic nationalists, race supremacists and even human biodiversity advocates. There is a fear that too much mixing or mixing at all will destroy something fundamentally good. There is a belief, contrary to the evidence, that there is something pure in the first place that must be defended. All of human evolution and history has been a process of mixing and mixing again. If humans weren’t born with an instinct to mix it up at every available opportunity, we wouldn’t have so much genetics of Neanderthals and Denisovans.

Purity, such a strange concept. And disgust, such a strange response. I understand that these impulses play an important role in human psychology. I don’t mean to dismiss them as irrelevant. I only mean to point out how endlessly fascinating it is the way they manifest in these modern times. Liberals get blamed for utopianism, but this purity impulse seems more utopian to me than anything liberals ever go on about.

What would the fantasy world of purity look like if these people were able to achieve it?

An entire society with pure races and ethnicities, pure ideologies and education. Everything with a place and everything in its place. Imagine a world purified of all that doesn’t fit, all that is mixed and ‘muddied’. All impurities eliminated or isolated. A pure world of pure people with pure thinking and pure behaviors. Where right is right and wrong is wrong, where white is white and black is black. Where this and that, us and them are clearly demarcated and firmly separated. Where visions are constrained and boundaries are thick. A world of order and authority, of rules and laws, of mores and standards.

More interesting, if these various purists were the only people left in the world, it would be fun to watch them fight over their respective purist agendas. Whose vision of purity would be the one purity to rule them all?

I want add something here as a side note, instead of starting a whole new post.

I’ve recently been writing a lot about races. Some of my most compelling thoughts have been on eugenics. According to HBD theory, distinct genetic populations are created through social engineering, either eugenics or something like eugenics (e.g., manorial lords deciding who can and can’t get married). In this context, purity of races has to do with social control: who is controlling whom and to what purpose that control is serving. HBD theorists interpret the data as showing very specific genetic-based behavioral tendencies were being created.

I argue that races aren’t biologically real while also arguing there is nothing to stop us from making them real. I see the racial social order in America as essentially a eugenics program with such things as anti-miscegenation laws playing a similar role to that of manorial lords determining marriages. It isn’t an issue of there existing pure races. The real issue is the desire for pure races, a centuries old dream that some are still dreaming. It is one of the most powerful visions of purity ever imagined by the human mind.

It just occurred to me, however, that there is an even greater example of a vision of purity being used as enforcement of social order. That example is India’s caste system. That is an awesome example, not just centuries old but with roots that are millennia old. If one wanted to test HBD theory, that would be where to look. How genetically distinct are the caste populations? And if somehow one could control all the social/environmental factors (an impossible task, I acknowledge), what genetic-based differences might be observed? No one knows.

The caste system is different than the race system, but there is an ideological affinity between them. I’d love to read a book that compared them and looked at all the evidence: genetic, cultural, political, etc.

On the small-scale, purity impulse is just a psychological defense against, for example, eating rotten food that might make us sick. It has a very simple purpose and a very basic survival value. However, when brought to the level of all-encompassing absolutist ideology, it becomes something entirely different. In whatever form it takes, the impulse toward purity when it gains control of a society can be powerful indeed.

Do Rightwingers Love War?

I heard once again someone stating that Democrats start more wars. To give a quick response to that statement, I’d point out that it takes both parties to start a war… and there is a big difference between wars of defense and wars of aggression. But the comment and my response isn’t all that important… or, I should say, not all that interesting to me. The reason for this is because the person was responding to a comment where I didn’t even mention either of the parties. I don’t care to defend the war record of the Democratic Party. I’m an independent liberal, not a Democrat.

Here is my original comment:

“I always wonder why rightwingers love war so much. Looking past all the patriotic propaganda, destroyed lives is the reality of war. But once the soldiers come home all the lovers of war suddenly stop caring.”

Starting with this as a working hypothesis, I have two purposes for this post. First, I want to clarify what I see as the differences between ‘rightwingers’ and ‘liberals’, both being specific demographics rather than broad categories. Second, I want to determine what the data shows about each demograhic.

– – –

I’ve pointed out many times that (based on the data from Beyond Red vs. Blue) only a 1/3 of Democrats even identify as liberals and almost 1/2 of liberals are Independents. Other sources show:

According to recent surveys by the New York Times and CBS News, between 18% and 27% of American adults identify as liberal, versus moderate or conservative. In the 2008 presidential election, exit polls showed that 22% of the electorate self-identified as “liberal.”

Furthermore, Republicans and Democrats had a major ideological reversal over this past century.


“Prior to 1964, both parties had their liberal, moderate, and conservative wings, each of them influential in both parties… After 1980, the Republicans became a mostly right-wing party… while the Democrats, while keeping their left wing intact… grew a substantial moderate wing in the 1990s in place of their old conservative wing”

So-called far leftwingers such as Obama are more conservative than many past Republicans such as Eisenhower. Heck, Obama is more socially conservative in terms of his actual policies (continuing the War on Drugs, Gitmo, and torture) than many rightwing libertarians. Partisan rhetoric doesn’t mean much to me, but I do consider meaningful the differences between liberal and conservative (as general worldviews, attitudes, and psychological traits).

I’ve written about the correlation, although not equivalence, of conservatism and right-wing authoritarianism (RWA)… or, to be more specific, about the correlation that at least exists within the population of the United States (to be fair, the correlation may not exist in other countries, especially not in countries that don’t have a rightwing religious tradition). At that post I quoted the following:


It is not that all Republicans are authoritarians; nor that all Democrats are non-authoritarian. Far from it. And people adopt party affiliations for a variety of reasons. But whereas those with the authoritarian cognitive style used to be more evenly split between the parties, decades of appeals for “states rights”, “law and order”, and against ERA, gay rights and immigration reform have concentrated this particular personality type in the GOP. And the consequence of that decades-long process has been the emergence of a Republican party that is, to a remarkable degree, built on viscera — on appeals to anger and resentment, and a deeply-felt conviction that America is breaking down irretrievably and that the way to stop that process is to demonize and marginalize outgroups deemed responsible for that breakdown. And this is no longer a geographically confined phenomenon, but a fully national one.

I’ve also written about recent research showing that conservatives have a predisposition toward violence. For example, here is a description of one study:


The finding suggests that people who are particularly sensitive to signals of visual or auditory threats also tend to adopt a more defensive stance on political issues, such as immigration, gun control, defense spending and patriotism. People who are less sensitive to potential threats, by contrast, seem predisposed to hold more liberal positions on those issues.

– – –

I’m not sure how strong of conclusions can be based on any of this data, but it caused me to consider two lines of thought.

First, I was wondering if liberals are always in the minority. The challenge is that liberalism never wins in that the goalposts are always shifting. What was liberal in the past just becomes the new conservative. So, the status quo is always in a sense conservative. This can be seen, for example, with conservatives identifying with classical liberalism which is just the liberalism from past centuries turned into an unchanging ideology. Or, as another example, most Americans identify as conservative even though the positions they hold are what liberals have been fighting for since the founding of the United States (US Demographics & Increasing Progressivism).

Another reason for the minority status of liberals is that maybe liberal genetics are newer in human evolution. Satoshi Kanazawa proposed a theory along these lines in order to explain the correlation of liberalism and higher IQ.


“General intelligence, the ability to think and reason, endowed our ancestors with advantages in solving evolutionarily novel problems for which they did not have innate solutions,” says Satoshi Kanazawa, an evolutionary psychologist at the London School of Economics and Political Science.  “As a result, more intelligent people are more likely to recognize and understand such novel entities and situations than less intelligent people, and some of these entities and situations are preferences, values, and lifestyles.”

An earlier study by Kanazawa found that more intelligent individuals were more nocturnal, waking up and staying up later than less intelligent individuals.  Because our ancestors lacked artificial light, they tended to wake up shortly before dawn and go to sleep shortly after dusk.  Being nocturnal is evolutionarily novel.

In the current study, Kanazawa argues that humans are evolutionarily designed to be conservative, caring mostly about their family and friends, and being liberal, caring about an indefinite number of genetically unrelated strangers they never meet or interact with, is evolutionarily novel.  So more intelligent children may be more likely to grow up to be liberals.

Data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health) support Kanazawa’s hypothesis.  Young adults who subjectively identify themselves as “very liberal” have an average IQ of 106 during adolescence while those who identify themselves as “very conservative” have an average IQ of 95 during adolescence.

Similarly, religion is a byproduct of humans’ tendency to perceive agency and intention as causes of events, to see “the hands of God” at work behind otherwise natural phenomena.  “Humans are evolutionarily designed to be paranoid, and they believe in God because they are paranoid,” says Kanazawa.  This innate bias toward paranoia served humans well when self-preservation and protection of their families and clans depended on extreme vigilance to all potential dangers.  “So, more intelligent children are more likely to grow up to go against their natural evolutionary tendency to believe in God, and they become atheists.”

Young adults who identify themselves as “not at all religious” have an average IQ of 103 during adolescence, while those who identify themselves as “very religious” have an average IQ of 97 during adolescence.

In addition, humans have always been mildly polygynous in evolutionary history.  Men in polygynous marriages were not expected to be sexually exclusive to one mate, whereas men in monogamous marriages were.  In sharp contrast, whether they are in a monogamous or polygynous marriage, women were always expected to be sexually exclusive to one mate.  So being sexually exclusive is evolutionarily novel for men, but not for women.  And the theory predicts that more intelligent men are more likely to value sexual exclusivity than less intelligent men, but general intelligence makes no difference for women’s value on sexual exclusivity.  Kanazawa’s analysis of Add Health data supports these sex-specific predictions as well.

So, even though liberals have influence to varying degrees depending on the society, liberalism will likely never be the predominant attitude in any society. My suspicion is that most politicians aren’t on average as liberal as certain other similarly well-educated demographics: artists, writers, journalists, academics, scientists, grassroots activists, et cetera. It seems to me that those with strong liberalism probably wouldn’t be very interested in national public office because mainstream politics is dominated by cronyism and corporatism. The few strong liberals who do get into national politics probably don’t often advance very far in their political careers.

My second line of thought was an extension of my previous blog posts on this topic. What exactly are the real world results of these predispositions? I did some quick research to see if I would come across any new info. A couple items caught my attention.

Here is a paper about right-wing authoritarianism (and social dominance orientation) in the context of the 9/11 attack:


In sum, our study contributes to the understanding of attitudes toward restrictive political measures that were issued in the aftermath of September 11 and thus to the understanding of psychological underpinnings of threats to democracy. Predispositions like RWA, SDO, political ideology, and personal values played a significant role in this matter. Although feelings of threat from terrorism did not automatically lead to stronger endorsement of surveillance measures and restriction of civil liberties, they reinforced the effect of RWA on support for surveillance.

Even more interesting is this detail from other research about moral choices:


They offered some other scenarios too, about collateral damage in military situations, for instance, and found similar differences: Conservatives accepted collateral damage more easily if the dead were Iraqis than if they were Americans, while liberals accepted civilian deaths more readily if the dead were Americans rather than Iraqis.

That is one juicy morsel. A liberal would rather have soldiers on own their side die if it would save innocent civilians… because, afterall, a soldier is trained to fight and die to protect people. A conservative, on the other hand, is more willing to sacrifice people even if innocent just as long as they are seen as ‘other’. This is a profound difference. To the liberal, the conservative is heartless in putting patriotic loyalty over the protection of the innocent. But, to the conservative, the liberal is a traitor in their being more willing to sacrifice soldiers who are courageously protecting us. Liberals tend to empathize with all humans more equally and conservatives tend to have a group mentality of ‘us’ vs ‘them’.

I should, however, point out that the generalization about liberals being against soldiers is unfair and inaccurate.


We see that liberals and progressives are more sympathetic toward animals and foreigners than are conservatives and libertarians. Conversely, though not to the same extent, conservatives are more sympathetic toward soldiers and babies than are progressives and liberals. Criminals, drug addicts, and the homeless are again more “popular” among progressives and liberals than among conservatives and libertarians.

Sympathy here is a relative term. Absolutely speaking, progressives and liberals are very sympathetic towards babies and American soldiers, for example. It is only when sympathy is compared between different groups that significant differences emerge. For very conservative voters, American soldiers are on the top. For progressives, soldiers share fourth place with foreigners.

The implication of this would seem to be that the more liberal someone is the more they’d be reluctant to commit to wars where innocents are unnecessarily endangered. I’d think that, for this reason, liberals would be particularly against wars of aggression such as the US invasion of Iraq. Considering 2/3 of Democrats don’t identify as liberal, maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that most Democratic politicians didn’t strongly oppose Bush’s warmongering right after 9/11. If my theory is correct, liberals are always in the minority even within what is considered the liberal Democratic party.

So, when the rightwingers are hot and bothered about some new xenophobic fear, it’s hard for the liberal minority to counter it. This is particularly problematic considering social stress/uncertainty, fearmongering, and violent imagery can even make liberals more open to conservative views and more willing to accept authoritarian policies.


Liberals who gleaned most of their news from television in the days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks increased their support for expanded police powers, bringing them closer in line with the opinions of conservatives, a study by a UW-Madison researcher shows.

In contrast, heavy newspaper reading by liberals was related to lower levels of support for expanded police powers and for limits on privacy and freedom of information, basically reinforcing the differences between liberals and conservatives, says Dietram Scheufele, a journalism professor who conducted the study.

“TV pushed the two groups together in their thinking about post-9/11 policies, such as the Patriot Act. It made liberals more conservative. It took them away from what they initially believed and pushed them more toward a more conservative law-and-order stance,” Scheufele says.

The study, soon to be published in the journal Mass Communications & Society, is based on a survey of nearly 800 residents of Tompkins County, N.Y., in the fall of 2001, shortly after the attacks. Its results have been validated by two subsequent national surveys.

The survey showed that among liberals who watched little television, about 20 percent favored more government police powers. But about 41 percent of liberals who were heavy viewers of TV news supported such measures – much closer to the 50 to 60 percent of conservatives who supported greater police powers, regardless of how much TV news they watched.

The gap between conservatives and liberals widened, however, among heavy newspaper readers.

About 39 percent of light-reading liberals backed restricting freedom of speech in the days after the attacks, versus 31 percent who were heavy newspaper readers. Among conservatives, about 66 percent favored the limits, and nearly 70 percent of heavy readers backed the restrictions.

“Newspaper reading tended to reinforce partisan leanings, partly because it is more selective, readers have more options and seek out their own viewpoints,” Scheufele says. “By contrast, TV coverage is very linear, doesn’t offer any choice and was more image driven. You saw the plane hitting the building time and time again.”

Still, the difference between liberals and conservatives remains true and relevant. Another aspect of this difference has to do with willingness to compromise and seek bipartisanship. I went into the details of this in another post where I pointed out, for example, that Republicans tend to only show strong support for Republican administrations and yet Democrats tend to show strong support no matter which party is in power. In an article I found, the author theorized the liberal attitude had to do with conflict avoidance… which the author thought most closely correlated to the personality trait of ‘agreeableness’ (a trait that both liberals and libertarians tend to test higher on than do conservatives; this could explain why both liberals and libertarians joined together in protesting against Bush starting the Iraq war):


Perhaps the concept of non-partisanship, conflict avoidance, and compromise is inherently appealing to liberal sensibilities.  This can be framed as both a positive or negative trait, as being extremely conflict avoidant could relate to appeasing one’s enemies or being a moral relativist.  Some in the press have observedthat “An endorsement of civility and reason is basically an endorsement of Barack Obama. ‘Reason and civility’ are practically the Democratic party’s platform.”  Perhaps anyone with the motivation to promote reason and civility in politics would necessarily attract a liberal audience, regardless of how truly non-partisan one intended to be.

What psychological traits might relate to being conflict avoidant?  The most obvious trait is Agreeableness, one of the Big Five dimensions of personality, depicted in the below graph ofyourmorals.org data.  As you can see, liberals do score slightly higher on measures of Agreeableness, which includes questions like not finding “fault with others” and being “generally trusting”.

The effect size is fairly small though, so it might help to find some convergent evidence.  I did find this paper, where a nationally representative sample was asked if people “try to avoid getting into political discussions because they can be unpleasant, whether they enjoy discussing politics even though it sometimes leads to arguments, or whether they are somewhere in between.”  There was a small, but significant correlation (r=.07) between being conflict tolerant and being Republican and a smaller, but insignificant correlation (r=.03) between being conflict avoidant and being a Democrat.  This paper cites 6 instances where Agreeableness is negatively linked to conservativism, but also 2 instances where it is positively linked.  It seems like there may be a link between being agreeable overall and being liberal (again, with both positive and negative connotations), but the link is certainly weaker than other effects (e.g. openness to experience or conscientiousness).  Perhaps whatever effect exists due to differences in Agreeableness may be magnified by lower liberal perceptions of ingroup/outgroup distinctions, leading to reduced willingness to engage in conflict with out-groups, as conservatives have heightened concerns about constructs like group loyalty.

This next study connects how all of this relates specifically to being sympathetic to others (outside of one’s focus and, I would add, outside of the focus of one’s self identity or group identity).


In a new study, UNL researchers measured both liberals’ and conservatives’ reaction to “gaze cues” — a person’s tendency to shift attention in a direction consistent with another person’s eye movements, even if it’s irrelevant to their current task — and found big differences between the two groups.

Liberals responded strongly to the prompts, consistently moving their attention in the direction suggested to them by a face on a computer screen. Conservatives, on the other hand, did not.

Why? Researchers suggested that conservatives’ value on personal autonomy might make them less likely to be influenced by others, and therefore less responsive to the visual prompts.

“We thought that political temperament may moderate the magnitude of gaze-cuing effects, but we did not expect conservatives to be completely immune to these cues,” said Michael Dodd, a UNL assistant professor of psychology and the lead author of the study.

Liberals may have followed the “gaze cues,” meanwhile, because they tend to be more responsive to others, the study suggests.

By the way, this would seem to be measuring something similar to traits such as need for closure which has been researched in terms of conservatism (but I’m not sure how strong is the correlation):




Here is another paper showing some of the complexities in trying to demonstrate a correlation:


And here are a couple of responses defending the validity of the research done on conservatism:



Let me return to the study about liberal and conservative view of soldiers and foreigners. Obviously, to want to treat all people equally and fairly (whether a part of one’s group or not) originates from an attitude of conflict avoidance, of ‘agreeableness’, of sympathetic responsivness. Maybe the difference (about how people treat the perceived ‘other’, whether enemy combatants or just innocent civilians) can be seen in the following video about an action the US military took in Afghanistan. The action seems typical of the conservative mindset and the response to the video seems typical of the liberal mindset.

I realize some would point out that we don’t know if anyone was necessarily killed, but then again we don’t know that no one was killed. It isn’t good policy to obliterate villages with bombs without even going into the village to make sure there are no innocent people still there.

Also, put this into context of all the innocent people who have been killed. It’s obvious the US military isn’t actually there to help the people living there. The response to 9/11 is entirely out of proportion. More people have died in our seeking national ‘defense’ and patriotic retribution than were lost on 9/11. Ten years later, we have almost no beneficial result to show for any of it. If anything, there are more terrorists and potential terrorists in Afghanistan and Iraq than before we invaded.

How many innocent Americans died in the 9/11 terrorist attack?


How many innocents have died in Afghanistan?


Civilians killed as a result of insurgent actions

  • direct deaths: at least 4,949 – 6,499

Civilians killed as a result of U.S-led military actions

  • direct deaths: at least 5,791 – 9,060
  • indirect deaths in initial invasion: 3,200 – 20,000
  • direct & indirect deaths: 8,991 – 28,583

Civilians killed as a result of the war

  • direct deaths: at least 11,443 – 14,240
  • indirect deaths: 3,200 – 20,000
  • direct & indirect deaths: 14,643 – 34,240
  • indirect deaths after initial invasion: n/a

How many innocents have died in Iraq?


Source Iraqi casualties Time period
Iraq Family Health Survey 151,000 deaths March 2003 to June 2006
Lancet survey 601,027 violent deaths out of 654,965 excess deaths March 2003 to June 2006
Opinion Research Business survey 1,033,000 deaths as a result of the conflict March 2003 to August 2007
Associated Press 110,600 deaths March 2003 to April 2009
Iraq Body Count project 98,170 — 107,152 civilian deaths as a result of the conflict. 150,726 civilian and combatant deaths[1] March 2003 to October 2010
WikiLeaks. Classified Iraq war logs[2][3][4][5][1] 109,032 deaths January 2004 to December 2009
Year Civilian deaths
2003 12,079
2004 10,834
2005 15,034
2006 27,850
2007 24,677
2008 9,245
2009 4,681
2010 3,576

– – –

I hear the criticisms of all this. The research is biased. Or I’m speculating too much. Or I’m just playing semantic games by separating liberalism from the Democratic Party. Or the fact that most Americans originally supported the wars. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I hear ya. I realize I’m not likely to convince anyone with an opposite opinion (confirmation biasbackfire effect, and the power of misinformation). If you don’t trust any data I have or could share, there ain’t much room for discussion of any kind. Yes, I have a liberal bias which is showing throughout this entire post… from what research interests me to the conclusions I make (I try to be aware of my biases and not get blinded by them, but my success or failure in this regard is for others to decide). I honestly don’t know how to answer criticisms about all of this. I guess just take it or leave it.

Ignoring all that, let me instead consider this issue in light of public opinion (I hope that, even if you don’t trust the opinions of liberals and scientists, you at least trust the opinions of the public). I started this post by pointing out the problems with talking about all of this in a partisan manner. I’m not going to deny that when Bush started the wars many Democrats supported him, that when Bush pushed for the Patriot Act many Democrats patriotically cheered it on… and, of course, that when Obama came into office nothing really changed (or, to put it into the language of Palin, “How’s that hopey, changey thing working out for ya?”). I just don’t care. Fuck the politicians of both parties, a pox on both of their houses. That is my analysis of that issue.

So, public opinion: What does the American people think, specifically what do various demographics think? Is there a clear distinction that can be seen between those on the left and those on the right in terms of support for recent wars?

Public opinion is a good test for the original inquiry considering these wars have very much been a bipartisan effort, but I must point out that even within the limited framework of the two party system there are still major differences to be seen. Even though the Democratic Party may not be a liberal party in the eyes of liberals, many liberals see it as their only option which is why most liberals voted for Obama (liberals want to believe in the rhetoric Democratic politicians spew just as libertarians want to believe in the rhetoric Republican politicians spew). Unfortunately, most polling is done using the categories of Republican and Democrat and I suppose the two parties are rough equivalents to conservative and liberal (in that, even though conservatives exist in both parties, significant numbers of liberals are only found in the Democratic party). Alas, I can’t entirely escape the partisan issue. So, I’ll be forced to rely on polling using partisan labels, but I’ll try to include enough other polling data to clarify the positions of rightwingers and leftwingers.

I’ll start with Afghanistan. The war there was definitely bipartisan and even supported by liberals. Those who attacked on 9/11 were located in Afghanistan, although most of them originated from Saudi Arabia. If it was a partisan issue, it would be expected that mostly Republicans supported the war during the Bush administration and mostly Democrats supported the war when Obama took over… but that isn’t what the data shows.


Support for President Barack Obama’s policy in Afghanistan turns the political landscape upside down. Democrats say 62 – 33 percent the United States should not be there, even though they strongly support President Obama heavily on virtually all other issues. Republicans, who oppose Obama on most issues, back the war 64 – 31 percent. Independent voters say 54 – 40 percent the United States should not be in Afghanistan.

It’s in fact the opposite of what partisan politics would predict. So, Republicans are bipartisan in their support of the Afghanistan War.

So, what about the Iraq War? There was moral and rational justification for the Afghanistan War, but there was no moral or rational justification for the Iraq War. The Iraq War is the very definition of a war of aggression (which is an illegal war and doesn’t meet the standards of a just war).


The political polarization regarding support for the Iraq War has been unprecedented. Recent polls by Gallup and others show that a majority of Republicans now support the war (about 70 percent, on average, versus 25 percent opposed), while an even larger majority of Democrats oppose it (about 15 percent supporting versus 80 percent opposed). At the start of the war, the partisan divide was not as great as it is today: According to a poll taken by Gallup in July 2003, Republicans overwhelmingly favored the United States’s sending troops to Iraq (by 88 percent to 12 percent), while Democrats were evenly divided (49 percent to 49 percent). But one year later, Gallup found, the public had become sharply polarized, as Democrats’ opposition to the war (82 percent versus 16 percent support) reached the exact opposite level of Republicans’ support (82 percent versus 16 percent opposed).

It’s a sad fact that many people believed the lies told by the Bush administration. The public, the media, and the politicians are all to be blamed for not strongly questioning those lies, but it should be pointed out that the two groups that did question the most were the libertarians and liberals. It also should be pointed out that it was mostly Republicans who chose to continue to believe those lies long after they were proven to be intentional misinformation.

Looking at these opinions in historic context, Gallup’s mid-2007 average finding of nearly three-fifths of the public saying the Iraq War was a mistake was somewhat more negative than the highest negative reading the organization obtained during the Korean War, when about half (51 percent) called it a mistake in February-March, 1952, but it was slightly less negative than the worst reading recorded during the Vietnam war in May 1971 (61 percent).

In neither of those conflicts, however, was the public polarized politically to the extent it is today. During the Vietnam War there was little difference by party affiliation on Gallup’s mistake question. And while the Republican/Democrat divide reached seventeen percentage points at the height of public opposition to the Korean War in 1952, when 61 percent of Republicans versus 44 percent of Democrats called it a mistake, this was hardly a third of the current fifty-five-percentage-point partisan divide over Iraq reported in the fall of 2005, when 80 percent of Democrats versus 25 percent of Republicans said the war was mistake.

In contrast to their views on Iraq, most Americans continue to support “sending military forces to Afghanistan” and are far less polarized over it. In August 2007 70 percent of the public told Gallup that sending troops to Afghanistan was not a mistake, with 88 percent of Republicans and 60 percent of Democrats concurring.

Let me clarify a confusion in the above quote. Pundits and politicians may be more polarized now than in the past, but the general public isn’t necessarily more polarized. The public has consensus on many issues. So, the differences of public opinion about different wars can’t simply be chalked up to polarization. In those past wars, there was some justification in that we perceived ourselves fighting a clear enemy who was a clear threat to national security. This wasn’t the case when we invaded Iraq.

Although the difference isn’t polarization in general, maybe it is about specifically polarized opinions about wars of aggression. Liberals and conservatives agree in supporting what are perceived as just wars. Conservatives are more supportive of wars in general, but liberals aren’t. If a war isn’t seen as clearly just, liberal support goes down. This has happened with the Iraq war which was initially perceived as just based on Bush’s lies and then later perceived as unjust (at least by liberals) once the lies were seen for what they were. The Afghanistan war, however, still can be reasonably seen as a just war or seen as having started as a just war.



Most Democrats say the war has not helped keep the U.S. secure (59 percent) while most Republicans say it has (70 percent). Independents split evenly on the question (48 percent has, 48 percent has not).

This demonstrates a difference of worldview. Those on the left believe a war of aggression just leads to more aggression. Those on the right believe that once an enemy has been declared, justly or unjustly, that enemy must be beaten into submission so that they can’t be a further threat.


This change of perception has been driven by the left, who previously claimed that Afghanistan was indeed the only proper war worth fighting:

Although 60 percent of Americans approve of how Obama has handled the situation in Afghanistan, his ratings among liberals have slipped, and majorities of liberals and Democrats alike now, for the first time, solidly oppose the war and are calling for a reduction in troop levels.

Overall, seven in 10 Democrats say the war has not been worth its costs, and fewer than one in five support an increase in troop levels.

Among the right, the war there is still seen as worth fighting and winning:

Republicans (70 percent say it is worth fighting) and conservatives (58 percent) remain the war’s strongest backers, and the issue provides a rare point of GOP support for Obama’s policies. A narrow majority of conservatives approve of the president’s handling of the war (52 percent), as do more than four in 10 Republicans (43 percent).

Interestingly, as the article states, this is a “rare point of GOP support for Obama’s policies”. And it pits both Obama and the GOP against the left and, I would guess, a Congress which will eventually reflect the constituency against the war that the numbers above show. There’s a reason for that.

That last bit of commentary fits my own analysis. On many issues, Obama’s stated opinions and policies are more in line with Republicans. Assuming Obama is a liberal, he is a very moderate and centrist liberal. Certainly, self-identified liberals take issue with labeling Obama a liberal. Yes, to the rightwinger, Obama is a liberal… but, then again, almost everyone in America is to the left of the far right (by definition).

All of this becomes more complex with more specific data.


The first two sets of data show public opinion from 2002. The third set of data is about public opinion during a past war. Interestingly, in both cases, the young are less wary about war (maybe it’s a case of wisdom coming with age). I doubt this youth support of war has anything directly to do with partisan politics. However, the youth opinion of today is essentially the same as the liberal opinion. Like liberals and Democrats in general, today’s youth initially supported both wars and since have had shrinking support, especially for the Iraq war. However, there is other more recent data which I’ve posted elsewhere. Here is the specific quote that caught my attention when looking at the report:


To be sure, Millennials remain the most likely of any generation to self-identify as liberals; they are less supportive than their elders of an assertive national security policy and more supportive of a progressive domestic social agenda. They are still more likely than any other age group to identify as Democrats.

It is interesting that they are the most liberal and most Democratic of any generation. I should clarify the two sets of youth data aren’t entirely comparable. The 2002 data refers to 18-29 year olds which would include both younger GenXers and older Millennials. GenXers are the most Republican of any generation (although younger GenXers are less Republican) and so maybe the 2002 data is too skewed to use as a comparison with the more recent Millenial data.

Let us look at other detailed info from Pew’s Beyond Red vs Blue (2005).

The liberal demographic (which is one of the youngest demographics) strongly disagrees with and most conservatives (in particular, conservative Republicans) strongly agree with the following:

  • Opposes lowering defense/military spending in order to reduce deficit
  • Using military force against countries that may seriously threaten our countrybut have not attacked us
  • Using military force in Iraq was the right decision
  • The U.S. militaryeffort in Iraq going fairly well

The interesting thing about the data is that conservative Democrats are more closely aligned with liberals than with conservative Republicans. This could be interpreted in two ways: 1) partisan politics has more effect on public opinion than does the left/right divide; or 2) conservative Democrats are far less conservative than conservative Republicans. I think both are true, but the second interpretation is important because it demonstrates how labels have different meanings in different contexts. Rightwing conservatives wouldn’t consider conservative Democrats as ‘real’ conservatives. So, when I use the term ‘rightwinger’, I’m intentionally making a distinction between the far right and the average American who identifies as conservative. I don’t think conservatives in general are warmongering, but I do think that the data shows far right conservatives (i.e., rightwingers) are more prone to support war. As a related example of this distinction, most Americans identify as conservative and most Americans don’t support torture, but most Southern Evangelicals (i.e., the religious right) do support torture. Another example about attitudes toward violence is that 28% of Republicans (but only 11% of Democrats and 11% of Independents) answered ‘yes’ to the question, “Do you think it is ever justified for citizens to take violent action against the government, or is it never justified?” As for the Iraq war, the religious right were the strongest supporters from the beginning (which might be because the president was a born-again who portrayed the War on Terrorism as a holy war).


Washington: Of the major religious groups in the United States, evangelical Christians are the biggest backers of Israel and Washington’s planned war against Iraq, says a new survey released here on 9 October by a politically potent group of fundamentalist Christians and Jews.

Some 69% of conservative Christians favour military action against Baghdad; 10 percentage points more than the US adult population as a whole.

However, it’s not necessarily just the religious right. Republicans in general remain the strongest supporters of Afghanistan despite there being little beneficial results shown for all the money spent and lives lost. Here is from very recent data:


CNN is out with a NEW POLL showing that support among Americans for the war in Afghanistan has declined dramatically in the past two years.

Nearly two-thirds of respondents are opposed to the war, while only 35 percent support it. Interestingly, perhaps even predictably, Republicans are much more likely than Democrats or independents to back the U.S. war effort.

Which brings to mind the extent to which concepts of American patriotism have been influenced — or distorted, in a sense — by Republicans with regard to our country’s military involvement in the so-called War on Terror.

For the past decade, Republicans have tended to think of themselves as more-patriotic-than-thou and have generally been enthusiastic supporters of U.S. military adventurism. They’ve been quick to characterize war dissenters as cut-and-run appeasers, if not cowards or enemy sympathizers.

The article offers some useful context by looking at public opinion over this last century (unfotunately, the graph doesn’t show the party differences):


But it wasn’t always that way. Back in the day, when the GOP was controlled mainly by isolationists, its rank-and-file was often opposed to U.S. involvement in foreign wars. Republicans were against American intervention in World War I (and vehemently opposed Woodrow Wilson’s efforts to create the League of Nation’s at the end of that war). Republicans also were staunchly opposed to U.S. involvement in World War II prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

[…] Nor were Republicans especially hawkish about U.S. military involvement in Vietnam. In a Gallup poll conducted in June of 1967, a majority of Republican respondents said Vietnam was a mistake, while only one-third of Democrats agreed with them.

Even as American forces were leaving Southeast Asia and communist forces were overrunning Vietnam and neighboring Cambodia, most Republican respondents in a 1975 Gallup poll opposed any further U.S. military aid to the friendly governments in those countries.

Briefly stated, then, Republicans tended to be fairly dovish through much of the 20th century.

That goes back to my original point. It can’t be denied that the GOP today is the war party, but that is far from saying the GOP has always been the war party. Back when the GOP had a leftwing, Republicans were much more weak in their support for war. And, back when the Democratic Party was more conservative, Democrats were much stronger in their support for war. So, support for war can’t be determined merely by partsan identification. The determining factor is whether a particular party is more conservative or more liberal.

– – –

I want to wrap this up with one last issue about confounding factors which I briefly mentioned near the beginning of this post.

Here is one view on the issue of rightwingers. The author, Corey Robin, begins with giving the history of those who first analyzed this ideological phenomenon.

This year is the 60th anniversary of the publication of The Authoritarian Personality. Once this was the most famous of Theodor Adorno’s works. Today it’s largely forgotten. With one exception: its indelible portrait of the “pseudo-conservative.” Although Richard Hofstadter is often credited with the term—his essay “The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt” appeared in 1955—it was Adorno and his three co-authors who first identified the type: that vengeful and violent citizen who avows his faith in calm and restraint while agitating for policies that “would abolish the very institutions with which he appears to identify himself.” The pseudo-conservative, in other words, is no conservative at all. Prone to “violence, anarchic impulses, and chaotic destructiveness,” he loves war and longs for bedlam in the streets. He has “little in common,” in Hofstadter’s words, “with the temperate and compromising spirit of true conservatism.”

He then presents the common distinction between the real conservative and those who supposedly are falsely identifying as conservative.

While the contrast between the true conservative and the pseudo-conservative has been drawn in different ways—the first reads Burke, the second doesn’t read; the first defends ancient liberties, the second derides them; the first seeks to limit government, the second to strengthen it—the distinction often comes down to the question of violence. Where the pseudo-conservative is captivated by war, Sullivan claims that the true conservative “wants peace and is content only with peace.” The true conservative’s endorsements of war, such as they are, are the weariest of concessions to reality. He knows that we live and love in the midst of great evil. That evil must be resisted, sometimes by violent means. All things being equal, he would like to see a world without violence. But all things are not equal, and he is not in the business of seeing the world as he’d like it to be.

For the rest of the article, Robin makes the case for this distinction being false.

The question for us, which Burke neither poses nor answers, is: What kind of political form entails this simultaneity of—or oscillation between—aggrandizement and annihilation? One possibility is hierarchy, with its twin requirements of submission and domination; the other is violence, particularly warfare, with its rigid injunction to kill or be killed. Perhaps not coincidentally, both are of great significance to conservatism as a theoretical tradition and historical practice.

Consistent with Burke’s argument, however, the conservative often favors the latter over the former. Once we are assured of our power over another being, says Burke, it loses its capacity to harm or threaten us. Make a creature useful and obedient, and “you spoil it of every thing sublime.” It becomes an object of contempt, contempt being “the attendant on a strength that is subservient and innoxious.” At least one-half, then, of the experience of hierarchy—the experience of ruling another—is incompatible with, and indeed weakens, the sublime. Confirmed of our power, we are lulled into the same ease and comfort, undergo the same inward melting, that we experience while in the throes of pleasure.

Rule may sometimes be sublime—our power is not always so assured or secure—but violence is more sublime. Most sublime of all is when the two are fused, when violence is performed for the sake of creating, defending, or recovering a regime of domination. But history does not always present such opportunities. The conservative must settle for the lesser good of war, pure and simple. Thus, when Carl Schmitt declares that the fundamental distinction in politics to which all “actions and motives can be reduced is that between friend and enemy,” he merely formalizes an axiom that had been stirring the conservative mind for more than a century.

That is an attractive argument and I’m partly persuaded by it. I do think there is some truth in it, but I’m not entirely sure it fully or perfectly captures the reality. Bob Altemeyer, in his book The Authoritarians, provides his own definition of a ‘rightwinger’.


Authoritarian followers usually support the established authorities in theirsociety, such as government officials and traditional religious leaders. Such peoplehave historically been the “proper” authorities in life, the time-honored, entitled,customary leaders, and that means a lot to most authoritarians. Psychologically thesefollowers have personalities featuring:
1) a high degree of submission to the established, legitimate authorities intheir society;
2) high levels of aggression in the name of their authorities; and
3) a high level of conventionalism.
Because the submission occurs to traditional authority, I call these followers rightwingauthoritarians. I’m using the word “right” in one of its earliest meanings, for inOld English “riht”(pronounced “writ”) as an adjective meant lawful, proper, correct,doing what the authorities said.

But then qualifies this definition by pointing out that rightwing as a psychological trait isn’t necessarily the same thing as rightwing as a political ideology.

In North America people who submit to the established authorities to extraordinary degrees often turn out to be political conservatives, 2 so you can call them “right-wingers” both in my new-fangled psychological sense and in the usual political sense as well. But someone who lived in a country long ruled by Communists and who ardently supported the Communist Party would also be one of my psychological right-wing authoritarians even though we would also say he was a political left-winger. So a right-wing authoritarian follower doesn’t necessarily have conservative political views. Instead he’s someone who readily submits to the established authorities in society, attacks others in their name, and is highly conventional. It’s an aspect of his personality, not a description of his politics. Rightwing authoritarianism is a personality trait, like being characteristically bashful or happy or grumpy or dopey.

You could have left-wing authoritarian followers as well, who support a revolutionary leader who wants to overthrow the establishment. I knew a few in the 1970s, Marxist university students who constantly spouted their chosen authorities, Lenin or Trotsky or Chairman Mao. Happily they spent most of their time fighting with each other, as lampooned in Monty Python’s Life of Brian where the People’sFront of Judea devotes most of its energy to battling, not the Romans, but the Judean People’s Front. But the left-wing authoritarians on my campus disappeared long ago. Similarly in America “the Weathermen” blew away in the wind. I’m sure one can find left-wing authoritarians here and there, but they hardly exist in sufficient number snow to threaten democracy in North America. However I have found bucketfuls of right-wing authoritarians in nearly every sample I have drawn in Canada and the United States for the past three decades. So when I speak of “authoritarian followers” in this book I mean right-wing authoritarian followers, as identified by the RWA scale.

Altemeyer clarifies this with research.

As soon as Gorbachev lifted the restraints on doing psychological research in the Soviet Union an acquaintance of mine, Andre Kamenshikov, administered a survey to students at Moscow State University with the same freedom that western researchers take for granted. The students answered the RWA scale and as well a series of questions about who was the “good guy” and who was the “bad guy” in the Cold War. For example, did the USSR start the arms race, or the USA? Would the United States launch a sneak nuclear attack on the Soviet Union if it knew it could do so without retaliation? Would the USSR do that to the United States? Does the Soviet Union have the right to invade a neighbor who looks like it might become allied with the United States? Does the USA have that right when one of its neighbors starts cozying up to the USSR? At the same time Andre was doing his study, I asked the same questions at three different American universities.

We found that in both countries the high RWAs believed their government’sversion of the Cold War more than most people did. Their officials wore the white hats, the authoritarian followers believed, and the other guys were dirty rotten warmongers. And that’s most interesting, because it means the most cock-sure belligerents in the populations on each side of the Cold War, the ones who hated and blamed each other the most, were in fact the same people, psychologically. If they had grown up on the other side of the Iron Curtain, they probably would have believed the leaders they presently despised, and despised the leaders they now trusted. They’d have been certain the side they presently thought was in the right was in the wrong, and instead embraced the beliefs they currently held in contempt.

Based on the research, several things relevant to this post can be concluded about Right-Wing Authoritarians (RWAs):

1) RWAs support/promote violence and war.

[…] high RWAs tend to make an ambiguous situation dangerous […] are likely to turn a secure situation into a dangerous one.

2) RWAs aren’t well informed (which relates to their higher rates of hypocrisy).

Dunwoody, Plane, Rice and Rothrock thus found that as late as August 2005 andJanuary 2006 high RWA Pennsylvania college students were likely to have inaccurateperceptions of the war in Iraq in all the areas tested. They believed Iraq had usedchemical or biological weapons against American troops, that Iraq’s government washighly connected with al-Qaida, that Americans had found evidence in Iraq thatSaddam was working closely with al-Qaida, that most people in the world favored theUnited States’ going to war in Iraq, and so did most people in Europe. They alsobelieved that the U.S. had found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but this wasonly statistically significant at the .09 level. In general the students were betterinformed than the American public as a whole, but the authoritarian followers amongthem still carried a lot of demonstrably erroneous beliefs around in their heads.

3) RWAs have a strong tendency to rationalize away inconvenient facts.

David Winters of the University of Michigan found in 2005 that the high RWAs in a largesample of university students believed the invasion of Iraq constituted a just war. They thoughtthe danger posed by Iraq was so great, the United States had no other choice. They thought theinvasion occurred only as a last resort, after all peaceful alternatives had been exhausted, and thatthe war would bring about more good than evil. They rejected the notion that the failure to findweapons of mass destruction showed the “pre-emptive” attack had not been necessary for selfdefense.They also rejected the suggestion that the war was conducted to control oil supplies andextend American power, or as an act of revenge. And they still believed that Saddam had beeninvolved in the 9/11 attacks.

4) RWAs, at least in the North American population, have weak correlation to fiscal conservatism and strong correlation to social conservatism.

RWA scale scores correlated highest with attitudes against samesexmarriage, abortion, drugs, pornography, women’s equality, unconventionalbehavior and free speech, and with support for the Patriot Act and America’s “right”to spread democracy by military force. In contrast, the relationships with economicissues (taxation, minimum wage, the public versus private sector, free trade) proved much weaker. The data thus indicate, as do a lot of other findings, that high RWAs are“social conservatives” to a much greater extent that they are “economic conservatives.”

To give more context in American politics, here is an excerpt from another book (Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics by Hetherington and Weiler):

Those who score high in authoritarianism tend to have a different cognitive style than those who score low. The former tend to view the world in more concrete, black and white terms (Altemeyer 2996; Stenner zoos). This is probably because they have a greater than average need for order. In contrast, those who score lower in authoritarianism have more comfort with ambiguous shades of gray, which allow for more nuanced judgments.

Perhaps because of these cognitive differences, people who are more authoritarian make stronger than average distinctions between in-groups – the groups they identify with – and out-groups – groups that they perceive challenge them. Such a tendency has the effect of imposing order and minimizing ambiguity. In addition, those who are more authoritarian embrace and work to protect existing social norms (Feldman zoo3). These conventions are time-tested in their ability to maintain order. Altering norms could result in unpredictable changes with undesirable consequences.

Since the more authoritarian view the social order as fragile and under attack (Altemeyer 1996), they tend to feel negatively about, behave aggressively toward, and be intolerant of those whom they perceive violate time-honored norms or fail to adhere to established social conventions (Stenner zoo5). Specifically, scholars have shown a strong relationship between authoritarianism and negative affect toward many minority groups. Over the past fifty years, these groups have included Jews (Adorno et al. 1950; but see Raden 1999), African Americans (Sniderman and Piazza 1993), gays (Barker and Tinnick zoo6), and Arabs after September ii (Huddy et al. zoo5).6

Authoritarianism is a particularly attractive explanation for changes in contemporary American politics because it structures opinions about both domestic and foreign policy issues. In addition to having concerns about racial difference and social change, those who are more authoritarian tend to prefer more muscular responses to threats than those who are less. A proverbial punch to the mouth of an adversary results in a less ambiguous outcome than, say, negotiation or diplomacy. Not surprisingly, scholars have consistently drawn links between authoritarianism and a hawkish attitude toward foreign policy and resolution of conflict (Lipset 11959; Eckhardt and Newcombe 11969; Altemeyer 11996; Perrin zoos). Those scoring high in authoritarianism were also more likely than those scoring low to support military action after the September 1111 terrorist attacks (Huddy et al. zoos). Viewed as a whole, research on authoritarianism suggests that the same disposition that might dispose people to be anti-black or anti-gay might also dispose them to favor military conflict over diplomacy and protecting security over preserving civil liberties. A preference for order and a need to minimize ambiguity connects both impulses.

The events from another time in history provide suggestive evidence that the same disposition motivates both. Particularly in the early 1950s, Senator Joseph McCarthy set his sights not only on rooting communist elements out of the State Department and other government agencies. He also focused his attention, for a time, on purging homosexuals. McCarthy pointed to supposed links between communism and homosexuality, and his speeches often made passing reference to “Communists and queers” (Johnson zoo4). Other conservative senators, including Styles Bridges, Kenneth Wherry, and Clyde Hoey, pressed the issue of homosexuality along with communism during the Red Scare as well.

All this suggests that preferences about many of the new issues on the American political agenda, such as gay rights, the war in Iraq, the proper response to terrorism, and immigration are likely structured by authoritarianism. These are all potentially divisive topics, characterized by deeply held, gut-level views. Although contemporary American politics is perhaps not polarized in a strict definitional sense, insofar as preferences are not increasing number of salient issues are structured by a deeply felt worldview, specifically authoritarianism.

– – –

In conclusion:

1) The Republican Party is presently associated with rightwing politics (social conservatism), but it wasn’t always.

2) Social conservatism in the US is presently correlated with Right-Wing Authoritarianism, but this correlation is partly culture dependent.

3) Right-Wing Authoritarianism has been shown in research to include a predisposition to supporting of violence and war.

Let me return to my original comment:

“I always wonder why rightwingers love war so much. Looking past all the patriotic propaganda, destroyed lives is the reality of war. But once the soldiers come home all the lovers of war suddenly stop caring.”

Have I proven this to be true? Have I at least provided enough supporting evidence?

I think I have. I haven’t necessarily explained why Right-Wing Authoritarians are the way they are, but I have provided the correlations for how Right-Wing Authoritarian attitudes play out in American politics.

If one wishes to say that this has little to do with real conservatism, I’m fine with that. I honestly admit to not being sure what true conservatism might be. The people I consider true conservatives (or, at least, respectable and reasonable conservatives) are people like John W. Dean and Meghan McCain who vocally criticize the radical rightwingers who have taken over the conservative movement. I’d love to see some other version of conservatism to take the place of the present radical rightwingers.

Right Vs Left: Personality Differences

Here is a video on one of my favorite subjects or rather my favorite intersection of subjects. It’s an interview with Jonathan Weiler who recently wrote a book about the sociological study of authoritarianism in terms of US politics (I just bought his book and so I probably will be writing more about it). This is the same area of study that Bob Altemeyer has written about (Altemeyer’s research having been referenced in John W. Dean’s writing about contemporary conservatism).

Here is an article Jonathan Weiler wrote about all of this:


“It is not that all Republicans are authoritarians; nor that all Democrats are non-authoritarian. Far from it. And people adopt party affiliations for a variety of reasons. But whereas those with the authoritarian cognitive style used to be more evenly split between the parties, decades of appeals for “states rights”, “law and order”, and against ERA, gay rights and immigration reform have concentrated this particular personality type in the GOP. And the consequence of that decades-long process has been the emergence of a Republican party that is, to a remarkable degree, built on viscera — on appeals to anger and resentment, and a deeply-felt conviction that America is breaking down irretrievably and that the way to stop that process is to demonize and marginalize outgroups deemed responsible for that breakdown. And this is no longer a geographically confined phenomenon, but a fully national one.”

“The fact that the more and less authoritarian now find homes in opposite political parties has made our politics almost impossibly acrimonious. When Democrats raise what they view as legitimate concerns about tolerating those who are different, the base of the Republican Party does not understand. And when Republicans bring up what they view as legitimate views about safety, security and threats to our way of life, the base of the Democratic party does not understand. Party loyalists are no longer wrangling over policy differences. Instead, they represent fundamentally opposed personalities, which prioritize, in many ways, incommensurate, values.”

If you find this as intriguing as I find it, then you might enjoy some of my other posts (which reference research about personality besides just authoritarianism):