Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Conservative Brain

I recently pointed to an interesting article about a scientific study that found real differences between liberal and conservative brains. You should read it your own self, but the upshot is that us liberals are, for reasons not yet explained, far more comfortable with ambiguity and complexity than our conservative counterparts.
Exploring the neurobiology of politics, scientists have found that liberals tolerate ambiguity and conflict better than conservatives because of how their brains work.
Big duh, you say.

Then I marveled at the immediate popularity of newly announced Republican presidential candidate and empty Gucci Fred Thompson. Some polls already put him in a virtual dead heat with previous frontrunner Nineleven Giuliani.

How can that be? Thompson was, by all reports, a zero as a Senator. He has admitted that he doesn't go to church. He has said virtually nothing about anything, and what little he has said has been fluffy nonsense. His entire candidacy seems to be a bet that he can convince enough Republicans that he is a smart, tough-as-nails straight shooter because he has made a career of playing smart, tough-as-nails straight shooters on the teevee.

And then it hit me.

I suddenly understood, really for the first time, how Reagan and Arnold parlayed their cardboard screen personae into elected office.

When presented with the conflict between the reality of who these actors are and their manicured screen images, we understand and accept that there is a conflict. We understand and are comfortable holding two facts that point in different directions. But conservatives cannot live with an unresolved chord. And they resolve it by rejecting the possibility that there is a difference between characters and the actors who play them.

Think about the overwhelming evidence for this hypothesis. It is why Ronnie continued to play cowboy (in the wilds if Santa Barbara) well into his dotage. It is why Shrub bought hisself a (horseless) ranch in Texas and clears brush every few weeks. If you play a cowboy, you are a cowboy. Now it is working for Fred Thompson -- if you play a straight-arrow prosecutor, you are a straight arrow prosecutor. The tassel-loafered, adulterous pro-abortion lobbyist? That's some other guy.

Suspension of disbelief, the goal of actors and filmmakers, is a meaningless concept for this audience. They have no disbelief to suspend. For these conservatives, separating person from persona is a bridge too far.

And this phemomenon isn't (or isn't necessarily) pure cynical Rovian spin. Reagan and Bush were conservatives themselves. Reagan's famous claim that he was there when the Allies liberated the Nazi concentration camps (he was safely billeted in Culver City for the duration) is powerful evidence that he believed his own absurd narrative. Bush is a real Texas roughneck in the theater of his mind. The actors themselves seem as deluded as their audiences.

And I am struck by something Jon Stewart said last night while talking to Robert Draper, the author of "Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush". Stewart noted that Bush is proud of the person he thinks he is, but is in fact exactly the opposite of who he thinks he is. Of course -- Bush believes his own mythology.

Want more evidence? Look at the contrasting relationship between liberals and actors. If we thought like they do, Martin Sheen would be our nominee. Every liberal I know gets teary-eyed at the thought of Jed Bartlett as President. But we understand that Bartlett was a character, played by an actor. And despite the fact that Martin Sheen has been a real-life political activist for years, we extrapolate precisely nothing about his suitability for high office from his fine performances on West Wing.

More? Remember when Dan Quayle took on Murphy Brown? The fact that the sitting Vice President of the United States was jousting with a fictitious character about unwed motherhood never seemed to register with the social values crowd.

This explains so much. It is perhaps confirming evidence of a Unified Field Theory of Wingnuttery. It is of a piece with the Manichean worldview Glenn Greenwald has been talking and writing about (we are good, ergo nothing we do can be bad). And I have chipped away at this question before myself. But it has never really resonated like this for me before. And, of course, it makes Fred Thompson's appeal obvious -- they really think they are voting for District Attorney Arthur Branch.

I look back on the difference between my reaction to Reagan in 1980 and Dubya in 2000 and that of my conservative friends and see that I might as well have been speaking in tongues when I ridiculed them. They were seeking clarity. They wanted an uncomplicated, monochromatic narrative. My efforts to help the scales fall from their eyes were threats to that narrative. And preserving the comfort of the simple, ambiguity-free story trumped annoyances like conflicting facts. Like the worst stereotype of a Hollywood producer, they consigned all subplots that added dimensionality to the cutting room floor.

Is it any wonder the Republicans keep flocking to empty suits whose resumes are found not in the Congressional Record but in IMDB? Hollywood deals in exactly the unambiguous, airbrushed heroes these conservatives want -- the kind that does not exist in the complex, unscripted world of actual people.

What I'm describing isn't cognitive dissonance, exactly. That form of dissonance requires, well, cognition. And what is on display here is the desire or perhaps even the need to remain at arm's length from such intellectual dirty work. And that has some troubling implications.

I worry now that this problem is the mirror-image of the problem (from the conservative point of view -- not from mine) of homosexuality. They make gays evil by calling homosexuality a choice -- a choice they see as fundamentally wrong. But if homosexuality is hardwired, their worldview takes a serious hit. If it isn't a choice, they have a much harder time arguing that gays should "see the light" and go straight.

We have been condemning wingnuttery as a choice. But what if it isn't? What if the study cited above leads to the discovery of an observable difference in brain structure and/or electrochemistry? What if a significant slice of the population is just plain incapable of seeing shades of gray -- if they are politically color blind? What if they are, at some fundamental level, hardwired not to see the light?

I just threw up in my mouth a little.


Blogger Eric Soderstrom said...

Great stuff. I'd like to accept this idea and move in to a discussion of nature vs. nurture. Are liberals and conservatives born that way or made that way?

I love those moments when everything makes sense, at least for a little while. My most recent moment like this was when I came across an mp3 interview with Joe Bageant. Which led to me buying and reading "Deer Hunting With Jesus." I highly recommend that book. It takes the same look at the voters who support the right as "What's The Matter With Kansas," but without the condescension.

1:11 PM  
Blogger bluememe said...

I guess I need to read Baegent's book, then, because I am in real need of anti-condescension lessons.

No clue as to nature/nurture -- but I agree it is an interesting (and dangerous) question.

Thanks for hanging in here, esoder. I know I don't post as often as I used to, but I'd like to think that I can still bring it once in a while. And comments are the only feedback I get.

7:47 PM  
Blogger Eric Soderstrom said...

No worries. I know comments feed the blogger's soul and all. I've just been busy, too.

Here's a link to the mp3...

Give it a listen and see if you dig it.

Howard Zinn says that Joe Bageant "...evokes working class America like no one else." Joe does, in fact, bring us a large dose of raw intelligence from the hinterlands. And a particularly convincing argument, laid out more fully in his recent book Deer Hunting With Jesus, why if the Democrats can't enlist poor white working people they'll not only continue to lose elections but could hardly be called the "liberal" party. I thoroughly enjoyed talking with Joe — I not only appreciate his taking the time, but in opening up in a very personal way Joe reminds us what's really important. This is a long conversation with a total runtime of an hour and forty seven minutes. Enjoy!

1:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have often noticed dyed-in-the-wool liberals (my father, my wife) who grew up in deeply conservative households, and yet who never even for a moment bought into the world view of the rest of their families.

These liberals immediately saw directly through the holes in the comfortable myths and stories that sustained their parents. They simply never needed the comfort enough to ignore the inconsistancies. It is not as if they were better educated. For example, anyone could see that two of every animal on the planet could not fit onto a sigle boat. Just think of all of the damn bugs out there after all.

Perhaps mental wiring is playing a significant role here. I believe it.

10:09 AM  
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Anonymous Generic Viagra said...

It is quite interesting that the way that people look things are really related to the way that brain works.

1:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Re: Nature vs. nurture -

I am in a particularly unique position to expound on the above. Having found my birth family at age 50, I have now had to readjust my former opinion (nature/nurture, 50/50) to nature, 90%, nurture 10%.

While one subjective experience doth not a scientific fact make, mine, and other adoptees similar experiences, leads me to believe that -alas - the conservative mind as discussed here is sadly, probably 90% hardwired. It also, imo, explains the vast numbers of the (xtian conservative) religious to be found amongst this same group. Xtianity is comforting to them, because it has finite rules and a parental authority structure.

8:11 AM  
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Anonymous Elliott Broidy said...

Love your story.

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