Many liberals are confounded by the American right wing’s complete willingness to live in their own “bubble” when it comes to issues like evolution or climate science. Are they purposely denying facts in order to justify their worldview, even if leads them to voting against their own interests? Or do right-wingers and liberals just experience reality in fundamentally different ways?
Chris Mooney—author of The Republican Brain—is on a mission to inject psychology and science in general into politics, exposing how the inner workings of the human mind predispose us to certain beliefs. In this Q and A with The National Memo, he exposes how Republicans learned to love Mitt Romney, what got in the president’s way during the last debate, and why liberals inevitably have to piss off their base to be successful.
How does the Republican brain see the world?
In general—there will always be important exceptions—conservatives tend to see the world in more concrete, black-and-white terms than do liberals, and are more certain of their views. They’re also more decisive, more organized… but overall, less nuanced.They’re more supportive of their group or political team, and more deferential to perceived authorities. This is the conclusion of a large body of personality and moral psychology research, showing that some of the chief motivating factors behind the political views that you adopt are your underlying personality traits and style of thinking, and your moral emotions. These are the things that make certain political views “feel right” to us, before we’re even consciously thinking about them.
Your book describes how right-wingers have trouble with “uncertainty.” How do you reconcile that with supporting Mitt Romney—who has flipped on every significant issue during his political career?
Well, the research definitely says that liberals tend to be more tolerant of ambiguity and uncertainty. Sometimes too tolerant, e.g., President Obama’s recent debate flop, where he failed to have a message and show conviction and leadership. But how this plays out in the real world is complex, because it’s a matter of subjective perception. We might think that Mitt Romney’s views are very hard to pin down, making it hard to understand who he is, and leaving him as an ambiguous political stimulus. But do conservatives think that too, or are they finding certainty and conviction that he is their man to beat Obama? Because if they’re sure of the latter, we would expect them to back him firmly—if for no other reason than that they really, really don’t like the president.
Republicans have rushed to Romney since his debate “win” in a way they’ve previously resisted. What does this say about the Republican brain?
I think a lot of conservatives, for a long time, lacked a sense of closure in accepting Romney as their leader; the man they’d follow to the end—which is how they felt about George W. Bush. Romney wasn’t clearly one of them. He was more of a moderate, not a staunch conservative, at least based on his record. Recently, and especially after the debate—where, notably, Romney showed many traits that appeal to conservatives, like decisiveness and certainty—I think they’ve closed on the idea that he’s their man.