Chris Mooney On ‘The Republican Brain’ And What Gets In President Obama’s Way
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.
Was the backlash associated with the Romney ’47 percent’ tape and Todd Akin’s comments an example of Republicans being aware that they need to hide their worldview?
Well, I think the media guided both of those stories. But smart conservatives could see that both comments were huge political losers—and frankly, I think the remarks went so far afield that many conservatives would not agree with them substantively. They just feel wrong. Indeed, the “47 percent” and “victims” remarks smack of a kind of economic individualism run wild, more appealing to a very strong strain of libertarianism than conservatism per se. And that is a minority view and probably always will be. There’s just no way such a comment would not be a political liability. It utterly lacks empathy. That may be the chief liberal emotion, but it is not like moderates and conservatives don’t feel it too.
This election we’ve added jobs numbers and polls to the long list of things right-wingers do not trust. What’s that about?
This is a more raw, real-time version of conservatives denying inconvenient facts because they cut against their view of reality—and because they are going against their team. It’s like conservatives are shouting at the ref because they don’t like the call. Liberals seem to have much better checks on this sort of behavior, largely because there are so many academics and scholars on the left who won’t tolerate it, who will shoot it down. That’s partly a result of different behavior of left-right “elites,” but I believe the elites have different psychologies too, and tend to be driven to the left or to the right by the same forces as the general public.
What do you think got in Barack Obama’s way during the last debate?
He was a textbook case of a kind of liberal psychology that mars effective communication. If you are too tolerant of and sensitive to nuance and ambiguity, it is easy to get mired in details and complexities and fail to have a message, or to demonstrate what others perceive to be decisive leadership. I think that is what we have seen of Obama on many occasions, and most of all in the dreadful first debate performance. In contrast, Mitt Romney showed many conservative traits in the debate, including decisiveness and conviction and, notably, extroversion. That’s not generally a big difference between left and right, but some studies do say conservatives are more extroverted. Clearly, Romney was way more extroverted than Obama—and Jim Lehrer—that night, and I am pretty sure that he is in general. That means he is going to be hard for Obama to handle.
Romney’s campaign famously said fact-checkers would not dictate their campaign. You write about how Republicans being rated false more often by fact-checkers is seen as evidence of bias. Are fact-checkers helping?
Fact-checkers are very good at being generally factually correct. Sometimes they bend a bit to be politically balanced, though, which is an intellectual (if not necessarily strategic) weakness. Since my book came out, more data on the work of fact-checkers has backed up the idea that Republicans are just more factually incorrect in their claims than Democrats. Indeed, this is the very phenomenon, especially with regard to errors and false claims about science, that the book sought to explain. So fact-checkers are helping by giving us a lot of rich data about how the right works and how much it errs — but they themselves are afraid of the conclusion that their own body of work demonstrates. Because if I’m right, then the whole “mainstream” media ought to be doing its job very differently.
George Lakoff has argued that there’s no such thing as a swing voter—just voters who hold both right- and left-leaning views. Does that fit the science?
Sure. Well, first, there are clueless voters, or clueless nonvoters. People who aren’t engaged enough to even know which party stokes their emotions, or what their political hot buttons are. But then there are informed moderates, and they can have blended political personalities or political emotions. This is why Democrats, to be successful, inevitably have to annoy their base. Because moderates will want to hear something very different— and to see a very different style—than the left base does. And to win nationally, you have to win both over. Democrats in general would be better of if their leaders—e.g., President Obama—and their base alike understood political psychology. Such an understanding would make Obama much less inclined to wallow in details and fail to have a message—even as it would also make the base much more loyal and trusting when Obama tacks to the center, as he often must.
We often hear that demographics are working against the GOP. Is the conservative media—the “bubble”—helping or hurting them as they try to remain competitive?
I was beginning to think they were hurting themselves, by creating an echo chamber of unreality. Up through the conventions, it really looked like the Obama campaign was playing the strategic game perfectly, while the right and its media couldn’t see reality. Now, though, the tables seem to have turned. In the long run, it is hard to see how a party whose greatest appeal is to an older, white set of voters isn’t threatened. But while the Republican Party might ultimately have to change, psychological conservatism won’t go away. It’ll find different political objects to attach itself to. It’ll always be with us because like liberalism, it is part of human nature — parts that we’re still afraid to recognize.
Photo credit: AP Photo/Bill Haber