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On Mixed Minds: Liberal- Conservatives and Conservative- Liberals

Published: Thursday 27 September 2012
“If we really want to understand conservatism and liberalism—indeed, anything human--we have to give up simplistic consistency.”


In a previous op-ed, “When Liberals Deny Reality: Demonizing Conservatives While Idealizing Liberals.” (Nation of Change, Saturday, September 22, 2012), I praised a recent book by Chris Mooney (The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science—and Reality, Wiley, 2012). In spite of this, I was nonetheless highly critical of it.

There is no question whatsoever that I basically agreed with Mooney’s characterization of conservatives and liberals. Conservatives are generally fearful of and highly resistant to change, have an obsessive need for order and predictability, prize individual differences (money, status, etc.), and believe in hierarchy over community and egalitarianism. In short, they are closed-minded and don’t believe in science, especially if it conflicts with their deep-seated religious and social beliefs.

In sharp contrast, liberals generally believe strongly in reasoned argument, logic, and science. They are not only extremely open to change, but to learning from their own errors, and from the views of others.

Nonetheless, as much as I agreed with Mooney on the key differences between conservatives and liberals, I parted sharp company with him with regard to his overly simplistic and highly idealized characterizations of academics and scientists. While academics and scientists may be liberals politically, they are not necessarily when it comes to their day-to-day work. Indeed, they are generally very conservative. Having been a university professor for over 45 years, I know this for a fact!

In short, Mooney was seriously wrong if he thought that academics and scientists were “the shinning model for liberal thought.”

None of this meant that I didn’t regard science as one of the best ways of ferreting out error that humankind has ever invented. Science is! Indeed, I have no regard whatsoever for those who don’t respect science. Still my basic point was that science was done by humans who weren’t always the epitome of objectivity.

In spite of this, my previous critique only skimmed the surface. There is a much deeper point to be made, one that penetrates more fundamentally to the underlying nature of conservative and liberal thought.

Nowhere in his otherwise generally excellent analysis does Mooney even hint at the existence, let operation, of unconscious, psychodynamic factors. For instance, in his primary use of social psychology, Mooney mainly treats conscious, explicit factors that account for the extreme differences between conservatives and liberals. While these “factors” are not wrong per se, they are incomplete in accounting for the complexity of the human mind.

Thus, Mooney is not able to consider (or only barely) that while one may be quite liberal on the surface, one can be rather conservative and even authoritarian unconsciously. Conversely, one may be conservative and authoritarian on the surface, yet have real strands of liberalism underneath. (The latter is the true meaning of a “compassionate conservative.”)

While both of the aforementioned “strange couplings” (“liberal authoritarians” and “conservative liberals”) are most easily seen in extreme groups, they are not confined to them. Indeed, it helps to explain why any number of liberal groups that believe in respecting differences are as hateful and intolerant as can be when it actually comes to living with staunch conservatives. I know this for a fact, for in all honesty, I’m one of them!

On the surface I’d like to believe that I’m very tolerant, but deep down, I know that it’s a very different story. No wonder why the great psychoanalysts talked again and again about the tug of war that occurs between the “two or more minds that make up the human psyche.”

There is all the difference in the world between (1) conservatives that are conservative at both the conscious and the unconscious levels (they are scary consistent), and (2) conservatives that are conservative at the conscious level, but deep down at the unconscious level have a touch of liberalism, and hence, often experience considerable conflict within, which is not always a bad thing. There is also a big difference between (1) liberals that are liberal at both the conscious and the unconscious levels (this can also be scary consistent), and (2) liberal at the conscious level and conservative at the unconscious.

Humans are too complex to be conservative or liberal through and through. Thank god we are not.

We liberals constantly say that we don’t want to put people into tight, narrow boxes, and yet we often do precisely this.

I know that being a “mixed type” (liberal on the surface mixed with underlying elements of conservatism”) allows me to appreciate and understand conservatives far better that if I were perfectly consistent.

If we really want to understand conservatism and liberalism—indeed, anything human--we have to give up simplistic consistency. If the human mind is anything, it is a boiling pot of “hot inconsistency.”

ABOUT Ian I Mitroff
Ian I. Mitroff is a crisis expert. He is an Adjunct Professor at UC Berkeley. His most recent book is Swans, Swine, and Swindlers: Coping with the Growing Threat of Mega Crises and Mega Messes, Stanford, 2011.
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