Conservative vs Liberal

By January 12, 2017Society

A recent paper in the journal ‘Behavioral and Brain Science’ (Hibbing et al., 2014) is enlightening in that it studied the difference between conservatives and ‘liberals’, as they are called in the US (this is an unfortunate usage in Australia as the Liberal party there is decidedly illiberal). Hibbing et al. determined that there are a multitude of ways in which liberals and conservatives differ from each other in their views of life which have little direct connection to politics. These vary from tastes in art, the desire for closure, predisposition to experiencing disgust, or the tendency to pursue new information. However, the central theme has been a matter of debate and is still unclear.

Studies of twins produced a significant correlation, which indicates our attitudes have something to do with our DNA. This has led to a new field of research termed ‘genopolitics’. Despite this, it is unclear which genetic pathways are important.

Mounting empirical evidence suggests that, compared to liberals, conservatives are more responsive and attuned to negative stimuli, patterns consistent with their tendency to advocate political solutions designed to protect against threats and disorder – real or perceived. Liberals appear not to notice, respond to, or attend to negative stimuli to the same degree, a pattern consistent with their willingness to advocate political solutions that could lead society to experience new approaches to life and governance.

As a counterpoint to this, Robert Leonard, in a New York Times piece entitled ‘Why rural America voted for Trump’, used as an example, two males in their late teens who he had known most of their lives. They were hard workers and now one is a welder, while the other is a first year university student. He states they are conservative and believe in hard work, family, the armed forces and the police, and know that abortion and socialism are evil. They are christians who believe that Trump will be good for the USA.

Leonard, to some extent, disparages the political analysts who lay the blame for the election of Trump at the foot of ignorance, racism, sexism, nationalism, islamophobia, economic disenfranchisement and the decline of the middle class. He believes that this misses deeper cultural factors and that conservatives believe people are fundamentally bad, while ‘liberals’ believe people are fundamentally good, to the extent that a republican campaigner stated, children “are born bad”, and that they are taught “to be good”. This is perhaps exemplified by the attitude of this same campaigner to a shooting. His opinion was that conservatives would argue that the person was just bad, and did something bad, while ‘liberals’ would look more widely for causes, whether it be the gun culture, society, etc. to take some of the blame. Leonard then stated that it was not surprising that conservatives and ‘liberals’ could not agree.

Then Leonard overlaid this on the rural-urban divide caused by geography, history and economics and the problem becomes even more stark. He gives an example of the sort of thing breeding resentment: Billions of dollars are spent “to take a few seconds off a city dweller’s commute to his office”, while the roads linking farms to their local markets are falling into disrepair. I suspect this is happening in all western democracies, and it is a recipe for discontent, which leads to the poor and disenfranchised shooting themselves in the foot by way of Brexit, Trump and Hanson, because it is they who will suffer the most.


Hibbing, J.R., Smith, K.B. & Alford, J.R., 2014. Differences in negativity bias underlie variations in political ideology. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 37, 297-307.

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