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Liberal openness and conservative conscientiousness?

By - Last modified: April 19, 2012 at 10:49 AM

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We live in an era of partisanship and polarization with incivility at an all-time high. As the gulf between Republicans and Democrats gets wider and as each party becomes more internally homogenous, bipartisan cooperation seems like an impossibility.

We hear these stories about how policy used to be driven by compromise. Consensus among the two major parties was something to be celebrated. We often point to the influence of media, money and organized pressure groups in the political system that have overwhelmed or even hijacked the policymaking process to the point where consensus has become weakness.

Evidence suggests that these institutional or structural factors provide insufficient and often limited explanations of partisan divisions. The public seems to be divided not just over policy issues but over what it considers to be actually true and real.

Perhaps the driving force behind all this division is something deeper and more psychological.

While conservatives and liberals can access the same information and research, they can often hold conflicting positions and opposite views on such issues as health care, education, evolutionary biology, contraception, global warming, school prayer or whether President Barack Obama is a Muslim born in another country.

Could it be that liberals and conservatives simply process information in very different ways based on a complex set of psychological traits?

Research demonstrates liberals score much higher than conservatives on a measure called “openness to experience." They tend to be people who are willing to test the status quo and experiment with new ideas, books, music and food. However, liberals can be very irrational. For example, liberal irrationality has led to the false assumption that vaccines somehow cause autism even though scientists, who tend to be liberal, have dismissed such fears with empirical evidence. But for some liberals, the desire to attack the big corporations which manufacture vaccines outweighs the scientific evidence.

By contrast, conservatives are more wedded to the status quo, less open and have faith in tradition. In effect, they are more conscientious and appreciate structure and stability. For example, many conservatives are quick to reject Obama's health insurance reform law even though it was conceived by the Heritage Foundation and signed into law in Massachusetts by Mitt Romney. The only reason for the conservative opposition is that Obama was the one who signed it.

The problem for liberals and conservatives is that there is only one reality. We should not be allowed to invent our own facts.

Can ideological and partisan divisions be explained in psychological terms?

Chris Dolan is associate professor of political science at Lebanon Valley College and the author of “Striking First,” “In War We Trust” and “The Presidency and Economic Policy.”

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