It turns out, Republicans aren’t just trying to be difficult with all their recent obstructionism, implacability, and unwillingness to compromise. They are actually obstinant by nature. That is, at least according to a new study from political scientist and pollster Dan Cassino at Fairleigh Dickson University.
According to an article from Mother Jones, a commonly held belief on the nature of political divisions is that Democrats and Republicans are “separate but equal in their ideological biases,” and that “everybody is equally biased, but in different directions.” Both sides, it would seem, support themselves in the same way. It turns out though that this is not necessarily true. As Josh Lyman of The West Wing once put it, “People think that campaigns are about two competing answers to the same question. They’re not. They’re a fight over the question itself.” The differences between the two sides aren’t just between what they believe, but extend to how they go about believing it.
In a national survey, Cassino examined belief in political conspiracy theories on both the left and also the right. He did so by asking Americans about two “liberal” conspiracy beliefs—the 9/11 “Truther” conspiracy, and the idea that George W. Bush stole the 2004 election—and two conservative ones: the “Birther” theory that Obama was born in Kenya, and the claim that he stole the 2012 vote.
The results were hardly symmetrical. First, 75 percent of Republicans, but only 56 percent of Democrats, believed in at least one political conspiracy theory. But even more intriguing was the relationship between one’s level of political knowledge and one’s conspiratorial political beliefs. Among Democrats and Independents, having a higher level of political knowledge was correlated with decreased belief in conspiracies. But precisely the opposite was the case for Republicans, where knowledge actually made the problem worse. For each political knowledge question that they answered correctly, Republicans’ belief in at least one conspiracy theory tended to increase by two percentage points.
What is the underlying cause of this drastic difference in gullibility? The supposition is that it is not really about gullibility, but about a sort of herd mentality. Republicans are more likely to believe something if other like-minded people believe it. Their way of thinking is less independent and “more partisan and tribal,” while Democrats exhibit less of the latter two traits.
What’s behind all of this? There are probably multiple factors—ranging from psychological to sociological. For instance—and as I wrote about in my book The Republican Brain—conservatives are known to have a higher need for cognitive closure—the desire to have a fixed belief, an unwavering sense of certainty, about politics and all aspects of life. If belonging to their party or group confers such a sense of closure, then it makes sense that conservatives would be more likely to interpret the world in partisan, black and white terms, believing negative conspiracy theories about the other side and refusing to support its leaders. Indeed, the noted moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt has found that Republicans are simply more tribal about politics, more loyal and favoring of their in-group.
This is essentially something we already know. Part of the nature of conservatism is a resistance to new ways of thinking, reliance on older, proven methods, and a trait of literalism and strict interpretation of laws and institutional doctrines – “the desire to have a fixed belief, an unwavering sense of certainty,” and a reliance on such belief. This is the root of their boilerplate constitutional outlook. Liberals generally require no such sense of “cognitive closure,” and in fact define themselves by a lack of certainty and an acceptance of dynamic belief, rather than static belief (I of course am not stereotyping all, but I do think this characterization fits with the majority of traditional liberals and conservatives who seek to emulate the essence of those labels).
To my mind, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle between the two, neither fully dynamic nor fully fixed. But it’s interesting to know there is actually data to explain the right’s increasingly frequent tribal obstinance.