The right’s tribal mentality

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.

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4 comments
  1. Bingo! There’s also the propaganda factor. Conservatives generally get their news from three sources: Fox News, right-wing talk radio, and ideology-driven online blogs. This creates an insular, factually-restricted culture. They just keep repeating the rhetorical memes seeded each day by political operatives. IMO, having such a large segment of the population philosophically separated from the rest of the nation is inherently dangerous to both the workings of democracy, and to the health of our country. Not since the Civil War have we been so divided.

    • kipp said:

      Of course you are right, and what I believe this concept is called is confirmation bias. Both today’s technology and the relatively newfound propensity of major news organizations to not be shy about promoting an opinion rather than unbiased facts – I’m looking at you, Fox and MSNBC – have allowed people to choose the slant of the news they get. Naturally, most people choose that slant that conforms to their already-held beliefs – conservatives consume Fox, among others, as you said – and rarely look at anything that contradicts them. This only serves to reinforce and confirm said biases, further polarizing the divisions away from each other, and never in modern history have we been so polarized. Both liberals and conservatives are guilty of this, I think, but it seems that conservatives have been far more damaged by it, and have allowed this phenomenon to push a lot of them to the far hairy edge of extremism.

      Thanks for commenting.

  2. Big Chairs said:

    I do not think you can categorize conservatives without also categorizing liberals. Liberals are equally biased in the news and information they consume and believe. I think most of these characteristics are mostly human nature. People associate with like minded people and same goes with their believes. The bigger question should be.”What can anyone believe today”? The majority of news sources are themselves biased and seem to have an agenda. We live in such a fast paced information age that you can not be sure, if what you have read is in fact true.

    • kipp said:

      I do characterize liberals throughout, as does the article and study that is the root of this post. What was remarkable about it was that Republicans tend to believe in conspiracy theories the more informed they are, while the opposite is true for Democrats, as the results of the study show. The cause of this is the right having a more tribal, collective mentality, while the left is more independent thinking. I characterize both throughout, according to the results of this study.

      Of course liberals are biased too, and as I said in the comments the choices we have for our news, and the slant that the news we consume has, serves to further polarize the country. From what I’ve seen though, the right has had a far bigger problem with polarization than the left, and has been pushed way further to the edge of their party’s beliefs, which has caused a lot of people to be alienated by their extremism as was demonstrated with the 2012 election (if interested, see the long post I just wrote on this subject, “Cautious Optimism”).

      Some of it I’m sure is human nature. But this study revealed that there are intrinsic differences between the way liberals and conservatives think, and that’s what I thought was interesting, and what I was trying to report on.

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