Friday, September 12, 2008

Liberals and conservatives

In this post I discuss the campaign speeches of Obama and McCain. I saw these speeches on video. To save time I had to quote them from memory. So the quotes may not always be exact.

Not everybody has the same kind of moral. Psychologists have thought up questions like "is it ok to cook and eat your dog after it has died in a traffic incident?" to show this. It appears that liberals and conservatives have a different reaction to such questions that are also very visible on brain scans. Conservatives find the idea disgusting, while liberals are more moderate and reason that nobody is harmed. This article is about how the liberals and conservatives differ in morals (based on the article "What makes people vote republican" by Jonathan Haidt) and how that works out for the presidential campaigns.

Liberals (in the American meaning of progressives) base their morality on two pillars: fairness/reciprocity and harm/care. So they believe in justice and helping and protecting the destitute. Both values are individualistic.

Conservatives however have three additional pillars: ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect and purity/sanctity. These are group values. The last one is not only about religion but can also manifest itself in for example an aversion against homosexuals or eating your deceased dog.

While conservatives usually understand liberals (but find them superficial) liberals have serious difficulty understanding conservatives (and find them just irrational with their religion and other "values"). Group values just don't have a place in their thinking.

This can nicely be translated to the American elections. Kennedy with his "Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country" was a liberal who did understand. In the beginning it looked like Obama understood it too with his background as a social worker. But he has been unable to generalize his experience and nowadays allows the McCain campaign to cast him as an egoist who has done everything he did just for himself and his career.

I checked the acceptance speeches of the two candidates and noticed a few differences in style:
- as usual, McCain tells about his experience in prisonship in Vietnam. But it is a personal story and he tells about it as a turning point in his life. Obama doesn't have any similar personal story.
- McCain creates more of a "we" atmosphere: "we have to ..", ".. my friends".
- McCain positions himself unashamed as the leader, summing up (and exegerating) his experience. This very probably wouldn't work for Obama.
- McCain puts things in black and white. He devotes a whole section of his speech to comparing Obama's policies and his like "Obama wants to raise taxes; I want to lower them". He does this in an almost ritualistic way: Obama wants ...; I want ... Obama wants ...; I want ..., etc., etc.. He isn't always very truthful but it works in creating an us-versus-them atmosphere. Obama applies the typical liberal trick of describing someone else as unlogical. For example (about fighting poverty) "it is not that McCain doesn't care. He just doesn't get it".
- McCain takes more effort to give his talk a personal style. He not only thanks people at the beginning, but also thanks a fellow prisoner in Vietnam when he mentions his name in his biographical story. Sometimes it looks rather artificial. Where Obama talks in general about the people from New Orleans or people who can't afford medical care McCain names one specific person (with name and state) who lost his farm in the real estate crisis and one in another position. McCain is positioning himself in this way as a leader who knows and understands his followers, while Obama positions himself more as the rather anonymous leader who voices the opinion of his followers.

So the largest difference seems to be in leadership. Where McCain emphasises his own responsibility ("I want"), Obama hides behind the collective and logic ("he doesn't get it"). This gives McCain more authority and he exploits that by making broad and often inaccurate statements about Obama's position. Obama's academic reactions mean that most people will remember McCain's position better. Take the example of Palin's statements about war with Russia. If Obama's running mate had made such a statement McCains campaign would have stated that Palin wants World War III. Obama's campaign seems unable to exploit the issue.

The Georgia War was a good example of how weak a leader Obama can be. When McCain made a more anti-Russian statement than him he changed his own statement to become more anti-Russian too. This was not only a misjudgement of the situation. It was also a missed chance: Obama needs a case where he can say flatly to McCain that McCain is wrong and this was a good opportunity.

If Obama wants to win the election he needs the support from some of the people with a conservative frame of mind. So he will have to show himself a leader who stands for his points and who doesn't hide behind some common opinion.

For who wants to check. Here are the acceptance speeches of Obama and McCain


Postscript 1: Here and here are other scientific article about another differences between liberals and conservatives. According to the first article "Subjects who had expressed a high level of support for policies "protecting the social unit" showed a much larger change in skin conductance in response to alarming photos than those who didn't support such policies. Similarly, the mean blink amplitude for the socially protective subjects was significantly higher, the team reports in tomorrow's issue of Science". It seems that there is a strong heriditary element involved.
According to the second article are more likely to like classical music and jazz, conservatives, country music. Liberals are more likely to enjoy abstract art. Conservative men are more likely than liberal men to prefer conventional forms of entertainment like TV and talk radio. Liberal men like romantic comedies more than conservative men..

Postscript 2: According to a Gallup poll: "Republicans are significantly more likely than Democrats or independents to rate their mental health as excellent".

Postscript 3: Classical mutual descriptions: "a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged" and "a liberal is a conservative who's been arrested".

Postscript 4: Here is Jonathan Haidt on television. The page also shows an internet discussion.

Postscript 5: George Lakoff is another scientist with a theory about the difference between liberal and conservative. He notes that "strict parenting" is not supported by science and sees it as a kind of abuse that is transmitted over the generations.

Postscipt 6: Some Harvard studies showed that conservatives are more easily disgusted.

Postscript 7: Red vs. blue family in black and white is a book by Naomi Cahn and June Carbone that deals with the issue. Some quotes:
In blue states, families tend to be well-educated, have high-paying jobs, be tolerant of diversity and be politically liberal. They marry later in life, have children in wedlock and are dedicated co-parents.

Red-state families, however, seem to be stuck in a time warp — they tend to be more strict in their religious beliefs and aspire to abstinence until marriage and marriage for life. But they often fall short of these goals: Red states have high rates of teen births, young ("shotgun") marriages and divorce. Red-state families are also less likely to be college graduates, get top jobs or create households where husbands and wives share equally in parenting and chores.

This shows that "blue" families have adjusted to the evolution of America's family culture, while "red" families have not, Ms. Cahn and Ms. Carbone said.

"The blue paradigm is the other end of the sexual revolution. Its families have been remade and the remaking is a huge success," they wrote. But red families are still trying to live in bygone times, and when children fail to live up to lofty aspirations, these families bear the consequences.


Postscript 1: This article about the algoritm of the dating site Match.com mentions that Conservatives are far more open to reaching out to someone with a different point of view than a liberal is." That is, when it comes to looking for love, conservatives are more open-minded than liberals..

Postscript 2: "Politics, Odors and Soap" by Nicholas D. Kristof discusses how liberals and conservatives differs in values. According to the book “The Righteous Mind” by Jonathan Haidt for liberals morality is largely a matter of three values: caring for the weak, fairness and liberty. Conservatives share those concerns (although they think of fairness and liberty differently) and add three others: loyalty, respect for authority and sanctity. The consequence is that conservatives are capable of understanding liberals but that liberals often have great difficulty understanding conservatives.

Postscript 3: Also nice is Can Drinking Make You Conservative? (and Other Questions About the Political Brain). It discusses a scientific study that asked people to consent or dissent to some political statements like "private property should be abolished". It found that the more alcohol people had consumed the more conservative their opinion - independent of their normal political orientation.

Postscript 4: The disadvantage of smarts is an interview with Satoshi Kanazawa on intelligence. He claims that man originally is conservative and that only in our modern society intelligence has become more important. As he sees it it has lead to liberalism, atheism and consumption of alcohol and drugs. But he thinks it doesn't help - and may actually harm - with traditional human activities like making friends, raising a child and finding a partner.

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