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Are Liberals Smarter Than Conservatives?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

What if we could know, scientifically, that one side has the edge in brainpower? Should that change how we think about political issues?

Who are smarter, liberals or conservatives? This is the kind of question that could spark fierce and endless debates between political opponents, but what if we could know, scientifically, that one side has the edge in brainpower? Should that change how we think about political issues?

Though few partisans on either side are likely to admit it, most people at one time or another have suspected that their political opponents are dim bulbs. Sometimes these sentiments get aired publicly, and both the Left and the Right have been guilty of leveling the “you’re stupid” accusation. Last summer, for example, conservative activists pushed the view that Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, then a nominee, is an intellectual lightweight who lacks the brainpower to be an effective justice.

But questioning the IQ of opponents is a specialty of liberals. When John Stuart Mill labeled British Conservatives “the Stupid Party” in the 19th century, he apparently started a long-term trend. Ronald Reagan, after all, was an “amiable dunce,” according to Clark Clifford and other Democrats. And when Vice President Dan Quayle told a 12-year-old student in a spelling bee that potato had an “e” at the end of it, Democrats milked the incident for all it was worth and then some. They even had the same student lead the Pledge of Allegiance at their 1992 convention.

Smarter people usually make better choices, and smarter people are less likely to be conservative. So how are we to conclude anything but the obvious? Conservatism is stupid, right?

Numerous commentators questioned George W. Bush’s intellectual capacity, especially compared to his Democratic opponents. Howell Raines, former executive editor of the New York Times, wrote before the 2004 election, “Does anyone in America doubt that Kerry has a higher IQ than Bush?” In fact, an analysis of military aptitude tests by columnist Steve Sailer showed that Bush’s IQ is at least as high as John Kerry’s, but more notable is Raines’s supreme confidence about Bush’s deficiency.

More recently, Sarah Palin was routinely attacked for her alleged cognitive limitations. A false rumor even floated around the liberal blogosphere that she scored an absurdly low 841 on the SAT.

So are these attacks unfair? Yes, if they are leveled at top politicians. It is nearly impossible to rise to the top of the American political scene without some real smarts. Party leaders are rarely geniuses, but it is almost inconceivable that they could have below average IQs.

Nevertheless, liberals are on to something when they question the IQ not of the conservative politicians themselves, but of some of the voters they represent. A certain bloc of the conservative electorate may very well be less intelligent than its liberal counterpart. Lazar Stankov, a visiting professor at Singapore’s National Institute of Education, published “Conservatism and Cognitive Ability” earlier this year in the peer-reviewed journal Intelligence. Here is a quote from the article’s abstract:

Conservatism and cognitive ability are negatively correlated … At the individual level of analysis, conservatism scores correlate negatively with SAT, vocabulary, and analogy test scores. At the national level of analysis, conservatism scores correlate negatively with measures of education … and performance on mathematics and reading assessments.

Provocative, yes. But two important caveats are needed. First, by “conservatism” Stankov does not necessarily mean people who favor free market economics. He has in mind a kind of traditionalism probably best described as social conservatism:

Bruce Charlton, a professor of theoretical medicine at the University of Buckingham, recently coined the term ‘clever sillies’ to describe people who hold wacky political views seemingly because of—rather than despite—their high intelligence.

The Conservative syndrome describes a person who attaches particular importance to the respect of tradition, humility, devoutness and moderation; as well as to obedience, self-discipline and politeness, social order, family, and national security; and has a sense of belonging to and a pride in a group with which he or she identifies. A Conservative person also subscribes to conventional religious beliefs and accepts the mystical, including paranormal, experiences.

The second caveat is that social conservatives do not always vote for conservative candidates. Most black Americans, for example, clearly exhibit “the Conservative syndrome” as Stankov defined it—70 percent voted to abolish gay marriage in California—but they routinely give about 90 percent of their votes to the Democratic Party.

Still, the “syndrome” described by Stankov is a prominent feature of the political Right. The protests of libertarians notwithstanding, social conservatism and economic conservatism tend to go together. Republicans do almost universally support tax cuts, but no Republican presidential candidate is likely to get his party’s nomination without also opposing abortion, gay marriage, and secularism.

So it is clear what many people will think about conservatism in general when they hear about this study. Stankov does not draw any explicit political conclusions himself, but he doesn’t really have to. After all, smarter people usually make better choices, and smarter people are less likely to be conservative. So how are we to conclude anything but the obvious? Conservatism is stupid, right?

Just a minute. Let’s critique that logic. For one thing, the smartest people do not necessarily make the best political choices. William F. Buckley once famously declared that he would rather give control of our government to “the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University.” Bruce Charlton, a professor of theoretical medicine at the University of Buckingham, recently coined the term “clever sillies” to describe people who hold wacky political views seemingly because of—rather than despite—their high intelligence. Conservative writer John Derbyshire has also observed that political naivety exists at both extremes of the IQ distribution, not just the lower one. The reason is that brilliant people can sometimes be so consumed by abstract philosophy that they forget common sense. The late Irving Kristol once illustrated this phenomenon with an anecdote about his friend, the novelist Saul Bellow:

People who subscribe to non-traditional ideas probably have above-average intellects, but that does not mean other smart people are going to like those ideas.

Saul, then an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, was, like so many of us in the 1930s, powerfully attracted to the ideologies of socialism, Marxism, Leninism and Trotskyism, as well as to the idea of “the Revolution.” He and a group of highly intellectual and like-minded fellow students would meet frequently at his aunt’s apartment, which was located next to the university. The meetings lasted long into the night, as abstract points of Marxism and Leninism agitated and excited these young intellectuals. Saul’s aunt, meanwhile, would try to slow things down by stuffing their mouths with tea and cakes. After the meetings broke up in the early hours of the morning, Saul’s aunt would remark to him: “Your friends, they are so smart, so smart. But stupid!”

Saul’s aunt may not have been a brilliant intellectual, but she had the wisdom and experience to see the fallacies of Marxism that her nephew and his friends could not.

But even if we concede that more intelligence generally means better political choices, the conservatism-is-stupid argument still does not follow from Stankov’s research. Consider that social conservatism is about following traditions. It is intellectually easier, in some sense, to follow the crowd. Iconoclasts face a cognitive hurdle—they have to justify to themselves and others why they feel differently. Probably for that reason, non-traditionalists tend to be smarter than the average person.

But, crucially, this does not mean most intelligent people oppose tradition. As long as smarter people are more likely to be skeptical of tradition, then full-blown rejection of tradition will almost inevitably be correlated with higher IQ, even if a majority of smart people still favor traditionalism.

Consider the example of religious belief, which is a major component of the “syndrome.” Let’s say that the bottom half of the IQ distribution never questions the religion of their upbringing, while the top half is skeptical. Now, just among that skeptical top half, let’s say that 80 percent end up affirming their faith and remain religious, while the rest reject faith and become atheists.

Liberal elites could easily be in the minority politically, but different social circles keep them insulated from finding that out.

Religion would seem to be the clear choice of smart people in this hypothetical example, but there would still be a positive correlation between IQ and atheism. The correlation exists not because smart people have necessarily rejected religion, but because religion is the “default” position for most of our society.

This same principle works in places where the default and iconoclastic beliefs are reversed. Japan, for example, has no tradition of monotheistic religion, but the few Japanese Christians tend to be much more educated than non-Christians in Japan. By the logic of someone who wants to read a lot into the Stankov study, Christianity must be the wave of the future, perhaps even the one true faith! But, of course, the vast majority of educated Japanese are not Christians. Just as with atheism in the West, the correctness of Christianity cannot be inferred from the traits of the minority who subscribe to it in Japan.

To reiterate, people who subscribe to non-traditional ideas probably have above-average intellects, but that does not mean other smart people will like those ideas. This is a point often lost on liberals who work in universities or in the news media. They observe, usually correctly, that friends and acquaintances in their social circle are smarter than the average (and likely more conservative) people they encounter on the street. But too many elites see this correlation between smartness and liberalism as somehow a validation of their political views. They seem unaware that the wider world features plenty of intelligent people who are not professors or movie critics or government bureaucrats. Even among the nation’s smartest people, liberal elites could easily be in the minority politically, but different social circles keep them insulated from finding that out. The result is a convenient but damaging political meme that circulates among some people on the Left—the belief that their opponents simply can’t understand what makes for good policy.

The bottom line is that a political debate will never be resolved by measuring the IQs of groups on each side of the issue. Even if certain positions tend to be held by less intelligent people, there will usually be plenty of sharp thinkers who take the same side. Rather than focus on the intellectual deficiencies, real or imagined, of certain politicians and their supporters, people should strive to find the best and brightest spokesmen for the opposing side.

There is a certain devilish fun to contemplating the intelligence of liberals and conservatives, but it should have no effect on how we think about issues. Political debates would be better without it.

Jason Richwine is a National Research Initiative Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

FURTHER READING: Richwine also wrote “A Smart Solution to the Diversity Dilemma” on what to do about ethnic diversity reducing social capital.

Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.

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