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Liberals or Conservatives: Who’s Really Close-Minded?

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Conservatives understand their ideological opposite numbers far better than do liberals.

To be “close-minded” is, according to the dictionary, to be “intolerant of the beliefs and opinions of others; stubbornly unreceptive to new ideas.” To be conservative and close-minded, according to popular portrayal, is a redundancy—a package deal that liberals can and do take for granted.

But University of Virginia Professor Jonathan Haidt’s new book The Righteous Mind doesn’t simply suggest that conservatives may not be as close-minded as they are portrayed. It proves that the opposite is the case, that conservatives understand their ideological opposite numbers far better than do liberals.

Haidt’s research asks individuals to answer questionnaires regarding their core moral beliefs—what sorts of values they consider sacred, which they would compromise on, and how much it would take to get them to make those compromises. By themselves, these exercises are interesting. (Try them online and see where you come out.)

Liberals don’t know what they don’t know; they don’t understand how limited their knowledge of conservative values is.

But Haidt’s research went one step further, asking self-indentified conservatives to answer those questionnaires as if they were liberals and for liberals to do the opposite. What Haidt found is that conservatives understand liberals’ moral values better than liberals understand where conservatives are coming from. Worse yet, liberals don’t know what they don’t know; they don’t understand how limited their knowledge of conservative values is. If anyone is close-minded here it’s not conservatives.

Haidt has a theory regarding why this is the case, based on the idea that conservatives speak a broader and more encompassing language of six moral values while liberals embrace three of the six in a narrow set of core values. I see nothing wrong with this explanation.

But let me present a complementary, more practical explanation: If you’re a conservative who lives in a major metropolitan area or who simply reads the New York Times, you get used to being outnumbered by liberals. Liberals, by contrast, get used to being surrounded by other liberals, both in person and in culture and the media. As a result, liberals speak their minds freely, often in ways that are harshly condemnatory of conservatives and their stands on issues. As a conservative, you can defend your values against friends and acquaintances who essentially just called you stupid and evil or you can keep quiet.

As a conservative, you can defend your values against friends and acquaintances who essentially just called you stupid and evil or you can keep quiet.

Most conservatives, most of the time, choose the latter. That is, they stay in the closet to avoid being accused of hating the poor, gays, or polar bears. As a result, liberals aren’t gaining any commensurate information. In fact, the silence of their conservative friends helps reinforce their views. Much of the time, liberals’ views of conservative positions and values are simply a caricature that bear little resemblance to what conservatives actually think and, more importantly, why they think it.

But during that time when conservatives’ mouths are shut, their ears are open. They’re listening and understanding what liberals think—and what liberals think of them. Conservatives understand their own world—whether it’s of religious organizations, talk radio, Fox News, or whatever—along with the New York Times, network news world of liberals.

That helps explain why a conservative’s reaction to a liberal critique often isn’t “you’re wrong.” It’s “you don’t even know what I’m trying to say.” Haidt’s research seems to show that this reaction is warranted.

Andrew G. Biggs is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

FURTHER READING: Andrew Biggs has also written “How Many Hours do Public School Teachers Really Work?” “Public Pension ‘Air Time’ Is an Absurdly Generous Perk” and “How Much Does the Federal Government Really Spend?” Steven F. Hayward says “Dump the Bipartisan Mush: Here’s How You Do It for Real” and writes “Liberal Anti-Democrats.” Jonah Goldberg contributes “Conservative interpretations.”

Image by Rob Green/Bergman Group

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