Conservatives are conservative because they’re authoritarian and resistant to new ideas. Everyone knows that, right? There’s a bunch of social-science research that even proves it. If only conservatives were more open and less dogmatically attached to their tribe and their traditions, the world would be a much better place.
A lot of smart people endorse some version of this story. And yes, research surveys show that conservatives do express a much stronger affinity for obedience, authority and in-group loyalty than do liberals.
But there’s a question those surveys can’t answer: How does what people say translate into what people actually do? Jonathan Haidt, one of my favorite social scientists, studies morality by presenting people with scenarios and asking whether what happened was wrong. Conservatives and liberals give strikingly different answers, with extreme liberals claiming to place virtually no value at all on things like group loyalty or sexual purity.
One of Haidt’s most memorable questions involves a man who has sex with a frozen chicken, then cooks the chicken and eats it for dinner. Is this wrong? he asks. Philosophy-class enlightenment values pretty much give one answer: No one was harmed, so it can’t be wrong. And yet: I’m willing to bet that most of the folks who say that it’s A-OK would still be weirded out if they found out this is what their spouse had prepared for a special anniversary feast. Or that this is how a co-worker spends every Monday night.
In the ultra-liberal enclave I grew up in, the liberals were at least as fiercely tribal as any small-town Republican, though to be sure, the targets were different. Many of them knew no more about the nuts and bolts of evolution and other hot-button issues than your average creationist; they believed it on authority. And when it threatened to conflict with some sacred value, such as their beliefs about gender differences, many found evolutionary principles as easy to ignore as those creationists did. It is clearly true that liberals profess a moral code that excludes concerns about loyalty, honor, purity and obedience – but over the millennia, man has professed many ideals that are mostly honored in the breach.
Apparently, I’m not the only one who had questions about the prevalence of conformity on both sides of the political spectrum.
“The way I saw it, this slavish obedience to authority and tradition on the part of conservatives was the true source of the culture war between liberals and conservatives over foreign war, abortion, same-sex marriage, gun control, and racial inequality,” writes Jeremy Frimer. “They way I saw it, conservatives clung to old, near-sighted ways of thinking and fell in line with the dictates of the ‘man in charge.’ If only conservatives would think for themselves – like liberals do – the war would be over and we could get on with life, governance, and progress. Or so I thought. Then, in 2012, I went on a cycling trip around Cuba.”
Frimer noticed that socialists seemed unable to tolerate even mild questioning of Che Guevara’s eminently questionable legacy. Frimer is a researcher at the University of Winnipeg, and he decided to investigate. What he found is that liberals are actually very comfortable with authority and obedience – as long as the authorities are liberals (“should you obey an environmentalist?”). And that conservatives then became much less willing to go along with “the man in charge.”
Frimer argues that conservatives tend to support authority because they think authority is conservative; liberals tend to oppose it for the same reason. Liberal or conservative, it seems, we’re all still human under the skin.
Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes on economics, business and public policy.