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A Look At The Comparative Psychology Of Progressive And Conservative Politicians

"Flag Waver" by Nancy Ohanian

The Louisiana legislature isn’t exactly an hotbed of progressivism. The state Senate has just 12 Democrats and 27 Republicans (a red supermajority) and the state House was already a mess with 33 Dems, 2 independents and 71 Republicans (a GOP supermajority), when a second conservative elected as a Democrat in a month jumped the fence and joined the GOP. The GOP gained that veto-overriding supermajority when fake Democrat Francis Thompson of Delhi joined the GOP a few weeks ago. On Monday it was Jeremy LaCombe, who has represented parts of Pointe Coupee and West Baton Rouge parishes since 2019.

LaCombe didn’t say why he had decided to go over to the Dark Side. But what does that GOP stand for that is attracting this kind of party switching? Patriarchy for one thing. Just as the Republican Party ramps up their decades-long efforts to completely subjugate women in terms of reproductive health, Pew announced yesterday that by more than two-to-one, Americans say medication abortion should be legal in their state. “Overall, 53% of adults say medication abortion– that is, the use of a prescription pill or a series of pills to end a pregnancy– should be legal in their state, while fewer than half as many (22%) say it should be illegal.” I guess that’s attractive to a certain mindset. Keep in mind that “A majority of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents (73%) say medication abortion should be legal in their state, while fewer than half as many Republicans and GOP leaners (35%) say the same.”

Or maybe it’s a different aspect of GOP authoritarianism that some politicians find so irresistible. The Missouri House of Representatives— another red hellhole, like Louisiana’s— just voted to cut off funding to the state’s libraries— after voting to ban 300 books dealing with race and gender— as well as for cuts for diversity initiatives, childcare and pre-kindergarten programs (all that “woke” stuff Republicans are at war against).

Tennessee isn’t the only conservative state completely captured by the Republican Party. Louisiana (and Missouri) are two that have fallen to the same kind of dark energy. Reporting for NBC News yesterday, Adam Edelman wrote that “politics watchers in Tennessee and around the nation say that what happened [the racist expulsion of the 2 Justins} was nothing new for the state’s GOP lawmakers and that the process Republicans have taken to minimize the representation of Democrats— on both the federal and state levels— has actually been years in the making. In recent years, Republicans have redrawn maps that effectively curtail the number of districts that represent Democrats— including some of the most diverse districts in the state— and increase the number of solidly red ones. The end result has been less representation for Democrats and for Black constituents” in state houses and in Congress.

Edelman noted that “Trump won the presidential vote in the state in both 2020 and 2016 with about 61% of the vote, and Republican Gov. Bill Lee won re-election last year with 65% of the vote. But Republicans hold 27 of the 33 seats in the state Senate (82%) and 75 of the 99 seats in the state House (76%).”

I’ve been looking at academic studies over the years conducted on the psychology of politicians that look into the differences between progressives and conservatives, starting with one conducted by David Barber in the 1970s, "The Pulse of Politics: The Rhythm of Presidential Elections in the Twentieth Century,” as well as his 1972 book, The Presidential Character: Predicting Performance in the White House. He argued that individuals who pursue a career in politics are often motivated by a desire for power and a need for validation from others. Others have since built on Barber’s work. For example, a 2013 study published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Review found that politicians tend to be more extroverted, ambitious, and narcissistic than the general population. They also tend to have higher levels of self-esteem and are more likely to be risk-takers.

One of the most well-known frameworks for understanding the differences between progressive politicians and conservative politicians is the "Big Five" personality traits, which include openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Research has shown that progressive politicians tend to score higher on measures of openness, which includes traits like creativity, imagination, and a willingness to consider new ideas and experiences. In contrast, conservative politicians tend to score higher on traits like orderliness and adherence to traditional values and norms.

Among the serious academic studies exploring the psychological differences between progressive and conservative politicians, including differences in personality traits:

  • In a 2016 study published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences ("Understanding the Conservative and Liberal Mind: Divergence in Cognitive Modes"), researchers found that liberal politicians scored higher on measures of openness to experience.

  • A 2014 study, "The Politics of Fear: Is There an Ideological Asymmetry in Existential Motivation?" was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and found that liberal politicians were more likely to engage in flexible thinking, while conservative politicians were more likely to engage in rigid thinking.

  • In a 2012 study, "Integrative Complexity Theory: Definition and Measurement,” also published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, found that liberal politicians tended to score higher on measures of integrative complexity, which refers to the ability to consider multiple perspectives and see issues in shades of gray.

  • A 2011 study, "The Psychology of Closed- and Open-Mindedness,” published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that conservative politicians tended to have a stronger need for cognitive closure, which is the desire for definite answers and aversion to ambiguity.

Other research has explored the role of moral values in shaping political beliefs and behavior. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt has proposed a moral foundations theory that identifies six key values that underlie political ideology: care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation, and liberty/oppression. Haidt's research suggests that progressive politicians tend to place greater emphasis on care, fairness, and liberty, while conservative politicians tend to place greater emphasis on loyalty, authority, and sanctity.

A 2016 study by Eric Hehman, Samuel Gaertner and John Dovidio, published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, found that self-identified liberals scored higher on measures of openness than self-identified conservatives. Liberal politicians are more likely to use complex and nuanced language than conservative politicians.

Another important factor that shapes the political beliefs and behavior of progressive and conservative politicians is their cognitive style. Cognitive style refers to the way that individuals process and integrate information, and it has been shown to differ between progressives and conservatives. Specifically, progressive politicians tend to exhibit a more integrative and flexible cognitive style, while conservative politicians tend to exhibit a more rigid and categorical cognitive style. For example, a 2012 study by Scott Eidelman, Christian Crandall, Jeffrey Goodman and John Blanchar and published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that conservative politicians were more likely to rely on simple and black-and-white thinking than liberal politicians.

Overall, the research over decades suggests that progressive politicians tend to be more open to new ideas and experiences, while conservative politicians tend to be more conscientious and traditional. Obviously, these differences in personality and cognitive style have important— sometimes determinative— implications for how politicians approach policy issues and interact with their constituents.

This morning, North Carolina progressive and former congressman, Brad Miller told me that he's "observed a lot of politicians from close quarters and I am convinced that personality, or character, or temperament or whatever we want to call it is more important than the politician’s stated positions on the issues of the moment. That’s especially true when the politician’s stated position is at odds with the interests of his or her donors. Oliver Wendell Holmes supposedly said that Franklin Roosevelt had a second rate intellect but a first rate temperament. There are some wine-track Democratic primary voters who think we should just nominate whoever got the best SAT score, but I’d go for temperament. The people in the Obama administration who were in charge of the economic policies from which I dissented all got good grades from the best schools, but their unacknowledged goal was to restore the financial firms that caused the financial crisis to profitability with minimal change, and I thought that we needed a response with the urgency and imagination, the “bold experimentation," of the New Deal. And I wanted to kick the asses of the people who caused the crisis. The great problem is that it is very hard to assess politicians’ personalties from any distance at all. Public perception of politicians does not always matched my perception from very close observation, in both directions, and reporting on politicians’ personalities is often self-serving and dishonest. There is no more back-stabbing, score-settling source for a reporter than an insider quoted without attribution. I’ve seen plenty of stories in Politico and the like with unattributed quotes that some reformer is brittle, prickly, and generally impossible, when there are establishment figures who are well-known to be screamers who go through staff like Kleenex, and there’s hardly ever a story like that about one of them."


Apr 15, 2023

"Haidt's research suggests that progressive politicians tend to place greater emphasis on care, fairness, and liberty, while conservative politicians tend to place greater emphasis on loyalty, authority, and sanctity."

Actually I think he says, more: Progressives only/mostly care about care/harm and fairness, much less about the other three. Conservatives care about those two, but also strongly about loyalty, authority, and sanctity.

So everyone agrees that the first two are the basis of morality and justice. Conservatives will betray those for other values that merit much less moral credit.


Apr 12, 2023

equating "progressives" with the democrap party is horse shit. the party suppresses "progressives" with as much money as it takes to keep them out of positions of power. DWT covers this as well as anyone... but still refuses to delve into the consequences.

If some lege has 12 democraps, they will, statistically speaking, have maybe 1 "progressive"... maybe not.

Yes, temperament is important. But an amiable shit-for-brains won't help much.

While you CAN presume that a nazi, by virtue of BEING a nazi, is pure evil; you really can't conclude reliably about most democraps, unless they have a long record of deeds to interrogate (see: biden, pelosi, hoyer, schiff...). Once they compile a record of deeds, you really should avoi…

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