It’s been a fun week for those who enjoy making fun of right-wing ideologues. News of a study by Gordon Hodson and Michael A. Brusseri was released that appears to have shown that right-wingers are dumb. I can’t wait to see Jon Stewart’s bit on this, but because this has been pounced upon by so many already, I’ll leave the fun and the defensiveness to others and explain why I think the truth in this matter is a little more complicated.
Judging by the abstract (that’s all that’s currently available, as the article is “in press”), the authors did not actually attempt to link the lack of cognitive ability (called “dumbness” in articles that have appeared all over the internet) with conservatism but rather concluded that low cognitive ability along with low “intergroup contact” were strongly linked to racial and homosexual prejudice, with the presence of “right wing ideology” mediating the relationship.
This little abstract, much as the avalanche of related internet materials, is loaded with potentially fine and not-so-fine hairs to split in terminology – cognitive ability vs. intelligence, conservative vs. right-wing ideologue, etc. It’s too big a mess to sort out here, so let’s just explore some experiences I’ve had in the relation between politics and intelligence.
At one point in my life, I found that I had three very close friends who identified themselves as conservatives. In order to talk about them freely, without fear of the potential the retaliation of a really long list of my own “interesting” characteristics being posted on the internet, I’ll just call them, “Snap,” “Crackle,” and “Pop.” I knew each well and each was highly intelligent and at least somewhat well educated.
Snap was instrumental in my getting through one of the most difficult times of my life. He was heavily involved in the “fine arts” – music, specifically, in which he got a Master’s degree. When he graduated, he returned to his home in the “Deep South.” He became re-immersed in his family’s politics and soon, Snap snapped and stopped talking to me, mostly because I refused to accept George W. Bush as the savior of America. Admittedly, I made lots of jokes at W.’s expense, even when I knew it antagonized my friend, so some of the blame is certainly mine. But his (I say illegitimate) admiration for W. was eclipsed by his legitimate admiration for his own father – a brilliant surgeon who miraculously puts people back together after horrifying accidents. I greatly miss his Snap’s friendship.
Crackle is somewhat high up in the criminal justice field. He “only” has a Bachelor’s degree (that he received alongside me), but he just might have the most organized mind of the three. He is a staunch conservative and he gives generously to good charities, both of his time and his money. He has invested his work and his money very wisely and is a middle-class success story if there ever was one. His debating skills are incredible and he keeps up on current events amazingly well, especially with all the work he does while raising two kids. He challenges me on the issues of politics so well that I have to work way too hard to compete with him. Sometimes I give up, not because he’s beaten me, but because I can’t keep up with his energy.
Pop has been one of my best friends for many years. He’s very smart, and honest even when there are clear incentives not to be. He has an MBA from a top university and what is commonly called a “type A” personality in that he is incredibly energetic and is adamant in expressing his opinions. Faced with obstacles, he only sees ways to overcome them. He always encourages me even when it must feel like bashing his head against a brick wall. Recently, Pop has decided that he is, after all, a liberal, except when it comes to certain issues like guns. I actually credit Bill Maher with this transformation.
Each of these three also seems to admire me, even though I think of myself as not much more than a screw-up. These are all good, smart, caring people. Why is this long-winded, personal story important? Because it shows that people don’t have to be dumb to have conservative values.
I know what you’re going to say: “Whoa there Tom! You love nothing more than to make fun of Republicans!” And you would be right. I make fun of just about everything. But it would be a mistake to think that conservatism is simply based on a lack of intelligence. Lots of conservatives are dumb, as are lots of liberals. But plenty are not dumb. Instead they have followed false algorithms from their values to their political affiliations.
This means that progressives can’t just fall back on their mental superiority and assume that they will (along with all humanity) easily win the battle for the earth. It means we have to sharpen our pencils… and our rhetoric. I love to make jokes, but explaining just why it is that I and others believe that we must change the trajectory of this country is going to be a lot more difficult. It involves the illumination of more than one inconvenient truth.
The reality of broad variation in intelligence among conservatives splits the work of creating a more progressive society in two. The fact is that, in order to advance to a better society, conservatives have to be convinced that many of their ideas are wrong – especially about economics. I always feel that I have a legitimate shot at changing the minds of intelligent conservatives. The dumb ones? I’m not sure how to deal with them.
We’ll talk more about this next week.
(with thanks to Roger Ingalls)
Tom Rossi is a commentator on politics and social issues. He is a Ph.D. student in International Sustainable Development, concentrating in natural resource and economic policy. Tom greatly enjoys a hearty debate, especially over a hearty pint of Guinness.