Looking at political behavior from a psychological viewpoint

Gridlock grips the federal government. Polarization further ensnarls our politics. Political scientists and psychologists are digging much more deeply into the field of political psychology, which is the study of the relationship between how our brain works and the political views that we hold.

A good way to think of political psychology is to reflect on the game that many political junkies play as they scope the faces, fashion, and body language of people in a crowd. They are testing their own “party-dar.” How good are they at looking at someone and sizing up if he or she is a Democrat or Republican. It’s surprising how poorly we do at this parlor game, especially since we have so much experience playing it. [If you haven’t played this game, you might want to try it next time you’re at the airport, a ballgame, or just standing in a supermarket line.]  As poorly as we amateurs might do, scientists are now getting solid empirical evidence about what psychological characteristics are more commonly associated with members of one party or the other.

Are Democrats “cuddly,” and Republicans just plain mean? That may be too much of a stretch for us to determine now, but as political psychologist Chris Mooney has written in his new book, The Republican Brain:

The evidence here is quite strong: overall, liberals tend to be more open, flexible, curious and nuanced—and conservatives tend to be more closed, fixed and certain in their views.

By virtue of the fact that Democrats tend to be more flexible, curious and nuanced, they spend more time than Republicans in developing their positions on various issues. In addition, most Democrats constantly have their positions “under review.” They spend more time listening to opposing points of view even if they are not going to adopt them. This all requires energy as well as a certain degree of tension, because just about anything can potentially be reviewed.

As we have repeatedly seen, Republicans tend to vote as a monolith. In the Patient Care and Affordable Health Care Act, not a single Republican in the House voted in the affirmative.

With the current impasse over the budget sequester, The Hill reports:

A growing number of Democrats have declared their opposition to a proposal that emerged as Obama’s biggest selling point to Republicans: his offer to apply a less-generous measure of inflation to Social Security, resulting in slightly smaller annual cost-of-living increases.

“I don’t want to break the bad news to you, but the president is not the only elected official in the United States,” said Sen. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.), a member of the Budget Committee, who pressed Murray to avoid any cuts to social programs in her spending plan. “Some of us believe very strongly that it would be absolutely wrong to cut Social Security benefits.”

While it is not pleasant for President Obama to find Democrats in Congress opposing his views on possible funding cuts to entitlements, he must also smile a little bit, knowing that he belongs to a party that consists of  many individuals who think for themselves. Negotiating with Democrats who don’t share his views is a reasonable part of the game. With some Democrats in Congress, he can actually reason. With others, he can horse trade, much as we saw Abraham Lincoln doing in the movie Lincoln. With others, it will be like trying to deal with Republicans; there is no opportunity for compromise, because shifting one’s position on a public issue is almost as unthinkable as changing one’s religion.

One might pity the Democrats, because they have so much more work to do to meet the higher standards that they set for themselves. But there are rewards in doing a more thorough job of working as a legislator, and most Democrats will gladly pay the price of the burden in order to receive the reward.

Arthur Lieber Arthur Lieber (308 Posts)

Since 1969, Arthur Lieber has been teaching and working in non-profit educational organizations. His focus has been on promoting critical, creative, and enjoyable learning for students in informal settings. In the 2010 mid-term elections, he was the Democratic nominee for US Congress from Missouri’s 2nd Congressional District.