Chris Mooney on the psychology of ideology
I spoke with author Chris Mooney on a Friday afternoon in June. Here are the highlights from our conversation.
Indiana Living Green: When you were here in Indy [in 2011], I was struck by your politically neutral stance. Yet The Republican Brain is a partisan title.
Chris Mooney: In the book, I talk about the biases on the left, but I don’t think it’s equal and I don’t think they’re the same kind of biases. So as I dug deeper into the psychological research I really realized that the Republican brain was what I was writing about.
ILG: Were there alternate titles considered along the way?
MOONEY: One was … The Science of Truthiness.
ILG: What did you think about the Heartland billboard campaign equating environmentalists to serial killers? The reaction against it apparently led to a deterioration in Heartland Institute’s power.
MOONEY: They certainly lost a lot of funders. Will they cease to exist? I don’t know.
ILG: When you were watching Heartland unraveling, what were you observing in terms of your understanding of psychology?
MOONEY: I thought it was a case of black-and-white thinking. Basically, they revealed that they think about the global warming issue in a binary, evil kind of way. They think of environmentalists as tantamount to the Unabomber, so if there was ever a case study in the lack of nuance that would be it. This is what you expect more from the right than on the left.
ILG: Is there something about this experience that helps us find common ground between the two persuasions?
MOONEY: No, it says the opposite. It says exactly this: People who deny global warming, deep down, are engaged in us vs. them thinking and they think the environmental movement is really a socialist movement and wants to wreck economies.
ILG: How is common ground possible when people are thinking in this way?
MOONEY: You know, I really wish that conservatives would let liberals back into the tribe with them. Environmentalists are not allowed. It doesn’t make sense to have things that way when both are living in the same country.
Everybody gets their own information now; everybody has their own media. We’re divided into teams and the other team is the bad guy. American politics is not integrally complex, it’s very binary and the media is very binary.
ILG: A Pew report came out last month that said Americans have never been so profoundly divided along political lines.
MOONEY: Well, that’s what a lot of people have been saying, so it doesn’t strike me as new. The right has mobilized an authoritarian streak, and authoritarians are us-and-them thinkers. They’re black-and-white thinkers; that’s one of the cheap traits that go with authoritarians. Plus, intolerance of ambiguity and need for order and need for structure. So I fully agree that we are much more polarized than we have ever been. I think it is a reflection of the right getting more and more authoritarian.
ILG: What are some of the authoritarian tools in achieving this?
MOONEY: Look at the labeling that goes on in politics, labeling people socialists, labeling people communists … it essentially marks them out as enemies. You see a ton of that today. You have a president who is a moderate being called a socialist, and that’s making him out as the enemy and marking him as not part of the group. Of course they also claim he’s not born in the United States and that he’s a Muslim — that’s a different kind of “out” group.
ILG: How is this labeling augmented by unlimited corporate campaign contributions?
MOONEY: Well, in as far as campaign commercials are divisive and push people’s emotional buttons… it just means there will be more of that. Irrespective of whether it’s campaign season or not, you have FOX and FOX’s audience, including a large number of authoritarians, and FOX is always constructing this battle. It’s constructing its own reality for conservatives and Limbaugh is doing it, too, throwing people out of the tribe.
ILG: In your personal life, does your tribe include conservatives?
MOONEY: I’m way more conservative than most liberals I know. I’m temperamentally blended. I hate liberal’s disorganization, it drives me crazy. I really like people doing things on time, being really confident and ordered and structured — that’s what makes conservatives appealing to me.
Obama never inspires me more than when he talks about killing Osama Bin Laden. There are a lot of people on the left who just recoil from that, whereas I think Obama’s at his best as a tough, strong leader, making strong decisions.
I’ve got this conservative streak, so I was really supportive of John McCain in 2000. When Democrats are running I always like the ones with a military background. So I’m a liberal in the current context but I’m a centrist liberal, you know?
If politics in the US were sane and balanced there might be many more situations where I would end up supporting Republicans, but it’s absolutely impossible to support them now because they’re an authoritarian party and I am extraordinarily against authoritarians.
ILG: So you feel the authoritarian obsession on the right is sort of nudging you in a liberal direction that you wouldn’t normally inhabit?
MOONEY: I’m the kind of person who’d be out there in the center if the center was a sane place. But the center’s basically a bogus place where you pretend the groups are equally biased, but then they’re not equally biased and all the evidence is clear they’re not behaving in the same way.
ILG: How do you think someone of a conservative, authoritarian persuasion sees himself?
MOONEY: It’s not easy for me to put myself in authoritarian shoes, except the closest I’ve been is after 9/11, when everybody was feeling fear. I was living in Washington D.C. and we felt there was anthrax in the mail, you know? I certainly lost a lot of nuance and wanted to support a strong leader, George W. Bush, and even things like racial profiling sounded better to me than they certainly do now because you just want to preserve your life. In that situation fear is the most powerful emotion.
It overrides everything else and it makes people authoritarian, or something like authoritarian, and so I felt myself shift. It only took a little time and then you shift back to normal — what’s normal for me anyway.
So the thing is to think that there are probably people going through life that way all the time. They feel like the world is more threatening, and so I shifted into that kind of worldview for a while after 9/11 — most people did. I think it’s a very natural thing; it makes sense human beings are built to be able to do that.
ILG: As climate change becomes more obvious, do you ever think, ‘Okay, this denial can’t go on much longer’? I mean, we could have sea level rise of ten meters and people would still disbelieve climate change. How long can this go on?
MOONEY: Sea level rise is not going to happen fast, in the near term. So people will always find a way to rationalize. Look, if Greenland split into the ocean, and sea level shot up in tens of meters, the crisis would be so big that everything would change.
I’m not sure it’s something we expect in coming decades. So barring that, I fully expect people to be able to try and rationalize most of it. Now, if there was another weather-related event that people interpreted in terms of climate change — rightly or wrongly — and it became the dominant force like Hurricane Katrina did…you could conceivably have a change where basically the whole national narrative changes and that can be really profound.
But barring that, no, I expect people to basically continue to deny, deny, deny, until we pass a law to deal with the issue and the world just finally takes action. Then I think there will be less reason to deny.
I think denial is all about the status quo and what people don’t want, and once that changes then there is less of a need for denial. That’s when it will become less relevant and less emotionally driven because there will be other things to get emotional about.
ILG: I come away from reading your book that we all preach to our choirs.
MOONEY: We do, you know, no argument.
ILG: Do you have any advice on how to expand beyond the choir format?
MOONEY: What I take away from all this is that conservatives are going to be very hard to reach. However, the people in the middle who are blended are going to have some liberal traits. So for the liberal to make inroads to the center it’s really important to understand the conservatives.
That should lead the left to curb some of its excesses, and there are a lot of kinds of curbs I think could be useful. I’ll just take the one when President Obama starts doing his swagger about how tough he is, he killed Osama Bin Laden. I would say ‘Guys, realize that that’s what works to get to the center.’ I mean, there’s a reason he’s doing it. It also seems to be part of who he is, but it’s politically brilliant.
ILG: So you think there are people out there that respond to swagger and go ‘Oh! Obama’s a hawk after all?’ My perception is that it does no good at all with the Republican Party, they never budge a centimeter.
MOONEY: But it isn’t for them, it’s for the middle and I think that the majority of people support that and I think the polls will show that. The approval rating went way, way, way up when he killed Osama Bin Laden.
I think it’s only a certain kind of liberal who doesn’t understand the appeal of that.
Conservatives do so well because there’s this great emotional appeal to being conservative because you become part of a team and everybody supports you and it feels great to belong. I don’t think we understand the conservatives enough; it would help us if we did.
ILG: I am concerned your book will only be read by people willing to think about how they think. And the irony here is you’re using science to talk about a whole population that doesn’t believe in science.
MOONEY: No, no, I know, and they’re very upset. They could, if they wanted to, grapple with this information. Then they could find an understanding that shows many conservative strengths, but there’s weakness in the areas of science and facts.
Conservatives really ought to just make their peace with that. I mean, they’ve got many other strengths and it doesn’t have to be a battle.
ILG: In fact, your book argues that we actually need each other, but the tragedy is that we are separated in this polarized world and cannot work together.
MOONEY: I would love to live in a world where we work together, but getting us there is difficult to contemplate right now. I think the left, the center left — the Obama left — is really, really ready to work together, but I don’t think the right is. I think that’s what you’d expect based on the characteristics of the group, especially when you get the right kind of extreme.
ILG: Where do you see all of this research into neuroscience and psychology taking you?
MOONEY: Once you go down this road and understand the psychology of ideology, you don’t go back because you can’t look at politics the same way ever again. You can’t look at politics as some kind of rational actor. It makes so much more sense this way, and it was laying there just sort of in plain sight in the scientific literature.
I’m just reporting on the research and the researchers say I’m reporting on it right.