January 4, 2003

· Obiter Dicta

Why is the right more prone to tendentious dichotomies than the left? I ask this question in the spirit of Daniel Drezner, who asks “Why is the left more sensitive than the right?” I have one less data point than Daniel, but that data point is Daniel himself, so I shall follow his fine example and plough on regardless.

Like Daniel, I’ll admit that it might not be possible to answer my question, since measurement is next to impossible and I can think up of at least as many counterexamples as positive cases. But let’s not let that get in the way. The distinguishing factor here is that in recent memory, political leaders on the left do not boil complex situations down to almost mindlessly simple alternatives. The same cannot be said about political leaders on the right—- see George Bush, George Bush and, um, George Bush. This blind shoehorning of complex questions into the procrustean bed of goodies vs baddies has the peculiar stink of self-righteousness that renders some on the right unable to distinguish informed analysis from high treason. In contrast, those on the left are pretty good at acknowledging that, at least in principle, political choices may come with more than two options.

Why is this the case? I just made up two possible explanations:

1) The right takes things personally. When you have a political disagreement with someone on the left side of the spectrum, the tendency is to have a good fight and then maybe think about collecting some data. When you have a political disagreement with someone on the right side of the spectrum, the tendency is for that person to believe that the disagreement is an indication of a deep character flaw, such as the inability to reason, or distinguish good from evil. More (admittedly laughable) proof: run a Google search on “evil” and “liberal” and you get 426,000 hits; do the same with “conservative” and you only get 380,000 hits. [Hey, I did the same thing with “left-wing” and “right-wing” and the right-wingers had more hits, 135,000 to 55,000—ed. OK, but do the same thing with “Democrat” and “Ankle-Biter” and the Democrats win by a massive, 102,000 to 4,800. QED.]

2) Conservatives have yet to adjust to the fact that they’ve graduated from high-school. Until recently, high-schools were thought to be centers of unhappiness for people who should be popular but are not, because they can’t throw a football and have a subscription to The National Review. This was certainly the case when I was in school. Anyway, those who form their political positions in a climate of adolescent moral absolutes are not used to thinking about the complex world beyond the debate team, and as a result are not likely to pay attention to it later in life. Conservatives face a much harsher political adjustment when they exit their parents’ homes.

If it’s the first explanation, there’s not much that can be done about it. If it’s the second, however, then there’s probably not much to be done about it either, as these habits tend to be set early in life.

Daniel says his story is “developing”. I will stay tuned for further installments, which I imagine will include such pressing questions as, “Why are Conservatives More Fun than Liberals?”, “Why does the Left Score Lower on IQ Tests than the Right?”, and “When did the Left Stop Beating its Wife?”

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I am Associate Professor of Sociology at Duke University. I’m affiliated with the Kenan Institute for Ethics, the Markets and Management Studies program, and the Duke Network Analysis Center.



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