Are Liberals Smarter Than Conservatives?

One of the most irritating things about blogging, news, and internet is the sneering, near slanderous trashing of political figures, particularly conservative ones. To be perfectly honest, I’ve never had a beef with George Bush and I kind of admire Sarah Palin. Those words I just uttered will surely bring my credibility down in some circles. But my reasons are simple; I do not believe everything written about them because I know all news is slanted to further a particular agenda. I admire those in the public spotlight who, while being verbally attacked again and again, keep their cool and are confident in themselves. I believe Bush and Palin have done both quite admirably. I believe the rhetoric of hate directed at them has only been rivaled by the hate Bill Clinton inspired among conservatives. I didn’t dislike him either. Again, I refused to listen to the slander.

But I digress. Back to what I find most annoying. What’s most annoying is this idea that conservatives are somehow less intelligent than liberals; that conservative knuckles barely get off the ground when walking and that their ideas should automatically be dismissed. Having been a conservative (which does not imply that I am now a liberal) I know what I’m talking about. Perhaps the reason most liberals and conservatives hate each other is because each side knows so very little about the other and each side refuses to find out. They take news and sound bytes at face value when 85% are probably taken out of context in order to make news and to make people angry.

Today I came across this article. Jason Richwine takes on the notion that so many seem to believe: that liberals are indeed smarter than conservatives. But he also tempers it with reality.  This bit in particular encapsulates why I think neither side will listen to the other:

To reiterate, people who subscribe to non-traditional ideas probably have above-average intellects, but that does not mean other smart people will like those ideas. This is a point often lost on liberals who work in universities or in the news media. They observe, usually correctly, that friends and acquaintances in their social circle are smarter than the average (and likely more conservative) people they encounter on the street. But too many elites see this correlation between smartness and liberalism as somehow a validation of their political views. They seem unaware that the wider world features plenty of intelligent people who are not professors or movie critics or government bureaucrats. Even among the nation’s smartest people, liberal elites could easily be in the minority politically, but different social circles keep them insulated from finding that out. The result is a convenient but damaging political meme that circulates among some people on the Left—the belief that their opponents simply can’t understand what makes for good policy.

Both sides of the political debate surround themselves with “yes men” and rarely venture out of their comfort zones. Academic liberals especially do this (at least the ones I’ve seen at my university). When they want to do a story on conservatives in their “natural habitat” you’d think they were John Cameron Swayze checking his Timex in the wilds of Africa!  Armed with their research, they gleefully run back to their liberal bastions and write about what they discovered and comfort themselves that they are not like those other people. They automatically equate Conservative with Republican without any discrimination. I know plenty of conservative Democrats who would take issue with this idea.

Conservatives also have this bunker mentality. Some of them, armed with frightening religious ideas, seem to get the most press precisely because they will stir up the most controversy and “scare” the public into voting for certain ideas. Both sides use the most egregious examples to fan the hate flames. Left and right wings aside, there are vast swaths of politically middle of the road folks — those derided by Rush Limbaugh as too timid to take a stand– who take issue with both sides of the fence. Choosing to stand aloof, however, these moderates can’t seem to enter the debate at all. We are accused of not being Patriotic enough on the right, and being too stupid to have an opinion on the left. What else to do but keep silent?

Personally I’m tired of both camps. The idea that one can’t be discerning enough to like parts of one philosophy and ideology and not like other parts is a harmful idea.  Politicians have their creeds just like religions do. Ideologies do as well. Despite saying otherwise, ideologists hate to be disagreed with on one or two issues. Your loyalty is therefore questioned. Think of the myriads of assumptions out there: You can’t possibly be a liberal if you like George Bush or Sarah Palin. You can’t possibly be a conservative and wish countries would give up their xenophobic immigration laws. You can’t possibly be a feminist if you think kids are better cared for at home with two parents. You can’t possibly be an American and believe that Health Care Reform, like the Welfare system and Medicare, could be just what this country needs.  You can’t possibly be a Christian and believe that gays should have the right to be married like other couples. You can’t possibly be a Socialist if you believe in corporate competition. You can’t possibly be a liberal if you believe in the use of military force in certain circumstances. You can’t possibly be a liberal and dislike Obama. What? Are you stupid?

I say you can’t possibly be pigeon-holed for your beliefs if you think for yourself rather than believe what everyone tells you. More education doesn’t equal a sound mind and ignorance of some things doesn’t equal misinformed opinions.  I think we’d all do well to remember that.


12 thoughts on “Are Liberals Smarter Than Conservatives?

  1. Thanks MOI for this excellent post. We may all assess different political figures in different ways for all kinds of reasons. The impulse to judge one another by those we choose to praise or villify is a strong one but, I think, a stupid one, because we never know why a particular person may appeal to someone else, just as we choose our friends for all kinds of reasons, of which those who dissapprove of our friends may be unaware. As if there were a ready formula that says that anyone who likes this kind of person is instantly definable by that fact. This is a fallacy which, as a working musician, I have experienced while playing for weddings, where some of the nicest couples I have played for have some of the most obnoxious friends I could imagine. As you say, we pigeonhole for our snap judgment convenience, until perhaps someone does it to us, when we remember how annoying that is.

    From discussions with the person who has most influenced my way of thinking in the last year, I have learned that villification leads only to conflict. For example, from my political perspective, I think the President’s opponents lose credibility in their opposition when determinedly doing everything possible to stop him achieving anything, and then criticising him for not achieving anything. Ideology is no respecter of persons, but it seems to me that, if we judge one another at all, it might be better done according to what we stand for rather than whom we like or dislike. The latter is just a distraction from getting anything done. Surely there must be people on both sides of the debate smart enough to realise that we should be looking for common and attainable objectives rather than arguing while Rome burns, in the service only of the media circus’ abandonment of objectivity in the face of audience numbers and sales of advertising. God forbid that these people succeed in dragging us into sound bite snap judgments.

    Incidentally, that’s why I’m opposed to formula demographic based TV and radio. We should all take time to expose ourselves to the unfamiliar, rather than relying on those we support politically to tell us what the opposition thinks. Unfortunately you’re right that we may easily be driven away from listening to either side by the sheer hysteria of it all But I’m sure reasonable discussion must be alive and well somewhere – sign posts always welcome.

    After Thanksgiving, let’s remember to exercise the choices we’re still lucky to have. Being spoon fed by those I already agree with will teach me nothing.

    • Reg,
      You wrote: “Ideology is no respecter of persons, but it seems to me that, if we judge one another at all, it might be better done according to what we stand for rather than whom we like or dislike.”

      I agree completely. And to be fair, some of the criticizers do take the time to tell us why they are against this or that public figure. However, in many cases it goes beyond criticizing a person’s politics or ideology and stretches toward criticizing and even insulting the person themselves. Take for example, as the article by Richwine observes, that George Bush’s IQ is at least as high as John Kerry’s! Yet, Republicans are continually criticized as stupid and oafish by liberals who believe that a person’s politics is an indicator of intelligence just because the politics are different than the liberal’s own. It’s this kind of sneering incivility that burns me most. Rather than address the argument and rather than try to explain what one’s position is, as you have witnessed in our Health Care Reform Debate, the oppositions resort to name calling and insults and Voila! nothing gets done. It happens every single time. And it gets old. I believe a person has every right to believe what they want, but resorting to insults because we dislike their politics is reminiscent of the bullies in the schoolyard.

      Thanks, as always, for your thoughtful comment!

  2. **To be perfectly honest, I’ve never had a beef with George Bush and I kind of admire Sarah Palin. Those words I just uttered will surely bring my credibility down in some circles.**

    And to think, I *liked* you. 😛

    **What’s most annoying is this idea that conservatives are somehow less intelligent than liberals; that conservative knuckles barely get off the ground when walking and that their ideas should automatically be dismissed.**

    While I’m sure this would happen regardless, I wonder how much of this can be connected to the whole scientific basis? To generalize, liberals support evolution, climate change and stem cell research, while conservatives don’t — in the most extreme, conservatives go with a 6,000 year old Earth, which conflicts with more than just evolution.

  3. OSS,

    But see that’s just it. I work in a church with political conservatives who believe in evolution, climate change, and stem cell research. This is why I think many are given short shrift because the wackos make news. Those fiscal and political conservatives don’t make news. Too boring. I also know some Democrats who are pro-life, anti-abortion, and believe everything the Pope says. So categories really irk me. That’s the point I’m making. Not only that, but we can’t seem to get past equating a person as a dignified being with their ideas. I know many people who loved JFK and Bill Clinton even though they both cheated on their wives in the White House.

    So to generalize, it’s ok to be morally loose sexually as a Democrat as long as you are anti-war, pro-choice, and anti-death penalty. And as a Republican it’s not ok to cheat on your wife, but it’s ok to be paid kickbacks from large corporations when you vote a certain way. And as you’ll notice, these categorizations don’t hold. Lots of crossover. Apparently it’s all about pet politics or just bigotry, plain and simple.

  4. MOI,

    Well, like I said, it’s a generalization, and does seem to be the common perception that’s out there. And I think a large part of that is because Republican comes across as synonymous with “Religious Right” which is synonymous with “anti-science.” Unfortunately, based on the polls I’ve seen, those who identify as conservative tend to more anti-science than those who identify as liberal. If that perception wasn’t there, I wonder if the idea of conservatives being less intelligent would be as common as it is. If both sides had an equal support (or perceived support) of science, would there be as strong of a generalization that conservatives are less intelligent?

  5. OSS,
    Well, I think that’s the problem with polls too. Sampling a small percentage of the population in say the Bible Belt is going to yield significantly more skewed results than sampling some in New York City, so I don’t think polls are very accurate. As for conservatives being perceived as “less intelligent,” I believe that is is a convenient tool for anyone to use the personal attack, whether true or not, than deal with ideas head on. It’s easier to denigrate one’s opponent on a personal level than admit that perhaps they have a point about this or that policy. Science hasn’t always been right over the years either. Scientific men have been denigrating women for years, in that we have been called “the weaker sex,” “less intelligent,” “more family oriented,” “suitable only for bearing children,” etc. We had wandering wombs in the Middle Ages, and all sorts of kook ideas about phrenology, etc. Look how all that turned out!

  6. You know, I was thinking about this over coffee, and it occurred to me that another thing that fosters the impression of republican ignorance is the Red/Blue map they show during elections. Ever notice where the blue states are and the red states are? If you then compare the levels of education in those states, you’ll find that they’re highest in the blue states (coastal areas and cities) and lowest in the rural areas (central).

    It’s not a hard and fast rule, but on average it holds true. And since this map is pretty much in the nation’s face every general election, it tends to reinforce the belief that the higher educated areas of the country are left-leaning. Which they are. But then the conclusion is that republicans (aka conservatives) must consist of a less educated group since they are the majority in less educated areas. Which, of course, leads one to the conclusion that those who are less educated are not as intelligent. And we all know that’s not true, because intelligence is not a factor of education.

  7. Writerdood,
    Yes, I have noticed that. I’ve also noticed that those who work with their hands in the construction trade, farming, etc. are notoriously Republican and those who are white collar are mostly Democrat. The problem with polls is like the problem with scientific experimentation. The pollster has already skewed the results (as does the scientist) by setting up the poll (experiment) according to preconceived criteria. Therefore, the poll results don’t necessarily mean anything. Do the results mean that there are no Republicans living on the coasts? No, it means that there are Republicans out there who aren’t ultra-Conservative. Conversely, are there no Democrats in the Heartland of America? No, it just means they aren’t Ultra-Liberal. So, there are lots of criteria not taken into account. And as you say, intelligence is not a factor of education. Wealth seems to be.

    Thanks for you and OSS for very thoughtful comments!

  8. My two cents worth?
    1) To quote from the Bible, also: “By their deeds ye shall know them”.
    I do have a beef (big one, too) with the Bush Baby and with Sarah P. Not because of the “vilification” (what about the grotesque, slavish praise they get from the other side, their side, may I add?) or the silly rhetoric from either side (who really listens to it?) or what’s been written about them (I don’t waste any time reading papers/following the “meedja”), but because of their deeds -and the horrific consequences of those, in the case of Bush. And because I have ears and I can listen to Palin quite by myself, no need of mediation. And by Bumba, she does talk crap!
    2) If doing admirably (for whom? not the Iraqi people, surely?) and being cool and confident are to be yardsticks with which to measure the worth of people, why not admire Adolf Hitler, or Ariel Sharon, or Joe Stalin? They had these qualities in spades, innit?
    3) A freebie (that’s three cents for the prize of two). In 1995, when Tony “Bloody” Blair became leader of New Labour, and it also became clear that he would lead the Old-Wine-In-Neo-Bottles party to an electoral victory, I said that the man was a) mad, bad and dangerous and b) that he’d take Britain to deeper depths of misery and shame than even Maggie Thatcher. Why did I say that? Not because I fancied all the nasty stick I got for saying it, I assure you, but because I listened to what the man was saying and because I could read the code.
    Decoding “political” texts/speeches is quite simple, really, but the will to accept what your eyes see and your ears hear is not so easy to summon. But that is, as the saying goes, a very different can of worms (or is it beans?)
    Oh, well…

    • Great two cents Dolores. I can agree to some extent and disagree. I think that we base so much of our politics here in America on personality and not on substance. I agree that Bush had no personality, but he was saying exactly what Obama is saying now. Obama’s personality won him the White House, but he has no experience. He promised the moon and found out when he got to the backrooms that other stuff was going on that he had to concede. I think the public knows little about what actually is known or unknown about politics. I happen to like Sarah Palin for precisely the reasons feminists hate her; she combines family and a job quite nicely. I just get tired of the rhetoric from both camps. No one listens.

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