Studies: Conservatives Are From Mars, Liberals Are From Venus

Winter found that in describing what they like about each of the two parties, voters used more words and phrases that Winter coded as "masculine" in describing the GOP than in describing the Democrats, by an overwhelming ratio of 7 to 1. Conversely, voters used more words and phrases Winter coded as "feminine" to describe the Democrats than they used for Republicans, again by a strong ratio of 5.7 to 1. 13

At the same time, Winter writes, polls show:

Republicans are thought to handle better such issues as defense, dealing with terrorism, and controlling crime and drugs; these are precisely the sorts of issues that Americans associate with men or with masculine traits. Conversely, Democratic-owned issues include education, health care, helping the poor, protecting the environment, and promoting peace; these are all also associated with women or with feminine traits. 14

In summary, Winter found:

During the past three decades Americans have come to view the parties increasingly in gendered terms of masculinity and femininity. Utilizing three decades of American National Election Studies data . . . this paper demonstrates empirically that these connections between party images and gender stereotypes have been forged at the explicit level of the traits that Americans associate with each party, and also at the implicit level of unconscious cognitive connections between gender and party stereotypes. These connections between the parties and masculinity and femininity have important implications for citizens' political cognition and for the study of American political behavior. 15

When it comes to partisan confrontation, Democrats and Republicans are, arguably, different breeds. As Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia writes,

[T]hink of the moral mind as being like an audio equalizer, with five slider switches for different parts of the moral spectrum. Democrats generally use a much smaller part of the spectrum than do Republicans. The resulting music may sound beautiful to other Democrats, but it sounds thin and incomplete to many of the swing voters that left the party in the 1980s, and whom the Democrats must recapture if they want to produce a lasting political realignment. 16

A 41 percent plurality of Republicans surveyed in a USA Today-Gallup poll shortly after the November 2010 election said that political leaders should stand firm in their beliefs even if little gets done, compared to just 18 percent of Democrats. Nearly three fifths of Democrats, 59 percent, said leaders should be willing to compromise to get things done, compared to just 31 percent of Republicans. 17

A similar Wall Street Journal/NBC poll conducted in early December 2010, found that Democrats believe that elected officials should "make compromises to gain consensus on legislation," as opposed to "stick[ing] to their positions even if this means not being able to gain consensus," by a margin of 63-29, while Republicans were split, 47-47. 18

These differences are more than skin deep, and become significant in political fights over scarce resources. Republican resistance to accommodation can have serious consequences: austerity policies adopted by Congress -- as well as by state and local governing bodies (which are bound by law to maintain balanced budgets) -- will fall heavily on domestic spending, especially on programs and services for the disadvantaged and the poor, i.e. Democratic voters.

Not only are the disadvantaged less well-equipped to press their case, insofar as power correlates with cash, but their primary defenders, contemporary liberals, often flinch in warfare over resources. Scarcity seems to play to the psychological and competitive strengths of conservatives, reinforcing their hierarchical and authoritarian preferences, while increasing the likelihood that those on the left will compromise and concede on matters large and small.

Dana Carney of Columbia University, John Jost of New York University, Samuel Gosling of the University of Texas, and Jeff Potter of Atof, Inc., in their 2008 paper, "The Secret Lives of Liberals and Conservatives: Personality Profiles, Interaction Styles, and the Things They Leave Behind," published in the journal Political Psychology 19theorize that there are certain personality traits associated with liberal or left-wing orientations and conservative or right wing orientations, as described in Figure 1. 20

Personality Traits Theorized to be Associated with Liberal (or Left-Wing) and Conservative (or Right-Wing) Orientation, 1930--2007


Slovenly, ambiguous, indifferent, eccentric, sensitive, individualistic; open, tolerant, flexible; life-loving, free, unpredictable; creative, imaginative, curious; expressive, enthusiastic; excited, sensation-seeking; desire for novelty, diversity; uncontrolled, impulsive; complex, nuanced; open-minded; open to experience.


Definite, persistent, tenacious; tough, masculine, firm; reliable, trustworthy, faithful, loyal; stable, consistent; rigid, intolerant; conventional, ordinary; obedient, conformist; fearful, threatened; xenophobic, prejudiced; orderly, organized; parsimonious, thrifty, stingy; clean, sterile; obstinate, stubborn; aggressive, angry, vengeful; careful, practical, methodical; withdrawn, reserved; stern, cold, mechanical; anxious, suspicious, obsessive; self-controlled; restrained, inhibited; concerned with rules, norms; moralistic; simple, decisive; closed-minded; conscientious.

Carney's team describes conservatism "as an ideological belief system that is significantly (but not completely) related to motivational concerns having to do with the psychological management of uncertainty and fear. . . Similarly, concerns with fear and threat may be linked to the second core dimension of conservatism, endorsement of inequality." 21 (emphasis added)

Working along parallel lines, Harvard professor of psychology James Sidanius and colleagues have developed a measure of what they describe "social dominance orientation," or, in academic shorthand, SDO. Sidanius and his associates use a 16 question survey to place respondents on a scale of high to low SDO. Those high in SDO gave favorable responses to the first eight statements and negative responses to questions nine through sixteen: 22

    1. Some groups of people are just more worthy than others

    2. In getting what your group wants, it is sometimes necessary to use force against other groups

    3. It's OK if some groups have more of a chance in life than others

    4. To get ahead in life, it is sometimes necessary to step on other groups

    5. If certain groups of people stayed in their place, we would have fewer problems

    6. It's probably a good thing that certain groups are at the top and other groups are at the bottom.

    7. Inferior groups should stay in their place

    8. Sometimes other groups must be kept in their place

    9. It would be good if all groups could be equal

    10. Group equality should be our ideal

    11. All groups should be given an equal chance in life

    12. We should do what we can to equalize conditions for different groups

    13. We should increase social equality

    14. We would have fewer problems if we treated different groups more equally.

    15. We should strive to make incomes more equal

    16. No one group should dominate in society

Sidanius et al. found that SDO is higher among whites than among African Americans; is negatively related to empathy, openness, and agreeableness; and is positively linked to aggressivity, vindictiveness, coldness, tough-mindedness, and to a belief that "the world is a zero-sum game." In addition, those ranking high on a SDO scale "will use others to get ahead . . . they believe that harming people is legitimate, are observably disagreeable, cold, and vindictive, are low in benevolence, and do not hesitate to humiliate others. Their dog-eat-dog mentality leads them to support economic competition and war over social welfare programs . . . people high in SDO tend to be callous, confident, and cruel." 23

In a separate set of studies, published in the paper "Social Dominance Orientation: A Personality Variable Predicting Social and Political Attitudes," Sidanius and colleagues found that "Republican political party preference correlated positively and significantly with SDO in six out of six samples." 24

While Carney, Jost, Sidanius, et al. describe conservatives in pejorative terms, the University of Virginia's Jon Haidt and Jesse Graham of the University of Southern California, contend that liberal scholars may be restricting their definition of morality by failing to acknowledge values and principles important to conservatives.

Haidt and Graham submit that conservatives are concerned not only with the welfare and rights of the individual, but also with the institutions of family, patriotism, loyalty to one's group, and recognition of the legitimacy of hierarchy and order as beneficial to the larger society. As a result, according to Haidt and Graham, conservatives will sometimes take what they see as moral stands -- attacking abortion and divorce as undermining the family -- that liberals may well see as immoral impositions on the autonomy of individuals, especially women.

Presented by

Thomas Byrne Edsall

Thomas B. Edsall is the Joseph Pulitzer II and Edith Pulitzer Moore Professor at the Columbia School of Journalism. He covered national politics for the Washington Post for 25 years and currently writes a weekly online column for the New York Times. He is the author of The Age of Austerity.

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