The Nature of Political Bias
If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.
– Josef Goebbels, Nazi Propaganda Minister
One of the most repeated and contradictory statements coming from conservative groups in the United States is this: Both the communications media and academia have a “liberal bias.” Conservatives assert that major TV networks, colleges, and universities are loaded with persons who are hell bent on polluting people’s minds with a Leftist agenda. And the Leftist agenda is basically one of appeasement, of taking a weak stance on national security, of supporting sexual promiscuity and homosexuality, of promoting the welfare state, of confiscating guns, promoting pacifism, and giving in to terrorists. The liberal ranks, according to conservatives, are loaded with atheists, Jews, show biz types, intelligentsia, and Democrats.
On the other hand, conservatives contend that they are highly patriotic, they support a strong national defense, are against sexual promiscuity and homosexuality, support self-reliance, defend the right to own and carry arms, and will fight terrorism to the death. Their members are Southern Baptists, Evangelicals, Catholics, farmers, business owners, Tea Party members, and Republicans.
In the main these statements are merely assertions that grossly misrepresent the facts and are refuted by scientific studies. In particular, the charge that a liberal bias or a Leftist agenda exists anywhere is demonstrably false. Indeed, the fundamental difference between the two groups is this: Conservatives are closed-minded, and liberals are open-minded. This means that conservatives are biased while liberals are not. The implications of this difference are profound and have far-reaching consequences.
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ccording to Wikipedia, “closed-minded literally means unreceptive to new ideas or information.” It is not a pejorative term, although to not allow new ideas into your head is hardly a cause for celebration. In most cases, the closed-minded person is simply brainwashed. Fortunately, such a mental state is reversible.
Open-mindedness, in contrast, is a predisposition to be receptive to new ideas and different points of view. Liberals are open-minded. In other words, to be a liberal is to be unbiased. Put another way, to have a “liberal bias” is a contradiction in terms. It is impossible to be biased about being unbiased.
Before examining these propositions in greater detail, let’s expand upon the personality characteristic of each group further. In particular, there are at least three other unflattering dimensions to the conservative personality: He or she is dogmatic in his world view, cannot tolerate ambiguity, and needs closure in his thinking.
Dogmatism, according to Merriam-Webster, is “a viewpoint or system of ideas based on insufficiently examined premises.” In other words, the dogmatic person jumps to conclusions without listening to or examining the evidence. This characteristic fits well with being closed to new ideas, but it is a slightly different aspect of personality, thus it leads to slightly different behaviors.
Intolerance of ambiguity means that someone cannot live with uncertainty. He or she needs answers to questions now. He is thus easy prey for the authoritarian. Authority figures love to give answers; the ambiguity intolerant person needs answers; therefore, they are a match made for each other.
Before bringing evidence to bear in support of these premises, here are the expected behaviors of both the closed-minded and the open-minded personalities:
The Closed-Minded Person. He is childlike in his outlook and expectations, looking to authorities to guide him through his daily activities and through life. He loves the certainty they give him about such issues as God, country, duty, honor, respect, and responsibility. His reliance on authority is so great that he accedes to them in all matters. He willingly forfeits his own abilities to think for himself in deference to authorities. With practice and repetition, he has all the answers—even before the questions are asked. He is predictable. He will follow his leaders up the mountain and over the edge of the cliff if that is their bidding. In groups, such as juries or on the job, he or she will follow the group’s leaders and will accept their choices or decisions. This is the conservative.
The Open-Minded Person. This person is not predictable except to say that he or she will evaluate the evidence and the facts before reaching a conclusion about all important issues. If there is not enough evidence to reach an informed conclusion, he will suspend judgment about the matter until the evidence is in and it is compelling. He will listen to others, but he thinks for himself and reaches his own conclusions. He will change his mind on new or better evidence. He dislikes authoritarians in all their forms, especially those who seek power over him. In groups, he or she often takes the lead and brings the group to his or her way of thinking. This is the liberal.
More Background. Many years ago when I was a student one of my professors taught a course in which he introduced the concepts of “universalism” and “case particularism.” He argued that we all tend to fall into one of these two groups in terms of how we view the world and our place in it.: The universalist was some one who saw the world and most issues that arose in their largest contexts, i.e.., in terms of how they tended to fit into his grand view of what ought to be. He thus overlaid his personal values onto most issues and looked favorably or not on them according to how well they fit his notions of goodness, truth, or beauty. For example, if he believed in health care for all, he might ask himself if a proposed expenditure for a local hospital tended to further that goal, or was it targeted toward those who already had lots of medical coverage? Conversely, a case particularist would look only at the money to be allocated, and he would think about the best way to spend it efficiently toward the end already set by others. He would not make a value judgment about whether it might be better used for another purpose, or perhaps saved, and not spent at all.
Like most students, I accepted the professor’s constructs as constituting a valid principle on which I might make reasonable judgments about many matters. I soon realized, however, that he had failed to see that the conservative also tended to look at most issues in terms of the extent to which they fit or did not fit his world view. And on further reflection I realized that his definitions were off. The liberal was less concerned about how issues affected him and more concerned about how they affected others. This is a view that tends toward beneficence or altruism. In contrast, the conservative is focused narrowly on how such issues affected him and his circumstances, and a lot less concerned about others. It was one instance of the “other” versus the “inner” directed personality.
Later, I became interested in the elements of decision making, in particular, with a study published in about 1960 by a researcher named Stoner. He reported that groups tend to be riskier than individuals in the choices they make. He noticed that they would make individual choices that tended toward caution, but the same individuals when acting as a group tended toward riskier choices. They did the same with many different risk choices and with many different groups as participants. If this were a universal principle, he reasoned, it had ramifications about the actions of juries, of money managers, and perhaps even in decision issues concerning war and peace.
Other research following Stoner’s showed that groups also shifted toward more cautious choices depending on the issue at hand. But their shifting was neither random nor entirely issue driven; rather, it was also dependent on the personality of the participants. The group shifts, whether toward more risk or more caution, were also a function of the degree of how closed- or open-minded the participants were. To be even more specific, the closed-minded individuals would shift their positions toward that of those in the groups who were more open-minded. Those who fit this profile would also generate the best argument, the more persuasive arguments, while the closed-minded individuals would shift their decision choices to that of the open-minded individuals.
First, I will offer this qualifier: Nobody is completely “open-“ or “closed-minded.” For instance, it would be pointless to be open to all ideas, especially to those proffered by lunatics, miscreants, and ne’re-do-wells. Time and circumstances can also limit our discretion to be open to even an extensive set of views. On the other hand, even the most closed-minded person must make a decision from time to time without relying on some authority figure to do it for him. Thus when social scientists lay out studies in which they seek to identify various personality factors, they usually resort to scales that describe relative degrees of the trait under investigation. Although people tend to fall into one group or the other, there are not a lot of differences between those in the middle. The differences are most notable, therefore, among those farthest apart on the scales.
Many academic studies support these contentions. I will not, however, turn this essay into another dry, boring paper with hundreds of citations, extensive footnotes, and the like. I will do my best to keep the discussion lively, yet on solid scientific grounds.
The F-Scale. One of the first measures of the authoritarian personality was the F-Scale, developed by a group of researchers at the University of California at Berkeley following WWII. They set out to analyze the fascist mind. They wanted to know what makes this sort of person “tick” so that we might be able to prevent another Hitler, Mussolini, or Tojo from thrusting himself on the world scene and working his evil on us. It was a laudable goal, and one that few could argue against.
The scale consisted of a series of statements in which respondents were asked to “agree” or “disagree.” The statements were simplistic, definitive, and sought to tap the authoritarian mentality. For example, “Obedience and respect for authority are the most important virtues children should learn.” Six responses followed ranging from “Strongly Disagree” to “Strongly Agree.” Each response was assigned a score, and scores were summed and averaged in determining final scores.
Instruments of this kind are submitted to various external tests to determine their accuracy, reliability, and usefulness for a particular purpose. In its early days researchers found that conservatives scored significantly higher on this scale than did liberals.
The reader may click on the following link to find the F-Scale. Take it for fun, but don’t take it too seriously.
Other Factors. A second group of four researchers from Berkeley culled 50 years of studies of the conservative personality. They sought patterns among 88 samples, involving 22,818 participants, taken from journal articles, books and conference papers. The material originating from 12 countries included speeches and interviews given by politicians, opinions and verdicts rendered by judges, as well as experimental, field and survey studies. The psychological factors linked to conservatism were:
· Fear and aggression
· Dogmatism and intolerance of ambiguity
· Uncertainty avoidance
· Need for cognitive closure
· Terror management
The researchers noted, “Intolerance of ambiguity can lead people to cling to the familiar, to arrive at premature conclusions, and to impose simplistic clichés and stereotypes.” In extrapolating some of the data, one of the researchers concluded:
The latest debate about the possibility that the Bush administration ignored intelligence information that discounted reports of Iraq buying nuclear material from Africa may be linked to the conservative intolerance for ambiguity and [the] need for closure.
There are literally hundreds of other studies that have been conducted independently by other researchers from around the world that show substantially the same results about the closed-minded, conservative personality. Equally important, those at the opposite end of the spectrum—the open-minded or liberal personality—showed very little signs of the same traits. I have listed a dozen or so of these studies in the references.
Do Liberals Have an Agenda?
An agenda is a list of things to be done. In a political context it suggests that a group has gotten together and formally or informally endorsed such a list. One might stretch this concept a bit and argue that whether it is a formal or informal group, or just a loose confederation, such a group could exist with an unstated, but implied, agenda. The agenda would also reflect the underlying philosophy of the group, its motives, means, resources, opportunities, and objectives.
Now considering that liberalism is just an open way of thinking, it also consists of many different people with no formal or informal connections, not even a loose confederation of interests. They exist in all walks of life, in all regions, in all age groups. There are no doubt groups comprised essentially of open-minded people, such as journalists or professors, but the fact of their liberalism or open-mindedness is incidental to the purposes and objectives of their associations. Basically, such groups have organized to further the unique goals of their members, and such goals bear predominantly on their occupational pursuits and needs.
In short, I am not aware of any substantive liberal political organization, anywhere, with an agenda—written, implied, or understood. Clearly, the Democratic Party has many liberal members, but liberalism is not the central tenet of the Democratic Party. The Internet also contains many misguided “blog” sites that assert a “liberal” point of view. In the main, however, they are little more than a tiny confederation of smear artists who hate particular conservative politicians. They are not the works, offerings, or repositories of open-minded persons. Liberalism is apolitical.
Do Conservatives Have an Agenda?
Conservatism is different. It must be organized and held together by leaders or it will die. That is simply because a closed mind relies on others for direction. The closed minded individual will nearly always accede to others in a planning session, or in any discussion that seeks to find solutions to problems. Progressive thinking and new ideas confuse the closed mind, and causes “cognitive dissonance” (a discrepancy between beliefs and facts) within the closed-minded person. The closed mind has only slogans and authority figures to support him. (Examples: “My country, right or wrong.” “America: Love It or Leave It.” “Lead, follow, or get out of the way.”). The only way for the closed mind to reduce this dissonance is to accede to those with real solutions to real problems.
Authoritarian figures often try to take advantage of conservatives by establishing groups designed to keep them within the fold. To that end there are hundreds—perhaps thousands—of conservative groups with a collective agenda. That agenda is to promote Christianity as a central tenet of American Life; to control the educational system and to infuse Christianity into school curriculums; to dominate the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government with conservatives and the conservative bias; and thus to enact legislation that furthers their aims. Their ultimate goal is to transfer or keep most of the wealth of the nation in the hands of the few and thus to control every aspect of life. It is a grandiose agenda that has been played out many times in history on a “micro” scale, but always with the supreme objective that it becomes universal.
I will offer a list of extreme examples. To be sure, extreme examples do not represent the more modest objectives of the larger group. They do, however, help to make the point at issue crystal clear. One need only look to cults for confirmation of the conservative agenda in action on a micro scale as put forward by their authoritarian leaders: Examples: Rev. Sun Myung Moon, Rev. Jim Jones, Father Divine, Tony Alamo, David Koresh, Shoko Asahara, Marhashi Mahesh Yogi, Benny Hinn. While this group is also representative of the psychopathic personality and the megalomaniac, it nevertheless is representative of authoritarians who control closed-minded persons.
Examples of political organizations that are representative of the more modest conservative agenda include the Heritage Foundation, Coalitions for America, Citizens for a Sound Economy, National Tax Payers Union, Association of Conservative Clubs, Conservative Christian Fellowship, and Discovery Institute. Conservatism is therefore political in nature, it has an agenda, and it is organized to fulfill that agenda.
So why are conservatives closed-minded? And apart from jumping to conclusions about almost everything without sufficient evidence, and taking us into wars without justification, what else does it mean?
The closed-minded person also has a great “need to belong,” an attribute noted by psychologist Abraham Maslow more than 40 years ago. This is a relatively low-level human need, and it must be satisfied before someone can move “up the ladder” to the higher needs. The higher needs are “self-esteem,” and “self-actualization.” Conservatives tend to get stuck at the need to belong level, and often do not find the confidence to try to move to higher needs and to reach their potential.
Ok, so much for theory. How does all this play out in the real world? When anyone joins a group comprised of people who believe they have found “the truth,” and shut themselves off from those persons, places, and things that might prove them wrong, bad things start to happen. They begin to believe they are invincible, that they are the “anointed ones” and the rest of the world is the “enemy.” When they look outside, however, and they see open-minded people, or liberals, they get confused. The liberals do not look like the enemy, rather they are mostly happy, contented, achievers. So leaders within the group (the authoritarians) solve this ambiguity for the group. They simply demonize the outsiders by “name calling” and by attaching labels to them, hence names such as “radical liberals” and “the far Left” and “liberal bias” jump up. (In another era, you would have heard inflammatory names such as “savages,” “injuns,” or “niggers”).
Within their ranks, however, there inevitably arises someone who dreams of spreading outward from the group, and who wants to push his or her agenda onto mankind. They are the megalomaniacs such as Adolf Hitler and the like. Since they have “the truth,” it follows as surely as night follows day that the end itself justifies any means to achieve it. It matters not whether such a person murders 10 outsiders or 10 million outsiders. The opposition is merely an impediment in his pathway to his “truth.”
But can a similar case be made for liberals, or those at the other end of the spectrum? The answer is an unqualified “no.” And the reason is quite simple: Liberalism is not the polar opposite of conservatism; it is just an open way of thinking. This point is made clear in the two lists that follow. I have selected two groupings of individuals who represent the most extreme examples of the closed-minded and the open-minded personalities. Their political affiliations are not important. What is important is this: They do not represent equally undesirable human traits, thus they are not polar opposites along the same dimension. Rather, they represent extremes from the most undesirable to the most desirable human traits.
Most Extremely Closed-Minded, Biased Conservatives: Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, Ho Chi Minh, Fidel Castro, Francisco Franco, Ayatollah Khomeini, Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein.
Most Extremely Open-Minded, Unbiased Liberals: Carl Sagan, Albert Schweitzer, Mahatma Gandhi, Frank Lloyd Wright, Jonas Salk, William Shakespeare, Leonardo da Vinci, I.M. Pei, George Gershwin, Socrates.
Whether there are women’s names that can or should be added to these lists is an argument for others to make. I plead ignorance about the gender aspect of this issue.
The scientific literature also shows that education is the key to moving progressively from a closed-minded way of thinking to an open-minded way of thinking. Indeed, the relationship between the two is nearly perfect: the higher the person’s education level, the more open-minded he or she becomes. Of course, many self-educated persons are also open-minded, while a few highly educated persons are very closed-minded. Liberalism therefore boils down to a matter of freeing your mind from bias, and of actively pursuing and giving honest thought and consideration to many points of view. That is not a bias; it is a virtue.
Journalists and professors, by virtue of their professions must be open-minded, i.e., open to many points of view. That is why communications media and higher education faculty are staffed mainly with open-minded people. Attempts to demonize them as “radical liberals” or “biased,” or pejoratively “Leftist” are the false and misinformed cries from authoritarians who are showing their disdain and intolerance for free and open thinking. ■
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