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So Who's Nuttier - Democrats or Republicans?

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So Who's Nuttier -- Democrats or Republicans?: Andrew Ferguson

May 17 (Bloomberg) -- One summer day in the 1990s, along about the midpoint of the Clinton Interregnum, I had lunch with a writer well known for his conservative views and his wide, or at least widely displayed, learning.

``I've finally figured out what the problem is with liberals,'' he said, tipping a soupcon of vichyssoise to his lips. ``They're mentally ill.''

Given that our lunch occurred in the midst of what is easily the most successful Democratic presidency since Franklin Roosevelt's, I thought it was an odd remark -- until I understood that this was his extravagant way of saying something else: ``People who disagree with me must be nuts.''

It was also the kind of remark that my friend, protective of his gentlemanly reputation, would never make in public. Nor would most of his fellow partisans. But that was a long time ago. Accusing the other side of being crazy has become a common tactic in political polemics.

Michael Savage, a foam-flecked radio talk-show host from San Francisco, has just released a new book called ``Liberalism is a Mental Disorder.'' It's one of those titles that you'd think would be self-defeating: How many people who are intelligent enough to read a book would be dumb enough to want to read one with a title like that?

Lots of them, apparently. Savage's book has been on the New York Times bestseller list for a month.

Upraised Pinky

Liberals have been known to attempt something similar, of course, though it is often camouflaged as a high-minded effort, undertaken with an upraised pinky.

``Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition,'' by a team of psychology professors from the University of California at Berkeley and elsewhere, was published to much fanfare two years ago in the Psychological Bulletin of the American Psychological Association. The monograph is almost a parody of self-satisfied high-mindedness -- a far-fetched partisan attack draped in the finery of objective analysis.

``It is a legitimate empirical issue,'' they write, ``whether there are demonstrable links between a clearly defined set of psychological needs, motives, and properties and the adoption of politically conservative attitudes.''

You can almost see the headshrinkers shrug on their lab coats and adjust their monocles as they contemplate the open question: ``Just how crazy are zese right-wingers?''

Dogmatism and Intolerance

But the question wasn't open for long. After a review of the psychological literature, the authors write, ``Almost all of our specific hypotheses were corroborated.'' You don't say. A whole host of psychological traits, they discovered, would lead a person to embrace conservative views.

Oddly, none of these psychological traits were terribly commendable. Conservatives like to think they possess prudence, skepticism, a sense of limits and other wonderful qualities.

Not so. The researchers found that other, far more malignant traits compel a person to pull that GOP lever in the voting booth: ``fear and aggression,'' ``dogmatism and intolerance of ambiguity,'' ``personal need for structure,'' ``group-based dominance,'' ``need for cognitive closure,'' and ``mortality salience,'' otherwise known as ``fear of death.''

Ain't Necessarily So

Lest their own dogmatism and intolerance become too transparent, the authors hasten to add that they don't mean ``conservative beliefs are necessarily false, irrational, or unprincipled.''

Note that ``necessarily.'' What this supposedly objective analysis shares with Savage's much cruder -- or perhaps merely more straightforward -- book is the view that political opinions to which one doesn't subscribe must be non-rational. They are therefore best explained by reference to processes beyond reason, like mental illness.

Yet there's a better question that Republicans might ask about Democrats and vice versa. Instead of ``How crazy are they?'' it is: ``Who are they?'' And to answer it you don't need to consult San Francisco radio hosts or even Berkeley psychology professors. In fact, it's better if you don't.

Every few years, the Pew Center for the People and the Press gathers polling data to construct a political typology of the U.S. public -- especially the key beliefs and values that make a Democrat a Democrat and a Republican a nut. I mean a Republican.

Some findings are obvious. The greatest divide separating Republicans from Democrats has to do with an assertive foreign policy that relies heavily on military force. Republicans favor it, Democrats don't. We knew that.

Crossing Lines

Yet Pew also found that political views often cut across tidy demographic and even ideological lines. The formation of opinions turns out to be an unpredictable process, even in politics.

There are poor conservatives and rich liberals, conservative atheists and religious fundamentalists with left-of-center political views.

The Pew typology identifies one large chunk of Republicans who are ``skeptical about the effectiveness of the marketplace'' in promoting the general welfare. Another large chunk of Democrats is equally skeptical of government programs to help the poor.

Republicans may pride themselves on their realism, but their ranks hold more optimists than the Democratic ranks do. Democrats may be accused of romantic idealism, but large numbers of them hold pessimistic views about the future and their own personal situation.

Complications like these should confound Michael Savage as well as the Berkeley headshrinkers, but that's unlikely. They prefer a tidier typology, comprising two kinds of American: the rational person, who agrees with them, and the deluded person, who doesn't.

I think they're crazy.


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There are poor conservatives and rich liberals, conservative atheists and religious fundamentalists with left-of-center political views.

Best line in the whole article.

Overall, a good read. My opinion is that if you are EXTREME, to the Left or the Right, you are "nutty".

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