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New York Magazine: Conservatives Are Thinkers, Liberals Feelers

So the next time you hear the tripe about liberals being the intelligentsia while conservatives are knuckle-dragging neanderthals, mention Al Franken’s 2010 theft of the Minnesota election [1]:

His race against incumbent Minnesota senator Norm Coleman was a stubborn one: Even after some of the country’s highest ever per capita spending, the contest remained close, with a small number of undecided, seemingly unbudgeable voters.

The job of pollsters in these situations is to figure out who the undecided actually are and what could make them move. Often, they focus on demographics (playing to older suburban women) or issues (talk of school reform). But one pollster working for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Mark Mellman, felt it might pay to look for more primal distinctions.

Mellman added to his Minnesota polls a battery of questions inspired by research in psychology and neuroscience, borrowed from personality tests and designed to separate those with more rational processing systems from those who relied on emotion in their decision-making. Here polls did discern a latent split: Franken led Coleman by one point among those they identified as “feelers” but lagged by seven points among “thinkers.” The committee changed its ad strategy in response. Highly stylized television spots, like a movie spoof that showed Coleman as a fugitive fleeing George W. Bush, were replaced by messages that were “a little more flat, a little more factual, a little more sourced,” Mellman said. One defended Franken against Coleman’s charges with a calm narrator reading off a checklist of straightforward rebuttals under the words “The Truth.” Franken won, after a long recount, and in 2010 Mellman used the same battery of questions to shape media strategy for Harry Reid and Barbara Boxer.

In short, conservatives prefer rationalized debate.  Liberals prefer emotive and rhetoric.

Now I have not yet read Jonathan Haidt’s new book The Righteous Mind but it does inherently bring up an interesting point regarding conservatives and liberals.  I would only add one specific caveat: conservatives and liberals are firmly within one specific political philosophy — classical liberalism.

I would bet money that “conservatives” and “liberals” within another set ideology — communism, fascism, or socialism — act likewise.

Still, the whole concept of someone being genetically hard-wired to be a conservative or a liberal is a 50-50 concept.  In one sense, most folks are more hard wired than they would believe.  In another sense, education and experience make all the difference in utilizing that hard wiring to a more noble purpose.

In a day and age where we surrender more information about ourselves to Facebook and Twitter and Google (and even to blogs), the numerati are indeed collecting on their databases, crafting with algorithms, and watching.  Certain arguments work with certain folks… and so long as the two never meet, they’ll eventually impose their own values on a particular issue or candidate.

…and then they’re hooked.