In previous posts (here and here), I have argued against ideology and in favor of pragmatism. But if you have gleaned more than a few of my posts, you have probably noticed that I spend more time criticizing conservatives than liberals. There are good reasons for this.
Fundamentally, ideology is close-mindedness. It is a refusal to look at evidence openly, and question one’s own beliefs. The glaring close-mindedness of liberal ideology is not difficult to find. Anti-scientific nonsense about genetically modified organisms and irrational fears of “chemicals.” The trashing of all things “corporate.” Tremendous double standards when it comes to criticizing organized religion – an attitude that says anything goes if you want to attack American Christianity, but criticism of Islam or any other minority religion is bigoted. And a vociferous identity politics that values the same kind of “us and them” mentality seen amongst the worst of conservative ideologues.
But there is really no comparison. American liberals, as a group, cannot begin to compete with conservatives, when it comes to close-mindedness and a true believer mentality. Partly this is due to the very nature of American conservatism, which places tremendous value on tradition for its own sake. But it is also due to the fact that conservative ideology has been relentlessly propagandized by wealthy businessmen for more than a century. There is a tremendous amount of money behind American conservatism. In recent years this has gotten so bad that there are now large segments of the American population, not to mention some powerful politicians, for whom the very foundations of reality are in question.
We now have Republican chairs of congressional science committees and high administration officials who are global warming deniers and creationists. Where are the comparable anti-scientific liberals, when Democrats control congress and the white house? Where are the Democratic presidents who want to ban agricultural pesticides and GMO’s? Where are the Democratic presidents who appoint unqualified people to scientific positions in government, and try to suppress the publication of scientific inquiries in their administrations?
This imbalance is a direct function of a similar imbalance among grassroots conservatives and liberals. Huge numbers of American conservatives believe the earth is less than 10,000 years old. Today the Republican party is very nearly majority creationist. Huge numbers of American conservatives deny the scientific consensus on global warming. Last year Pew took a survey of American attitudes about climate change. When presented with the statement “Climate scientists’ research findings are influenced by the best available scientific evidence most of the time,” only 9% of conservative Republicans agreed. When presented with the statement “Climate scientists’ research findings are influenced by scientists’ desire to advance their own careers,” a whopping 57% of conservative Republicans agreed. But even more strikingly, the vast majority of conservative Republicans refused to even acknowledge the FACT of what climatologists CLAIM about climate change. When presented with the (true) statement that “Almost all climate scientists agree that human behavior is mostly responsible for climate change,” only 16% of conservative Republicans agreed. This is not a matter of opinion. It is merely a test of the respondent’s knowledge of the climatology consensus.
American liberals can certainly be ignorant about a lot of things. But I can think of no question about scientific consensus that would elicit such responses from liberals as a group. Liberal attitudes toward genetically modified organisms are often cited as anti-scientific. And they often are. But in fact there is no evidence that liberals are more likely to oppose GMO’s than conservatives. In another Pew survey taken last year, roughly equal shares of conservative Republicans (39%) and liberal Democrats (40%) felt that GMO’s were worse for people’s health. 52% of liberal Democrats felt that GMO’s were neither better nor worse for people’s health. Only 16% of Democrats reported that they were “a great deal” concerned about GMO’s.
In a Gallup survey in 2008, a whopping 60% of American Republicans reported believing that humans were created in their present form within the last 10,000 years. Only 38% of Democrats said this. That is not to say that there aren’t plenty of ignorant liberals. In a 2014 NSF survey, only 49% of Democrats knew that the earth orbited the sun AND that the earth took one year to complete an orbit. But there is a difference. If a scientist, or anyone else for that matter, explained to these ignorant Democrats that the earth orbits the sun and takes one year to complete the orbit, I very much doubt that they would respond “You’re wrong! The sun orbits the earth!” But how many of the 60% of Republicans who believe that humans were created less than 10,000 years ago, when confronted with the overwhelming evidence of human evolution, would correct themselves?
Belief that flies in the face of facts. A refusal to go where the evidence leads. That’s ideology. And American conservatives, as a group, are far more ideological than American liberals. That is why I tend to spend much more time on conservative dogma. At some other point in history, in some other place, the opposite might be true. But in this time, in this place, there is no contest. And it isn’t just science. The evidence of history also seems to have very little influence on American conservatives in the 21st century. They seem to have trapped themselves in a collection of dogmas that just do not comport with historical reality. Big tax cuts on the wealthy result in sustained economic growth. Big government leads to economic collapse. Abstinence-only sex education results in lower teen pregnancy rates. Increased atheism leads to unethical behavior. All of this flies in the face of history.
When I look at international surveys, like the U.N.’s Happiness Report, what am I supposed to think? Am I supposed to think that the people of Norway, who report that they are the happiest people on earth, are actually miserable? When they respond that they have strong social support, good freedom to make life choices, plenty of generosity, low perceptions of government corruption, high levels of laughter and enjoyment, and low levels of worry, sadness, and anger, am I supposed to think that they are lying or deluded, because they are burdened with the yoke of “socialism”? When I see that all 5 Scandinavian countries, with their universal health care, strong labor unions, and excellent retirement systems, all rank more highly than America on the Happiness Index, what am I supposed to think? When I see that almost half of Europe, as well as Canada and Australia, ranks more highly than America on the libertarian Cato Institute’s Human Freedom Index, WHAT AM I SUPPOSED TO THINK?
I’m not interested in defending an ideology for its own sake. I happily question each and every one of my beliefs, no matter how deeply held. Any belief worth having can stand up to withering examination. We don’t need ideology, conservative or liberal. We need pragmatism. We need critical thinking and evidence-based decision making. The scientific approach, a commitment to go where the evidence leads, has given us the incredible standard of living we enjoy today. When we allow ideology to blind us to reality, we hold back progress in increasing human happiness. And saying that liberalism and conservatism, at this place and time, are equally off base, is false equivalence.