Conservatives and libertarians tend to be grouped together on the right of the political spectrum, with liberals (in the American sense of the word) on the left.
It’s an overly simplistic and binary view of political ideology, which, I believe, arises from the dominance that liberal ideas have over contemporary culture. Because they control the broadcast media, the arts establishment and the universities, liberals are in position to define the political narrative and – in a very human way – they divide the world into two camps: people-like-us and people-not-like-us.
To compound matters, liberals aren’t well equipped to understand people not like them. It’s a psychological phenomenon that we covered on the Deep End back in 2012:
“It is, for many conservatives, a familiar feeling – the sense that our counterparts on the liberal left not only disagree with us, but don’t even understand us.
“Well, it seems there is hard evidence to support our suspicions. It comes from an unlikely source – the American psychologist (and political liberal) Jonathan Haidt. The basis of his research is a framework of five moral ‘foundations’: care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion and sacredness/degradation. Gathering masses of survey data (to which you can contribute here), Haidt and his colleagues have built-up a detailed picture of the degree to which these various foundations underpin the liberal and conservative worldviews.”
The research shows that people identifying as liberals tend to base their principles on only the first two of these five moral dimensions, but seem insensible to the other three – or to quote Haidt: “It’s as though conservatives can hear five octaves of music, but liberals respond to just two, within which they have become particularly discerning.”
Although this is an American study, using American definitions, it still explains a lot about recent developments in politics. Not least, the rise of UKIP and the way in which a Labour Party controlled by metropolitan liberals has alienated so much of its traditional working class support.
Haidt and his colleagues have since expanded their research, for instance, by scoring people against a wider range of psychological dimensions – and by mapping out the crucial distinctions between libertarians and conservatives.
The results of the latest study are summarised by Haidt on his Righteous Mind blog:
“Libertarians match liberals in placing a relatively low value on the moral foundations of loyalty, authority, and sanctity (e.g., they’re not so concerned about sexual issues and flag burning), but they join conservatives in scoring lower than liberals on the care and fairness foundations (where fairness is mostly equality, not proportionality; e.g., they don’t want a welfare state and heavy handed measures to enforce equality). This is why libertarians can’t be placed on the spectrum from left to right: they have a unique pattern that is in no sense just somewhere in the middle. They really do put liberty above all other values.”
These differences in moral foundations are matched by differences in psychological make-up:
“…libertarians consistently come out as the most cerebral, most rational, and least emotional. On a very crude problem solving measure related to IQ, they score the highest. Libertarians, more than liberals or conservatives, have the capacity to reason their way to their ideology.
“…libertarians are the most individualistic; they report the weakest ties to other people. They score lowest of the three groups on many traits related to sociability, including extroversion, agreeableness, and conscientiousness.”
These, of course, are tendencies – indicative of overall differences between different ideological groups. They are not meant to stereotype individuals.
Nevertheless there are some interesting implications for group dynamics. Consider UKIP for example – a political party with supposedly libertarian foundations. One can readily recognise some classic libertarian personalities among the most prominent Kippers. However, when one thinks of the recent surge of support for the party, the words “most cerebral, most rational, and least emotional” don’t exactly come to mind. Indeed, UKIP’s new supporters – especially those who used to vote Labour – are motivated by a reaction to the lack of liberal respect for “the moral foundations of loyalty, authority, and sanctity.”
UKIP has therefore become a coalition of people who reject the liberal consensus for a range of very different reasons. One might even go so far as to say that UKIP is developing a split personality. Certainly, it would make for a fascinating case study.