When a bunch of Democrats voted last week for a Republican bill meant to sabotage the Affordable Care Act, a lot of liberal commentators, myself included, reacted with, "Ugh, here we go again." While there had been some remarkable unity on the Democratic side in recent months, particularly during the budget showdown, the default status of Democrats is not just cowardice but fractiousness (though obviously, it's easy to stay together when things are going well). This is representative of the broader liberal movement, where it's extraordinarily difficult to get ostensibly allied people and groups to act in concert. Liberals are always looking with envy at their conservative counterparts, who seem to be much more unified, both in beliefs and action. Conservatives would tell you that they spend plenty of time at each other's throats, but this broad stereotype—disconnected liberals, unified conservatives—has its origins in truth.
Today I read a study that sheds some light on why this might be. It isn't just that liberals are more divided and conservatives are more united, it's also that liberals believe they're more divided, and conservatives believe they're more unified, even when it's not necessarily true. The study asked people about their opinions on a range of questions on both political and non-political topics, then asked them to guess what proportion of people who shared their general ideology agreed with them on that particular question. The results showed that liberals displayed a "truly false uniqueness effect"—they were more likely to think that their views were different from those of their peers, even when they weren't—while conservatives displayed a "truly false consensus effect," believing that their views were the same as their peers, even when they weren't.
The authors also found evidence that the liberal false uniqueness effect has at least part of its origins in liberals' personal desire to feel unique, as measured by a "need for uniqueness" scale. In other words, liberals who were more likely to see themselves as the type of person who's different and special were more likely to think their opinions were unique as well.
This study goes right along with other recent research (see this book or this book) showing that liberals and conservatives display different kinds of personality traits and perceive the world in fundamentally different ways. For instance, conservatives are more likely to value order and certainty, and demonstrate conscientiousness, while liberals are more likely to value creativity and display openness to new experiences. So it isn't surprising—to caricature things a bit—that liberals think, "I'm a unique snowflake of opinion," while conservatives think, "Anyone who knows anything agrees with me."
But it has some serious real-world implications, because your perception of how much consensus there is among your own group can affect the decisions you make when it comes to political action. As the authors of the study suggest, "liberals' greater desire for uniqueness likely undermines their ability to capitalize on the consensus that exists within their ranks and hinders successful group mobilization, whereas moderates' and conservatives' weaker desire to feel unique (i.e., greater desire to conform) could work to their advantage by allowing them to perceive consensus that does not actually exist and, in turn, rally their base."
Anyone who has worked in liberal politics would probably respond, "No kidding." Liberal groups are notoriously difficult to move to action, particularly since they spend so much time letting everybody have their say. The false perception of disagreement this study indicates liberals may suffer from is somewhat ironic, given that so many liberal groups try to operate via consensus, whereas conservative organizations tend to be more hierarchical. Or maybe it's not ironic at all—the very process of trying to arrive at consensus can expose divisions, or more likely, make tiny divisions seem much more consequential than they are. On the other hand, when the boss just says, "This is what we're going to do," you can assume that everyone agrees because they don't have a chance to air their grievances. So people's predispositions influence the way the institutions they build operate, and the operation of those institutions can then influence what they think, and the cycle keeps going around.
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