The Normalcy of Hypocrisy: From Clean Energy to Health Care, Conservatives Flip Flop in Support of the Team

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One striking feature of the liberal psyche is how it is simultaneously outraged by hypocrisy on the conservative side of the aisle—and yet also morbidly fascinated by it.

Just this morning, reading, I came across the following examples:

1.      Ezra Klein’s much discussed New Yorker article, on how Republicans came to oppose the healthcare individual mandate that was, you know, their own idea for 20 years. I find Klein a bit wishy-washy overall, because he uses a political psychology analysis (which is generally good) but fails to acknowledge its full implications: Republicans engage in team-oriented groupthink more strongly than Democrats. This is the finding of Klein’s own key source, moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who stresses that in-group loyalty is stronger on political the right. Still, Klein’s is a good article overall for factually capturing the flip-flop.

2.      In the same Ezra Klein piece, we find the following additional examples of conservative hypocrisy, or flip-flopping: “In 2007, both Newt Gingrich and John McCain wanted a cap-and-trade program in order to reduce carbon emissions. Today, neither they nor any other leading Republicans support cap-and-trade.” And: “In 2008, the Bush Administration proposed, pushed, and signed the Economic Stimulus Act, a deficit-financed tax cut designed to boost the flagging economy. Today, few Republicans admit that a deficit-financed stimulus can work. Indeed, with the exception of raising taxes on the rich, virtually every major policy currently associated with the Obama Administration was, within the past decade, a Republican idea in good standing.”

3.      At Climate Progress, there’s a recent piece on Republican hypocrisy in opposing innovative clean energy companies and supporting fossil fuel subsidies. Wait, aren’t these guys supposed to be in favor of the free market? Doh…

4.      At my own blog, contributor Dylan Otto Krider explains how Antonin Scalia is gearing up to provide the legalese to overturn the healthcare individual mandate, and how his thinking has, er, matured on the matter of states’ rights. Bush v. Gore, the pinnacle of partisan judicial hypocrisy, is tossed in to boot.

Look, folks: It is past time to stop finding any of this surprising, shocking, appalling, etc. And it is definitely time to stop finding it intriguing or fascinating.

Instead, it is time to start considering it normal. Why?

According to Jonathan Haidt—although, again, Ezra Klein doesn’t go there—Republicans/conservatives are more group oriented. And of course, human beings engage in motivated reasoning (among other reasons) to defend their tribe, group, or team. Indeed, the key theme of American politics today, you could argue, is that Republicans and conservatives have strongly defined liberals and especially President Obama as an out-group, one that must be resisted at all costs.

And why are Republicans and conservatives more group oriented? Well, that’s a fascinating question. It’s one that, honestly, I wish I’d unpacked a tad better in The Republican Brain.

Here, the research of social psychologist Arie Kruglanski of the University of Maryland becomes highly relevant, and needs to be merged with that of Haidt. As I report in The Republican Brain based on Kruglanski’s work, conservatives tend to have a higher “need for closure”—need to have a fixed belief, to dispel uncertainty and doubt—than do liberals. And what helps you achieve closure? Why, your group—belonging to it, thinking what it thinks, doing what it does. Or as one Kruglanski paper puts it:

Theory and research are presented relating the need for cognitive closure to major facets of group behavior. It is suggested that a high need for closure, whether it is based on members’ disposition or the situation, contributes to the emergence of a behavioral syndrome describable as group-centrism–a pattern that includes pressures to opinion uniformity, encouragement of autocratic leadership, in-group favoritism, rejection of deviates, resistance to change, conservatism, and the perpetuation of group norms.

So, okay. We’ve got a bunch of group-oriented conservatives, aka Republicans. This group (notably, back when it was somewhat less unified) used to have a set of positions—on the free market, on cap-and-trade, on economic stimulus, and especially on health care.

But along comes a sharply defined out-group, and its leader embraces these positions. In fact, that leader makes the group’s position the centerpiece of his primary legislative push—and, it turns out, his number one legislative victory.

At this point, what is more important? Fidelity to the old ideas, or fidelity to the group? If you said the group, you are of course correct. And then motivated reasoning ensues: The justification and rationalization of the perceived “flip-flop,” and the bolstering of the new position.

And there is really not much more to explain about recent American politics, or about conservative views today versus conservative views of yesteryear.

To me, there are only two remaining issues here: 1) why do disobedient, disloyal, and non-group oriented liberals find this so eerily fascinating? and 2) do why some liberal or centrist media commentators sidestep the full partisan ramifications of political psychology research?

But save those issues for another day.

The upshot, for now, is simple: According to Jonathan Haidt + Arie Kruglanski, Republicans/conservatives, more so than Democrats/liberals, are group-oriented and engage in motivated reasoning on behalf of the group, tribe, or team. And as American politics is now exceedingly tribal, all else plays out accordingly.

Any questions?

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