On Liberals, Conservatives, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Knowledge

May 23, 2011

American ThinkerAre liberals smarter than conservatives?  It’s an interesting question, if you like, and you can find interesting studies and speculations on whether and why, but intelligence isn’t the same as wisdom.  A person gifted with higher than average cognitive ability can still be a fool.

Some liberals certainly think that liberals are both much smarter and much wiser than conservatives.  Arguably that belief is an intrinsic part of the ideology of the American Progressive movement.  A commenter on this blog has said, “. . . the American people are by and large an idiotic bunch. . . . And these are the people that are voting!”  An obvious implication is that he knows better than they do.  I don’t mean to pick on any one person; I think his words are representative of a significant strain of larger liberal thought.  You may have had such thoughts yourself.

So you may be surprised to learn that the people who vote for Republicans are the ones who know more about current events, public policy, and politics.  Let’s look at a series of studies by the Pew Research Center.  (If you’d like to read more of my thoughts on this but aren’t interested in the details of particular survey questions, skip the next ten paragraphs or so and continue reading below.)

Everything I’ve read tends to indicate that (1) the people at the Pew Research Center are good at what they do, trying to be careful and trying to use the best methods to conduct surveys accurately and impartially, and (2) we should expect them to be biased, if at all, in liberalism’s favor.

The Pew Research Center has done “News IQ Quiz” surveys a number of times; links to summaries of nine of them (April 2007 through November 2010), and sometimes the original survey questions and detailed results, are available here.  In each survey, the Pew researchers asked a number of questions about current events, public policy, and politics.

I think the best question, for a fairly basic, ideologically neutral indicator of whether a person is paying attention to the national debate, may have been “Does the so-called ‘cap and trade’ legislation being discussed in Congress deal with” (Energy and environment, Health care, Banking reform, or Unemployment), October 2009.  23% of respondents correctly chose “Energy and environment”, but there was a huge “partisan gap”: 27% of Republican voters got it right, almost twice as many as Democratic voters (15%).  In fact, Republicans beat Democrats on 10 of the 12 questions; the only two on which Republicans were not more knowledgeable were “Does the so-called ‘public option’ legislation being discussed in Congress deal with” (Energy and environment, Health care, Banking reform, or Unemployment) (both 59% of Republicans and 59% of Democrats correctly chose “Health care”) and “Is health care spending per person in the U.S. higher, lower, or about the same as in most major European nations,” which I would argue was ambiguous and/or misleading—does the question refer to government spending only, or to total combined private and public spending?  Without researching it, I would guess that the federal government spends less per person than European governments, while total (combined private and public) American spending per person is more.  Even so, 61% of respondents correctly guessed the answer Pew wanted (“Higher in U.S.”); 62% of Republicans and 67% of Democrats got it “right”.

Other iterations of the survey got similar results.  In the April 2007 version,

Republicans and Democrats are equally likely to be represented in the high-knowledge group. But significantly fewer Republicans (26%) than Democrats (31%) fall into the third of the public that knows the least.

This despite the presence of at least one question that, on my reading, the left would tend to have a partisan interest in knowing the answer to, while the right wouldn’t: “In 2006, were more Iraqi civilians or more U.S. soldiers killed as a result of the fighting in Iraq?”  (The correct answer was “More Iraqi civilians”.)  I don’t see any questions in there that cut the other way.

In the September 2007 version,

Roughly three-quarters (74%) could identify the current speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives as Nancy Pelosi. Somewhat surprisingly, more Republicans than Democrats knew this (81% among Republicans, 72% among Democrats).

Similarly, in the March 2008 version,

fewer than one-in-four (24%) know that Harry Reid leads the Senate. More Republicans (34%) and independents (24%) than Democrats (19%) can identify the majority leader.

I thought that that might be partly because voters would be more acutely aware of their opponents’ majority and/or leadership than of their own, but no, in the November 2010 version, Republicans were also almost 25% more likely than Democrats to know that John Boehner was the incoming speaker of the House, 47% to 38%.

In the December 2008 version, Republican voters got an average of 6.4 questions right (out of 10); Democrats got 5.9.  In the April 2009 version, Republicans averaged 8.1 (out of 12), Democrats 7.2.  In October 2009, Republicans averaged 5.7 (out of 12), Democrats 5.0.  In January 2010, “Republicans, on average, answered one more question correctly than Democrats (5.9 vs. 4.9 correct)” (out of 12). 

As Pew frankly admits in the summary of the July 2010 survey, “In previous knowledge quizzes, Republicans often were better informed than Democrats.”  The authors continue, “In the current quiz, however, Democrats are at least as knowledgeable as Republicans on every question except the depth of the Gulf oil leak (53% of Republicans, 42% of Democrats).”  I can only assume that that statement incorporates information not given about margins of error or statistical significance, because on its face, it is at odds with the table below it, which shows Republicans beating Democrats, and by larger margins, on 6 out of 11 questions.  The two questions on which Democrats did best (beating Republicans by 6 and 7 percentage points) weren’t at all like my ideal question about “cap and trade”; they weren’t directly about American public policy at all.  Instead, they asked who hosted the World Cup in 2010 (South Africa) and who the prime minister of Great Britain is (David Cameron).  (Overall in that survey, Republicans and Democrats were perfectly tied; both groups averaged 5.7 correct answers.)

In any case, by the next survey, November 2010, Republicans were back to beating Democrats, 5.5 to 5.0 (out of 12).

“Intelligence” means cognitive ability, including the capacity for abstract reasoning.  It’s important as far as it goes, but people can make more and less use of their natural gifts, and use them more and less well.  To make informed decisions, a voter must not only (1) have the ability to reason, but must also (2) apply it to—must actually reason about—questions of public policy, and the positions and qualifications of particular candidates, which means that he must also (3) inform himself enough about such things to be able to reason about them.

Thus, his wisdom as a voter (number 2) depends on both intelligence (number 1) and knowledge (number 3).  It doesn’t matter, within limits, if liberals are somewhat more intelligent than conservatives; if they aren’t knowledgeable enough, or if they don’t think things through well enough after they acquire the requisite knowledge, they will make worse decisions as voters, and also influence the national debate in a worse direction.

In other words, it matters a lot that conservatives, to judge by a slew of Pew data, know more about public policy, and think about it more, than liberals.

The next question is why they do.  A number of explanations come to mind.

1 — Liberals may simply keep up with current events less.  They may read the news (or watch the news or listen to the news) less than conservatives.  The cause-effect relationship may well flow both ways:  Perhaps to the extent that a person keeps up with the news and pays attention to the national debate, and thinks about it, he is more likely to come to conservative conclusions (because they’re more logical, because they’re true).  Perhaps a person who is already conservative in his political philosophy is also more likely to choose to keep up with the news and the national debate, whether because he is more likely to think it his civic duty (under a small-“r”-republican theory of citizen involvement), because he is more likely to try to live up to what he perceives as his duty (under a conservative understanding of personal responsibility), because conservatives are more likely to be a logical-thought-oriented personality type who would be intrinsically interested in following such things, or for whatever reason.

2 — Liberals may think about public policy and politics less, or less logically.  It’s difficult to be a conservative without thinking about it.  In many circles, liberalism is the norm or default; on balance, the social pressure is in liberalism’s favor.  I can imagine that there must be places in America (say, small towns in the Midwest) where the situation is reversed in some ways, but even then, not in others:  To the extent that people in such places are connected with the rest of the nation through television, movies, and other popular culture, those media will be a source of overwhelmingly liberal social pressure.

Again, the cause-effect relationship may well go both ways:  Maybe a person becomes conservative by thinking things through, but maybe a conservative becomes more thoughtful by having to deal with arguments from the other side and a constant undertow of social pressure.

3 — Conservatives may consume a broader variety or higher quality of news media.  More or less all news media that aren’t explicitly conservative, or that aren’t at least presented as a non-liberal alternative to the mainstream news media, are liberal.  Pew finds that self-declared liberals outnumber conservatives four to one in the media, and even that vastly understates the problem:  6% identified as conservative, 24% as liberal (8% as “very liberal”!), and 53% as “moderate”—but we’re talking about a subculture in which even someone you would think would be extremely knowledgeable and tuned in, such as Dan Rather, can call the liberal New York Times “middle of the road”.  It is possible that all of those 53% are fairly left of center, on the American political spectrum.

That’s not to say that there’s a conspiracy to feed the American people left-wing propaganda, or to keep them from hearing a conservative point of view (although the press do occasionally conspire).  It’s just that most of the people who work in the business of bringing us the news come from a particular subculture with a particular point of view and set of assumptions.  They will tend to think that certain things are worth reporting and certain things aren’t, and their point of view will also color the way they report what they do report.  It’s only natural if that then also colors the point of view of the viewers.

I’m not suggesting that people should eschew the liberal (including the “mainstream”) news media.  Instead, if a person wants to know what’s going on, he should get a balanced diet including at least some conservative media.  Again, our social surroundings tend to be liberal; it’s difficult not to be exposed to liberal ideas and liberal points of view on current events.  It’s too easy not to be exposed to conservatism, unless one makes a point to consume some conservative media.

Update (May 24th, 2011): Via Thoughtful Conservative, I learn that for prominent liberal and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, it’s practically a point of pride that he doesn’t expose his mind to conservative thought.  Don’t take my word for it; read it in his own words.

Those are some possible explanations.  I think it’s possible that all three are contributing factors.

For whatever it’s worth, my experience, with the people I know personally, tends to corroborate the results of Pew’s studies, as well as some or all of those possible explanations.  Generally, among the people I know, people aren’t conservative without thinking about it.  Meanwhile I know plenty of people who are liberal more and less by default, more and less without paying attention to current events or having much interest in public policy.  I’ve talked to people who have absorbed our culture’s belief, without examining it rationally, that to be conservative is to be “heartless” or uncaring.  I’ve even talked to people who hold, to some extent, conservative beliefs—that homosexuality is wrong, for example—but who are positively ashamed to hold or to profess such beliefs, because of the strongly contrary prevailing winds of the culture around us.

I also know a number of liberals who are very educated and fairly interested in current events—they may regularly listen to NPR or read The New York Times, for example—but they don’t get a balanced diet; they consume only liberal media.  Perhaps partly because of that, they tend not to know things that I know from conservative media, when those things would be damaging to a liberal cause (e.g., the fact that Obamacare was deliberately written to “game” the Congressional Budget Office’s scoring system, so that it would appear deficit-neutral when in fact it represented a huge increase in government spending).  I’m not talking about conservative opinions; I’m talking about verifiable facts, ones that I’ve then been able to prove from liberal-media sources when called on to do so, but that the liberal media don’t like to talk about, and that consequently my liberal friends don’t know about.  I’ve almost never experienced the opposite situation, in which my liberal friends know something I don’t, something that I should have known but that the conservative media didn’t cover.

For whatever reason, even these liberals—the highly educated ones who keep up with the (liberal) news—are also relatively bad at logic.  They are much less able to make important distinctions, say, between liberty and democracy, between what is good or bad policy and what is constitutional or unconstitutional, and so on.  They are more likely to overreach in an argument and make claims they can’t logically support, and more likely to fail to grasp logical arguments presented to them.

Finally, I thought it was interesting to read Pew’s suggested explanations for Republicans’ consistently beating Democrats on the knowledge tests.  April 2009:

The differences in knowledge levels between Republicans and Democrats are mostly a reflection of the different demographics of the two groups. Republicans tend to be older, more educated, higher income and are more likely to be male; each of these characteristics is strongly associated with political and economic knowledge. When these characteristics are held constant — that is, when Republicans and Democrats with similar demographic characteristics are compared — there is little difference between the two groups.

January 2010:

These differences are partly a reflection of the demographics of the two groups; Republicans tend to be older, well educated and male, which are characteristics associated with political and economic knowledge. Still, even when these factors are held constant, Republicans do somewhat better than Democrats on the knowledge quiz.

I’m not saying the country would be better off if we repealed women’s suffrage and went back to letting only men who have acquired at least some property vote; I’m saying Pew is saying it.

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13 Responses to “On Liberals, Conservatives, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Knowledge”

  1. Snoodickle Says:

    What a post! I’m assuming you’re putting me in the “liberal,” “highly educated,” but “bad at logic” category, so I would just like to point out that according to our law school and the Ohio Bar Examiners, I am at least as good, if not considerably better, than you at determining what is constitutional and what is not.

    If you were not referring to me, if I am the liberal “exception,” then I say don’t let the other liberals speak for me!

  2. Why liberals know more about the World Cup Says:

    Here is another theory, which might explain the differences in awareness of American political leaders and policy debates without relying at all on intelligence or logical ability. Maybe the disparity is no more than the difference between NPR and Rush Limbaugh.

    When I listen to the radio, as often as not, I’m listening to a “news” station. (Either the local conservative talk radio frequency, or the local NPR carrier.) I don’t know of any stations that just provide news, and I don’t know of any other very popular “talk” stations. Except for the few crossovers, like liberals who love to fume at Rush Limbaugh, or Conservatives who like Car Talk and Garrison Keillor, I notice that listeners distribute themselves between these stations along fairly clear political-ideological lines. And, I notice that I use these stations for different purposes: the one for political commentary and the other for cultural commentary, if that isn’t to general.

    Conservative talk radio talks almost entirely about national politics: cap-and-trade, Nancy Pelosi, John Boehner, etc. It is hard to listen to very much of Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity without developing some familiarity with the names of politicians and the conservative perspective on the latest policy questions.

    NPR covers a wider variety of topics, including the World Cup, British politics, Avant-garde musicians and their newest albums, somebody from Haiti who had a life-changing experience a few years ago and likes to tell the story, international panel discussions on women in the workplace, etc. You could listen for hours, learn a whole lot about Uganda and circular-breathing for saxophonists, and never hear the name “John Boehner.”

    Liberal NPR listeners may be better informed than conservatives in many areas. I think that liberalism, currently, as an ideology encompassing politics and culture, has less interest in domestic politics, partly because it is so wary of nationalism (and even the more moderate concepts of, say, patriotism or even nationality). Obama’s thinking has a distinctly international, or non-national, flavor to it. It is soft, cultural, non-governmental (which maybe leads directly to an impulse to involve the government in lots of non-governmental activities). Liberal foreign policy these days seems to be characterized by a strange lack of a sense of self, as a nation or state or political entity or whatever.

    I think you are probably right that conservatives feel some obligation to be civically involved in the workings of their nation. Liberals feel an obligation to a different kind of involvement. Instead of knowing who the Speaker of the House is, they leave the country to be social workers in Africa.


    • I think that makes a lot of sense. In some ways, maybe that even means liberalism isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But I think it does mean that liberals shouldn’t vote.

  3. Snoodickle Says:

    Liberals shouldn’t vote? Ha ha ha. You have officially lost all credibility.

    I have a different view on President Obama’s brand of foreign policy. I would characterize it as a unilateral action, f[   ] getting permission, let’s put a bullet in Osama’s head type of foreign policy. Wasn’t it the conservatives who railed on Obama for saying he would act unilaterally if he acquired actionable intelligence regarding Osama’s location? It was the conservatives who said “oh no, we need Pakistan’s permission, what if they get mad at us?” Obama has enough sense of self to say f[   ] it, we’re going in, because no one can f[   ] with America. A true bad ass.

  4. What about a bigger picture? Says:

    I appreciate your bleeping! (You missed “a[ ]” though.) But killing bin Laden isn’t the only way Obama has engaged the international community. What about, very recently, when the administration passed off responsibility for military action in Libya, emphasizing the importance of a world stage in which the US isn’t the leader. Other examples of this attitude come to mind, but you only gave one example, so I’ll only give one.

    I don’t know if it would be helpful to draw a distinction between “Obama’s flavor of thinking” (which is present in the rhetoric of all kinds of speeches on all kinds of topics) and “liberal foreign policy” (which may or may not have to do with Obama personally).

    • What about a bigger picture? Says:

      Also, in case it is a stumbling block for anyone, I don’t mean “soft” like the opposite of bad ass, like he’s a big softy. I mean squishy and ill-defined and indirect.

    • Snoodickle Says:

      I didn’t take your usage of the word “soft” to mean that Obama is a pussy. I just wanted to point out that he is capable of direct and decisive action.

      As far as Libya, I think it was smart strategically to pass the buck to NATO so as not to overextend ourselves, given the fact that we are already involved in two wars. Let the international community do some of the dirty work, we can only fight so many wars at once.

      • Glad we agree! Says:

        Yeah, I know a lot of people who agree with you that it was a great decision. I’ll take your affirmation of Obama’s decision on Libya to mean that you agree with me that the Obama administration did what I said they did, and that it is another piece of data to consider in describing Obama’s attitude toward foreign policy. (A distinctly non-unilateral piece of data.)

        Again, I think I know a lot of people (tending liberal) who would say that attitude is refreshing, and it’s about time the US stopped strong-arming and/or policing the world. I think that’s partly my point. Liberalism, as an ideology, has a certain outlook and a certain way of understanding. (My thesis—kindof—is that it makes liberals less inclined to care as much about some of the things conservatives care about.)


  5. […] topic, but perhaps related to this past entry, Kristof also mentions this: . . . Haidt cites research that a higher I.Q. doesn’t lead people to […]


  6. […] “On Liberals, Conservatives, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Knowledge” […]

  7. Robert Says:

    If we accept the premise that conservatives keep up more than liberals, it is most likely for the following reasons:

    Conservatives are motivated to keep up with political news because they are highly motivated to maintain a sense of reliable structure because of their low tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity. They therefore embrace dogmatism (stability), have a low capacity for abstract thought, and so prefer concrete “facts”. They are stuck in the concrete operational stage of intellectual development.

    They have an overriding need to justify themselves, since deep down they are very insecure (hence the dogmatism, xenophobia, and fear of anything unconventional). They fear change and resist it obsessively (another motive for keeping up with and memorizing policy, etc.) They elevate nationalism to equate it with patriotism, an unwise and deeply flawed strategy for shoring up their insecurity with a more transcendent identity that is nevertheless very superficial (as in “Love it of leave it” for anyone who dares to criticize their country for reasons other those they sanction, a “rah-rah, go team” high school football loyalty that overlooks or glosses over problems and corruption unless it’s politically on the other side.)

    They wish to justify their idealization of the system; are suckers for group think riddled with deeply flawed logic, and rationalize their self-interest by endorsing economic and legal injustice as natural despite highly unnatural distortions of truly merit-based realities. Then there are the social dominators like Rash Limbo (you know who he is) who shamelessly manipulate them for personal gain. To wit:

    “Do you know what bought me all this” he asked, waving his hand in the general direction of his prosperity. “Not my political ideas. Conservatism didn’t buy this house. First and foremost I’m a businessman. My first goal is to attract the largest possible audience so I can charge confiscatory ad rates. I happen to have great entertainment skills, but that enables me to sell airtime.”- Rush Limbaugh
    From: http://www.nj.com/njvoices/index.ssf/2009/03/_limbaugh_confesses_hes_a_huck.html

    The only people who think Limbo is conservative are liberals with no real political insight and the morons who fall for his sucker bait.


    • How fortunate, then, that the country is also blessed with people like yourself, who do have a capacity for abstract thought and are not consumed with insecurity or a need for self-justification…


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