Skip to content

Liberals, take a long look in the mirror

The evidence shows you're more poorly informed and less tolerant.


Bookmark and Share

We've got a vivid picture of the Republicans and conservatives in our midst. They're a sour, dour lot—close-minded, tight-fisted and intolerant. Some are businesspeople, greedy and self-interested. Others are rednecks, poorly informed, clinging to their guns and religion.

If only these folks understood political issues better and cared more about their fellow man, they'd be liberals, right?

Think again. A growing body of research is shattering this conventional wisdom.

Survey data make clear that Republicans, on average, are better informed than Democrats about political issues. Data from the American National Election Study has confirmed this over the years, and an April 2012 Pew Research Center survey—"What the Public Knows about the Political Parties"—is the latest to document it.

On eight of the survey's 13 questions about politics, Republicans outperformed Democrats by an average of 18 percentage points. "Republicans fare substantially better than Democrats on several questions in the survey, as is typically the case in surveys about political knowledge," according to the study.

The widest gap—30 points—came on a question about which political party is "generally more supportive of reducing the size of federal government." Seventy-six percent of Republicans, but only 46 percent of Democrats, correctly named the GOP.

Republicans even know more about Democratic leaders: 75 percent of Republicans identified Nancy Pelosi as a Democrat, vs. 59 percent of Democrats. And while 73 percent of Republicans knew Franklin Roosevelt was a Democrat, only 58 percent of Democrats did.

But surely liberals, widely praised for tolerance, are more open-minded than conservatives toward people with different views? Whoops.

A March 2012 Pew report, entitled "Social Networking Sites and Politics," found that 28 percent of liberals have "blocked, unfriended or hidden someone" on social-networking sites because of their political postings, compared with 16 percent of conservatives.

Come to think of it, that shouldn't surprise anyone who's spent time on a college campus. We're used to hearing that left-wing students have shouted down a conservative speaker. But when did you last hear about conservative students silencing a liberal speaker?

OK, OK. So maybe conservatives as a group are more knowledgeable about politics and more open-minded than liberals. But liberals' signature quality is their "bleeding hearts." They must be more caring and generous than conservatives, right?

It turns out willingness to use government money to improve others' condition doesn't guarantee personal generosity. Social scientist Arthur Brooks documented this in his 2006 book, "Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth about Compassionate Conservatism."

According to Brooks, conservative-headed households give 30 percent more to charity than liberal-headed households, on average, although liberal families' incomes are higher. Conservatives also donate more time and give more blood.

Two primary factors account for the conservative-liberal charity divide, says Brooks. One is religiosity. Brooks found that religious people—who are disproportionately conservative—donate far more to charity each year than secularists, holding incomes constant.

The other is attitudes toward big government. People who don't believe that "government has a responsibility to reduce income inequality" give an average of four times more to charity than people who do hold this view of government's role.

Another important difference may contribute to conservatives' greater open-mindedness. It's this: Liberals tend to explain policy disagreements by imputing evil motives like selfishness to conservatives, while conservatives (more charitably) tend to view liberals as well-meaning but misguided.

Why? Liberals tend to evaluate public policies by focusing on the intentions behind them, says economist Thomas Sowell.

For centuries, liberal thinkers have placed great value on words related to intentions—"sincerity, commitment, dedication"—describing policies in terms of intended goals: "liberty, equality, fraternity" or "social justice."

Conservatives, however, place greater value on real-world consequences. In their view, the world is too complex for any human plan to achieve its intended goal without producing potentially harmful unintended consequences. A cradle-to-grave welfare state, for example, may be intended to help the poor, but it may foster a culture of dependence that will lock future generations into poverty.

So, my liberal friends, the next time you meet one of these strange characters, a conservative, don't jump to conclusions about his or her ignorance or greed. It's just possible that the real closed-minded person may be the one in the mirror.

Katherine Kersten is a senior fellow for Center of the American Experiment.