Mark Mellman: Personality and politics

Mark Mellman: Personality and politics
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Democrats and Republicans think differently about many issues. 

Republicans are more likely to oppose abortion and gay rights and less likely to support a government role in helping the poor and protecting the environment. 


But there are more fundamental divisions as well, unrelated to the issues of the day. One of those deeper differences emerged in responses to a question Pew posed on its latest poll. 

Sixty-six percent of Democrats said “this country has been successful more because of its ability to change,” while 60 percent of Republicans selected the other choice, seeing the country’s success as a function of its “reliance on long standing principles.” 

Only about a third of Republicans saw America’s ability to change as the source of our nation’s success.

Tradition versus change: In some sense it’s a core distinction between liberalism and conservatism. 

William F. Buckley once described a conservative as “a fellow who is standing athwart history yelling ‘Stop!’ ” Or as Yiddish humorist Leo Rosten put it, “A conservative is one who admires radicals, centuries after they’re dead.”

Political philosopher Michael Oakeshott gave it a potentially more positive cast: “To be conservative … is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried … the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded … the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.”  

But this seemingly ideological difference points to a deeper psychological distinction. 

Building on work done to measure the effectiveness of Air Force officers during the Cold War, psychologists have largely settled on five traits that collectively paint a comprehensive picture of individual personalities.

One key dimension of the so-called Big Five is dubbed “openness to experience.” Those who exhibit this trait display an “intrinsic attraction to new experiences,” higher degrees of creative behavior at work and adjust better to work assignments overseas.  

This aspect of personality consistently emerges as the single most important in determining an individual’s politics. Those high in openness only had about a 1 in 3 chance of voting for John McCainJohn Sidney McCain The 13 Republicans needed to pass gun-control legislation Biden's debate performance renews questions of health At debate, Warren and Buttigieg tap idealism of Obama, FDR MORE over President Obama in 2008, while those low in openness were over 50 percent likely to choose McCain, other factors held equal. 

The role of openness is not restricted to the U.S. A study of Canada’s 2011 election found those high in openness were five times more likely to vote NDP (Social Democrat) than Conservative and three times more likely to vote Liberal than Conservative, again, other factors held equal. 

That same openness to new experience results in significantly lower market share for new grocery store products in counties that vote Republican than in those voting Democratic, according to checkout scanner data.

Reducing politics to any one thing is a mistake — it’s not all local or self-interest or economics or personality — but this aspect of personality does play a central role in our politics, as it does in other arenas.

It’s easy to see how.

Those more open to new experience are more likely to embrace changing gender roles, changing sexuality and increased diversity, while those who are less open to new things would find all of this quite challenging.

Part of that challenge also stems from personality. 

Experiments reveal a greater sensitivity to threat among those who are not open to change and politically conservative. That difference appears to be evident in brain anatomy itself. Conservatives seem to have larger right amygdalae, the part of the brain associated with threat recognition.

So it’s no surprise that Republicans express much greater concern about both terrorism and crime than do Democrats. Republicans are wired to be more attuned to the threats.

Democrats and Republicans do not just think differently, they feel differently. Members of the opposite party aren’t just less informed and more stubborn, they understand the world differently. And unless you understand how they think and feel, there’ll be no convincing them. 

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the minority leader of the Senate and the Democratic whip in the House.