Are Republican and Democratic brains like Yin and Yang?

republican_democrat_yin_yang_journal-aSome people posit that the Republican brain and the Democratic brain complement one another, somewhat like yin and yang. The theory would be that liberal people bring to a society a full measure of empathy, reason, and fairness. Conservatives bring order, structure, and rules. Together there is a harmonious and smooth functioning society.

I’m a little suspicious of this notion, thinking that it is more wish than fact. If it was true, why would American political officials have such difficulty in reaching bi-partisan agreements? Why is the mood in politics angry and the decorum something other than civil? The theory of yin and yang among progressives and conservatives is also based on a tenet of equivalence between progressive and conservative points of view.

Taking a generous perspective on this, we can say that Americans are hell-bent on fairness, making sure that each side of an argument gets ample opportunity to present its case. The problem with this point of view is that it doesn’t allow us to take a critical look at the equivalencies. Are they valid or are they false?

Some false equivalencies are easy to detect. Would it be wise to allow equal time for the argument that 1+1=3 as well as for 1+1=2? Perhaps it would be okay in a philosophy course or higher math class, but not in common discourse. Would it be wise to allow equal time to the theories of evolution and creationism? This is where the rubber begins to meet the road. Those people who consider modern science as part of evidenced-based thinking would say that there is far greater empirical evidence supporting evolution. Put bluntly, evolutionists see thinking as trumping believing. On a different issue, like having the government be the employer of last resort, progressives see how evidence has substantiated this claim; conservatives often deny the data.

According Chris Mooney, author of The Republican Brain, there are times when Democrats let emotion overcome the science. This can be true in cases like purity in food selection or opposition to fracking. Liberals get locked in positions and mimic conservative behavior in not being open to new information.

But by and large it is the Republicans who are more dug in and recalcitrant. We see this time and again when they object to “common sense” solutions to reduce the easy access Americans have to guns. Frequently Republicans think, “You’re out to get me; to take all my guns away,” when progressives say, “No, we just want to make it more difficult for those who are threats to our society to be able to legally secure guns.”

The press frequently sees these two sides as equivalent. Essentially, they are saying that the rights of gun owners are equal to those who went to reduce homicide, suicide, and serious injury by gunfire. But this is a false equivalency. The rights of gun owners are not really under assault. The ambiguous Second Amendment has enough leverage for conservatives that those who have guns will be able to keep them, as well as other people like them for the foreseeable future.

Second, an effort by gun opponents to disarm Americans would be fruitless. Gun owners are not threatened by reasonable restrictions to keep guns from legally falling into the hands of people who would use them to harm others or themselves.

The mainstream media thinks that it is doing a public service by presenting “both sides” of the gun issue in a “fair and balanced” way. But the arguments from those who favor gun control are much more logical and conditioned on empathy. The conservatives’ arguments about the Second Amendment have become a smoke screen to protect gun manufacturers from having sales controlled, or for them to assume a measure of liability for the destructive ways in which guns are used.

There is not the yin and yang of harmony between gun enthusiasts and those favoring gun control. The gun owners to not “protect” the rest of us while those favoring gun control ensure a fair and just society. Progressives do not want to have their primary form of protection to be from someone with a gun. Similarly, conservatives will not subscribe to the progressive idea of fairness and justice.

We have to acknowledge that we are a fractured society. At this particular time and in this particular place, the conservative forces have hamstrung virtually all efforts by progressives to promote a fairer and just society. It’s doubtful that conservatives feel a need to ratchet up the tension any greater than it is because they are currently winning. Progressives would be at fault if they chose to “go to war” with the conservatives, because (a) they would lose such a war, and (b) war is among the least favored instrument of change that there is to progressives.

I don’t know how much research is being done into the “Democratic brain,” but each day we are learning more and more about the Republican brain. Just follow Ben Carson for a few days to see the garden of insights that we gain. For there to be anything approaching a yin and yang between conservatives and progressives, we must first learn a great deal more about ourselves, about those with whom we have conflict, and what methods of conflict resolution can actually work in such a fractured political and cultural world. At this time, I certainly do not know enough, and I’m hard-pressed to find anyone else who is clearly “in the know.” My current goal is to work with other progressives, not to berate Republicans or others with whom I disagree, but to improve my own knowledge of the psychology that defines our political differences. I need to learn much more before I can offer solutions that are really helpful. I’m willing to be “actively patient.”

Arthur Lieber Arthur Lieber (432 Posts)

Since 1969, Arthur Lieber has been teaching and working in non-profit educational organizations. His focus has been on promoting critical, creative, and enjoyable learning for students in informal settings. In the 2010 mid-term elections, he was the Democratic nominee for US Congress from Missouri’s 2nd Congressional District.


  • Rob

    Sorry if this is a bit late, but I just ran across this, but I have to comment on a couple of things.

    1) You use gun control as an example, and state that it is NOT an equivalency. From a conservative perspective, government is inherently prone to overreaching and usurping the authority of the individual, which, over time, leads to tyranny. And conservatives, by definition, hold loyal to traditional ideas — such as the fact that this country was formed in OPPOSITION to tyranny.

    So, regarding the gun debate, you’re missing an important element on the conservative side. We look at societies that were much more free and became tyrannies, and we notice that disarming the populace was one of the first moves in that process. Because we conservatives inherently don’t trust our government, we are constantly on guard against moves toward tyranny. You could say that could never happen in the U.S., but the same could be said of others.

    So, from the conservative point of view, progressives are TOO trusting in government, and government can, in time, take advantage of that. In that sense, the fighting against additional gun control measures IS the yang to your yin. Progressives trust government too much, so conservatives have to be all the more vigilant to watch for any signs of a government taking too much control of its people.

    2) I’m a bit troubled by a statement later in your article, as I think your current approach is bound to fail. If you want to understand how an artist’s creative process works, do you ask the teller at the bank, or do you ask the artist? How about if you want to understand the process your doctor uses to diagnose illness — should you ask a police officer, or should you ask your doctor?

    These are obvious, extreme examples. But it is for this reason that this statement of yours troubles me:

    “My current goal is to work with other progressives, not to berate Republicans or others with whom I disagree, but to improve my own knowledge of the psychology that defines our political differences.”

    Why would you work with other progressives? If you want to understand conservative thought, talk to conservatives! In fact, feel free to respond here and I’ll send you my email address if you want. Get it straight from the horse’s mouth.

  • Rob

    Oh, and while I still agree with what I said, I’ll admit, I’ve started reading more of your articles here, and it looks like you probably understand the conservative thought process more than many progressives, so kudos on that.

    I’m not going to comment on everything we disagree on in each article, but suffice it to say, I still think your understanding of the opposition will improve with more interaction, but you’re doing a better job than most. I’m enjoying the reading.

  • Arthur Lieber

    Rob, thanks for the kind words. Frankly I think that all these issues are really hard to figure out and neither progressives nor conservatives have a corner on wisdom. We’re all trying to figure out complicated questions, and once we recognize that we’re all trying to figure things out and we don’t have the tools to get much beyond conjecture. We do what we can and hopefully we can get better at understanding one another. I’m glad that we can discuss this.

  • Rob

    Absolutely. That is what’s missing from our current state, I think — respect for divergent opinions. We all have different experiences and values that bring us to believe what we believe. And they all have value. But that’s pretty much why I think the yin and yang thing is a good description. I know that my approach (libertarianism), left unconstrained, would likely go a bit too far, as would pure progressivism. But if we can listen to each other and learn from one another, maybe we can find some improvements we can make.