Two Species of Nerd

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Only people outside of Washington seem to care that much about the differences between Democrats and Republicans.

When I manage to actually get out among them, I'm fascinated by their psychologizing, the sort that usually characterizes soap-opera-fan chat rooms and sports blogs: "I know what I read in the papers, but what are they really like?" Actually, the personality differences between Democrats and Republicans are minimal, even if their opinions are sometimes polar opposites. They are all subspecies of "nerd." If pressed, I can only mumble about who seems to smoke more (Republicans) and who gives more tepid parties (Democrats). Of course, these are differences of style, not substance.

Luckily, there are studies. There are almost always studies. And recently, the studies that purport to show the differences between Republicans and Democrats — or between conservatives and liberals — have gone beyond the not-very-surprising lifestyle cataloging of traditional surveys, which showed things like the correlation between conservatism and churchgoing, or Democrats' fondness for going to the movies. Rather, the field of social psychology has attempted to peer into partisan souls — looking not at what people do, but at who they are.

A University of California at Berkeley study made waves with the announcement that independent — though you could also say "self-absorbed" — children became liberals, and whiners went to the right. At an academic conference in January, researchers unveiled findings that showed Republicans to be more racist. Then a Feburary finding by Pew Research center found Republican voters to be happier than Democrats. Democrats: melancholy, fair-minded snobs. GOP: happy, biased bellyachers. No wonder Strom Thurmond felt more at home there.

The parties themselves spend millions trying to figure out what makes someone vote one way or another, but there's a big difference between choosing a candidate and choosing a side. Ironically, there's probably nothing more divisive than these studies themselves; whatever academic value they may have, they are a blessing to cable news stations, easy fodder for talking heads. The shoutfests are virtual as well: the words "study" and "more likely to" can prompt the creation of whole galaxies in the blogosphere.

Another study presented in January suggests the appeal of this kind of debating: People with strongly held beliefs (and who holds to them tighter than a Fox News contributor or a Daily Kos diarist?) love to disagree. An Emory University psychologist found that spotting hypocrisy in an opponent literally tickles the brain's pleasure center. It has "curious parallels with drug addiction" — which may explain a lot about Rush Limbaugh.

I think partisans want to believe there's something fundamental about political choices, that a vote is a reflection of character — a hopeful thesis, given that most Americans don't vote at all. In the end there's nothing all that exotic about a firmly held political opinion, and the most notable — and instructive — thing to emerge from this psychological cottage industry may be that some section of the scientific community actually believes that political persuasions can be identified and parsed like a virus's DNA.

In real life, we arrive at most of our political beliefs in far more prosaic and less deterministic ways: a family allegiance, a yearning for JFK's youthful exuberance or Ronald Reagan's telegenic optimism. And the weight of the evening news — a disaster, a war — probably shapes ideological loyalties far more often than some overstimulation of our pleasure centers. Political choices, in other words, are at once more complicated and more obvious than lab-coated investigators give us credit for.

Which isn't really all that surprising, given the messy things that motivate the allegedly simple humans who make the political wheels turn. What are Democrats and Republicans really like? For better or worse, they're a lot like you.