HBD: Dumb Conservatives?


Along with the smart-but-nerdy suggestion of some HBD commenters goes the smart-and-liberal (or dumb-and-conservative) theory. At its simplest, this theory postulates that because liberals and liberal ideas control the culture, that must be due to the greater brains of liberals.

This conservative (and nerdy) blogger investigates.

This is one of a series where I discuss issues and elements of what is referred to as HBD. Similar to my Random Thoughts series these posts will be more personal and less scholarly. If you want deeply footnoted reference work, please look elsewhere. Disclaimer aside, I do hope to give a passable overview of the subject.

The first problem such analysis faces is defining what is a conservative. Individuals may have a conservative temperament (cautious, reserved, skeptical of change), conservative tastes (in terms of music, clothing, etc), or conservative ideology. Conservative ideology itself can be divided into camps weighted towards free-markets and those weighted towards preservation of tradition. I do not count neo-conservative as conservative for the purposes of the above (although I discuss them later).

It is probably safe to say that most self-identified political conservatives also share some of the conservative temperamental and aesthetic preferences. It is also probably safe to say that many self-identified political liberals live conservative lives and may have conservative tastes. Many of the arguments over Social Security, trade unions, and education reform are about preserving some assumed golden age (much as conservatives look back towards earlier “better” times). Can you really claim that crusades against smoking, consumption, and discrimination, do not have some moralistic, nay conservative, impulse pushing them along?

With that wiffle-waffle put aside: it is true that liberals control academia and most of the media and entertainment world. Liberal ideas are gaining foothold in the world of business, the one place where conservatism should be able to hold on. Obviously liberals are just smarter; in the meritocratic areas of academia, media, even business, liberals and their ideas win out. That is proof that they are smarter, right? Well maybe.

There is a joke that tells us that if we want to find a Republican in the university faculty we should look to the engineering (or physics) department. I find it interesting that one of most rigorous, perhaps most g-loaded area of study, has (or is assumed to have) the most conservatives. Studies linking ideology to intelligence are at best confused. They do tend to point towards ideology (any one) and not moderation, as a potential signifier of intelligence. This makes sense, as ideologies are abstractions that require thought to formulate and understand; they usually go beyond folk wisdom and simple intuitions. I really cannot see why holding one ideology over the other implies a particular level of intelligence. If I had to guess, I would say that the highest IQ group would be self-described libertarians, perhaps the most abstract and ideologically pure group.

Modern liberalism is ideological. It relies less on folk wisdom and simple intuition. To be a liberal is to be an ideologue, someone who has reasoned abstractions to form a point of view. While many conservatives are also ideologues, they are perhaps more likely to arrive at their beliefs from at least some degree of homespun intuition.

Even if liberals were smarter, that would not be enough to explain their success. As I have pointed out before, intelligence is an important thing, but it is not the only thing. I suggest that the success of liberals is due to temperamental not intellectual differences.

Conservatives tend towards agreeability and friendliness, where liberals are intellectually more aggressive and argumentative. While you could point to the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Ann Coulter to disprove this view, you might be better to look at conservative protests. These protests are usually orderly, and often leave the meeting place cleaner than when they arrived. These mass gatherings of the conservative minded better reflect overall conservative mentality than the excitable entertainers of talk radio. In the same way, the raucous, often crude displays of liberal gatherings better reflect their disposition than the calm intonations of NPR.

The biggest failure of conservative ideas is that they are held by those of a conservative disposition. Conservatives are polite, believe in fairness, and fall prey to chivalric notions. Conservatives will let the opposition have their say; liberals will shout them down or riot (see what happens if Tom Tancredo comes to town). Despite all the accusations of “right wing anger,” I suspect it is liberals who harbor feelings of anger and resentment. It is that anger and resentment that drives them. The culture of critique used as a battering ram against the old order appeals far more to the antagonistic liberal mind than the more agreeable conservative one. It is notable that the one strain of conservatism that has succeeded is neo-conservatism, made up of former leftists following the culture of critique model. Neo-conservatism has much of the same aggression and antagonism of liberalism. While not an ideological perfect fit, they are a temperamental fit.

Although conservatism has a strong appeal to emotion (faith, family, rootedness, etc.) liberals seem better able to appeal to pathos (“for the children”). Conservative appeals tend to rely more on ethos (those sensible good government, green eye shade types of ideas). That difference in character certainly explains the success of liberals in entertainment, as (Ayn Rand fans aside) most of us prefer more emotion than intellect in our entertainment. While they like to claim intellectual grandeur, it is often through appeals to emotion that liberal ideas win.

Liberal ideas have won, and will likely continue to win. However they are not winning because they are smarter. If conservatives want to win, they need to live down to their reputation. Conservatives need to become the angry mob of accusations: “They pull a knife, you pull a gun. They send one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue.” President Obama would be sure to approve, “it’s the Chicago way.”


Just as emotional temperament has a heritable component, so does political temperament. I would not be surprised to see agreeableness and conscientiousness linked to conservatism. I also would not be surprised to see introversion and conservatism linked.

I wonder if the “openness” that is assigned to liberals is more about novelty/sensation seeking rather than the open-minded appreciation of new ideas. This would explain why they chaff at some limitations on personal freedoms (gay marriage, etc.) but prefer to shut down “heretical” ideas. To me, nothing seems more conventional than liberal orthodoxy.

If from my musings, liberals sound like alphas and conservatives like betas, then that is probably true. Agreeableness, politeness, and chivalry always loses to dominance, aggression, and sociopathy. Commentators like Citizen Renegade might bring those alpha traits to conservative thinking (and I hope to conservative men).

I find it interesting that many prominent conservatives were former liberals (e.g., David Horowitz, Andrew Breitbart) or not particularly liberal in their lives (e.g., Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh). Perhaps they bring the needed aggression and extraverted excitability to the conservative cause.

I am aware that much of official liberalism and official conservatism is about promoting self-interest not ideology. However, I am willing to assume that most non-public, and many public proponents of a particular ideology are sincere.

A funny sidenote: When Fox News was planning the program that became Hannity and Colmes, they used the working title Hannity and LTBD (“liberal to be determined”) until Alan Colmes took the spot.


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