The Republican Brain, Part III: Changing Minds, a Q&A with Chris Mooney

Monday, June 4th, 2012

(By NCrissie B)

Over the past couple of posts, I have been looking at Chris Mooney’s The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science – and Reality. First, I considered some of the false beliefs held by Republicans, and whether Democrats are equally committed to false beliefs.  Next, I explored the research on why the two parties are not mirror-images, each stubbornly clinging to opposing false beliefs. In this post, I conclude with a brief interview with Mooney, and his proposals for bridging the partisan gap.

Chris Mooney is a senior correspondent for The American Prospect and a contributing editor for Science Progress. In 2009, he was a visiting associate at Princeton University’s Center for Collaborative History. In 2009–10, he was a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Chris Mooney is traveling this week and was unable to join our discussion in the comments. However, he graciously agreed to answer several questions by email:


How much did researching and writing the book require you to “change your mind,” and how difficult was that process for you?

There have actually been several mind changing moments for me here. And in each case, the process is somewhat difficult, but I feel that you have to follow the evidence over time because, well, you respect science too much not to.

First, and like many journalists and many liberals, I was initially resistant to the fundamental idea that liberals and conservatives are just different people. For instance, if you read my Mother Jones article about motivated reasoning that preceded the book, I basically argue there that both sides are biased, end of story, no reason to go any further.

However, the more I read the research being produced by people like NYU’s John Jost and his colleagues, the more I became convinced that they had compiled a body of evidence too compelling to ignore. The evidence came from multiple researchers and disciplines, and it supported the idea of liberal-conservative differences in interlocking ways. This is what we expect to see in serious science, of the sort that points to reliable conclusions. So that was one mind-changer.

The second one is that I initially thought that in terms of how they process information, the key difference between liberals and conservatives would indeed be a difference in a specific mechanism called motivated reasoning. And that’s what the study at the end of the book is designed to test.

Note: Mooney helped Dr. Everett Young design and conduct a study at Louisiana State University to test whether conservatives are more likely to engage in motivated reasoning on any issue – political or non-political – and their initial data do not support that hypothesis. While conservative subjects were more likely to resist new information that related to political issues, there was no statistical difference between conservatives’ and liberals’ resistance to new information on non-political issues such as a favorite athlete, musician, or university. However, Mooney and Young found a difference they had not predicted: conservative subjects spent much less time reading the new information they were presented, regardless of the issue.

But the study didn’t really show this – though it contained some fascinating hints. So as of now, I cannot say that motivated reasoning is the key source of the difference that we’re seeing, between left and right, in terms of how they respond to inconvenient realities.

And in fact, it turns out that isn’t really necessary to postulate that the left and right, on average, differ in a tendency towards motivated reasoning in order account for the results we’re seeing. There are many ways in which they do differ, such as personality and openness to new information (with conservatives less open), or tribal and in-group commitment (with conservatives more group-oriented), that could produce a “reality gap” between left and right of the sort that we actually see in the world today.

So that was another mind changer.

You offer research showing that Republicans find it harder to “change their minds,” at least in terms of new information that challenges conservative orthodoxy and identity. Have progressives’ and conservatives’ responses to your book been consistent with that hypothesis?

Oh yes, absolutely. Note that in the new study reported in the book, we found that conservatives were spending a lot less time reading the essay materials we gave them – and indeed, the conservatives who are angriest about my book show little evidence of having read it.

So, yes: The conservative response to the book, perhaps epitomized by Jonah Goldberg of the National Review, but also Andrew Ferguson of the Weekly Standard, smacks of closed-mindedness. The irony is here is sort of staggering. These people are willing to dismiss an entire scientific field – and it just happens to be an entire field which suggests that they’re willing to dismiss entire fields.

In The Republican Brain you focus on the importance of respectful conversations that identify and build on shared values – what we at BPI call Fred Whispering – and on using evocative and true stories rather than reams of facts. What advice would you offer for advocating progressive ideas to conservatives?

In general what we find is that it is possible, to an extent, to get conservatives to change their views in controlled psychology experiments, depending on how you frame information for them. The real word is not a controlled experiment, though, so whether this actually works very often there is another matter. But based on the experiments, these are the sorts of things you want to do if you want to open a conservative mind about ideas like global warming.

First, have an exchange in person. Interpersonal exchanges always work better and force people to listen to one another, rather than demonize one another.

Second, frame the science in a way that supports this conservative’s core values. So show that climate science is consistent with religious values, free market values, entrepreneurial values.

Third – and this is where liberals inevitably fall short – it would help to, er, be a credible conservative messenger. A religious leader, for instance, or an industry leader. But liberals have far too few of those in their ranks.

Clearly, speaking as an authority that conservatives respect will help change their minds.

You also call on progressives to be ‘more conservative,’ not in policy but becoming better organized and self-disciplined. Do you worry that may prove as difficult as convincing conservatives to be more open to science and/or that practicing greater organization and self-discipline might nudge progressives’ policy ideas toward greater conservatism?

Not really. I think this is unnatural to progressives, just as circling the wagons to defend the team or tribe is natural to conservatives. But the big difference is that by definition, progressives are open to change and trying out new things. That’s the mark of who they are. So they should, by definition, be more adaptable. They should be better able to come up with different strategies when the ones they’re using aren’t working.

I think progressive movements have, for too long, splintered into disloyal factions or rambled a disorganized fashion. In terms of disorganization, I think Occupy Wall Street epitomizes this problem.

But I know that progressives want to do better and are deeply intellectually interested in why they so often do not. To me, over time, that means they are going to embrace this knowledge, look in the mirror, and organize themselves better.


Changing minds: ours and others’

I agree with Mooney that we progressives must become better organized and more self-disciplined in our advocacy. We discussed one example last week: why words like “marriage equality” matter in political dialogue. Too often we adopt the language of Conservative rather than rigorously speaking the language of Progressive. Ironically, in resisting pressure to “repeat the party line,” we often end up repeating the other party’s lines.

However, while the Occupy Movement have not (yet) shown the organization or discipline of the Tea Party – who found and supported Republican candidates for federal, state, and local elections in 2010 and 2012 – they did introduce the phrases “Top One Percent” and “99 Percent” into the Progressive language. Those have been stickier and more effective in pushing the issue of income inequality than President Obama’s and the Democratic Party’s “Wall Street/Main Street” frame.

I was delighted to see Mooney emphasize the face-to-face political conversations that we at BPI call Fred Whispering. It’s not enough to talk among ourselves, online or in progressive and Democratic offline groups. We must also talk with our friends, family, coworkers, and neighbors in our communities, and focus more on forming relationships than on ‘winning’ arguments. We can’t all be religious or industry leader Authorities, but we can often become another, equally convincing kind of Authority … trusted friends.

Finally, Mooney also reminds us to become better storytellers. As we discussed in January, stories are ‘stickier’ than facts and logic. And as Chip and Dan Heath emphasize in Made to Stick, stories better embed nuance and – more important – work as “flight simulators” that better prepare us to take action.

Research suggests conservatism may be the ‘default’ attitude, but history shows that progressives can overcome that if we work together, reach out to people we meet, and tell our stories.

(Crossposted from Blogistan Polytechnic Institute (


Eugene V. Debs – the Original Occupier?

Wednesday, March 7th, 2012

(By Joanne Boyer, cross-posted at Wisdom Voices)

“I can see the dawn of the better day for humanity. The people are awakening. In due time they will and must come to their own.”

Eugene V. Debs

 The spring of 2012 offers the hope of a new Occupy Movement ready to sweep the country. Occupy Wall Street captivated the nation last fall and was the main instrument for turning our national political conversation to the real crisis at hand: The 99 percent vs. the 1 percent. Our country stands on the brink of losing its democratic foundation.  Oligarchy (defined as a form of government in which the ruling power belongs to a few persons) seems possible. Consider the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, the crack down on the Occupy Movement by the local, state and federal government, and voter suppression laws and electronic voting machine fraud that threaten the ability of “We the People” to cast our votes and have them counted properly.

As we await the start of what promises to be a new people’s movement to reclaim our country, we offer you a brief look at the life and words of one of our country’s original “occupiers.”

Eugene Victor Debs, born in Terre Haute, Indiana, in 1855, is a study in citizen heroism, and his life demonstrates the important role the average person plays in mobilizing a movement. His life paralleled another tumultuous time in our history, when the robber barons of the 19th century industrial revolution created a society of have and have-nots.  Debs’ first job at age 14 (no child labor laws yet to be enacted) was that of railroad worker. He quickly learned the worker’s plight first hand, which led him to become a railroad union organizer. He led a successful strike against the Great Northern Railroad in 1894. Two months later, he was jailed for his role in a strike against the Chicago Pullman Palace Car Company. In prison he honed his understanding that labor issues were really the issues of society and it is where he began to embrace socialism.

“I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence,” Debs told a federal court before sentencing after being convicted for violating the Espionage and Sedition Acts of 1917-18, laws passed by Congress to promote World War I by banning anti-war speech.

Less than 100 years ago, it was possible for the federal government to arrest, put on trial and incarcerate individuals who spoke out against President Woodrow Wilson and the country’s entry into the Great War. Debs, who had long vocalized his support of the working class, took his anti-war message to the people in Canton, Ohio, in June 1918 knowing full well he could be arrested.  It was against this backdrop when the people seemed to be governed more by fear than hope that Debs told a picnic gathering on a hot summer’s afternoon:

“They have always taught you that it is your patriotic duty to go to war and to have yourselves slaughtered at command…And here let me state a fact – and it cannot be repeated too often:  the working class who fight the battles, the working class who make the sacrifices, the working class who shed the blood, the working class who furnish the corpses, the working class have never yet had a voice in declaring war.”

Journalists who covered that Canton speech were instrumental in leading the charge for Debs’ arrest and prosecution for violation of federal law. At his trail, Debs charged the government was persecuting him not for undermining the draft, but because he dared to challenge the plutocrats who ran the country and were reaping large profits from the war. Debs contended the country was not fighting a noble war to save democracy but rather, the country had joined European nations in a greedy struggle over profits.

In his trial, Debs described the Espionage Act as “a despotic enactment in flagrant conflict with the democratic principles and with the spirit of free institutions” and later said he believed the law to be unjust but that it was only one small expression of a much greater injustice which lay at the foundation of the entire social system.  He told the judge that 5 percent of Americans owned two thirds of the nation’s wealth, while nearly 65 percent who made up the working class owned only 5 percent.

“I can see them (the working class) dwarfed, diseased, stunted, their little lives broken and their hopes blasted because in the high noon of our 20th century civilization, money is still so much more important than human life.”

Debs was convicted in Ohio; he lost his appeal to the Supreme Court; and he was sentenced to 10 years in prison, serving time at the federal penitentiary in Atlanta. He ran for president of the United States in 1920 on the Socialist Party ticket while behind bars.  He garnered over 900,000 votes, but finished well behind the eventual winner Republican Warren G. Harding. Harding commuted Debs’ sentence on Christmas Day 1921.

Debs’ health suffered greatly while in prison, yet he took up his speech making where he left off before his arrest. He continued to criticize Wilson and claimed the war had been fought for profit, not democracy. “60,000 American boys had died only to produce 30,000 new millionaires,” he declared.

Debs’ was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1924 on the basis of arguing that the Great War was fought mainly in the interest of capitalism. He died on October 20, 1926, at the age of 70.  The Eugene V. Debs Foundation in Terre Haute is dedicated to “keeping alive the spirit of progressivism, humanitarianism and social criticism epitomized by Debs.” He remains one of the greatest historical voices for the working class and the 99 percent. From a speech nearly 100 years ago, he said:

“Political parties are responsive to the interests of those who finance them. This is the infallible test of their character and applied to the Republican, Democratic and Progressive parties, these parties stand forth as the several political expressions of the several divisions of the capitalist class. The funds of all these parties are furnished by the capitalist class for the reason, and only for the reason, that they represent the interests of that class.”

A look back can help us see where we are today. It also offers hope that the challenges we face will eventually lead to a brighter future. Can anyone doubt Debs’ spirit and fervor lives in the Occupy Movement of today? As he told the judge before sentencing for his violation of the Sedition Act of 1918:

“I can see the dawn of the better day for humanity. The people are awakening. In due time they will and must come to their own.”

The End of Occupy DC

Sunday, February 5th, 2012

(By Josh Marks, cross-posted at Green Forward)

On Saturday, February 4, 2012 in Washington, D.C.’s McPherson Square, U.S. Park Police in riot gear, some on horseback, along with a hazmat team, raided the Occupy DC encampment and set up a perimeter around the park and began to clear out tents, bedding, debris and other belongings with forklifts and trucks.

They said they were enforcing the no camping regulations and not evicting the demonstrators.

This occurred in front of protesters, onlookers and the media on a cool, rainy, dreary winter day in the Nation’s Capital.

Streets were blocked off to traffic around McPherson Square by the Metropolitan Police Department traffic enforcement division.

While many in the Occupy movement are criticizing the heavy-handed tactics and unnecessary show of force by law enforcement, the U.S. Park Police are actually doing the movement a favor by shutting down the encampment. It will allow the next phase of the movement to begin, whatever that may be.

Occupy DC was one of the last remaining encampments after other cities such as New York had evicted their demonstrators. Frankly, the encampment at McPherson Square was beginning to become an eyesore and attracting anarchists and others not interested in reshaping our democracy to benefit the 99% but in destroying the system altogether. And the reports of rats and filthy conditions were becoming a distraction from the main message of this movement, which is to address the unsustainable social and economic inequality in America.

The slogan “you can’t evict an idea” that gained traction after Zuccotti Park was cleared out, will certainly apply to Occupy DC. Their heroic actions and sacrifice on behalf of working people everywhere will always be honored and one day there will be a plaque at McPherson Square remembering the brave men and women who slept under the stars to dream of a better America. But for now, it’s time to move on.

Here are more pictures taken Saturday afternoon of the end of Occupy DC at McPherson Square.

Occupy DC’s Last Stand

Monday, January 30th, 2012

(By Josh Marks, Cross-posted at Green Forward)

Tonight there might be arrests. There might even be violence. But this afternoon in the epicenter of the K Street lobbying corridor, a symbol of what so many Americans believe is wrong with Washington, Occupy DC at McPherson Square made a defiant last stand in a joyous celebration of one of the last remaining encampments inspired by last October’s original Occupy Wall Street protests at Zuccotti Park in New York City.

Yesterday the U.S. Park Police, who have authority over the park, warned demonstrators of a noon deadline today when they would begin enforcing a no camping ban. At about 11:45 a.m., in front of a swarm of media and hundreds of curious onlookers, some of the protestors climbed the statue of Major General James Birdseye McPherson and hung a big blue tarp called “Tent of Dreams.” Then the Occupiers entered the tarp and began chanting and singing and listening to music.

While many downtown office workers looked down from the roofs of their buildings in anticipation of seeing a showdown, it never materialized as the noon deadline passed. There were only a scattering of uniformed police officers manning the corners of the park. So the afternoon instead turned into somewhat of a final hurrah for a phase of a movement that has inspired so many people around the world.

Even for those who dismiss the Occupy movement with harsh words aimed at the lack of organization and singular message, or even criticizing the “aging hippies” and “entitled white kids” that are involved, as many Tea Party trolls angrily comment on news websites, they cannot deny the power that Occupy has had. Income inequality has become a part of the national consciousness and populist rage aimed at money in politics is now being discussed by the mainstream media and politicians. Even President Obama’s State of the Union recently took a page from the Occupy movement by addressing the growing gap between the wealthiest 1% and the majority of Americans and calling for economic fairness.

Tomorrow the tents may be gone and the jails may be full, but Occupy has already won because they have put political and economic justice front and center. And until our economic and political systems start benefiting the 99% instead of just the 1%, then the Occupy message will continue to resonate regardless of whether or not people are physically occupying a public space.

Weekend Reading List

Saturday, January 21st, 2012

For this weekend’s reading list we have articles on the benefits of energy efficiency, the efficiency of federal safety net programs, President Obama’s focus on long term strategy, how austerity is killing European economies, and how Occupy Wall Street has gotten economic inequality onto the political agenda.

If you have any feedback on these articles, or would like to recommend an article for next weekend’s reading list, please let us know at Winning Progressive’s Facebook page.

Energy Efficiency: Still Awesome, Still Ignored - How energy efficiency is overlooked even though it can save money, create jobs, protect the environment, and reduce energy use.

Romney’s Charge That Most Federal Low-Income Spending Goes For “Overhead” and “Bureaucrats” is False – a report detailing that, contrary to Multiple Choice Mitt Romney’s false claims, less than 10% of social safety net spending is for administrative and overhead costs, with more than 90% of such spending providing actual aid to beneficiaries

How Obama’s Long Game Will Outsmart His Critics – independent conservative Andrew Sullivan explains how President Obama’s focus on long term strategy is outsmarting his critics on all sides of the political debate

How Austerity is Killing Europe – a detailing of how the European Union’s obsession with cutting spending has caused a vicious circle of increasing economic problems leading to further austerity leading to further economic problems in every European nation where austerity has been tried

The Return of Inequality - an essay about how the Occupy Wall Street movement shifted political discourse in the US to put reducing economic inequality on the agenda

Occupy Movement Targets Congress

Friday, January 20th, 2012


(By Josh Marks, Green Forward blog)

Thousands of demonstrators from across the country descended on the Capitol this past Tuesday to partake in the Occupy movement’s latest evolution – Occupy Congress. The protests took place on the day that lawmakers returned to Washington amid historically low approval ratings.

I hopped on the Metro after work and arrived at the Capitol South Station (the closest station to Congress) and was dismayed to see the station plastered with dirty energy ads from the American Petroleum Institute. The “I Vote 4 Energy” campaign is a cynically misleading attempt by the oil and gas industry to influence policymakers by falsely representing domestic fossil fuel production as a job creator and something a majority of Americans support. Click here for a detailed take down of API’s ad campaign from the website Political Correction. Contrary to Big Oil’s propaganda, a study conducted by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication last November on public support for energy and climate policies revealed that 90% of Americans believe developing sources of clean energy should be a very high to medium priority for the president and Congress; and 69% of Americans oppose federal subsidies to the fossil fuel industry. So the oil and gas industry is right about voting for energy, they are just wrong about the type of energy. Americans want clean renewable energy, not dirty fossil fuels.

And a renewable energy policy is but one of many issues Congress has failed to address, which is why the west lawn of the U.S. Capitol was full of people protesting the undue influence big money lobbyists like the American Petroleum Institute have on congressional lawmakers. A rainy, dreary Washington winter day transformed into a clear, starry night as live folk music lifted the spirits of thousands of Occupiers gathered in the muddy grass in the shadow of the brightly lit Capitol dome.

Soon after I arrived the majority of protestors left for a march to the Supreme Court and White House (on Friday a group called Move to Amend is marking the two year anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decisionwith rallies at courthouses across the country.)

I interviewed Vince from Durham, North Carolina, asking him why he came up to D.C. for Occupy Congress.

“I’m here to support what I think is going on here, which is a lot of inequality and injustice between the wealthy and the rest of the people. I have no problem with wealthy people, it’s just that the system is kind of skewed, so it makes it not only really bad for us but ultimately it’s going to be bad for them as well as it keeps going forward and forward. You’ve got to have customers to buy your stuff.”

Here are a few of my general observations about the Occupy movement so far. I’ve walked through the Freedom Plaza and McPherson Square encampments in Washington, D.C. and Zuccotti Park in New York City multiple times and now have experienced Occupy Congress.

* The Occupy movement has been criticized for remaining leaderless and issueless. But that is the most brilliant aspect of this movement and what has allowed it to remain relevant and constantly evolving. The Occupy movement cannot be pigeonholed into just another special interest group or coopted by a political party or corporation like the Tea Party was corrupted by the Koch brothers and the Republican Party. The fact that Occupy has not been absorbed into the Democratic Party and has refused to be defined by a narrow agenda is exactly what has kept it so vital. Its populist 99% slogan is all it really needs because everyone brings their own issues and points of view to the table.

* Beyond the issues, the Occupy movement (and even the Tea Party movement before it was hijacked by right-wing businessmen and conservative Republicans) spawned from an underlying sense that something isn’t right in America. Poll after poll shows Americans believe the country is on the wrong track and there is deep distrust and resentment towards the political and economic establishment. The feeling that we have lost our way and that we need to get back to being great again is a prime motivator of this populist movement. The Occupy movement will last until the majority of Americans regain confidence in our political and economic systems.

* I’m still shocked that the Occupy movement has even taken place at all. I thought the economic crisis was not bad enough yet and that most Americans were too pacified by our crass commercial culture and media circus to get off our couches and take to the streets. I thought it would have to get to Great Depression levels with Hoovervilles again, which was the current trajectory we were on until Obama saved us from falling over the cliff. America is actually really lucky the Occupy movement is taking place right now and pushing leaders to take action so we not only avoid a Great Depression, but power out of this seemingly never-ending Great Recession and restore American Democracy and the American Dream for future generations.