Why Are Most Creative People Liberal?

A good friend of mine asked me this question, and it got me thinking. Clearly not all liberals are creative, so I approached the question by wondering why conservatives aren’t more creative? 🙂 And of course as a liberal, I am sooo biased on this subject, forgive me this…..and contest it please, you creative conservatives out there.

I recall there is research that conservatives, tested by psychologists, test more fearful than liberals. That does not mean they lack courage; on the contrary, given how fearful they test, they may need more courage to face the world. But they viscerally react more strongly physiologically to horror movies, especially those that depict the alien or the unknown when tested. So this may drive a certain fear of the unknown that extends over into fear of difference and fear of change with political and indeed artistic and scientific consequences. And of course I suppose fear of change is conservative grand central?

Also, there is Jonathan Haidt’s work on the Moral Foundations of Liberals and Conservatives (see link below). In his research, the biggest differences between these groups are on Loyalty/Betrayal, or as I tend to call it In-Group/Out-Group, a tendency to see the world as them or us. Our tribe versus their tribe, religion, politics, country, whatever. This ties into fear of the unknown fear of the alien and seems to me fundamental to how conservatives see the world: tribal, nationalistic, religious orthodox etc. They add to this, in Haidt’s research findings, by being strong on the Authority/Subversion dimension, which I tend to see as embracing hierarchy and of course they apply this hierarchy to the In-Group/Out-Group dimension, so their In-Group is superior to/deserves to dominate other groups. Haidt also show Sanctity/Degradation as a strong Conservative dimension, the sense of disgust the Conservatives feel about gay sex is one example. But really the disgust seems to me another side of the fear coin: fear and disgust with what is different: the Out-Group, whether racial, sexual orientation, religious or whatever. And disgust when existing hierarchies are threatened.

Even on Haidt’s other Dimensions which are shared by Liberals and Conservatives, they mean something quite different to them. On Care/Harm and Fairness/Justice, Conservatives tend to focus on Care/Harm for their In-Group, their tribe rather than humanity in general. And their concept of Fairness/Justice is a sort of Karma that rewards conformity to the tribe’s rules. At least that’s how I see it, though I am sure Jonathan would not necessarily agree, being more open minded on this than I am, as a Social Psychologist trying to be even handed. 🙂 I am not….And yes Liberty/Oppression is one dimension often shared by Liberals and many Conservatives and this does seem to correlate with creativity at least in principle.

Which brings us back to creativity and creative people. The essence of creativity is the creation of something new, something radically different. Something quite threatening to the status quo, to religious belief, to shibboleths, to existing science, to existing political arrangements. Quite threatening to tribal norms, to existing hierarchies and existing world views. And art can of course be disgusting, cause the musically conservative audience to walk out of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in 1913 or to denounce recent conceptual art.

Rite of Spring riot

To create, one needs a high tolerance of ambiguity in that neutral zone when the breakthrough insight is emerging in the head. Not for nothing are novels called thus. And also to be fearless in the face of the unknown, the alien, the different, and often to hold two contradictory beliefs in the mind at the same time, and stay sane, as F Scott Fitzgerald challenged us to do. These cognitive stances do not fit well with Conservative Moral Foundations or other psychological predilections, whatever their other value is in society in maintaining order or running routine businesses, farms etc.

Though of course there are conservative creatives like Ezra Pound and T S Eliot the poets, Ferdinand Celine the French author, and James Watson, the co-discoverer of DNA. But demographically, they are the exception. And of course, the places where creatives flourish, the San Franciscos, the New Yorks, the Londons, are not only demographically diverse in terms of gender equality, tolerance of sexual orientation differences, but invariably politically liberal and tolerant of new ideas.

Indeed one tension I see throughout the history of the last 5000 years has been the tension between tolerant, liberal, creative urban environments/cities and the nomadic/rural conservative areas, which have no time for such matters and periodically pillage the cities and reduce them to rubble. Rather as the Tea Party in the USA and religious fundamentalists would like to do, to Sodom and Gomorrah the whole coastal urban liberal fringe of America. As the Jihadi Daesh or Saudi Wahhabis feel too….waiting for the Barbarians is what urban life often feels like??

That said in most societies there is need for Conservative and Liberal cognition and creativity combined with the ability to run a stable society. The real paradox for Conservatism for me is when it resists creative reform of the status quo, preventing the tectonic plates of society from gently moving to prevent for instance massive society threatening inequality. When this resistance to any change or even a drive to overturn existing change occurs, then Conservatism is not only not creative but actually produced the situation for destructive fabric of society demolishing change like the French or Russian revolutions: hardly what Conservatives intend: to produce an earthquake?

More on Jon Haidt’s work here: http://moralfoundations.org/


About creativeconflictwisdom

I spent 32 years in a Fortune Five company working on conflict: organizational, labor relations and senior management. I have consulted in a dozen different business sectors and the US Military. I work with a local environmental non profit. I have written a book on the neuroscience of conflict, and its implications for conflict handling called Creative Conflict Wisdom (forthcoming).
This entry was posted in Academic Conflict, Conflict Art, Conflict History, Conflict Humor, Conflict Processes, Middle East Conflict, Neuro-science of conflict, Philosophy of Conflict, Religious Conflict, US Political Conflict, Ways to handle conflict and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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