Are Liberals and Conservatives Polar Opposites or Mirror Images?

In 1961, Psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner coined the term mirror image perceptions to describe the similarities he observed in Americans’ and Soviets’ stereotypic views of one another.

Bronfenbrenner, writing during the height of Cold War tensions, noted that both sides in this grand ideological struggle tended to see their own leadership as good and nobly motivated and the other side’s leaders as corrupt and driven by malicious intent. Both Soviets and Americans perceived their own people as essentially peaceful with opinions free from governmental coercion, while seeing the other side’s people as aggressive and deluded by ideology and state sponsored (capitalist or communist) propaganda. Other researchers have gone on to note that this mirror image pattern, two opposing sides in an ideological struggle having virtually identical stereotypes of each other, is a common characteristic in intergroup relations.

It is hard not to see a similar dynamic playing out in contemporary America’s culture war struggle. If you take some time to read or watch each side’s partisan media voices, you should be struck quite quickly by the similarity of the charges each side levies against the other. The mirror metaphor is an apt one, however, as the image each side has of the other is usually similar but in a sense “reversed,” in that the accusations flow from each sides own unique moral sensibilities. Which generally means that both sides have to squint a bit to recognize their own visage in the other.

So for example, here are just a few places where liberals and conservatives hold eerily similar views of each other:

Both sides see the other as political extremists. It is common now in both political blogospheres to hear pundits bemoan the radical shift toward extremism in the other side. The right harps constantly on the “out of the mainstream” and “radical” left wing agenda pursued by President Obama and his cronies (read Reid & Pelosi) in Congress. Charges of socialism and worse abound. The left, on the other hand, sees a Republican party purged of any moderate influence and increasingly coalescing around a hard right economic (tea party) and foreign policy (neoconservative) consensus. The charges of choice here are “corporate apologist” and “war criminal”. Nazi references fly from both corners, and both sides accuse the other of trampling on their beloved Constitution.

Both sides see their own policy positions as motivated by national interest and the other side’s by crass political posturing. Democrats see Republicans as the “party of no”, devoid of any true policy convictions and driven only by their desire to see President Obama fail. Republicans, on the other hand, are fond of touting themselves as men and women of “principle” (particularly principled fiscal conservatism), and their increasingly populist rhetoric is a clear attempt to claim the mantle of the “voice of the people”. Democrats are portrayed by the right wing media as power hungry Machiavellians, motivated only by their desire to grow the government, raise your taxes, and thus solidify the power of the bureaucratic class and fat cat union bullies. Both left and right see their foreign policies as hard headed attempts to keep America safe, and the other side as willing to politicize terrorism policy for partisan advantage or in defense of some warped ideological aspiration (American exceptionalism or political correctness).

Both sides see their own policy positions as genuine and logical and the other’s as coerced and irrational. Both sides like to portray their own base’s opinions as grounded in “common sense,” and the other side’s as a product of cynical manipulation of popular sentiment orchestrated by political elites and bankrolled by partisan billionaire puppeteers. The epithet “kool-aid drinker” is hurled with equal frequency from the right and the left. Neither side sees criticism of the other side’s leaders as flowing from legitimate policy differences, but rather as a product of some irrational, emotional antipathy (racial prejudice or “Bush Derangement Syndrome”). Both sides tend to “psychologize” the other side’s opinions, and media figures seen as daring truth-tellers by their own side (e.g., Glenn Beck and Keith Olbermann) are seen as dangerously unhinged by the other.

Both sides see the other as fear mongering for political advantage. Throughout the Bush administration, Democrats accused Republicans of ginning up fear about terrorism to support neoconservative military ambitions and aggressive interrogation and detention policies against suspected enemy combatants. Now, Republicans accuse Democrats of engineering fear of global warming to support their radical environmentalist agenda, and of exaggerating claims of imminent economic collapse to support left-wing domestic policies. Both sides see their own fears as real, and the others as imagined.

Both sides see the other as politicizing science. Democrats celebrated the election of Barack Obama as a return to the rule of science after nearly a decade of repeated claims that Bush Administration officials were molding science to fit their ideological and religious beliefs. This point was made most prominently in regard to climate change science, but also about the use of data surrounding contraceptive use and endangered species protection. Republicans are now making remarkably similar claims of liberal scientific meddling, fueled by the release of a series of suspicious sounding emails from British climate change scientists (so-called “climategate”). Interestingly, a meme is now emerging in conservative circles arguing that liberals’ belief that global warming is “settled science,” and their refusal to acknowledge scientific data challenging their established beliefs, is itself an example of being blinded by pseudo-religious faith (see George Will’s recent Washington Post Column).

Both sides see the other as lacking bipartisan spirit. What more can one say? If it wasn’t quite so sad, we could all share a smile over the irony of two political factions so bitterly locked in a partisan battle that they respond to a public outcry for bipartisanship with dueling accusations of the other side’s lack thereof.

Mirror image perceptions are a hallmark of judgmental bias. When both sides hold virtually identical negative beliefs about each other, it suggests that there is very little “there”, there — and that the groups’ mutual (mis)perceptions are likely fueled by biases that arise from intergroup conflict.

Of course, when evaluating political speech one always has to work at separating out rhetoric (what elites say for strategic reasons but don’t really believe) from true belief (what people don’t just say but really believe, and what I as a psychologist am primarily interested in). In a subsequent blog entry, I plan to post some yourmorals data documenting left-right mirror image perceptions in our respondents. I will follow that with a series of posts discussing some of the psychological biases that I believe produce mirror image perceptions, and in turn fuel partisan mistrust and uncivil politics.

- Pete Ditto