In this post I am going to argue that one important reason why many people adopt a liberal political ideology is that it boosts their self esteem by allowing liberals to view themselves as noble warriors in a great battle against evil. There is a good deal of empirical data which is consistent with this theory. But I will also be making use of some evidence which is purely anecdotal. I fully recognize the limitations of such data. But I am still going to talk about it because it adds something meaningful to this theory.
The first question that needs answering is why liberals would need to increase their self-esteem in a way that conservatives do not. The answer is simple: liberals have less self esteem than conservatives to begin with. This is the conclusion of a 2012 paper published in the Journal of Research on Personality. The paper included two studies that found that liberals had lower self esteem than conservatives. The first study’s sample was moderate in size and consisted of college students. The second study made use of decades of data from the General Social Survey. The GSS is a large and highly representative survey that has been administered in the United States for over 40 years. Another paper published in 2014 replicated this finding in two more samples. Thus, the finding that liberals have low self esteem has been replicated several times, including one replication with an extremely high quality sample.
There is also experimental evidence showing that self esteem has a causal relation to liberalism. Researchers from Stanford have shown that causing people to feel especially good, or bad, about their looks influences their political beliefs and behavior. The researchers manipulated how people felt about themselves by asking them to recall incidents in which they felt either very attractive or very unattractive. When participants were made to feel good about themselves they became more likely to believe that social inequality was caused by individual differences in talent rather than by systemic forces outside of the individuals control. That is, they became more likely to endorse the conservative view on inequality. They also became less likely to donate to organizations aimed at lessening social inequality. When participants were made to feel poorly about themselves the opposite happened: they adopted a more liberal worldview and were more likely to donate to liberal groups.
So far we know that liberals have low self esteem and that having low self esteem causes people to be more liberal. There are at least two ways of looking at this. One way is to say that having low self esteem causes someone to be liberal because it makes it rational for them to favor equality. Equality helps everyone on the bottom half and that’s probably where you think you are if you have low self esteem. There’s clearly some truth to this narrative. But I believe that people with low self esteem will also be attracted to liberalism because being a liberal helps your self esteem a little bit. In particular, being a liberal lets you view yourself as a kind of moral hero waging a battle against dark and evil forces. Who doesn’t feel good about themselves while playing super hero?
The thing that initially caused me to think that liberalism boosts self esteem is the fact that liberals seem to be very proud of their political ideology. They want everyone to know about it. You can tell someone is liberal by the car they drive, the clothes they wear, and the food they eat. Non-liberals aren’t normally like this. I can’t look at someone and know whether they are a moderate, a conservative, a libertarian, etc. It’s only liberals that I can reliably spot on sight.
It also seems clear to me that morality is involved. Liberals are always crusading against something immoral. It’s never a simple factual disagreement. Conservatives are sexist, racist, homophobic, etc. And they hate the poor. Of course, many of these charges are ridiculous. For example, conservatives advocate the economic policies they do because they think that everyone will benefit from them. It has nothing to do with hating the poor. Notice that conservatives don’t respond in kind: conservatives don’t normally argue that liberals hate the poor, women, straight people or minorities, even though they think that liberal policies will negatively effect these groups.
Research by the moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt lends support to this theory. Haidt has developed surveys that ask people about their moral values. Early in his research Haidt found that liberals and conservatives tended to fill out these surveys differently. After replicating this finding several times Haidt did something pretty cool: he had liberals fill out the surveys as they imagined conservatives would and vice versa. Haidt found that conservatives were fairly accurate in their depictions of the moral values of liberals. But liberals were widely inaccurate in their view of conservative morality: they drastically underestimated how much conservatives cared about moral values like fairness and kindness. Haidt also had liberals fill out the surveys as if they were the average liberal and conservatives fill out the surveys as if they were the average conservative. Once again, conservatives were far more accurate than liberals. Liberals consistently over-estimated how much the average liberal cared about various moral values. And thus, Haidt showed that liberals irrationally view conservatives as immoral and view themselves as far more righteous than they actually are.
The behavior of liberals is also consistent with viewing them as moral crusaders. Pew polling shows that liberals are far more likely than conservatives to end a friendship with someone due to a political dispute. This is what we would expect from people who view the opposition as evil. Who wants to be friends with evil people?
I think this explains why liberals care so much about things that are offensive and don’t matter. If you want to feel morally superior to everyone around you, you can’t agree with them. And so you have to find things wrong with society which society won’t admit to. And so as time has gone on, liberals have had to invent increasingly ridiculous complaints about society. Consider transsexuals and people with autism. By even the most liberal estimates of transsexual prevalence, autism is about five times as common as trannies are. And no one could argue with the fact that autistic people have hard lives. But the left doesn’t generally care about people with autism because supporting autistic people isn’t offensive to most people. If the left launched a campaign to help autistic people most people would probably feel sorry for the mentally ill and agree with them. And then there would be no bogey men to wage war with. So the left concentrates on trannies instead. There are basically no trannies. And most of the few that do exist are clearly insane. So they are the perfect group for the left to champion. A lesser but similar case can be made about gay marriage. Being gay is rare, and almost no gays actually want to marry. But gay marriage is offensive to many people. So it is a great issue for the left. It creates lots of bogeymen.
I’ve found that this theory helps to explain a lot about how liberals debate. In my experience, liberals are more concerned with proving that I am evil than proving that I am wrong. (“The races differ in mean IQ scores.” … “You’re racist!”) I now think that this is because they can only grandstand by showing that I am evil. Showing that I am wrong won’t boost their self esteem the way that showing to the world that they are battling evil does.
In summary, studies show that liberals have low self esteem and that causing low self esteem causes people to be more liberal. Research also shows that liberals have unrealistically negative views of the morals of conservatives and unrealistically positive views of the morals of liberals. And polling shows that liberals are far more likely to break social ties with people over politics. They are moral crusaders. The fact that liberals want everyone to know that they are liberal, that they seem to purposefully pick offensive views, their debate style, and the fact that being morally superior normally feels pretty good, suggests to me that the moral crusading and the low self esteem are connected. Liberals are liberal so that they can say that society sucks, so that they can say that they are better than everyone else, so that they can feel a little less shitty about themselves.