THE PUBLIC EYE: Conservative Brain Syndrome

By Bob Burnett
Thursday May 10, 2012 - 12:22:00 PM

Tragic news about the premature decline and death of retired football players has led many Americans to draw the obvious conclusion: decades spent bashing people with your skull will produce serious brain injury. Considering this, why don’t Republicans understand that years spent bashing their heads against reality inevitably produces the same result: diminished capacity and dementia? 

Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is the degenerative brain disease found in football players with a history of repetitive brain trauma. CTE brain syndrome leads to memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, and eventually, dementia. The frequent occurrence of these symptoms in Republican politicians suggests that CTE is a widespread phenomenon. 

Researchers in Great Britain have discovered that liberals and conservatives have different brain structures. “Liberals have a larger anterior cingulate cortex… showing a greater ability… to cope with conflicting information.” “Conservatives have larger amygdalas... [showing] a greater ability… to recognize a threat.” Studies such as these indicate Republicans lack the ability to respond to new data or retain flexibility in complex circumstances. But is this condition the product of nature or nurture? Were Republicans born conservative or is this conditioned by years bashing their skulls against reality? 

Archie Haddock, a researcher at the Institute for Cognitive and Political Science at the University of California at Anaheim, has a novel theory about the genesis of what he’s termed “conservative brain syndrome.” Haddock’s research began with a monograph on Ronald Reagan. “I was curious why Reagan switched from being a liberal to a conservative. I analyzed videos of his speeches over a twenty-year period, from 1947 when he was President of the Screen Actors’ Guild, until 1967 when he became Governor of California, and noticed the behavioral changes. Reagan was always charming, but his forties-era speeches show vitality and flexibility; over two decades this transformed into dogmatism and fear.” Haddock explained, “after studying Reagan, I formed my thesis that the longer one is exposed to conservative ideology the more brain damage is incurred – activity shifts from the anterior cingulate cortex to the amygdala. One can see the extent of the cognitive damage when Reagan becomes President and starts mouthing homilies that make no sense: government is the problem; helping the rich get richer will inevitably help everyone else; and markets are inherently self correcting and there’s no need for regulation.” 

Haddock believes that if he had had access to today’s neuroimaging he would have been able to demonstrate Reagan’s decay with a chronological series of brain images. “Neuroimaging would illustrate the shift of neural activity from the anterior cingulate cortex to the amygdala.” 

“George W. Bush and John McCain suffered the same deterioration,” Haddock notes. “They were never as articulate as Reagan, but early in their careers they spoke coherent sentences. Then they entered politics and their faculties diminished.” 

Haddock hopes Mitt Romney will provide proof for his thesis. “In 1968, Romney was in a car accident in France. I’ve learned that while he was in the hospital he had a brain scan. I could compare this to a current image of Mitt’s brain.” Haddock notes that when Romney was Governor of Massachusetts he displayed evidence of anterior cingulate cortex activity. “ His public remarks were lucid.” Haddock believes that Romney began to decline when he first ran for President in 2008. “Since beginning his 2012 campaign, Romney’s behavior has deteriorated. He claimed ‘corporations are people’ and bragged, ‘I like being able to fire people who provide services to me.’ I’m sure his current behavior is amygdala-based.” Haddock has asked the Romney campaign for permission to scan the candidate’s brain, but doubts they will agree. 

Are Republican voters subject to the same debilitating brain syndrome as their leaders? Many observers believe they are and a Daily Kos poll of self-identified Republicans adds credence to this. When asked about their core beliefs, a plurality of respondents believed that President Obama should be impeached and 63 percent described him as a “socialist.” 77 percent believed that public schools should teach that the Book of Genesis explains how the world was created. Moreover, a majority of Republicans do not believe in Global Climate Change and deny that the world is getting warmer because of human activity. 

There’s been a lot of discussion about the polarization in American politics, where Republicans and Democrats have radically different values and beliefs. The root cause may be neurological: millions of Republicans may be suffering from a form of CTE, Conservative Brain Syndrome. These unfortunates lack cognitive flexibility and the ability to respond to new information; they’re confused and angry, and have poor impulse control. Years of banging their heads against the truth have left Republicans cognitively impaired. 

Professor Haddock believes there is no simple cure for this tragic condition. But he observed, “The first step towards positive mental health is to turn off the TV and pick up a good book.” 

[WARNING: This is political satire.] 

Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at