Last week, the Mail Online ran a “controversial” article entitled “Right-wingers are less intelligent than left wingers, says study”. Thousands of furious commentators predictably rushed to throw more heat than light on the issue, and left-wing luminaries such as George Monbiot and Charlie Brooker were soon gleefully rubbing their hands at the commentators’ unwitting confirmation of the verdict they decried. But why would the world’s most successful news website show such wilful contempt for its target audience?
The headline actually misrepresents the research findings as they are reported in the body of the article: the research does not show that right-wingers are less intelligent, it shows that less intelligent people are right-wing (which does not exclude the possibility that intelligent people might also become right-wing). Or more precisely, it is rather that less intelligent children tend to gravitate towards right wing politics as adults. Still, it seems reasonable to assume that some of these simple-minded children have managed to get a decent education and upbringing, to the point that they can now formulate complex right-wing strategies and sometimes even defend them with a convincing level of articulacy. So even if you accept that the intelligence of a 10 year old is “innate” and preserved in some kind of educational and ideological vacuum, it doesn’t have great explanatory force in terms of their future abilities as an adult.
Of course, accurate descriptions rarely make dramatic headlines, and it seems likely that the Mail has deliberately chosen more inflammatory phrasing in order to produce the very controversy it claims to describe. Among my own social media connections, I see Mail Online articles being visited and recirculated (and read?) as much by left-wing readers as right-wing ones. The Mail seems happy here to prioritise being entertaining and shocking over being ideologically coherent, and in this sense, this article is perhaps smarter than some gave it credit for, if it is increasing traffic and active participation from left- and right-wing readers alike. This is arguably a strategy that makes more sense online than in the hard copy, where the core who are willing to pay for its content are likely to be more ideologically homogenous.
The use of the labels “left” and “right” is also cunningly misleading. I would argue that it is not possible to give a definition of the left/right divide without already thereby positioning oneself somewhere on the left or right, and the definition deployed by the article (and research?) is both bizarrely left-wing and infuriatingly bland. “Left-wing” here appears to be a label slapped on opinions that I would identify more as “liberal” – tolerant of other cultures and the socially marginalised. What is missing is the most meaningful distinction between left and right, the economic one. For me, a right-winger is someone who prefers a small role for government, with market forces giving signals for the allocation of resources and citizens managing “their own” wealth. A left-winger prefers their government to take a more active role in the provision of public services and the redistribution of wealth.
There are plenty of right-wing libertarians who see a logical parallel between the free movement of goods and the free movement of migrant labour. I’m sure even David Cameron would describe himself as perfectly happy if a “family of a different race moved next door” if they made a net contribution to the economy. He’s smarter than he looks too: like the Mail, he knows how to play to his audience.