Miscellaneous Ramblings

Thinking Different about Liberal vs. Conservative Mac Users

Charles Moore - 2008.01.21 - Tip Jar

Here we go again with the 'Mac people' are more open and liberal than PC users trope.

Last week, IDG News Service's Elizabeth Montalbano stated in 'Mac People' More Open, Liberal Than PC Users? that:

"People who prefer Apple's Macintosh computers over PCs have long been considered to be on the artsy, hip end of the personality spectrum - and now a study proves that 'Mac people' indeed are more liberal and open-minded than average folks."

Oh, really?

Ms. Montalbano noted that according to Mindset Media, people who purchase Macs fall into what the branding company calls the "Openness 5" personality category - which means they are allegedly more liberal, less modest, and more assured of their own superiority than the population at large. Mindset Media's service is helping companies with strong brands develop ads targeted to people based on personality traits (or "mindsets") and does research to that effect.

So here we go again with the "Macs are the liberals' computer" trope, to which I, as a conservative veteran Mac aficionado, take umbrage, especially when one examines the list of traits and qualities this particular survey attributes to a liberal mindset.

Mindset Media's "Openness 5" category describes folks who "tend to seek rich, varied and novel experiences . . . believe that imagination and intellectual curiosity are as important to life as more rational or pragmatic endeavors . . . are receptive to their own inner feelings and may experience life with more emotional intensity."

A Negative Image of Conservatives

In the mindset of Mindset's profilers, conservatives must be people who seek impoverished, monotonous, and boring experiences; are unimaginative, uncreative, and incurious intellectual dullards; and emotional zombies. I wonder if it ever occurs to these doofuses how superciliously insulting the implied caricature is? Or do they care, since one gets the impression that many liberals simply consider conservatives to be irrelevant ignorami of little account.

I protest. In terms of intellectualism, conservatives don't concede an inch of ground, with examples of conservative minds like philosophical giants Edmund Burke, Abraham Kuyper, Alexis de Tocqueville, Clemens von Metternich, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and, in a more recent context, Winston Churchill, G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, Richard Weaver, Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, Irving Kristol, Leo Strauss, Thomas Sowell, Canadian philosopher George Grant, Conrad Black (a towering intellect notwithstanding his current legal contretemps), and William F. Buckley Jr., to name a few.


Then there's the suggestion that Mac users are "less modest, and more assured of their own superiority than the population at large." Unless one is a narcissist, that isn't exactly flattering - whether one fancies him or herself a liberal or a conservative. I like to think that using a Mac is a smarter choice than a Windows PC both because it is objectively a superior tool for a whole raft of functional reasons, as well as because it's a quantifiably more pleasant and satisfying environment in which to spend one's time.

I guess that's partly "emotional," but I don't think it has much to do with narcissistic posturing or one-upmanship. I believe humility is a virtue, and my attitude toward folks who use Windows is more one of mystified and compassionate bemusement as to how they manage to put up with all the trials inconveniences and vicissitudes, not to mention wasted time, that are part and parcel of the Windows computing experience.

I choose to use Macs because "it just works" is more than just ad-copy sloganeering, not because it makes me feel personally "superior" or "cooler than thou", although I contend that the Mac OS itself is demonstrably superior to Windows. The Mac is simply an excellent machine, which does not commend it as a liberal's device according to the late American philosopher Richard Weaver, who noted the liberal "tendency to look with suspicion upon excellence, both intellectual and moral, as 'undemocratic'..."

As a Mac-using conservative I can make the rough, anecdotal observation that a larger proportion of my friends and acquaintances who are political and social conservatives use Macs compared with people I know in general, and I know a fair few liberals who are dogged Windows PC-advocates.

Conservative Mac Users

Then there's arch-conservative TV and radio talk-show host and commentator Rush Limbaugh, who has been an enthusiastic Mac fan since the 1980s.

Laureen Teskey Harper, wife of Canada's Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper (both Harpers are a "small-c" conservatives as well - not all Conservative Party members are), is a graphic designer and reportedly a big fan of Apple computers, which she uses in her work.

However, in a general sense, I'm obliged to concede that the Mac is indeed popular with the set that fancies itself liberal. The terms "conservative" and "liberal" have become so broadened and hazily defined in popular perception as to have ceased conveying more than a general indication of ideological belief and conviction. Labels sometimes tend to obfuscate more than they enlighten, however they do provide a sort of crude shorthand of categorizations that we can hardly do without.

Inverted Definitions

Part of the confusion lies, I think, in the fact that the classical definition of "liberal" has been inverted over the past century or so to mean what most people now think of as "conservative", at least in terms of economics, while what most people perceive as "liberal" now pertains more to neo-Marxist, socialist, radical existentialist, and postmodern nihilist schools of thought.

Today's Marxist/socialist-influenced neo-liberals illiberally preach big government and planned markets. Having abandoned the historical liberal principle of opposition to state interference in the affairs of individuals, neo-liberals now affirm a new political orthodoxy of protecting the weak and oppressed (as defined by neo-liberals) against the supposed evils of private interest through mechanisms of top-down state intervention, favoring collective remedies over individual ones - surely the antithesis of "thinking different". Surely there can be few more aggressively fundamentalist mantras of conformity and sameness than the so-called "political correctness" movement, which advocates nominally liberal causes and positions.

On the other hand, when business-oriented neo-conservatives beat the drums for unrestricted individualism and unregulated capitalism, they are affirming the principles of classic economic liberalism - not classic conservatism. In that sense, neo-conservatives like Rush Limbaugh, William F. Buckley, George Will, and the Bush administration are not really advocating classic conservatism at all, but are actually right-wing liberals.

Modern Liberals and Conservative Share Many Core Beliefs

In a contemporary North American political and economic context, both nominally "conservative" and nominally "liberal" beliefs are somewhat adulterated downstream products of the post-Enlightenment liberal ethos. While they disagree on a number of important nuances, neo-conservatives and neo-liberals share in common the essentially liberal notions that individual self-interest, material comfort and acquisition, and economic growth are the correct and self-sufficient ends of human endeavor. Both place their faith in science, technology, and industrial prosperity as the satisfactory means to achieving these ends.

Their biggest disagreement is over who or what will be in control - government bureaucracies or individuals operating in a free market.

The late Canadian conservative philosopher George Grant observed that:

"Americans who call themselves conservatives have the right to that title only in a particular sense. In fact they are old-fashioned liberals.... Their concentration on freedom from governmental interference has more to do with 19th century liberalism than with traditional conservatism, which asserts the right of the community to restrain freedom in the name of common good."

Mapping Mac Use in the US

Anyway, last fall, Net Applications posted an interesting analysis measuring the usage share of all Macintosh operating systems in respective US states - the resulting breakdown bearing a striking resemblance to the US red/blue election map from 2004, with Mac usage in general being higher in demographically more liberal "blue" states, with heaviest Mac concentrations being in the Pacific coast states (and Hawaii), New York, and New England, and the lowest in the southeastern, midwestern, and plains states, albeit with a few "red state" exceptions (notably Colorado and Alaska, which are among the top ten Mac-using states).

red and blue states in 2004 U.S. election

The ten states with lowest concentrations of Mac-usage are in West Virginia (3.47%), Mississippi ( 3.70%), Alabama (4.52%), South Carolina (4.61%), Arkansas (4.70%), Louisiana (4.85%), South Dakota (5.37%), North Dakota (5.38%), Kentucky (5.46%), and North Carolina (5.74%).

The ten states with the highest concentrations of Mac users are Hawaii (15.89%), Vermont (15.14%), California (12.83%), Oregon (12.72 %), New York (12.33 %), Alaska (11.87 %), Maine (11.19 %), Massachusetts (11.19 %), Washington (10.3 %), and Colorado (10.09 %).

Other Factors

Of course, these phenomena may be attributable to something other than political leanings per se. Economics, education, and even the number of Apple Stores in a region could presumably play a role. In general, states with a lower concentration of Mac users also tend to be ones with lower per capita incomes, and there's that famous Mac price premium. Education demographics and the number of colleges and universities located in a state look like other factors that might impact the findings besides political affiliation, although there is a considerable degree of crossover.

The late Mac Web columnist and commentator Rodney O. Lain once observed:

"I've often thought of the Mac as a liberal computer myself. Until I started rubbing elbows with a wider variety of Mac users. Sure there are many people who choose the Mac because they are left-brained romantics (or is that right-brained?), but I'm seeing that just as many buy Macs after their right-brained analysis (or is that left-brained?) - removes any doubt that the Mac is superior to Wintel PC."

A couple of other reasons for the Mac being characterized as a "liberal's computer" are its low penetration of the business computing market (conservative) and the fact that it is spectacularly popular among members of the entertainment industry and with other creative, artistic types, who more often than not tend to be liberal in their political views.

Conservative Christianity and Windows

Then there's the availability of Bible study, commentary, and other religious software, which has historically been much more flush on the Windows platform than the Mac, which inclines many conservative Christians (who tend to be more highly concentrated in the southern and midwestern "red" states) to stay in the Windows camp. This is improving, however, with more religious software programs being ported to or developed specifically for the Mac these days, along with ones that have been there all along such as Accordance, Mac Sword, Bible Reader Free, and others.

Conservative or Liberal?

I'm a political animal, and in my role as a newspaper political commentary columnist in Canada I have been referred to as "the best known social conservative in the Atlantic provinces," which may or may not be true. Actually I ruminate a great deal myself over where I fit in this dialectic, and I find myself personally embracing a tapestry of classic conservative and classic liberal values. For example, I am a strong advocate of free speech and expression for everyone - including those whose opinions I and/or others may find offensive and objectionable. Does that make me a conservative or a liberal?

I believe that every person is of equal worth in the sight of God so there should be no social, legal, or cultural obstacles to anyone realizing their full potential based on merit and hard work. I have no patience with racial or ethno-cultural prejudice, but I also strongly oppose the reverse discrimination of race and/or gender preferences and quotas in employment hiring and educational opportunities. Conservative or liberal?

I also believe that the "invisible hand" of the market operating with a minimum of government intervention is the most powerful and efficient engine of economic prosperity for the greatest number, and I'm a free trader, but I'm also a staunch environmentalist and don't object to government environmental regulations or antitrust initiatives (a la Microsoft) to ensure the maintenance of market competition. Conservative or liberal?

I agree with Abraham Lincoln and Margaret Thatcher that the state ought not do for people what they are capable for doing for themselves, and I am generally opposed to indiscriminate and dependence-creating welfare entitlements, but I believe that the better-off in society have a responsibility to help the genuinely troubled and needy, preferably giving them a hand up rather then a handout. Conservative or liberal?

Think Different

Finally, I like Macintosh computers (and especially the Mac OS), and I celebrate the inclination to "think different" - with the accent strongly on the "think" part.

One of the things I think is that Apple Computer is ill-advised to cultivate the "liberal computer" stereotype by identifying strongly with the Democratic Party (perhaps Al Gore's Apple board membership could be balanced with a high-profile Republican). Much better to project a more balanced philosophical perspective rather than implicitly diss a substantial proportion of your customer base.

However, I wonder if the demographic constituency Apple chooses to cultivate would ever stand for having someone who thinks that differently from the liberal/left boilerplate representing their iconic computer. It begs the question of just who is more open-minded, doesn't it?

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Charles Moore has been a freelance journalist since 1987 and began writing for Mac websites in May 1998. His The Road Warrior column was a regular feature on MacOpinion, he is news editor at Applelinks.com and a columnist at MacPrices.net. If you find his articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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