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Political Metastasis

March 30th, 2012 · 35 Comments

Browsing a conservative news site the other day, I was struck by the sheer oddness of that familiar genre of political commentary that treats  liberals and conservatives, not just as groups of people with systematic disagreements on policy questions, but as something like distinct subspecies of humanity. The piece that triggered this was something along the lines of “Five Reasons Liberals Are Awful People,” and it had almost nothing to do with any concrete policy question, or ultimately even the broad-brush contours of liberal political thought: It was a string of assertions about broad types of character flaws purportedly shared by liberals, of which their policy views were only a symptom. The same day, I chanced across a piece by Chris Mooney— based on his new book The Republican Brain—making a similar sort of argument from the other side by drawing on recent social science. Then just yesterday, my friend Conor Friedersdorf tweeted a request for good summaries of the liberal view of the right to privacy, and I was again struck by how odd it sounded: Scholars have advanced a whole array of views on the question, and while certainly liberals and conservatives would tend to find different ones more congenial, it seemed like an unhelpful way to map the terrain or illuminate the key points on which various thinkers diverge.

Without denying that political and policy differences are likely to track deeper differences in temperament—differences that shape our preferences and behavior across many domains—it’s worth recalling that the binary nature of our political discourse, featuring two main parties with corresponding ideologies, is a highly contingent feature of our electoral rules. As libertarians never tire of pointing out, there is no particularly compelling philosophical reason that one’s views on abortion, foreign military intervention, environmental regulation, tax policy, and criminal justice should cluster in the particular pattern we find among Republican and Democratic partisans. So we ought to be awfully skeptical about the (growing?) tendency to treat this binary divide as reflecting some essential fact about human nature, or as providing a frame within which to understand all intellectual or cultural life.

Cracking open Will Kymlicka’s excellent Contemporary Political Philosophy: An Introduction, I find he actually makes this point right at the outset: “Our traditional picture of the political landscape views political principles as falling somewhere on a  single line, stretching from left to right… [and] it is often thought that the best way to understand or describe someone’s political principles is to try to locate them somewhere on that line.” But of course, as anyone who has taken a course in political philosophy can tell you, that’s not what the main divisions look like at all: The syllabus will not contain a section on “liberal political philosophy” or “conservative political philosophy.” More likely, you’ll see a section on the various flavors of utilitarianism (act vs rule, aggregate vs average), maybe Kantian and Lockean rights theories and their progeny, communitarianism, contractualism of at least the Rawlsian variety—with Gauthier and Buchanan thrown in if the professor is feeling ecumenical. Again, you may be slightly more likely to find conservatives or liberals gravitating to one view or another, but thinkers with very different practical political commitments may be quite close at the theoretical level, and vice versa. Friedrich Hayek famously declared himself to be in almost complete agreement with the egalitarian John Rawls when it came to the normative fundamentals.

In legal theory, interpretive schools of thought fit somewhat better into “conservative” and “liberal” compartments, but there are plenty of exceptions: Yale’s Jack Balkin, for instance, is a vocal proponent of progressive originalism. More importantly, while people undoubtedly do sometimes choose an interpretive theory by working backwards from the policy preferences they’d like to justify, this categorization tends to obscure the underlying arguments for each approach, and is in any event highly contingent on the controversies that happen to be politically salient at any given time.

It starts to seem, as Albert Camus once put it, that we’ve made the mind into an armed camp—in which not only politicians and legislative proposals, but moral philosophies, artworks, even scientific theories, have to wear the insignia of one or the other army. This obviously oversimplifies—a taxonomy with two categories is not particularly rich—but also obscures the internal faultlines within each domain in a way that’s guaranteed to undermine our understanding. We’re at the point where people are morally certain about the empirical facts of what happened between Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman on the basis of their general political worldviews. This isn’t exactly surprising—we are tribal creatures who like master narratives—but it feels as though it’s gotten more pronounced recently, and it’s almost certainly making us all stupider.

Addendum: On a related note, Kevin Drum notes an obvious problem for Chris Mooney’s thesis: Basic temperaments are supposed to be universal, but many of the political phenomena Mooney identifies as functions of those temperaments are pretty unique to American conservatives. Their European counterparts, for instance, don’t tend to exhibit the same hostility to the results of mainstream climate research or evolutionary biology. Even if people with different personality types tend to gravitate toward one local tribe or another, there’s obviously an enormous amount of contextual variation in what that will actually amount to.

Tags: Horse Race Politics · Journalism & the Media · Language and Literature


       

 

35 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Mike // Mar 30, 2012 at 12:32 pm

    I get your point, and agree with you in many ways… but I’m not really sure what the good alternative is.

    How would *you* describe a list of views on the right to privacy that would not be laughed out of the New York Times’ editorial room, versus those that would be acceptable to the Washington Times? Or more generally, those that would be acceptable conversation in the “off topic” sections of an organic food forum versus a gun rights forum? Because the lists will be different, even though there is no philosophical requirement for them to be.

  • 2 Liberty60 // Mar 30, 2012 at 12:37 pm

    Our contemporary politics is tribal, not philosophical.
    Obamacare was beloved by the Heritage Foundation when it was Romneycare;
    I saw a truck once, one of those ginormous 4 wheel drive monsters that had a “Nobama” sticker, another that read PETA (People for the Eating of Tasty Animals) and a personalized plate that read “I [heart} 8MPG”.
    What was amazing is that mindset- for this guy, wasting gas was not a bug, but a feature of his truck; eating red meat and driving his vehicle is a form of hippie-punching, not much different than some primitive ritual of facing off against the Other tribe across a stream and screaming and waving his arms.
    Which is the message I try to make to my fellow liberals- we aren’t in need of a tidy logic argument from the Brookings Institution. The Other tribe is convinced we hate their God, their music, their food, culture, manners and mores.

    We have to be careful not to let them be right.

  • 3 MFarmer // Mar 30, 2012 at 1:07 pm

    To me, the problem isn’t that some writers are writing about how liberals think and act or how conservatives think and act, but that conservatives act and think certain identifiable ways, for the most part, and liberals think and act certain, identifiable ways, for the most part, to the extent that politics has created a schism which is seriously dividing the country into warring camps. I blame statism, the politicization of America, because the two groups are fighting over power and control in a government that has become too powerful and too controlling. If we can limit the power of government to the extent people have to work together in the private sector to solve problems, we’ll more creative tension, cooperation, objectivity and free-thinking, I believe.

  • 4 Liberty60 // Mar 30, 2012 at 1:43 pm

    I don’t think this is a new phenomenon by the way.
    In every great battle of our history, the two camps had more cultural difference than mere politicial theory.

  • 5 Chris // Mar 30, 2012 at 2:06 pm

    I think it’s the legacy of Whig History. If people were more aware of the work of Namier and others debunking the notion of continual “progressive v reactionary” political conflict through the ages, you’d see less of this.

  • 6 DavidT // Mar 30, 2012 at 2:17 pm

    MFarmer: The problem is that in the economic sphere–which, since the recession started in 2008 has eclipsed all other issues–the main difference between progressives and conservatives is precisely the role of government versus the private sector. (Yes, of course I realize that in practice conservatives acquiesce in a great deal of big government in the economy for reasons of political expediency, but the point is that their *ideology* has become almost indistinguishable from that of libertarians on this issue. ) I don’t think you can end polarization by saying “end statism–leave more things to private enterprise” when that in effect is asking one party to the debate to surrender on the main issue.

  • 7 Daniel // Mar 30, 2012 at 2:43 pm

    Thomas Sowell did try to explain the roots of the liberal/conservative divide on seemingly unrelated issues in A Conflict of Visions. (Yes, I know Sowell’s columns have been crypto-fascist hackwork for twenty years, but some of his earlier books are worth paying attention to). He argued that a fundamental mindset of human perfectibility leads to modern American liberalism and a predictable set of views on issues from gun control to health care to nuclear power, while a mindset that humans can’t be perfected leads to modern American conservatism and an equally predictable, but opposite, constellation of views. You could say that Sowell ignores libertarians, but even among libertarians there’s a discernible divide between folks for whom gun rights and low taxes are paramount, and folks for whom legalizing pot and stopping government snooping are most important. Sowell’s argument may be refutable, but I think you ought to say something about it before concluding that there is “no particularly compelling philosophical reason” that partisans’ views cluster the way they do.

  • 8 MFarmer // Mar 30, 2012 at 6:13 pm

    DavidT, I understand, but, unless we are destined to continuous political battle with the best course never becoming evident and put into practice, then we have a rather hopeless future. It’s becoming more and more obvious, and it’s provable, that statism has failed wherever practiced long enough. Although conservatives have talked limited government and private sector empowerment, it means nothing when the reality is that they have been just as interventionist when implementing their own agenda. It’s not about who wins, but about the reality of interventionism leading to results that no one wants in the long run. If what you are saying is that one side, progressives/liberals, will never let go of the idea that central planning and social engineering can work with the right, intelligent government, then I can only say that economic reality might force them to accept change. But, really, it’s both sides that are dependent on government solutions, so both sides will lose to reality eventually.

  • 9 J Byrd // Mar 30, 2012 at 11:44 pm

    I reject this. But then, that’s the beauty of the theory, isn’t it? By rejecting it, I’m just proving it by showing that my ideology is clouding my objective judgement.

  • 10 J Byrd // Mar 31, 2012 at 12:05 am

    I have to love as well the fact that the strongest dissents in the comments blame a nebulous “government” for the issue of excessive liberal / conservative polarization. In two places I see “government solutions” mentioned without irony. Funny how solutions to polarization always involve complete capitulation to conservative ideology. It’s “government that’s the problem, not the solution”. Now where did I hear that poison before?

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  • 13 MFarmer // Mar 31, 2012 at 9:29 am

    “It’s “government that’s the problem, not the solution”. Now where did I hear that poison before?”

    From someone who, after 8 years in office, saw government increase in size and scope?

  • 14 MFarmer // Mar 31, 2012 at 11:56 am

    And this:

    “Funny how solutions to polarization always involve complete capitulation to conservative ideology.”

    This is indicative of the communication problem. I’m not sure how someone can read what I wrote and conclude that the solution is capitulation to conservative ideology. First of all, I’m as far from conservative as one can get, and limiting government power would include ending the War on Drugs, removing government from the business of deciding who can and can’t marry, strict oversight and limits on the military/industrial complex, an end to all corporate welfare, and, basically, a free market approach to ideas and morality when behavior is not violating the rights of others.

  • 15 Moskow // Apr 1, 2012 at 12:03 am

    I blame the brain. Our brain evolved to function in a much different context, in which this kind of tribal, black and white thinking was much more useful. Our brains evolved to help us thrive in a context in which, apart from members of our tribe, we were in a zero-sum competition with almost everyone and everything we came into contact with. The problem is, our brains are still tricking us into thinking that we are engaged in this sort of zero-sum competition while society has developed far past that point. You quote Camus’ statement that in modern society we’ve turned the mind into an armed camp, but I think it would be more accurate to say that the mind has always been waiting to be militarized.

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  • 17 Mitch // Apr 3, 2012 at 2:44 pm

    Was discussing this post in another forum, and was curious about how you’d respond to this: “[Sanchez] says there’s no *philosophical* reason that these beliefs should cluster in that way, and that therefore we should be suspicious of the idea that human nature leads to the divide. But that doesn’t follow. It’s easy to imagine that human nature doesn’t track philosophical consistency, particularly if moral intuitions are the result of multiple moral systems interacting with one another. (Though we might see more consistency on the liberal side, since as (Jonathan) Haidt argues liberal moral intuitions emerge from fewer basic moral concepts.)”

  • 18 Julian Sanchez // Apr 3, 2012 at 5:09 pm

    Mitch-
    That’s an excellent point, though I think if you look both internationally and at the history of the positions identified with major parties within the U.S. over time, the shifting interests of viable political coalitions are a more plausible explanation than anything coming out of deep facts about human temperament. Also, you can often frame the same issue in different ways, so that people with similar temperaments will react differently depending on the specific values that are triggered.

    But maybe this is peripheral. Suppose the politically salient issues in play at a particular time are such that people tend to cluster in ways that reflect deeply-rooted temperaments, and that the nature of the issues is such that you get two main clusters even though these temperaments are multidimensional. That is to say, you might be able to distinguish (say) a dozen types of temperaments that still basically fall out into two clusters for political purposes. That STILL doesn’t mean the same two clusters are going to be the operative ones for carving up the space of normative philosophies, scientific theories, jurisprudential schools of thought, and so on—especially in domains where we might hope that broad temperament is less relevant than more subtle domain-specific considerations. That was my central point.

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  • 22 Barry // Apr 5, 2012 at 10:23 am

    DavidT // Mar 30, 2012 at 2:17 pm

    :MFarmer: The problem is that in the economic sphere–which, since the recession started in 2008 has eclipsed all other issues–the main difference between progressives and conservatives is precisely the role of government versus the private sector. (Yes, of course I realize that in practice conservatives acquiesce in a great deal of big government in the economy for reasons of political expediency, but the point is that their *ideology* has become almost indistinguishable from that of libertarians on this issue. ) I don’t think you can end polarization by saying “end statism–leave more things to private enterprise” when that in effect is asking one party to the debate to surrender on the main issue.”

    I call foul on this. The right’s attitude towards big government is pretty clear:

    They love an authoritarian executive (note that they don’t have a problem with Obama continuing some nasty and unconstitutional policies of the right).

    They love big spending – look at the Reagan and Bush II administrations.

    They love a government which can get into every aspect of your life which they want it to. They only object when the government might interfere in something near and dear to the elite’s hearts, or tribal shibboleths.

    They love police who can pretty much shoot (the ‘right’) people dead with little fuss or muss.

    They love police who can wipe their *sses with the Fourth Amendment.

    They don’t like the First Amendment when it comes to people they don’t like – Muslims, or people publicly protesting GOP policies and politicians.

    On every program they feel a benefit from, they’ve never yet run short of money to spend.

  • 23 Political Metastasis | Disinformation // Apr 5, 2012 at 3:29 pm

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  • 24 whither.zither // Apr 5, 2012 at 9:31 pm

    >that treats liberals and conservatives, not just as groups of people with systematic disagreements on policy questions, but as something like distinct subspecies of humanity.

    this is nothing new. The Frankfurt School’s “Authoritarian Personality” study from ca. 1950, notorious for its lackadaisical relationship to empirical facts, argued that conservative politics were rooted in suppressed homosexual urges and Freudian Oedipal complexes. Believe it or not, this was taken seriously for a long time and still exerts an influence on modern political commentary despite having been thoroughly discredited.

    >As libertarians never tire of pointing out, there is no particularly compelling philosophical
    reason that one’s views on abortion, foreign military intervention,
    environmental regulation, tax policy, and criminal justice should
    cluster in the particular pattern we find among Republican and
    Democratic partisans.

    huh? the author is either disingenuous or woefully uninformed. the economist thomas sowell, a strong voice in libertarianism, has written a masterful book explaning the precise philosophical roots of the contemporary political schism. He terms the philosophies the “constrained vision” and the “unconstrained vision.”

    Very broadly speaking, the unconstrained vision is associated with leftist/progressive/socialist politics, while the constrained vision is associated with libertarian/right-wing politics.

    To quote from the wiki page for Sowell’s book “A Conflict of Visions”

    >The Unconstrained Vision

    >Sowell argues that the unconstrained vision relies heavily on the belief that human nature
    is essentially good. Those with an unconstrained vision distrust
    decentralized processes and are impatient with large institutions and
    systemic processes that constrain human action. They believe there is an
    ideal solution to every problem, and that compromise is never
    acceptable. Collateral damage is merely the price of moving forward on
    the road to perfection. Sowell often refers to them as “the self
    anointed.” Ultimately they believe that man is morally perfectible.
    Because of this, there must be some people who are further along the
    path of moral development and are therefore able to put aside
    self-interest and make decisions for the benefit and good of all.

    >The Constrained Vision

    >Sowell argues that the constrained vision relies heavily on belief
    that man is inherently and iredeemably selfish, regardless of the best
    intentions. Those with a constrained vision prefer the systematic
    processes of the rule of law and experience of tradition. Compromise is
    essential because there is no ideal solution and those with a
    constrained vision favor solid empirical evidence and time-tested
    structures and processes over innovation and personal experience.
    Ultimately, the constrained vision demands checks and balances and
    refuses to accept that any one person could put aside their innate
    self-interest.

    When these two views are considered as a philosophical premise most of
    the political conclusions that people embrace follow quite logically
    from the starting point (e.g., leftists like Obama says that everyone needs a college degree, based on premise that people can be educated into wisdom, moral behavior, and wealth; a right-winger, in contrast, might accept that some people are intrinsically smarter and/or harder working than others, and believes that a traditional college education can be a huge waste of time and money for many students who’d be better off in vocational school learning a practical trade.)

  • 25 Leigh Mortensen // Apr 6, 2012 at 3:56 pm

    I seem to remember something the Founding Fathers once said regarding this sort of situation.

    ‘E Pluribus Unum’.

    United we Stand, Divided we Pluribus.

    I don’t latin good mostly.

  • 26 William Burns // Apr 8, 2012 at 9:44 am

    The Sowell “constrained vision” thing clearly falls apart when you get to neocon foreign policy. The idea of turning Iraq into a stable, pro-western democracy by invading it is clearly “unconstrained.”

  • 27 Jonah // Apr 12, 2012 at 1:59 pm

    Regarding your reply to Mitch – I wonder if there’s evidence for the existence of dozens of temperaments, as you suggest? Because it seems to me that the multiplicity of possible moral values doesn’t imply a multiplicity of dispositions. There might be only two political/moral dispositions that in fact emerge from the set of moral values. More dispositions are possible, but these are the only two that actually emerge in any human society.

    This would means that there’s much more complexity and subtlety in the range of POSSIBLE philosophical and jurisprudential positions than there are in the ACTUAL positions that people take. We might wish that people were more sensitive to the logic of particular positions, and less guided by their broad temperaments, but that doesn’t make it so.

  • 28 TWells // Sep 6, 2012 at 5:14 pm

    “Divide and conquer” has long been a strategy in maintaining power. In the past, the population has been divided over race, gender, and other external traits. For the most part, this has become unpalletable (and fewer numbers now respond to “othering” people for these reasons).

    Yet, there is an invisible, predictable, biological distribution of temperaments in our population (because the survival of the group depends on differentiation of roles such as defender, builder, innovator, and nurturer). The numerical distribution of temperaments is almost an exact match for political affiliation numbers.

    Guardian temperament (actual routine learners (38%)) CONSERVATIVES

    Idealist temperament (conceptual global learner (12 %)) LIBERAL

    Rational temperament (conceptual specific learner (12%))
    LIBERALS (24% total)

    ARTISAN temperament (actual spontaneous learners (38%) INDEPENDENTS (38%)

    The idea of being forced to view or interact with the world using someone else’s criteria causes anger and resentment… because it is in direct conflict with our own natural drives and biological inclinations. Further, because our temporary experiences of attempting to accomodate others (by adopting a behavior that is antithetical to our truer nature sensibilities) often results in failure, it might appear the methods of others are false. This is one of the most predictable sources of conflict in interpersonal relationships. In the end, we must all be true to ourselves. That’s what freedom is all about.

    Today we have pundits “whipping up their base” with fears that their “freedoms will be taken away” and we will all have to live in the horrible world the “other” creates.

    We have wised up and no longer allow ourselves to be divided by race, religion, gender, etc. I submit that once again, politicians and the powerful have found a way to create (or at least exploit) imaginary divisions.

    Since the governed always outnumber the few in power, our dysfunction and inability to organize, compare notes, and join forces — makes it possible for them to operate with impunity.

    But the people who are being demonized as socialists, fascists, and nuts …are just your neighbors -or your grandma- (so there is no need to panic or think that world is coming to an end.) It is the same distribution of temperaments that have existed since ancient times.

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