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.