Chris Mooney has a new book out called The Republican Brain. I have a copy on the way and I will have him on my radio show to discuss it, but I haven’t read it yet. And while I have long believed that our political divisions reflect some general differences in temperament and psychology, I think far too much can be made of those differences — and we should always be aware of how often that turns out not to necessarily be the case. Julian Sanchez makes much the same point:
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.
There is a difficult line to walk here. On the one hand, I regularly use shortcuts like right and left as labels because it’s nearly impossible not to do. But I think it’s important to recognize that when we paint with such broad brushes, we sometimes cover up genuine distinctions that can matter a great deal. So while I do think that there is something to Robert Altemeyer’s theory that authoritarian personalities tend to gravitate toward conservative policies, we shouldn’t assume that therefore everyone with conservative political views must fit that description. Or that there is one single set of policy positions that comprise “conservatism” (or liberalism, or even libertarianism).
In other words we should, particularly as skeptics, try to avoid engaging in tribalism in any form. None of us escapes it entirely, of course, but we should try to do so whenever possible. That’s why I tend to like political anachronism whenever I encounter it, even when I disagree with it. I like that there are atheists like Nat Hentoff who are anti-abortion, for example, even though I think he’s absolutely wrong on the issue. The mere fact that he is willing to step outside the dominant view of those with whom he otherwise agrees on almost everything is something I find refreshing. It can be a refreshing reminder that people are individuals that often transcend are simple attempts to define them by applying a label to them.