Psychology and Convenient Political Dichotomies


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.

Comments

  1. bahrfeldt says

    “Chris Mooney has a new book out called The Republican Brain”

    Based on the subject, is it the world’s smallest book? Two pages, both blank?

  2. valhar2000 says

    So while I do think that there is something to Robert Altemeyer’s theory that authoritarian personalities tend to gravitate toward conservative policies

    Dr. Altmeyer did say in his book that many of the staunch Soviet Communists were authoritarians of the kind that become Fundies in the US.

    Indeed, plenty of brazen assaults on the 1st Amendment have come from the “liberal” side of the political spectrum.

  3. brianthomas says

    As much as I try to avoid dichotomies, it seems they’re unavoidable. Liberal and Conservative are out, but only because the former has become so ridiculously tainted in this country. And the relative emptiness of the Right-Left dichotomy has bugged me as well. What do “left” and “right” ultimately describe but opposite directions and nothing more?

    Something that’s qualitatively descriptive is needed.

    This dawned on me rececently when I was on amazon.com reading a review of a book on George Soros. Some teabagger from Virginia was on there and spent a dozen pages “arguing” that Hitler was a “leftist” and cannot be considered in any way, shape or form a “right winger.” It was so laughable, but, if these dichotomies ultimately describe nothing, I guess they can easily be twisted to fit one’s agenda. And, while reading through that twaddle, the thought occurred to me that progressive minded persons should reclaim the Progressive label (I don’t hear it often enough); or, my personal preference these days, Open versus Closed Society.

    I sure would like to see that dimwit try to argue that Hitler was “progressive” or a champion of the Open Society.

  4. says

    We can’t avoid dichotomies. But as skeptics, we have to keep in mind that they don’t describe everything or everyone in every circumstances. We must understand their limitations and that there are always exceptions.

  5. says

    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.

    A flamboyant LaRouchie or Moonie can make exactly the same claim, and in fact many creationists and AGW denialists have made the claim: lookit me, I’m thinking outside the box and being a brave category-defying maverick, unlike those stodgy predictable stick-in-the-muds who can’t stop being moored in reality! That’s huge part of the problem with American political discourse: people who hog attention by spouting batshit-stupid ideas and pretending they’re “mavericks” or “game changers.” That’s how we got Sarah Palin, the libertarians, Tea Party and other obvious Republican sock-puppets, and the automatic dismissal of common-sense liberalism as “boring” and “predictable” by media stooges with the attention-span of airheaded tweeners.

  6. eric says

    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.

    That, and historical context. Republicans of the 1860s were the folks who thought Democrats were moving too slowly and conservatively on freeing slaves. They recommended a federal solution over a State-by-State one. Imagine someone writing “The Democratic Brain” in 1950’s Alabama. They would tell you all about how Democrats are biologically conditioned to believe in states rights over federal rights and to oppose civil rights.

    A different example: go overseas, and you’ll find foreign ‘conservative’ and ‘right-wing’ policy positions are not necessarily what we would call ‘conservative’ or ‘right-wing’ in the US. I just went to the UK conservative party web site, and their big giant web-banner-of-the-week trumpets their success at pushing through a government program to help poor people buy houses. Imagine that! :)

    There is no reublican brain for the simple reason that ‘republican’ is a mere label whose meaning shifts with time, place, and context. Even the (IMO better) label ‘conservative’ shifts with time, place, and context – as the UK example above shows.

  7. iknklast says

    This has been an interesting topic to me for a long time. I think it can become a problem when we characterize people one way or the other. I regard myself as liberal, but routinely make my liberal friends outraged with my disdain for New Age thinking, postmodernism, and the idea that all religion is equally ridiculous. And I find that many of those on the ‘liberal’ side are as anti-science as those on the conservative, but it takes the form of alternative medicine rather than faith healing, new age environmentalism that ignores the science rather than global warming denial, etc.

    The binary divide can have some interesting moments, though. One time, and only once, my fundamentalist conservative tea party father and I actually voted for the same candidate for governor. I voted for the Republican because he had solid progressive credentials, and could ignore the party when it was called for, while the Democrat was a loopy conservative. My dad voted for the Republican also, because he wouldn’t vote for that “damned liberal” – who was, in fact, far less liberal than the man he voted for! He’s simply caught in the label game.

  8. Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven says

    Chris Mooney has a new book out called The Republican Brain.

    My first impulse was that this must be a two-page pamphlet of slurs and obscenities scrawled angrily in crayon. And then I noticed….

    Chris Mooney

    It’s going to be all about how much NICER the Republicans are and how Reasonable People need to stop being so loud and aggressive in confronting them, isn’t it?

  9. says

    Raging Bee wrote:

    A flamboyant LaRouchie or Moonie can make exactly the same claim, and in fact many creationists and AGW denialists have made the claim: lookit me, I’m thinking outside the box and being a brave category-defying maverick, unlike those stodgy predictable stick-in-the-muds who can’t stop being moored in reality! That’s huge part of the problem with American political discourse: people who hog attention by spouting batshit-stupid ideas and pretending they’re “mavericks” or “game changers.” That’s how we got Sarah Palin, the libertarians, Tea Party and other obvious Republican sock-puppets, and the automatic dismissal of common-sense liberalism as “boring” and “predictable” by media stooges with the attention-span of airheaded tweeners.

    This has nothing to do with what I said. I didn’t say anything about people taking crazy positions; I said I appreciate those who take positions that go against the grain of their ideological allies. They aren’t the same thing.

  10. says

    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.

    Yes, there is. If there weren’t, it would be awfully hard to explain why these views cluster in mostly the same way in countries that don’t have our electoral system. There may be individual views that have been adopted by one camp or the other for reasons of historical contingency, or simply as a backlash against the other, but generally speaking there is a strong consistency of right-wing and left-wing views that transcend national boundaries, political systems, and even historical ages. Seriously, you can find the same shit going back to ancient Greece.

    It mostly comes down to whether you identify with those who have power or with those who don’t. Right-wingers tend to favor the status quo, hierarchy, traditional gender and sexual roles, plutocracy, religious authority, etc. all for pretty much the same reason: these things are in the interests of the established elite and of the privileged ethnic/religious/cultural groups, and they keep the masses from getting too uppity. Left-wingers take opposite stances for the opposite reasons. If you understand abortion and birth control through the lens of female empowerment, for example, it’s no wonder that the same people who want to restrict these things also want lower taxes on the rich.

  11. says

    This has nothing to do with what I said. I didn’t say anything about people taking crazy positions; I said I appreciate those who take positions that go against the grain of their ideological allies. They aren’t the same thing.

    I didn’t say they were the same thing; I said that some people confuse or conflate the two things, as cover for ideas that would otherwise get laughed off the stage in grownup political debate. And people like us run the risk of enabling such con-games when we place too much value on “going against the grain.” (For example, you cite Nat Hentoff; but has he offered anything good that the rest of us liberals missed? Your expressed disagreement with his “out of box” views kind of implies you don’t think so.)

  12. says

    It mostly comes down to whether you identify with those who have power or with those who don’t…

    That’s one important aspect of the “clustering of views” you mention. Another important aspect is whether you favor, or oppose, concerted efforts to change your society to achieve some significant improvement. Most of the hottest policy debates (in the US at least) have centered around whether we should make sacrifices and change our way of doing things to achieve some common good, or do nothing that people wouldn’t choose to do on their own.

  13. eric says

    Area Man @10:

    it would be awfully hard to explain why these views cluster in mostly the same way in countries that don’t have our electoral system.

    But they don’t. See @6 for several examples; there are many more. A lot of the positions currently taken by the US Democratic and Republican parties are more historically contingent than they are ideologically self-consistent.

    Here’s another example: Democrat president Woodrow Wilson initially opposed women’s suffrage and the 19th amendment. So did the Democrats who led the Senate during his Presidency. It was Republican support that pushed it through, with 82% of Republicans voting for it but only 46% of Democrats voting for it.

    The contrast between that and today’s parties’ attitudes towards women’s rights is stark. But again, this is just one example, there are likely many more.

    Any claim that the jumble of positions our parties have now is either ideologically or historically consistent is just revisionism. They haven’t at all.

  14. says

    That’s one important aspect of the “clustering of views” you mention. Another important aspect is whether you favor, or oppose, concerted efforts to change your society to achieve some significant improvement.

    I regard these mostly as different aspects of the same thing. If you’re among the powerful and privileged (or at least, bought off by them), what’s left to improve? Sure, there are ways of improving things for everyone, or of raising the status of the nation above others (war!), but for the most part change of any kind entails risk to your privileged station. Social status is a zero sum game, and in any case where someone else gets lifted up, you may be brought down.

  15. says

    “But they don’t. See @6 for several examples; there are many more.”

    I afraid those examples aren’t convincing. The Democrats and Republicans have switched ideologies over time, and they were once basically regional factions with regional interests. (And before that, it was effectively a one-party country.) As the regionalism went away, they’ve become divided along predictable ideological lines.

    As for European politics, it’s no secret that the Overton Window is well to the left in Europe than it is here. So I’m not surprised that the Torries would tout their good deeds to the poor. What would be surprising is if they were consistently more in favor of helping the poor than are Labour. A similar phenomenon exists with environmentalism. Nearly all center-right European parties want to tackle carbon emissions, which makes them look like liberals to us. But they’re less aggressive about it than their center-left European counterparts, so the same pattern holds.

    I’m not saying that there are no counterexamples at all, but the left/right divide, in which both social and economic issues are correlated, is most certainly not unique to the United States. As best as I can tell, the dominant parties in pretty much all democracies are divided in mostly the same way, and while the individual issues have changed, left and right have managed to stay (mostly) consistent.

  16. Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven says

    …in other words, it basically comes down to “would you rather help people, or hurt them?”

  17. inflection says

    Area Man @10, Raging Bee @12: Well, I’d like to stand up as a counterexample to your argument. Most of my political positions flow from the moral decision that “life is good, death is bad.” That means I’m anti-death penalty, pro-gun control, anti-war, environmentalist… oh yeah, and pro-life, albeit in a different form than the group that usually has that label applied. (I actually take note of maternal mortality rates and desire widely available contraception, for instance.) As for sympathizing with the powerless, a zygote is pretty powerless to speak for itself; I was one once, and I’m glad nothing happened to me.

    So anyway, it all seems to hang together pretty well to me. I’m really, really not going to fire back in this comment thread on the substance of the positions, which I’m sure people will attack, because that’s not the point I’m arguing here. My point is that, as Ed points out, it’s quite possible to have reasonably consistent political views that don’t neatly mesh with the major U.S. platforms.

  18. Sastra says

    It’s interesting to speculate over whether Chris Mooney’s apparent belief that the Republican/conservative brain is different than the Democrat/liberal brain has any connection with his recommendation for the accomodationist approach on science and religion.

    If religious conservatives are mentally incapable of changing their minds on religion, then a scientific argument against religion — such as an argument for atheism from evolution — will go so completely over their heads it may as well not be made at all. They’ll just end up rejecting science because their brains work that way. Outspoken atheists don’t understand what they’re dealing with: they think there is common ground where there is not.

    Of course, I haven’t read the book and am quite possibly mischaracterizing Mooney’s thesis and have thus gone off the tracks here. But many gnu atheists have noted the curious argument coming from some other atheists: don’t bother trying to reach the religious and change their minds — they can’t handle what we can handle. We must allow for their intractable differences. This assertion can masquerade as compassion, respect, or understanding of the Other Side — but I think Dawkins has rightly condemned it as ‘condescending.’

  19. Aliasalpha says

    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

    Sounds like thats the entire problem, people adopt the colours and blindly vote that way because the candidate wears the right colours.

    Maybe what needs to happen is a fundamental change in voting, a system whereby the voter is asked their stance on a list of issues, they tick the option they agree with most (more education funding, less military funding etc), each time the voter agrees with the position of a specific candidate, that candidate gets a point for that one issue. Because of the nature of the new system, every candidate has the possibility of getting points from one voter as long as there’s equal or greater number of issues to vote on than there are candidates, the candidate with the most points across all issues at the end wins. That would eliminate mindless ticking of the correctly coloured party box and whilst people could still slavishly vote conservative ‘because thats what dad always voted’, they’d at least have to think about the issues to figure out what their party’s position is.

    Hypothetically it might even force politicians to at least pretend to talk about issues rather than blather on with generic party approved talking points assuming the drones will hear the trigger words & tick the correct box…

  20. says

    Most of my political positions flow from the moral decision that “life is good, death is bad.” That means I’m anti-death penalty, pro-gun control, anti-war, environmentalist… oh yeah, and pro-life, albeit in a different form than the group that usually has that label applied. (I actually take note of maternal mortality rates and desire widely available contraception, for instance.)

    PINKO.

  21. eric says

    Area Man:

    So I’m not surprised that the Torries would tout their good deeds to the poor. What would be surprising is if they were consistently more in favor of helping the poor than are Labour…

    If you’re claiming that some relative dichotomy always exists, isn’t that tautological? Sure, I will agree that for any issue, a two-party system will always have one party more right on an issue than the other.

    What I thought you were saying was that the party that favors (for example) maintaining the status quo will do so consistently. This is clearly not the case. The U.S. Republican party has been out in front in demanding reform on some pretty major social issues, at the same time they strongly resisted economic reform (1860s-1930s). How can you claim that early 1900s GOP demands for suffragism reform was consistent support for traditional gender roles? It was the opposite!

    In the modern era, the GOP demands reform in some economic areas (i.e. deregulation), but resists reform in others (health care). In the social arena, they are heavily resisting reform when it comes to gay marriage but strongly support reform in our immigration enforcement and policies (i.e. making them more punitive). The Democrats, being in opposition to most of these positions, are equally ‘all over the map.’

    You can’t even claim that the GOP has always/consistently been pro-wealthy, because their early opposition to slavery and support for suffragism were clearly not pro-wealthy stances. Eisenhower famously opposed the post-WWII formation of the military-industrial complex – another anti-business, anti-wealthy stance. He even coined the term. Nixon created the EPA. How do you square the fact that the GOP invented* the federal government’s role in environmental regulation, with your claim that the GOP has been strongly consistent in supporting a plutocracy?

    *Well, before Nixon, Teddy Roosevelt supported the development of national parks and protected undeveloped spaces. We’d call this environmentalism now but its debatable whether it counts. In any event, Teddy was Republican too!

  22. jaranath says

    Sastra: I’ve heard Mooney use a similar argument to explain his atheist critics. I think he is vulnerable to that sort of thinking.

  23. says

    “If you’re claiming that some relative dichotomy always exists, isn’t that tautological?”

    No, it’s not tautological to say that the left-wing faction favors the poor more so than the right. It is an inherent distinction between the two. This distinction does not require that the right never, ever do anything for the poor (or at least pretend to), it only requires that they are less interested in it than the left.

    Show me evidence that the Torries care for the poor more so than Labour and you’ll have a point.

    What I thought you were saying was that the party that favors (for example) maintaining the status quo will do so consistently.

    Huh? Where did I say that? What I said is that the Right has a tendency to favor the status quo because most often it’s in the interest of the monied elite. Where it’s not in the interests of the elite, they don’t.

    How can you claim that early 1900s GOP demands for suffragism reform was consistent support for traditional gender roles? It was the opposite!

    As I took pains to point out, the two parties switched ideologies since then. The Republicans were the liberal party in the early 1900s. Although you are correct that they had a strong pro-industry stance, whereas the Democrats, who represented the South and Midwest, favored the interests of farmers. This was unstable, causing the Progressives to split off from the Republicans leading to a more natural left/right realignment.

    In the modern era, the GOP demands reform in some economic areas (i.e. deregulation), but resists reform in others (health care). In the social arena, they are heavily resisting reform when it comes to gay marriage but strongly support reform in our immigration enforcement and policies (i.e. making them more punitive).

    Do you not see how these stances are perfectly consistent? Let’s see, they’re against gays, immigrants, universal health care, and in favor of the business elite. This sound like a party that favors the powerful and privileged, and disfavors the deviant and the disadvantaged, does it not?

    In case I haven’t made myself clear, what is consistent about left and right is whose interests they favor, not meaningless generalities such as regulation or deregulation. The fact that Republicans are inconsistent with the latter is precisely the point; there is no “conservative principle” that favors deregulation, there is only the interests of the patrician class and how to advance them.

    Nixon created the EPA. How do you square the fact that the GOP invented* the federal government’s role in environmental regulation, with your claim that the GOP has been strongly consistent in supporting a plutocracy?

    Good grief, the GOP did not invent the federal government’s role in environmental regulation. Congressional Democrats did. The EPA was simply a means of following the law. If Nixon or the GOP were more pro-environment than the Democrats, you’d have a point, but weren’t then and definitely aren’t now.

    In any event, Teddy was Republican too!

    Yeah, and they declared him a class-traitor and he left the party.

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