Us and Them

Psychologists and others have been trying to figure out why people have opposing political views. Why are some of us stalwart liberals or progressives, and why are some of us “conservatives” or right-wing nincompoops?

Personally, I leaned right when I was a teenager, moved left in college and have maintained that position through thick and thin. The people who study this question aren’t interested in individual stories, however. They’re trying to explain why these different political perspectives exist at all and why they have such staying power.

The Washington Monthly has a long review by Chris Mooney of two books on the subject. These are the two key differences Mooney cites:

— Liberals tend to score higher on openness (the willingness to explore, try new things and meet new people), while conservatives score higher on conscientiousness (the desire for order and stability — and as I’ve read elsewhere, although the article doesn’t mention these characteristics — loyalty or a sense of duty).

— Conservatives pay more attention to negative stimuli than liberals. For example, when conservatives are shown images of alarming, threatening or disgusting things, they tend to look at the images more closely and have stronger physical reactions.

There is evidence of a partial genetic basis for these differences. Researchers suspect that:

What is ultimately being inherited is a set of core dispositions about how societies should resolve recurring problems: how to distribute resources (should we be individualistic or collectivist?); how to deal with outsiders and out-groups (are they threatening or enticing?); how to structure power relationships (should we be hierarchical or egalitarian?); and so on. These are, of course, problems that all human societies have had to grapple with…. Inheriting a core disposition on how to resolve them would naturally predispose one to a variety of specific issue stances in a given political context.

It’s possible, therefore, that the two-dimensional diagram posted here earlier this week that labels voters as populists, conservatives, libertarians or liberals based on their social and economic preferences may measure the underlying dispositions described above.

If it’s true that conservatives experience the world as more threatening than liberals do, there may be little point in trying to convince them otherwise, as Mooney points out. Their perception of the world is built-in to a great extent. Likewise, of course, if liberals perceive the world as less threatening, there is little point in trying to convince them it’s more dangerous than they think. Despite this apparent difficulty, Mooney ends his review with a call to action:

We run around shutting down governments and occupying city centers—behaviors that can only be driven by a combination of intense belief and equally intense emotion—with almost zero perspective on why we can be so passionate one way, even as our opponents are passionate in the other….Ideological diversity is clearly real, deeply rooted, and probably a core facet of human nature. Given this, we simply have no choice but to come up with a much better way to live with it.

I tend to be more skeptical. If these tendencies are actually so deeply-rooted, there’s probably little we can do to surmount them. In fact, the only option may be to keep pounding away at the facts, hoping to persuade people whose dispositions aren’t so deeply-rooted to move in our direction. And by our direction, I mean toward the perspective that is more open to new possibilities, less fearful of people who don’t belong to our tribe, and more egalitarian. 

Our other option is to wait for evolution to do more work, for despite the fact that there are benefits to having people in your group who are more fearful and others who are more adventurous, it seems likely to me that human progress has partly consisted in liberal tendencies edging out conservative ones. These two specimens, for example, appear to be remnants of an earlier stage in human development:



As I was saying:  

Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida addressed the Conservative Political Action Conference today:

The presidential contender urged that “young people” in the crowd “extrapolate what the world would look like in ten years if [the current international situation] continues forward.” … “If you inherit a world where the Chinese get to decide who gets to ship products to the South China Sea and all the countries in that region are tributaries,” and “North Korea can blow up California” with nukes, and “Iran can reach the East Coast of the United States, and can wipe Israel off the face of the earth,” and “Russia continues to hold its neighbors hostage” through both its military and its oil.

The only thing we have to fear is everything.

7 thoughts on “Us and Them

  1. Excellent essay, I enjoy your sense of humor. Also, I agree with you in your dismissing of Mooney’s idea, we should try harder to provide the experiences necessary for persona to have the correct beliefs — those being progressive beliefs of course!

    • Thanks. I wondered about including that picture of those two infamous world leaders with their apparent political differences. But I can see them both as primitive warlords leading their tribes into battle (although Bush would have inherited his position or given it by Cheney and Rumsfeld). Plus the expressions on their faces are classic.

  2. I started out left but over my lifetime have made a complete U-turn. What I find interesting is that I really haven’t changed all that much. It’s our leadership and our definitions of “left” and “right” that are all over the place.

    • That’s an interesting perspective. I don’t think I’d agree with you without some examples to ponder, but it’s true that those labels are sometimes hard to apply to particular individuals and policies. There’s also the idea that political ideologies don’t clearly fall on a left/right continuum. For example, as I’ve written about here, you might better classify people or ideologies as liberal, populist, conservative or libertarian. That seems like a more accurate way to break things down.

      Our two-party system is a blunt instrument in terms of expressing the whole population’s views. Maybe a four-party system would work better, with different groups forming alliances on different issues and no single group having the ability to make things happen or stop them from happening.

    • Having spent some time on your blog, I think one thing you might have in mind is that feminism has become authoritarian. I haven’t read much feminist writing, but I think most feminists want equal treatment, not to impose their views on everyone else. It seems to me it’s a basic problem of living in society. If I tell you to stop doing something, I’m infringing on your freedom. But how much freedom should you have if what you’re doing is hurting me or limiting my opportunities for no good reason, merely because you want to exercise your freedom?

      • “I think most feminists want equal treatment, not to impose their views on everyone else.”

        Having spent a great deal of time as a feminist, I would have to disagree. Women in general, want to be treated fairly, but feminism itself has become an entirely different ball of wax.

        • Not having spent much time in the world of feminist politics, I’m basing my opinion on the two women I know best who identify themselves as feminists. (They’re very nice people.) I’m pretty sure anyway that most feminists would take equal treatment (equal pay, consideration of problems women especially face) over universal agreement with their feminist ideals, although no doubt they’d appreciate agreement too. But like I said, I don’t have much exposure to feminism as a political movement or as a political ideology.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s