Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Political Brain

The current issue of Reason magazine contains a very interesting excerpt from a book by Jonathan Haidt, called The Righteous Mind. In it Haidt, who is a psychologist by trade, deplores the increasing political polarization in the U.S. and discusses the genetically-based psychological dispositions which underlie people's political inclinations. It's fascinating reading.

Haidt certainly does not believe in determinism when it comes to political views; he emphasizes that genes produce only a "first draft" of the brain which is modified by experience throughout the developmental process. But he doesn't believe in a blank slate, either. He cites a study of DNA in 13,000 subjects that found genes governing neurotransmitters that differed in people who described themselves as liberals and conservatives. The conservatives were more reactive to threats; the liberals derived more pleasure from novelty and change. Stereotypes leap immediately to mind.

But genes aren't the whole story; the next step is Haidt's particular area of interest. He focuses on the narratives people construct to give their lives meaning, the "simplified and selective reconstructions of the past, often connected to an idealized vision of the future" which, imbued with moral values, help people to make sense of a chaotic world. Haidt has identified various dichotomies of values (e.g. fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal) around which our narratives tend to coalesce and shown how they underlie people's political views, with differing political stances prioritizing these concerns differently.

In exploring how people of differing ideologies might find common ground, Haidt found some interesting things. There is an asymmetry in "obstacles to empathy", with liberals finding it harder to understand the conservative position than vice-versa. Haidt found that while conservatives might rank some values lower than liberals, they at least recognize all the values liberals espouse. On the other hand, liberals find some conservative values (sanctity, for example) impossible to swallow. They find it hard to imagine that conservative positions could be based on thoughtfully held values.

This may account for the peculiar vituperation of some liberal rhetoric (as when Village Voice columnist Michael Feingold wrote that Republicans "should be exterminated before they cause any more harm"). Liberals feel entitled to voice things which would appall them if said by a conservative because they do not recognize conservatism as a legitimate belief system. Conservatives, meanwhile, are only further alienated by the self-congratulation of liberal opinion, causing some of them to retreat further into anti-intellectualism and their own vituperation.

None of which, of course, is any guide to who's right. Haidt's concern is not to take a position but rather to illuminate why we believe what we believe and to establish some common ground for the solution of our problems.

As somebody who has done some veering and tacking across the political spectrum in his day, I found all this very interesting. I like to describe myself as a moderate libertarian (though I think I'm going to start telling people I'm a Whig), but the first distinct political views I remember formulating were considerably farther to the left. A lot of conservative values appeal to me: the emphasis on personal responsibility, a hard-nosed understanding of the value of deterrence and a mistrust of the overweening state, to name some. On the other hand, tolerance and openness to new experience and different people are pretty high on my scale of values, and while I acknowledge the conservative insight that traditions are usually there for an evolutionarily sound reason, I balance that with the liberal insight that if we never question tradition we never get progress.

In short, I recognize that things are complicated. What part my genes play in all this is speculation: my parents were devout and culturally conservative but voted Democratic, largely out of a concern for civil rights; I have two brothers who are arch-conservatives and another one who is more or less like me. Go figure.

The intractable diversity of political opinion is an annoying feature of life. We know we're right; why can't everybody else agree? They never will, for the reasons Haidt adduces. But they don't have to in order for progress to occur. In response to any given problem, the only pertinent question is, "What is the proper policy?" And if the machinery of democracy is carefully maintained, an acceptable policy can emerge from the interaction of parties with divergent or conflicting views. It's a messy process and it doesn't always produce the best policy, but it avoids civil strife.

That's something we all ought to be able to agree on in our diversity. All of us, left, right and middle, have a stake in keeping the political process honest and functioning. Democracy is messy and freedom of speech pollutes the airwaves, but they are our best guarantees against tanks in the streets.

Sam Reaves

Monday, March 12, 2012

This Means War

War is in the air. Liberals are rushing down to the recruiting office to join up as the Republican divisions mobilize for the War on Women. Meanwhile, conservatives are manning the watchtowers and calling up the militia for the coming Class War. Corporate America’s brutal War on Children has driven the little tykes into their bunkers. And the bishops and the TV evangelists are strapping on their helmets as Obama calls the generals to the sandbagged White House to plot the War on Religion.

The lamps are going out...

Fortunately, none of these is a real war. They’re just more of a type of fevered, unhinged attempt to hijack your sympathies that seems to be increasingly fashionable. And you can thank whatever you believe in for that, because real wars don’t get won on the cable news channels. If the War on Reason were a real war we’d be camping out among smoking ruins, because we lost.

The word war applied to anything other than a real war is hysteria, nothing else. It’s an irresponsible attempt to short-circuit rational debate and mobilize emotion. And that’s not how intelligent public policy gets made. The first effect of war is to dehumanize the enemy, and if you don’t consider somebody to be human, you’re going to have a hard time sitting down with him to cut a deal on complex issues which involve tensions between competing legitimate interests.

Anger is a great performance enhancer in a real fight, but it’s a really lousy quality to bring to the table when you have to sort out fact from fiction, weigh competing interests, evaluate precedents, estimate consequences and negotiate compromises. Bringing anger to a discussion of social or economic policy is like driving drunk.

It’s too bad we can’t license the term. Properly administered, the system would charge you to to label something a War, unless you’ve been in a real shooting war. If you lost your legs to an IED or saw your family incinerated by a napalm strike, we’ll let you use the word, because you’ll probably be reluctant to toss it around. Otherwise, you have to pay. The fees go into a fund to promote education in responsible rhetoric.

It’s time for a moratorium on the use of the word war applied to political or social trends you don’t like. When a real war comes, you’ll know it, and you’ll wish more people had kept their heads and tempered their rhetoric when discussing public policy issues.

Sam Reaves

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Such a Rush

Now that Rush Limbaugh has apologized, let’s pay him the undeserved compliment of taking his position on the issue seriously. But first we have to determine what the issue is. From the howls of outrage on both sides you’d think it had something to do with sex. A young lady spoke up in favor of mandatory insurance coverage of contraception; with his usual subtle and nuanced approach Rush called the young lady a slut, making her behavior the issue and squirting lighter fluid on the already smoldering controversy about a Republican War on Women. Hotheads of all camps rushed to the barricades, and to most people it appears that the United States is convulsed in an argument over whether women should be having sex outside of marriage.

The real issue, of course, is mandatory insurance coverage and the creation of entitlements. And as far as I can make it out, Rush’s position is that the government ought not to prescribe what kinds of arrangements companies and individuals can or cannot make with insurance companies. That’s an arguable if controversial position, and it would advance the state of the discussion and increase the chances of a reasonable legislative solution to our health care problems if that’s what people were talking about.

But Rush couldn’t help himself. He had to start with the innuendo and the name calling, and now the debate is thoroughly sexualized. Rush is not the only one to blame, of course; the talk about a War on Women had started before he vented his toxic little rant. Liberals have been known to obscure issues through inflammatory rhetoric, too.

But Rush’s tantrum is an example of why people like me who think that conservatives are right about some important things are so dismayed by the current crop of Republican presidential candidates. With Rick Santorum at their head, social conservatives hold the whip hand in the race for the Republican nomination. And that’s not very promising for the Republican party, because the country’s not going to elect a man who frowns on contraception and doesn’t think that women should be having sex outside of marriage. It just isn’t. American men and women both like the idea of women having sex, in or out of marriage. You can deplore that, but you have to acknowledge it.

Bill Clinton saw that the country was more conservative than the Democratic party, and he moved the Democrats to the right and got elected. Even Barack Obama saw that, and he ran significantly to the right of his instincts and got elected. The Republicans have a similar problem: if they fail to see that the country is not as socially conservative as Rick Santorum, they’re going to lose. Maybe that’s what you’re rooting for. Me, I’m still holding out hope that one of our major parties will genuinely promote the things I think conservatives are right about, like fiscal restraint, tax and regulatory reform and a market-oriented approach to economic problems. And I have a feeling it’s not going to be the Democrats.

Republicans pay lip service to those conservative values but too often betray them. And if on top of that they are going to demonize people for having active sex lives fifty years after the sexual revolution, then I’ll be casting a hopeless vote for the Libertarians again and the Republicans will be sitting tight-lipped in the cold at the second Obama inauguration.

Sam Reaves