TWO DIMENSIONS OF POLITICAL THOUGHT
The political views of left and right* should be understood as ideological and psychological phenomena. Left and right aren’t distinguished just by what people think, but more deeply by why people think as they do. Some people just see the world differently than others. And that fundamental difference is reinforced and magnified by identifying with a particular political camp, imbibing the views that issue from it, and seeking out evidence for those views to the exclusion of contrary evidence (confirmation bias).
Why is the key to the irreconcilability of hard leftism and staunch conservatism. What matters, but it is a less definitive discriminator between left and right because what people think is more malleable.
WHAT IS A MOVEABLE FEAST
What people think is influenced heavily by family, friends, neighbors, church, club, co-workers, professional colleagues, and so on. The urge to belong and the need for approval have a lot to do with what one says to others. The need for cognitive consonance pushes people in the direction of “believing” what they say. Thus it is easy to say what meets with the approval of one’s key social groups, to move one’s opinions as the opinions of the groups move, to believe that those opinions are correct, to seize on supporting “evidence” (anecdotes, slanted news, etc.), and to reject information that doesn’t support one’s opinions.
An introvert is more likely to seek facts — or what he takes to be facts — than to be swayed by groupthink in forming his views. By the same token, it is probably easier for an introvert to change his views than it is for an extravert to do so. In any event, a person who is open to new ideas, and whose social milieu changes in character, may find that his views evolve with time. He may also be struck by an insight (“mugged by reality”) to the same effect.
There is also the kind of person who is temperamentally unsuited to the political views that he holds as a matter of social conditioning. That kind of person, unlike the person whose views are matched to his temperament, will be more open to alternative ideas and to insights that may reshape his views.
Overlaid on social influences are signals emitted by authoritative sources. For many persons, the morality of a particular behavior (e.g., divorce, abortion, same-sex “marriage”) depends on how that behavior is depicted in news and entertainment media, or is treated as a matter of law.
Though a person who is temperamentally predisposed to conservatism, or leftism, is unlikely to switch sides for any of the reasons discussed thus far, there is what I call the “squishy center” of the electorate that swings many an election — and thus government policy.
For example, every week since the first inauguration of Barack Obama, Rasmussen Reports** has asked 2,500 likely voters whether they see the country as going in the “right direction” or being on the “wrong track”. During Obama’s tenure, the percentage of respondents saying “right direction” ranged from 13 to 43; the percentages for “wrong track” ranged from 51 to 80. If voters were consistent, a majority would have said “right direction” and a minority would have said “wrong track” since the inauguration of Donald Trump. But “right direction” has garnered only 29 to 47 percent thus far in Trump’s presidency, while “wrong track” is still almost always in the majority, at 47 to 65 percent.
Here’s my interpretation: Hard leftists said “right direction” when Obama was in the White House; staunch conservatives have been saying “right direction” since Trump moved into the White House; and the “squishy center” has all the while been swinging from one side to the other, depending on passing events.
Scraping away the squishy center, I estimate that about one-third of the electorate is hard left and about one-third is staunchly conservative; thus:
I don’t mean to minimize the importance of what people think. Bandwagon effects are powerful politically. I am convinced, for example, that Justice Kennedy’s 5-4 majority opinion in favor of same-sex “marriage” (Obergefell v. Hodges) signaled to the squishy center that being on the “right side of history” means siding with the libertines of the left against long-standing social norms.
Obergefell v. Hodges certainly emboldened the hard left. As I put it on the day of Justice Kennedy’s fateful ruling,
for every person who insists on exercising his rights, there will be at least as many (and probably more) who will be cowed, shamed, and forced by the state into silence and compliance with the new dispensation. And the more who are cowed, shamed, and forced into silence and compliance, the fewer who will assert their rights. Thus will the vestiges of liberty vanish.
Just look at the increasingly anti-male, anti-white, anti-conservative, anti-free-speech behavior on the part of Facebook Google, the other left-dominated social media, and much of academia. It has gone from threatening to frightening in the past three years.
GETTING TO WHY: A PRELIMINARY EXPLANATION
There is something deeper than social conformity at work among the hard left and staunch right. That something rules out reconciliation.
My earlier attempt at pinpointing the essential difference between left and right is here. I say, in part, that
Anxious persons are eager to sacrifice better but less certain outcomes — the fruits of liberty — for “safe” ones. Anxious persons project their anxieties onto others, and put their trust in exploitative politicians who play on their anxieties even if they don’t share them. This combination of anxieties and power-lust yields “social safety net” programs and regulations aimed at reducing risks and deterring risk-taking.. At the same time, American “liberals” — being spoiled children of capitalism — have acquired a paradoxical aversion to the very things that would ensure their security: swift and sure domestic justice, potent and demonstrably ready armed forces.
Conservatives tend toward conscientiousness more than liberals do; that is, they “display self-discipline, act dutifully, and strive for achievement against measures or outside expectations.” (This paper summarizes previous research and arrives at the same conclusion about the positive correlation between conscientiousness and conservatism.) In other words, conservatives (by which I don’t mean yahoos) gather relevant facts, think things through, assess the risks involved in various courses of action, and choose to take risks (or not) accordingly. When conservatives choose to take risks, they do so after providing for the possibility of failure (e.g., through insurance and cash reserves). Confident, self-reliant conservatives are hindered by governmental intrusions imposed at the behest of anxious “liberals.” All that conservatives need from government is protection from domestic and foreign predators. What they get from government is too little protection and too much interference.
A DEEPER LOOK AT WHY
My hypothesis is consistent with that of Stephen Messenger (who blogs at The Independent Whig). Messenger’s hypothesis, which builds on the work of Jonathan Haidt, is spelled out in a recent article at Quillette, “Towards a Cognitive Theory of Politics“. Here’s some of it:
In brief, my theory holds that the political Left and Right are best understood as psychological profiles featuring different combinations of ‘moral foundations’ … and cognitive style…. To define ideologies in terms of beliefs, values, etc., is to confuse cause and effect.
Moral foundations are evolved psychological mechanisms of social perception, subconscious intuitive cognition, and conscious reasoning described by Haidt in The Righteous Mind….
Haidt allows that there are probably many moral foundations, but he has focused his efforts on identifying the most powerful. He’s identified six so far, summarized as follows in The Righteous Mind on pages 178-179 unless otherwise noted:
- Care/Harm (sensitivity to signs of suffering and need)
- Fairness/Cheating (sensitivity to indications that another person is likely to be a good or bad partner for collaboration and reciprocal altruism)
- Liberty/Oppression (sensitivity to, and resentment of, attempted domination)
- Loyalty/Betrayal (sensitivity to signs that another person is (or is not) a team player)
- Authority/Subversion (sensitivity to signs of rank or status, and to signs that other people are (or are not) behaving properly given their position)
- Sanctity/Degradation (sensitivity to pathogens, parasites, and other threats that spread by physical tough or proximity)….
He calls the first three foundations the “individualizing” foundations because their main emphasis is on the autonomy and well-being of the individual. The latter three are “binding” foundations because they help individuals form cooperative groups for the mutual benefit of all members….
Cognitive styles … are ways of thinking; operating systems, if you will, like Windows and iOS, that process information received from the social environment. There are two predominant cognitive styles, traced through 2,400 years of human history by Arthur Herman in his book The Cave and the Light: Plato and Aristotle and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization, in which Plato and Aristotle serve as metaphors for each, summarized in the following two short passages:
Despite their differences, Plato and Aristotle agreed on many things. They both stressed the importance of reason as our guide for understanding and shaping the world. Both believed that our physical world is shaped by certain eternal forms that are more real than matter. The difference was that Plato’s forms existed outside matter, whereas Aristotle’s forms were unrealizable without it. (p. 61)
The twentieth century’s greatest ideological conflicts do mark the violent unfolding of a Platonist versus Aristotelian view of what it means to be free and how reason and knowledge ultimately fit into our lives (p.539-540)
Plato thought that everything in the real world is but a pale imitation of its ideal self, and it is the role of the enlightened among us to help us see the ideal and to help steer society toward it. This is the style of thinking behind RFK’s “I dream things that never were and ask ‘Why not?’” John Lennon’s “Imagine,” President Obama’s “Fundamentally Transform,” and even Woodrow Wilson’s progressivism.
Aristotle agreed that we should always strive to improve the human condition, but argued that the real world in which we live sets practical limits on what’s achievable. The human mind is not infinitely capable, nor is human nature infinitely malleable. If we’re not mindful of such limitations, or if we try to ‘fix’ them, our good intentions can end up doing more harm than good and lead us down the proverbial road to hell.
These two cognitive styles can be thought of, respectively, as WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) and holistic. In The Righteous Mind, Haidt describes the peculiarities of WEIRD individuals, as follows:
WEIRD people think more analytically (detaching the focal object from its context, assigning it to a category, and then assuming that what’s true about the category is true about the object). (p. 113)
[WEIRD thinkers tend to] see a world full of separate objects rather than relationships. (p. 113)
Putting this all together, it makes sense that WEIRD philosophers since Kant and Mill have mostly generated moral systems that are individualistic, rule-based, and universalist. (p. 113-114)
Worldwide, this kind of thinking is a statistical outlier because most people and cultures think holistically.3 Holistic thinkers tend to see a world full of relationships rather than objects, and they have a stronger tendency toward consilience. As Haidt explains:
When holistic thinkers in a non-WEIRD culture write about morality, we get something more like the Analects of Confucius, a collection of aphorisms and anecdotes that can’t be reduced to a single rule. (p. 114)
WEIRD Platonic rationalism and holistic Aristotelian empiricism can be thought of as the two ends of a spectrum of cognitive styles. Few people are at the extremes; most are somewhere in between.
The psychological profiles of Left and Right differ in the degree to which they tend to favor the cognitive styles and the moral foundations. A series of studies of cognitive styles has found that “liberals think more analytically (more WEIRD) than conservatives”:
[L]iberals think more analytically (an element of WEIRD thought) than moderates and conservatives. Study 3 replicates this finding in the very different political culture of China, although it held only for people in more modernized urban centers. These results suggest that liberals and conservatives in the same country think as if they were from different cultures.4
Haidt’s studies of moral foundations show that liberals tend to employ the individualizing foundations and, of those, mostly the care/harm foundation, whereas conservatives tend to use of all of them equally. There’s no conservative foundation that’s not also a liberal foundation but, for all practical purposes, half of the conservative foundations are unavailable to liberal social cognition. The graphic below comes from Haidt’s TED Talk [link added], and it shows that this pattern holds true in every culture studied on every continent, suggesting it is a human universal.
In sum, the liberal psychological profile tends toward the Platonic cognitive style combined with the three-foundation moral matrix. The conservative profile leans toward the Aristotelian cognitive style with the all-foundation moral matrix. The libertarian profile seems to be made up of the Aristotelian style combined with a moral matrix that emphasizes liberty/oppression more than the other foundations. [Ed. note: So-called libertarians are like realists who view the world through a pinhole instead of a picture window.]
As I have argued before, concepts like liberty, equality, justice, and fairness take on different—even mutually exclusive—meanings depending on which psychological profile is interpreting them. The Left’s bias toward outcome-based conceptions of ‘positive’ liberty seems to follow naturally from its profile of Platonic rationalism focused on the moral foundation of care. The Right’s tendency to favor process-based conceptions of ‘negative’ liberty follows from its profile of Aristotelian empiricism in combination with all of the moral foundations.
It’s almost as if Left and Right are speaking different languages, in which each uses the same words but attaches starkly different meanings to them. Both sides agree that liberty is a great thing, but because neither side realizes that their understanding of it is different from that of the other they talk past one another, or worse, assume their opponent is stupid, ignorant, or wicked due to the failure to grasp concepts that in their own minds are self-evident.
The American economist and social theorist Thomas Sowell describes the way these two profiles have played out in the real world since the late 1700s in his book A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles. Liberal psychology is reflected by thinkers like Godwin, Condorcet, Mill, Laski, Voltaire, Paine, Holbach, Saint-Simon, Robert Owen, and G.B. Shaw. The conservative profile is seen in the likes of Smith, Burke, Hamilton, Malthus, Hayek, and Hobbes.
A Cognitive Theory of Politics can help us to improve our understanding historical events. For example, Sowell observes that the liberal ‘vision,’ or psychological profile, can be seen as the engine of the French Revolution. Jonathan Haidt made the same observation in a lecture he gave at the Stanford University Center for Compassion and Altruism Research (CCARE) entitled “When Compassion Leads to Sacrilege.” In contrast, Sowell argues that the American founding was a fundamentally conservative movement. A reading of The Federalist Papers through the lens of the Cognitive Theory of Politics bears him out, and Burke—who supported the American Revolution but opposed the French Revolution—would probably agree….
… The political polarization of America described by Charles Murray in his book Coming Apart is best understood as a self-sorting of the population based primarily on cognitive styles.
SYNTHESIS AND CONCLUSION
Putting it all together, leftists are attached mainly to the moral foundation of harm/care because of their nueroticism. But they pursue security for themselves and those to whom they are neurotically attached — various “victim” groups — by seizing upon idealized solutions. The apotheosis of those idealized solutions is big government, which has the magical power — in the left’s idealization of it — to right all wrongs without a misstep. (Defense is excluded from the magical thinking of the left because the need to defend the nation implies that America is worth defending, but it isn’t — to the leftist — because it falls so far short of his idea of perfection. Defense is also exempted because it draws resources from the things that would make America more perfect in the fascistic mind: socialized medicine, a guaranteed income, free day-care, free college for all, and on and on.)
Staunch conservatives, on the other hand, know that government is flawed because its leaders and minions are fallible human beings. Further, it is impossible for government to possess all of the information required to make better decisions than people can make for themselves through mutually beneficial cooperation. That cooperation occurs in the myriad institutions of civil society, which include but are far from limited to markets for the exchange of products and services. Staunch conservatives — who can also be called right-minarchists or libertarian conservatives — therefore decry the expansion of government power beyond that which is required to protect civil society from domestic and foreign predators.
Messenger, despite those fundamental differences, is hopeful about a reconciliation between left and right:
A Cognitive Theory of Politics offers a new lens through which we can better understand human history and more clearly see ourselves and each other. Using this tool, we can better understand how we got to where we are, what’s happening to us now, and the available paths forward. A more accurate, science-based, universal understanding of the ‘Social Animal’ (humans) by the social animal might break the language barrier between Left and Right and provide a common foundation of knowledge from which productive debate can ensue.
I disagree. Hard leftists and staunch conservatives are “wired” differently, as Haidt has shown, and as Messenger has acknowledged.
The staunch conservative sees civil society as a whole, understands that it is unitary, knows that it is self-correcting because people learn from experience, and accepts its outcomes as the best that can be attained in a real world of real people.
The leftist can’t see the forest for the trees. He sees particular outcomes that displease him, and is willing to use the power of government to rearrange civil society in an effort to “remedy” those outcomes. He doesn’t understand, or care, that the results will be worse: a weaker economy, fewer jobs for those most in need of them, more racial tension, more broken families, and so on, up to and including an irremediably polarized nation.
Moreover, because leftists are at bottom self-centered, they cannot tolerate dissent. Dissent from a leftist regime is ultimately dealt with by suppression and violence. What we see now on campuses and in social media is merely a foretaste of what will happen if the left succeeds in its aim of seizing firm control of America. All else will follow from that.
This leads to an obvious conclusion: Left and right — the hard left and staunch conservatism, in particular — are irreconcilable. They are in fact locked in a death-struggle over the future of America. The squishy center is along for the ride, and will change its tune (what it says) and allegiance opportunistically, in the hope that it will end up on the “right side of history”.
* Given the actual stances of those who are usually identified as “left” and “right”, there is absurdity in a conventional characterization of the left-right political spectrum like this:
Generally, the left-wing is characterized by an emphasis on “ideas such as freedom, equality, fraternity, rights, progress, reform and internationalism”, while the right-wing is characterized by an emphasis on “notions such as authority, hierarchy, order, duty, tradition, reaction and nationalism”.
The truth of the matter is almost 180 degrees from the caricature presented above. But Wikipedia is the source, so what do you expect?
I have explained many times (e.g., here) that the left is fascistic, while the right — excluding its yahoo component and some of its so-called libertarian component — is liberty-loving. (Liberty is properly defined as an attainable modus vivendi rather than an imaginary nirvana). So the real question of the title should be: Can American fascism and (true) anti-fascism be reconciled?
But I have refrained from using the “f” word, despite its lexical accuracy, and stuck with “left” and “right” despite the erroneous association of conservatism (i.e., the right) with authoritarianism (i.e., fascism). Just remember that “right” is often used to mean “correct”, and if anything is correct when it comes to striving for liberty, it is conservatism.
** I cite Rasmussen Reports because of its good track record — here and here, for example. Its polls are usually more favorable toward Republicans. Though the polls are generally accurate, they are out of step with the majority of polls, which are biased toward Democrats. This has caused Rasmussen Reports to be labeled “Republican-leaning”, as the other polls weren’t “Democrat-leaning”. There is a parallel with the labeling of Fox News as a “conservative” outlet (though it isn’t always), while the other major TV news outlets laughably claim to be neutral.
Libertarian-Conservatives Are from the Earth, Liberals Are from the Moon
More about the Worrying Classes
Refuting Rousseau and His Progeny
“Intellectuals and Society”: A Review
The Left’s Agenda
The Left and Its Delusions
Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism
Society and the State
Liberty and Society
Tolerance on the Left
The Eclipse of “Old America”
Genetic Kinship and Society
“We the People” and Big Government
The Culture War
Getting Liberty Wrong
The Barbarians Within and the State of the Union
The Beginning of the End of Liberty in America
There’s More to It Than Religious Liberty
Equal Protection in Principle and Practice
Social Justice vs. Liberty
Economically Liberal, Socially Conservative
The Left and “the People”
Why Conservatives Shouldn’t Compromise
The Harm Principle Revisited: Mill Conflates Society and State
Liberty and Social Norms Re-examined
Academic Freedom, Freedom of Speech, and the Demise of Civility
Leftism As Crypto-Fascism: The Google Paradigm
What Is Going On? A Stealth Revolution
Disposition and Ideology
How’s Your (Implicit) Attitude?
Down the Memory Hole
“Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?”
“Tribalists”, “Haters”, and Psychological Projection
Mass Murder: Reaping What Was Sown
Andrew Sullivan Almost Gets It
Utopianism, Leftism, and Dictatorship
“Democracy” Thrives in Darkness — and Liberty Withers
Preemptive (Cold) Civil War
My View of Mill, Endorsed
The Framers, Mob Rule, and a Fatal Error
Abortion, the “Me” Generation, and the Left
Abortion Q and A
Negative Rights, Etc.
Social Norms, the Left, and Social Disintegration
The Lesson of Alfie Evans
Order vs. Authority