hard-wired political traits

Nicholas Kristof in today’s New York Times:

    If you want to tell whether someone is conservative or liberal, what are a couple of completely nonpolitical questions that will give a good clue?

    How’s this: Would you be willing to slap your father in the face, with his permission, as part of a comedy skit?

    And, second: Does it disgust you to touch the faucet in a public restroom?

    Studies suggest that conservatives are more often distressed by actions that seem disrespectful of authority, such as slapping Dad. Liberals don’t worry as long as Dad has given permission.

    Likewise, conservatives are more likely than liberals to sense contamination or perceive disgust. People who would be disgusted to find that they had accidentally sipped from an acquaintance’s drink are more likely to identify as conservatives.

    The upshot is that liberals and conservatives don’t just think differently, they also feel differently. This may even be a result, in part, of divergent neural responses.

These are depressing findings. We believe we are reasoning about Judge Sotomayor’s judicial opinions–or at least about the relevance of ethnicity and gender to a judicial appointment–when all that really matters is our visceral reaction to authority figures and sharing drinks. This research reminds me of the application of birth-order theory to politics. Supposedly, first-borns are conservative; younger siblings are more radical. That’s another example of a basically immutable trait that shouldn’t have any relevance to our political views, but that seems to affect them.

But such theories have two huge limitations. First, they do not explain historical change. Maybe the French revolutionaries of 1789 were more comfortable than their royalist opponents were with slapping their fathers in jest and sharing glasses. But there are always people with these traits. So we need an entirely different explanation for why the French Revolution happened in 1789 instead of 1750–or never. We also need a different kind of explanation for why the Revolution took the course that it did. Immutable traits won’t explain change, unless the distribution of those traits shifts, which would itself require an explanation.

Second, these theories don’t explain the content of our political views. Today, liberals tend to favor legal gay marriage, and conservatives tend to oppose it. Fifty years ago, liberals tended to favor racial intermarriage, the opponents of which tended to be conservatives. The psychology of this debate may have remained the same over the fifty years. That is, opponents of “miscegenation” in 1950 might have had the same attitudes toward sharing glasses of water that opponents of gay marriage do today. But it makes an enormous difference that interracial marriage is now a settled issue–as gay marriage will likely be in another 20 years.

I am open to the possibility that immutable and non-rational traits help determine who takes which side in political debates at any given time. But what the two sides believe and who wins the debate must be determined by other factors. We should hope that the strength of arguments is one of the factors that counts.

2 thoughts on “hard-wired political traits

  1. airth10

    It certainly was a different kind of article Kristof wrote.

    To answer the question you asked about change, Peter, perhaps you should go back to your ideas about “entropy and dialectic”.

    Obviously liberals have mostly taken the lead in change. Without liberals there probably be no change. But that has had its horrific consequences, like with the French and Russian Revolutions, where conservatives resisted social change.

    Anyway, change happens because the world and its occupants are constantly in flux. Liberals are better at adapting and relating to it. Conservatives eventually follow. Conservatives are the ones that consolidate and entrench the worthy changes liberals provoke. That’s why I believe conservatism is the handmaid of liberalism.

    Today science is a big source of change (a discipline conservatives have been uneasy with). And that’s good because it is a peaceful means of change. In the 20th century the world went through two world wars because it refused and resisted much needed sociopolitical change. But after those horrific events we discover that we could not longer endure such a means of change. Ironically, it was science that convinced us that war could no longer be an alternative for change, with the Holocaust and the dropping of the first atomic bombs.

  2. Peter Levine

    From Harry Boyte, by email:

      I agree with your two limitation on Nicholas Kristof’s “hard wired” argument, Peter (with the aside that it is disappointing to see from Kristof, who so often refuses oversimplications of the human condition). I would add a third:

      The argument that reactions are “hard-wired” simply does not take account of the enormous changes in identities, habits, and even personalities which can occur through political and public life. These changes can be negative, from a democratic and civic agency perspective. The narrowing of view about the human condition, politics, and the dynamics of change, with attendant cynicism which came about as the result of embittering experiences and the erosion of democratic populist movements come to mind. To cite several examples with larger consquences: Lenin moved from populism to a secretive, highly manipulative politics (“Leninism”) after his brother’s murder; Tom Watson, the Georgia senator, moved from a populist leader who called for black-white coalitions to a vicious racism after the collapse of the Populist Party; Saul Alinsky moved from an eloquent champion of cultural change in his first book, Reveille for Radicals, based on organizing in the New Deal, to a static, cynical “mobilizing” politics in his second, Rules for Radicals, that did much to constrain the imaginations of post-sixties activists.

      But we also see all the time the positive possibilities of change in identity, hopefulness, skill and outlook as young people do public work political projects in Public Achievement. “I have often thought of youth power in my community and how it is being wasted,” said one participant, Esraa Jasser, whom I think of as a young philosopher of the Public Achievement movement. “I have learned [in PA] that it’s everyone’s duty to develop the community and solve its issues. Youth are not only the future leaders, but they are also today’s citizens and change makers.” PA’s premise is that a civic identity is developed through work with public dimensions, and Esraa’s observations dramatize the point. “[PA] has affected my way of looking at things. Now, I see things from a wider frame…that includes me, my family, my friends, and the whole community.” Our colleagues with the Friends Service Committee, who sponsor Public Achievement in the Palestian Territories, recently conducted an evaluation which found that PA is often a powerful alternative to violent activities for young people.

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