Monday, July 12, 2004

Nihil Est Incertius Volgo

On the Psychology of Political Choice

Every polity has issues that divide the electorate. We have a slate of issues often used as a "litmus" test for the competing political parties. It is easy to see how behind these slates of positions there must be some sort of common approach to issues.

Much has been made of an alleged lack of coherent philosophy on the part of the parties relevant in the US. The Democrats cobble together leftist populists with "limousine liberals", while the Republicans bring together rightwing religious populists and business conservatives, and thus seem to be representative of no one political philosophy. To say that they represent semi-permanent coalitions of disparate constituencies that in a parliamentary democracy would have separate party affiliations is probably correct, but besides the point.

These parties each have a coherent psychology.

We've all heard of the "body of literature" regarding "Red America" and "Blue America", and the association of cultural values with geography, wealth, population density, etc. It is obviously an oversimplification to look at the US as the home of two cultures, and refutations of Brooks' thesis abound, but it contains a certain truth. While it is hard to say "by their zipcode ye shall know them", the mindset that induced one to choose one party or another is one that will also have left its mark on one's life.

This mindset is far more emotional and primitive than a political philosophy. In its most basic it parallels a discussion that plays out in the national dialogue: values vs nuance. The language of values is powerful; it provides absolute answers to questions, and thus is intuitive. It is definitionally principled. Nuance gains the ability to more directly address the problem. As a vocabulary it better approximates any situation, and as a mindset is better able to find a solution. Nuance is also almost always a shade of grey. It is both impossible to turn into a slogan, and is generally a compromise between principles. Lest the reader assume I am endorsing the latter, (and that is where my sympathies lie) consider that a political approach is only as good as its efficacy; there is no point having a more correct answer if no one will listen or follow it. Nuance is the better answer, but values more certainly provide for the political power to address the problem.

Before I provide caveats to this thesis, consider this: Bush is being roundly excoriated for having virtually no policy staff in the West Wing. All the staff are political in nature, with political (thus ideological, principled) answers to every question. Franklin Foer, in his recent article The Closing of the Presidential Mind) writes:
Since its inception, modern American conservatism has harbored a suspicion of experts, who, through adherence to inductive reasoning and academic methodologies, claim to provide objective research and analysis... ...If there was a theme to their complaints, it was that social science focused too much on material "fact" and ignored the importance of "culture" and "values."

Now obviously if the Republicans had a monopoly on values, and an utter paucity of nuance, they would win all elections, and every policy of theirs would be a disaster. Both parties naturally have a focus on one or the other, and use the reciprocal as a means to enable the psychology that is at their root. Is this balance then the only true difference between the parties?

In a word, no. The other, and perhaps more important difference, is in ends as much as the previous point addressed means. The Democratic party's ethos is easy to understand; from all of us as a group, for all of us as a group. This is not meant to describe some oversimplified economic policy, but rather is the underlying psychology used to come up with positions. Should we be able to burn the flag? Yes, regardless of how it offends any or almost all of us, that speech is important as a tool, and so should be protected for anyone's use. Should we ban hate speech on college campuses? Yes, for we should all sacrifice that right so that no one is too offended or threatened to study.

In contrast the Republicans seem to have invested "moral correctness" into politics as a market. However ironic it is, it appears that as much as the economic good of the whole supposedly derives from each acting in his or her economic self-interest, so too will the political good of the whole arrive if everyone looks after their own, narrow political interest. Yes, abortion should be banned because my religious views say so, and thus it is clearly wrong. I do not think the government has any right to increase the cost of my workers to me by raising the minimum wage.

It would be easy to say this difference is non-existent, after all, one can just rephrase the position: I oppose abortion because of the children/I support flag burning so that I can go out and do so tomorrow. The reason to go with the previous dichotomy is this: by and large, liberals do not personally benefit nor expect to benefit from the policies they espouse. Most Democrats have no intention of getting an abortion (that's what the Pill is for) and most probably have no intention of burning a flag. Few on the Religious Right trouble themselves with what other religions' say on policy, and few corporate lobbyists are tasked with anything other than the specific interests that will advance the company's profitability (in fact they have a fiduciary duty to the company's shareholders to do exactly that).

Self-interest is not evil; even the left concedes that insofar as knowing what is good for the many is difficult, capitalism (aka economic markets) are a preferable system to a command economy. Thus it is not unreasonable to see a parallel with political choice. (The flip side being, Democrats are hardly supporting a command-polity (dictatorship) but rather just self-less decision making.)

Self-interest is appealing, and more over straightforward. For those who do not have the time to evaluate policy, it is easier to look at a policy's impact on themselves than to try to measure for 280 million. A deterministic answer is easier to come by. The collective will of a polity looking for the best interest of the whole will lead to a better choice than the plurality in favor of any one issue for their own benefit (which is half the reason democracies seem schizophrenic), but such a mode of thought is again, a tough sell.

Thus you have the split. A nuanced, group-minded left, unable to convince people that its views are better, and a values-minded, self-interested right, governing with worse, but more easily explained ideas.


At 7:43 AM, [REDACTED] said...

interesting, I am crafting a response. . .

At 2:18 PM, [REDACTED] said...

I was thinking of a response, but I do believe I would like to read Amar's first.

At 1:21 PM, [REDACTED] said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 1:59 PM, [REDACTED] said...

Once again, I am not specifically sure what Rahul is arguing in this post. There are a lot of interesting ideas, but it does seem to be yet again a right verus left debate without an end in sight. Trying to be fair and balanced, and perhaps that is the problem.

I am at a bit of a loss. Should we try to be fair, or should be be blatantly partisan when discussing our own political parities. I suppose there is a time and place for each. However, I think the left, ourselves included, are still a little off in our use of either.


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