The Psychology of Partisan Politics

Saturday, March 2, 2013 -- 4:00 PM
Ken Taylor

Our topic this week is the psychology of partisan politics. To appreciate how divided Americans are about politics, we might start with god, guns, and sex. Some Americans view gun ownership as a non-negotiable, an almost sacred right, and view homosexuality as an unholy abomination. Other Americans see guns as one of our greatest social ills and see differences in sexual orientation as no more significant than differences in eye color.  But, of course, those are intrinsically emotionally charged issues, so you might expect deep divisions in such domains.   But Americans are also deeply divided over things like the environment, the economy, and education. We all profess to want clean air and water, good schools, and a thriving economy. But we don’t agree at all about how to achieve those things. Americans fight pitched political battles over things that you might think would cause very little division. We’re like warring tribes that just refuse to get along and let old wounds heal.  Health care is, I think, a perfect illustration. Every advanced industrialized democracy has had some form of universal health care for a very long time. But we have had to struggle to achieve even relatively modest healthcare reform in this country.  And although nobody was really proposing a complete government takeover of either healthcare system or the health insurance system, you wouldn't have known that from the recent debates.  Those who were opposed to universal care,  acted as if were drifting into Stalinism.

Now it may sound like a pretty partisan assessment of the opposition. And I do have to admit that I personally found it pretty hard to stomach the Republican Party’s implacable opposition to universal care.  And it was just about calling people who support universal healthcare “Stalinist.”   That was out of bounds, but it missed what seemed to me to be the real issue  -- which seemed to me a pretty straightforward one.  As I saw it, the question is whether we should collectively guarantee everybody equal access to a basic level of health care, independently of ability to pay.  And the obvious answer, it seems to me, is that yes, of course we should.  It’s a simple matter of fairness and common decency, on my view.

Of course, left leaning people like me tend to think of fairness in terms of treating everybody equally, at least as far as basic rights and basic goods are concerned. The notion of fairness as equality warms the hearts of us left-leaning, liberal do-gooder types.  And we tend to think that conservatives reject arguments based on fairness out of some basic aversion to fairness and equality.  Oh, they might talk about fairness. But for them fairness is a matter of me getting mine, you getting yours, and the two of us screwing everybody else.  

But I have to admit that it is not entirely fair to conservatives to think of them as mean-spirited and greedy people who care not a whit about fairness.  They just think of fairness in differently than left-leaning people do.  For folks on the right, fairness isn’t so much about equality as about desert.  Things are fair, by the conservative measure,  when everybody gets what they deserve – no more, no less. Fairness means that everybody pays their fair share, nobody freeloads, and hard-working, talented people get to reap the fruits of their talents and their labor.  

Now I think it is important to grant that there are there are notions of fairness.  And it seems to me that reasonable people can disagree over which notion of fairness to apply in which situations.  Is this a situation calling for fairness understood as equality or a situation calling for fairness understood as desert?  That strikes me as an interesting and deep question.  It’s the kind of question about which one could have extended philosophical discussion and debate.  

Though Plato dreamed of a more reasoned and, yes, more philosophical politics (and so, frankly, do I) --- I have to admit that in the real world political life has very little in common with what goes on in a philosophy seminar room.   But maybe that's not surprising.   There is, after all, a very big difference between philosophy and politics.   In the philosophy seminar room, the only thing really at stake are ideas.   No money is changing hands. No goods are being redistributed. The social fabric of everyday life isn’t being stretched and torn.  In that context,   people can afford the luxury of  dispassionate debate and argument.  But real life isn’t like that.  

But what does that mean about our competing ideas – our competing philosophical ideas – about fairness.   Is there any way we can calmly, rationally,  and respectfully work out these competing idea?  Are we even interested in trying?   Or are both the liberal notion of fairness as equality and the conservative talk of fairness as desert,  really just empty talk – something that each side trots out to paper over and disguise their real motives and interests when they are pushed to defend themselves?   I mean if you really want to have it all, what better way to defend yourself than to appeal to fairness as desert.   And if you really want to take something that belongs to somebody else and redistribute it, what better way to defend your self than by appeal to fairness as desert.  It’s as if the interest comes first, and the justification in terms of fairness is thought of post hoc to disguise the real interest.

 Unfortunately,  I suspect that there is some deep truth to that disturbing outlook.  I wouldn’t say that partisan politics is all based on pretense and false consciousness.  But I do think that all sorts of hidden and subterranean motives drive us to do the things we do.  And that’s why politics is so very unlike like reasoned philosophical arguments.  So very, very little of it is completely above board and transparent.  So very little of it deserves to be taken at face value.  And that’s precisely why we need to into the dark reaches of the human psyche if we really want to understand how partisan politics really works. 

Comments (20)


Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, March 10, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

I have had conversations with

I have had conversations with friends regarding this issue. I'll wait a bit to comment further..., just to see what others may put forth. The post IS timely,. I think. Especially with the upcoming papal conclave which has a partisan political outlook all its own.

Tom's picture

Tom

Monday, March 11, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

I wonder if we'll see changes

I wonder if we'll see changes in the level of partisanship in California now that we have the new "top 2" combined primaries. I think one big reason for the partisanship in Washington is because you have representatives from "locked up" districts where the voting is over after the primary because the party majority is so large in the district. They don't answer to their whole district, only to the base that votes in the party primary.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Monday, March 11, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

Since human time began, there

Since human time began, there has been a dichotomy. There is US. And there are THEM. Over centuries and for myriad reasons, the US/THEM separation took many forms. Inasmuch as religion is probably older than politics, we might (if we were so inclined), blame it for political partisanship. Someone said on an earlier post that if there is a cause for everything, then what is the cause of the cause---which leads back
to the origin of the universe---but, this post is not about that. Not directly, anyway.
I accept that there is a certain psychology of partisan politics: it is the old US v.THEM mentality, played long and hard, over more than two centuries in U.S. time. As the country grew and outgrew original goals and ideologies, US v. THEM became an strongly economic divide: one political party represented those who held wealth; the other, those who did not.
And so it remains. And so remains another fact: Those who were once among the less-wealthy change their party affiliation when fortunes reverse. I need not name names because we all know the principal players.
It is not psychology---or, philosophy. Just economics. We be US, They be THEM. Yep.

Fred Griswold's picture

Fred Griswold

Tuesday, March 12, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

I agree with KT that liberals

I agree with KT that liberals are focused on equality. That seems to be the central theme in what they believe. They identify with the downtrodden. Where they get this underdog mindset from, I don't know. With radicals I think the common element is pacifism - they think money is the root of all evil, and that's why they don't trust the corporations. This doesn't explain why so many of them are just a little rough around the edges. I spent four years in Berkeley, you see plenty of it there.
Conservatives, I spend a lot of time trying to figure them out. Maybe it really is taxes that bother them so much. To them, taxes are just the poor stealing money from the rich. There's more than one kind of conservative. The Wall Street crowd, they work hard for the millions they get, and they don't want to have to give any of it up. That's straightforward enough, but it doesn't explain where their drive comes from. The religious conservatives base their ideas on the Ten Commandments. They don't care too much about cleverness or inventiveness, your moral standards are what they judge you on. The libertarians just want Washington to go away, a lot of them are Johnny Rebs. And parenthetically, when Martin Luther King said that people should be judged by the content of their character, that sounds more like KT's definition of conservatism than liberalism.
But I think that both the left and the right need to open up their eyes. Neither of them seems particularly scientific to me.

tim's picture

tim

Tuesday, March 12, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

Globalization has undermined

Globalization has undermined the two primary shapers of personal identity: work and local community -- fundamental realities to which most of us can trace our very surnames. They're also the fundamental factors of civitas -- the basis of civilization. When people had strong attachments to their local communities and worked beside and served their neighbors through their daily labor they had very different relationships to each other. We were materially engaged in each other's lives, providing for each other; we had common concerns and interests; we had common wealth; we were responsible to each other. None of us were against progress and none of us were against conserving. That is to say, we were adults.
But now, debased from the civilizing influence of meaningful productive labor and stable, strong local communities, we instead depend for our identities on communities of abstraction and ideology .
John Adams had grave doubts that a nation the size of the thirteen colonies could be civilized. He was right to worry.
We need to restore civitas, to re-civilize the world -- re-localize our politics and our work and become meaningfully engaged with our neighbors in all those ways that subordinate and discourage debased ideology and abstract nonsensical pieties. Then we'll have reason to expect civility -- and practical meaning -- in our public discussion.

Guest's picture

Guest

Tuesday, March 12, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

Still waiting for some depth.

Still waiting for some depth. Someone addressing the philosophical angle with newer insight. There are some bright minds who comment here. Or, maybe there are no new insights to be offered? Is this why we find our political system torpid? I believe there are always alternatives. But there must be collective will to pursue them. Tall order. Sure.

tim's picture

tim

Wednesday, March 13, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

The discussion touched on the

The discussion touched on the importance of material engagement to civil discourse, but didn't go nearly far enough. Globalization has undermined the two primary shapers of personal identity: work and local community -- fundamental realities to which most of us can trace our very surnames. They're also the fundamental factors of civitas -- the basis of civilization. When people had strong, long-standing attachments to their local communities and worked beside and served their neighbors through their daily labor they had very different relationships to each other. We were materially engaged in each other's lives, providing for each other; we had common concerns and interests; we had -- and made -- common wealth; we were responsible to each other. None of us were against progress and none of us were against conserving. That is to say, we were adults.
But now, debased from the civilizing influence of meaningful productive labor and stable, strong local communities -- practical and meaningful commonality -- we instead depend for our identities on communities of abstraction and ideology.
John Adams had grave doubts that a nation the size of the thirteen colonies could be civilized. He was right to worry.
We need to restore civitas, to re-civilize the world -- re-localize our politics and our work and become meaningfully engaged with our neighbors in all those ways that subordinate and discourage debased ideology and abstract nonsensical pieties. Then we'll have reason to expect civility -- and practical meaning -- in our public discussion.

Guest's picture

Guest

Wednesday, March 13, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

Thanks, Tim. That's the sort

Thanks, Tim. That's the sort of practical honesty I was hoping for. Adams was, indeed, right to worry. Expansion leads to differentiation; specialization; and loss of community in its original sense. This was only a worry in Adams' day. Now, it is a reality. And the pundits who have written that civility does not matter may live to choke on their words. Bigger is not better, unless its dangers are recognized and ameliorated. Social media does not effect this sort of exchange. And the communism of Plato, Marx and Engels did not work either. So, what, then?
I'm thinking....try to do that once or twice a day.
If I find a answer, I'll be sure to share it.

Guest's picture

Guest

Thursday, March 14, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

The time has come.

The time has come.
Fairness is the inequitable grey area of uncertainty, and equal is the light of absolute.
Fairness is not the promised land, equality is. And Kings and politicians no matter what they promise or say cannot take us there because we are there; we only have to be equal or true ourselves. It is not up to them, it is simply up to us.
There is no light in divisiveness, no equity in the politics of the governors;
To be ruled or governed is inequity.
HELLO!
Equality is unity, is Oneness, is truth, is self evident, is FREEDOM.
The time has come for a new Declaration of Independence,
One based on what simply is, One built on the foundation of Truth.
It is time to be One,
Time to be Free,
Time to Just Be,
Free at last!
=

tim's picture

tim

Thursday, March 14, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

Dave, I don't think you can

Dave, I don't think you can lump together Plato and Marx. Doing so suggests you'd dismiss anyone who questions laissez-faire as the basic organizing principle of societies. One of the beauties of getting back to thinking about society on the local community level -- civitas -- is that we can once again imagine the great ideal of civilization: all for one and one for all. That "and" is all-important. Organized at a scale that allows meaningful participation in our political and economic decision-making and activity, we can reconcile the interests of individuals with the needs of the community as a whole. It transforms the meaning of self-interest (actually re-aligning it with Adam Smith's understanding).

Guest's picture

Guest

Thursday, March 14, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

Tim:

Tim:
Your points are well-taken, but my using Plato, Marx and Engels in the same sentence with communism was an illustration of how the ancient philosopher's emphasis on the collective, rather than the individual, became a foundation for the school founded by the more modern political theorists. If you disagree with this notion that is fine. Until quite recently, I had never made the connection---had not even thought about it.
Warmest Regards,
The Carpenter.

Fred Griswold's picture

Fred Griswold

Thursday, March 14, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

It's not as if you run this

It's not as if you run this blog, Dave. But I'll try to address the question of why Washington is so polarized nowadays. I see this more in practical than philosophical terms. Jonathan Haidt on the show gave a pretty good reason, that Gingrich fixed the rules in Congress so that people could spend more time in their home districts, leaving town on Thursday and getting back on Tuesday. Another reason is fundraising, they spend so much time on that now they don't have time for socializing. And Foxnews whipping everyone up into a tax cut frenzy is another reason.

tim's picture

tim

Friday, March 15, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

Dave --

Dave --
In human history -- and pre-history, as far as we can tell -- the modern western emphasis on the individual, or more precisely, willingness to consider the individual separate from the community, is the exception, not the rule.

Guest's picture

Guest

Friday, March 15, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

To All Concerned and Any Who

To All Concerned and Any Who Are Not: It appears that my views and opinions are unhelpful here. OK. This has been an education for me, albeit disappointing. I never mentioned anything about Washington polarization, did I?
You are absolutely right, Fred. I do not run this blog. Carpenter, over and out.

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, March 16, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

A sociologist once said that

A sociologist once said that there are only three forms of government in the modern world: Fascism. Marxism, and Democracy based on Judeo-Christian principles ( which critics derisively dubbed "Americanism"). Despite its apparent simplicity, the classification is overly complicated. In practice there has been little to distinguish fascist governments from the governments that have ruled under the Marxist banner, and hardly any at all between Hitlerism and Stalinism. In theory, Plato's ideal government has features of both. And, of course, there is no consensus on what the Judeo-Christian principles are.
Some people are reared into an allegiance to a certain political party just as to a religion and would support it regardless of the quality of its policies or leadership. I suppose the debate is about those who are willing to consider alternatives. Here again we meet the Freudian view of the psyche and the three questions that pertain to anything having a moral dimension: How does it affect me? How does it affect the greater public (both present and future)? How does it stand up against the timeless universal standards?

mirugai's picture

mirugai

Saturday, March 16, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

POLITICALS

POLITICALS
Carpenter, I always find your comments both provocative and helpful. What I like most about the blog is that while there is much room for disagreement and disagreement is welcomed, the two unproductive arguments ?ridicule? and ?dismissal? seldom appear.
Liberalism says: We can have a better society. We know what the goals are, but we have to commit to new processes to try to reach the goals. If one process doesn?t work, try another, but keep the goals the same.
Conservatism says: We like the way things are. Let?s keep on doing whatever got us to this point.
All people seek confirmation of what they think is right and good: it is part of the human instinct, and a central impulse for social organization. Both the group and the spiritual provide reference outside one?s consciousness ? and to ?another consciousness? ? to give this confirmation (and to provide an object for the gift we each feel, of our love).
Social and spiritual (and political) self-defining always depends on differentiating one?s group from ?the others.? Demonization is the result. (Foreign policy, American and Old Testament and others, adds ?fear of irrational destroying and killing power? to demonization.)
It is my contention that American ideas of democracy and the wording of our Constitution will not get us into the 21st Century successfully. Just look at the paralysis of our institutions when we need them most.

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, March 16, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

Interesting program. I am a

Interesting program. I am a follower of the Transpersonal Philosopher Ken Wilber. Wilber would say that emotions and cognition are separate streams of consciousness, along with various others. Over time all streams of consciousness change, within the individual as we mature and in cultures. Cognitive capacity moves from discovering the wheel to the ability to perform science. Emotionally we move from identificaiton with self (narcissism), then to family, tribal, nation and then world consciousness. This has all sorts of implications for who is the enemy, levels of tolerance, moral development per Kohlberg. Rational thought from this perspective is not at one end of a continuum and emotion at the other. Instead they are different continuum all together. So a Nazi capable of using science will use science to advance the father land, expand eugenics, justify the death of millions etc.This was a particularly toxic form of National/race identification. Science used within a global emotional awareness will use science to better the environment and care for all people. I think the successful emotional appeals vis a vis the homosexual community are relying on a fundamental emotional responses the most of us resonant with at some level because they are very fundamental. Don't the philosophers say that "to know the good is to do the good" I would say that the understanding of the good is very different seem through the various stages of consciousness. And the nature of good can be understood through the heart or through the mind.
Audrey Irvine

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Sunday, March 17, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

Apparently we need to embrace

Apparently we need to embrace and effect change. But, if our political partisans can never agree upon how much and what kind of change is desirable, we have the continuing enigma of ages beyond measure. Ken Wilber is a scholar of some renown, and I too have read much of his work. He has a system: well-expressed and articulate. But in writing so much, he has often repeats himself. So, I moved on to other philosophical realms, ultimately discovering the bastions of evolutionary biology and natural history. As Pope Francis said on the evening of his selection: Good night,---and good luck. Looks like we shall need it.

Fred Griswold's picture

Fred Griswold

Monday, March 18, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

As a footnote to Tim's last

As a footnote to Tim's last post, Joseph Campbell said that there are four mythologies in the world that emphasize the individual, and they're all in Europe: Greek, Roman, Celtic, and Germanic. Someone said on this blog a while back that freedom is the most important thing, and gave the example of how his cat reacts when he tries to cage it. I agree that it's important, but it's not the only important thing. Anyone who's ever seen a bunch of piglets at feeding time knows that freedom is not what they're interested in. Food is what they want.

JNavas's picture

JNavas

Monday, July 6, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

The claim of decreasing

The claim of decreasing violence is wrong (undermining the thesis). Pinker manipulated data to fit his theory, and when you remove that manipulation his theory falls apart. See:
"John Gray: Steven Pinker is wrong about violence and war" at http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/mar/13/john-gray-steven-pinker-wro...
"Steve Pinker?s bogus statistics: A critique of The Better Angels of Our Nature" at http://www.uncommondescent.com/intelligent-design/steve-pinkers-bogus-st...

 

Listen:

 
 
 

Blog Archive

2018

September

August

July

June

May

April

March

February

January

2017

December

November

October

September

August

July

June

May

April

March

February

January

2016

December

October

September

August

July

June

May

April

March

February

January

2015

December

November

October

September

August

July

June

May

April

March

February

January

2005

December

November

October

September

August

July

June

May

April

March