The Problem with Revolutions

3 02 2011

We’re all holding our breath watching the events in Egypt unfold. Many commentators are ebullient. Some are more cautious. In fact, I think Mark Colvin makes an important point about the dangers of revolution, and how quickly the unity in deposing a despot can turn into fractious in-fighting to fill the political vacuum.

United a group may be in their opposition of something, but that doesn’t say much about what they do stand for. Those holding hands today might be wielding clubs tomorrow.

Furthermore, it is precisely in times of instability and unrest – such as those immediately following a revolution – when people are more inclined to turn to a strong authoritarian leader to keep the peace. It’s precisely when people feel the most threatened, either bodily or in a more abstract sense by feelings of uncertainty about the future, that people lean to the right.

And it’s precisely when a nation is undergoing unrest, with multiple political ‘tribes’ vying for power, that trust in ones’ fellow citizens is eroded – “I don’t know whether that person is part of my tribe or the other.”

This kind of tribal mentality is devastatingly destructive to democracy, where trust in your state and trust in other citizens is paramount to making democracy a success. Democracy only works when I’m confident that if the ‘other tribe’ get elected and take power, they’re not going to embark on a pogrom targeted against myself and my ‘tribe.’ It’s this distrust in the system that spelt doom for democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In situations like this the trust required for bottom-up democracy is so lacking that a strong top-down authoritarian government is virtually required to keep the peace. However, top-down governments are only good for keeping the peace or defending against invaders. Oh, and they’re good at being corrupt, at entrenching power, at embezzling the nation’s wealth and taking the nation straight back to where it was prior to the revolution.

Democracy is remarkable not because it’s inevitable, but because it’s so difficult to get off the ground. It often takes a unified vision, a population with a largely similar culture and value system, and a stable environment in terms of economic prospects and absence of threat from invaders.

If a state can satisfy all those conditions, and if the people genuinely want democracy – which means they buy in to a system where they might vote for their entire lives and never see their candidate in power – then democracy can flourish. And once established, it’s hard to shake.

Egypt might yet become such a democracy. I’m not conversant enough in recent Egyptian history or ethnography to say whether it does satisfy all these conditions, but I think it stands a chance. The recent restraint shown by the military, and the apparent lack of military ambitions to take over from Mubarak, are positive indications.

But, while the protests underway in Egypt this week are exhilarating  – and cause for optimism for a brighter, more open, more inclusive, more democratic Egypt – we should be mindful of the lessons of history and of political psychology and hope that authoritarianism doesn’t block out the sunlight before democracy has a chance to grow.





Redefining the Political Spectrum (Version 2.1)

23 01 2011

A slight revision of my recent redefinition of the political spectrum along psychological lines. I’ve replaced the Beautiful-Safe World axis with the simpler Safe-Dangerous World. The safe-dangerous spectrum is already talked about quite a bit in the literature, particularly concerning Bob Altermeyer’s Right-Wing Authoritarianism scale, so I should stick with that.

So here’s the updated chart:

The x axis represents the extent to which an individual perceives the world as a safe or dangerous place (which can scale to the world-at-large, their society or even their local community – with political attitudes possibly varying for each).

The y axis represents the extent to which an individual perceives the world as being just, such that someone gets what they deserve, either good or bad. If reward/punishment are perceived to be the product of luck or randomness, that’s an unjust world. If you live and breathe (and see the world through) the Protestant work ethic, you see a just world.

The ideologies located on the diagram are those that appeal to individuals at that location. Each ideology might be defined in terms different from safe/just world, but ultimately, I’d suggest they’re responding to the concerns of people that hold that particular worldview at that location in the chart.

Note, I also added a couple of new entries:

Utopianism (high Safe world; high Unjust world): by “utopianism” I mean the view that we can become a society where everything works perfectly, and everyone will cooperate for mutual benefit without defection. This isn’t strictly a political ideology, just an example of extremist thinking, in this case optimistic about the world around us and optimistic about human nature to a fault. You see flashes of it when people say “why can’t everyone just get along” and when people sign off with “peace.”

Honour culture (high Dangerous world; mid Unjust world): those who adhere to an honour culture view, particularly when they aren’t required to, see the world as a dangerous place and other people as potentially untrustworthy. As such, reputation management is crucial. To earn a good reputation is hard when there are many who would fake a good reputation in order to exploit others. Being slapped with a bad rep effectively makes one an outsider in their own community, almost an ostracism. Yet it’s a system and mentality that emphasises community standards that ought to be followed, even to the letter at the cost of the spirit.

Also, talking about Right-Wing Authoritarianism, I’d say high RWAs reside in large bubble on the far right of the chart, centred on Authoritarianism. High Social Dominance Orientation (Sidanius, Pratto et al.) would be in a bubble in the top right-hand corner of the chart. I’ll add them to the chart – when I can figure out how to do so in an aesthetically non-disruptive way…





Redefining the Political Spectrum (Version 2.0)

20 01 2011

I was wrong. I recently wrote that the liberal-conservative political spectrum could be most parsimoniously described along a single axis representing whether the world was considered a safe or dangerous place. I no longer think that’s correct.

Instead, I’ve elaborated on that theme a little, adding a second dimension which, along with safe-dangerous world, I believe accurately characterises the political spectrum – at least psychologically.

Read the rest of this entry »





The Fall of the Tea Party

18 01 2011

Hit prediction: the Tea Party is not long for this world.

I’ve implied as much before on this blog. But amidst the spirited hand waving and foot stomping we’re seeing by Tea Partiers these days, and the conservative victories in Congress in recent memory, it’s easy to forget that the Tea Party is just another populist movement, big on rhetoric, short on actual solutions.

Such movements can strike a chord with the people, get swept into power, and then they run up against real world problems to which their fantasy worldview has no answers. The very fact that the lynchpin of Tea Party doctrine is ‘no compromise’ makes them heartily unsuited to being players of any significance in the game of politics. No compromise might make a nice campaign slogan and sound bite for Fox News, but it doesn’t wash well when you need over 50%  on your side (or more in the Senate) to get things done.

And their gut wrenchingly unsophisticated attitude towards politics, and the world at large, make them weak, not strong. Take this little missive from Tea Party Nation (reprinted by The Economist’s Democracy In America blog) that came out in response to John McCain’s bipartisan response to Obama’s bipartisan message following the Arizona shootings:

John McCain represents everything that is wrong with the Republican Party.  He acts more like a liberal democrat than a Republican….Barack Obama a patriot?  Yes, and I am the Pope.

Obama is intent on using his time in office to advance our country’s cause?   When?  When he assaulted the rights of Americans? When his regime tried brand patriotic Americans as extremists?  When his regime tried to take over the Internet?   When they tried to impose a “fairness doctrine” on the only media conservatives dominate?   When they tried to shove a socialist agenda down the throats of Americans, despite overwhelming proof that Americans did not want this?  How about when he went out apologizing to every third world tyrant for America?  How about when he bowed to foreign leaders?

…What we see from Obama is not an incompetent fool.  He knows exactly what he is doing.   From being raised by a mother who hated America, to associating with America hating communists in his youth, he gravitated to communist, America hating professors in College and associated with America hating political groups until it looked like he might actually go somewhere in his political career…

Obama hates America and that is obvious.

It could easily be mistaken for the babblings of immature, cognitively feeble and emotionally unstable extremists.

I’ve stated before on this blog that I appreciate the strength that comes from having opposing views work in tension in a pluralistic liberal society. But one fundamental hurdle these views must overcome before they’re taken seriously is they must correspond to reality. They must respect facts and reason. Pluralism in values is a good thing. Pluralism in methods to advance the nation’s and people’s good is a good thing. Pluralism in facts – i.e. misrepresentation, falsehood and lies – don’t get you anywhere in the long run.

The test will be when the Tea Party is faced with real policy decisions to make, where they will be required to employ their worldview to find solutions. And they’ll fail. Probably quite spectacularly. And their support will plummet.

So don’t fear the Tea Party. The rebound towards the middle, and possibly the left, when they expire dramatically will be worth then pain of listening to their inane ravings now.





On Political Rhetoric, Mental Illness and Guns

11 01 2011

In the wake of the horrific events in Arizona, a predictable storm has brewed over who, or what, is responsible. Is it the vitriolic political rhetoric that has reached new heights of bile in recent years? Is it mental illness and signs of the unpredictable outburst of a sick man? Or is it the profusion of guns in the general community, one that happened to legally fall into the hands of an unstable and ultimately murderous individual?

It is likely all these things.

While both the Left and the Right leapt to brand their political nemeses as the catalysts for this shocking act, naturally both have reacted with indignation and utterly rejected the notion that their words or creeds were in any way responsible.

Even if it turns out that Loughner’s motives were remote from rhetoric, what is worth noting is the readiness which which politicians and commentators have speculated as to the influence of rhetoric on the Tuscan shooting.

This suggests that there is already an awareness of the distemper overtaking American political discourse today. This suggests that even if Loughner wasn’t motivated by contemporary rhetoric, it seems plausible to many that he could have been; or that someone else, at another juncture, could also be.

This, alone, reflects something about the state of US politics, and should give reason for pause and reflection on how commentators, politicians and pseudo-politicians, like Sarah Palin, conduct themselves.

Regarding mental illness, it’s unlikely to not be a causal factor; Loughner appears to have held obscure and extreme political views that someone of a stable mind would be unlikely to endorse. Even as some warn us from explaining everything away as mental illness*, it was likely a pivotal causal factor, and one that reflects poorly not only on America’s failing treatment of serious mental illness (a failing shared by Australia and other developed countries, I might add), but also on the cultural forces that serve to isolate troubled individuals, that shun expressions of vulnerability in favour of those that tout competitiveness, happiness and success (even if disingenuous), and that allows someone who is showing fairly clear signs of trouble being allowed to buy a gun.

Which brings me to gun control. I’ve heard all the arguments for and against. I’m sure you have too. The thing is, the arguments against gun control are typically banal, incoherent, choose selectively from the evidence and are fuelled by an emotional attachment that identifies guns with freedom – a long leap in itself, were not freedom itself a problematic concept in its own right, particularly when adhered to dogmatically.

The vicious political rhetoric, mental illness and the ready availability of guns to those who would misuse them are all deep and seemingly intractable problems for the United States, and the negative effects of all are reflected in the shooting of Gifford.

Perhaps the tragedy of Gifford’s shooting will serve as a wakeup call and see Americans reflect on themselves, which is an important first step for change to take place. Let’s hope that, amidst the horror, some good might come from this.

*The Slate article is right to point out that mental illness isn’t an exhaustive explanation of any particular act, but it is precisely wrong in its argument. Saying that the presence of mental illness doesn’t imply an increased risk of that person committing a violent act is one thing. But such a generalisation is irrelevant when considering the proximate causes of a particular event. If Loughner has some kind of mental illness, and that mental illness contributed in some way to the decision making process that led him to pull the trigger on Gifford and the 20 others, then mental illness is a causal factor. True, we shouldn’t generalise about that, and we certainly can’t generalise from Loughner’s actions to those of others who happen to have a mental illness. But reverse-generalisation – the denial that because there’s no connection between x and y at a population level implies there’s no connection between x and y in an individual – is also false.





Redefining the Liberal-Conservative Spectrum

7 01 2011

Yeah, there are already dozens of ways of painting the political ideological spectrum. Many are interesting, but most also raise further questions, such as why does it look such, and how can they resolve apparent contractions within each polar ideology.

And contradictions there are, as flagged by Jost et al. (2003):

We now take it for granted in the United States that political conservatives tend to be for law and order but not gun control, against welfare but generous to corporations, protective of cultural traditions but antagonistic toward contemporary art and music, and wary of government but eager to weaken the separation of church and state. They are committed to freedom and individualism but perennially opposed to extending rights and liberties to disadvantaged minorities, especially gay men and lesbians and others who blur traditional boundaries. There is no obvious political thread that runs through these diverse positions (or through their liberal counterparts) and no logical principle that renders them all consistent.

The popular Nolan chart. Not wrong, but just not simple enough.I’d like to suggest that none of these existing approaches is the most parsimonious nor the most powerfully explanatory when it comes to defining the key variable in political ideology. And many have trouble with the contradictions mentioned above.

I’ve already mentioned my fondness (with reservations) of George Lakoff’s nation-as-a-family metaphor account of liberalism and conservatism – with liberals adopting a nurturant parent metaphor and conservatives a strict father metaphor. But even if that account contains a nugget of truth, it doesn’t explain why these two metaphors consistently emerge to characterise the ideological poles.

So, I’d like to propose a new one-dimensional spectrum simply based around a difference in worldview concerning whether the world is a safe or dangerous place.

Read the rest of this entry »





From Genes to Politics: How Biology Influcences the Way You Vote

5 01 2011

It might seem a leap too far, but bear with me, because I’m going to attempt to show that genes influence the way you vote. Let’s start at the end and work our way towards the beginning.

Your adopted political ideology strongly influences the way you vote. Certainly, there might be circumstances in which a liberal might vote for a conservative candidate, such as if the liberal candidate was an obvious dud (or the conservative candidate was a shining star), or if the conservative candidate happened to offer a better policies for the present environment (say, being a hawk in a time of war). But, all things being equal, self-identifying liberals vote for liberal candidates and parties.

However, your political ideology isn’t something you come to adopt from out of the blue. We’re not political blank slates. One of the greatest influences on what ideology you adopt is your worldview, which I loosely define as the implicit framework you use to make sense of the world around you.

Your worldview is both descriptive and prescriptive – it helps understand the way the world is, and it’s value-laden, so it helps you understand good and bad, desirable and undesirable. Many empirical and theoretical studies have shown that underneath our political attitudes lie (often unconscious) beliefs about the way the world is.

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Reflective Equilibrium and Political Ideology

27 12 2010

Here’s a thought in the which-comes-first-political-ideology-or-political-psychology? department. The answer to which could well be: both. If so, then perhaps some bastardisation of the process of reflective equilibrium could benefit our understanding of political ideology as well as the way in which people are actually motivated to behave politically.

See, for decades it’s been the remit of political scientists to explore the nature of political ideology, to construct definitions and to investigate the way people behave in a political context. Yet political science operates in a highly rarefied environment. It looks at ideology in theoretical terms, almost as if the various ideologies exist in the world to be discovered as various objective ways of being or of running society.

It also often abstracts the messy complexities of human behaviour down to the clean quantifiable lines of rational choice theory. It’s a very top-down approach, starting with theories of political organisation and then noting how these completed, coherent ideologies are disseminated down to the people.

But this approach has its shortcomings, particularly in explaining how and why individuals adopt a particular political ideology, and how that ideology motivates their behaviour. Because people aren’t rational agents and ideologies aren’t clear cut things that people adopt holus-bolus.

Top-down political science even had an ‘end of idology’ crisis through the late 20th century, where ideology was nearly abandoned as a concept because it was conceived as too far beyond the ken of the average schmo to comprehend the complexities of an entire political ideology (Jost, 2006). As such, it was thought most people’s attributions and identifications with one ideology or another were incomplete, misguided or disingenuous. Ideology was on shaky ground.

Yet political ideologies are important. They do influence beliefs. And they do motivate behaviour. But not in the abstract way outlined by many political scientists in the 20th century.

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Science and Politics: Why Conservatives Don’t Get Science

13 12 2010

Only 6% of scientists self-identify as Republican. Six per cent! And there are five times as many who don’t even have a partisan affiliation. And only 9% self-identify as conservative. Fascinating.

But not entirely unexpected.

These numbers, uncovered by the PEW Research Center, have been the topic of much discussion, sparked by this piece on Slate by Daniel Sarewitz, followed up by a number in The Economist’s Democracy in America blog. Both express concern about the implications of so few conservatives in science. And both speculate as to the cause, first Sarewitz:

It doesn’t seem plausible that the dearth of Republican scientists has the same causes as the under-representation of women or minorities in science. I doubt that teachers are telling young Republicans that math is too hard for them, as they sometimes do with girls; or that socioeconomic factors are making it difficult for Republican students to succeed in science, as is the case for some ethnic minority groups. The idea of mentorship programs for Republican science students, or scholarship programs to attract Republican students to scientific fields, seems laughable, if delightfully ironic.

And The Economist:

I can think of three testable hypotheses they might look into. The first is that scientists are hostile towards Republicans, which scares young Republicans away from careers in science. The second is that Republicans are hostile towards science, and don’t want to go into careers in science. The third is that young people who go into the sciences tend to end up becoming Democrats, due to factors inherent in the practice of science or to peer-group identification with other scientists.

I’d like to advance a fourth hypothesis: the same psychological proclivities that predispose individuals towards conservatism and the Republican party are the same psychological proclivities that predispose those individuals to not have a strong interest in science.

Contrary to the popular view that political attitudes and ideological commitments are the product of environmental factors, such as family upbringing, socio-economic conditions, or rational reflection, in fact it’s psychology that plays a dominant role in influencing an individual’s political leanings. And career choices.

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Evolution and Moral Ecology, Mini PhD Version

24 11 2010

I’ve posted a new static page with an outline of my PhD thesis on evolution and moral ecology. If you’re interested in my overarching theory, it’s worth reading. Hopefully it’ll put a lot of the other missives I write in context. Although I don’t doubt it’ll also raise a lot of questions and objections. Happy to hear them. Any criticism that can steer me in a better direction will improve my thesis. I call it PhD 2.0.








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