Politics as Biology: Explaining the Razor Edge of Partisan Politics

8 11 2012

Following Obama’s re-election, M.S. at The Economist ponders the startlingly improbable situation in the United States where such a strongly partisan country can keep rolling out elections that are knife edge finishes:

This is what strikes one most strongly looking back at America from across an ocean: the country seems repeatedly embroiled in savage 51-49 electoral campaigns, and it seems to be increasingly paralysed by irresolvable rancour between right and left.

And think about it for a second: this is bizarre. If Americans are in fact divided between two extremely different political ideologies, it would be an extraordinary coincidence if each of those philosophies were to hold the allegiance of nearly equal blocs of support. That situation ought not to be stable. Adherence to these two ideologies ought to shift enough just due to demographics that the 50-50 split should deteriorate. And yet the even split seems to be stable. What’s going on?

Good question. Here’s a speculative answer, using the tools of population biology as a lens to understand politics:

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Linking Psychology, Politics and Climate Scepticism

3 04 2012

Conservatives are from Mars, Liberals are from Venus. So says Chris Mooney in his new book, The Republican Brain.

I tend to agree. I’ve written as much on this blog back in 2010, and on the ABC’s Drum website again in 2011.

The thesis is that liberals and conservatives tend towards very different psychological make-ups. Political psychology studies have shown that liberals and conservatives are measurably different along a number of different axes.

For example, liberals tend to have higher scores than conservatives in Openness in personality tests. This means liberals tend to be more curious, inquisitive and exploratory when it comes to information and opinions. Conversely, conservatives tend to be less experimental, more rigid in their thinking and more dogmatic.

Liberals also tend to exhibit greater integrative complexity – which is a metric that measures the tendency to incorporate many different pieces of information into forming an attitude or making a judgement. It’s kinda ‘shades of grey’ thinking. Conservatives, on the other hand, tend towards more black and white thinking.

None of these things are rock solid. There’s no determinism at the root of this. But there are clear leanings amongst those who self-identify or vote one way or the other.

Do these psychological differences contribute to the differences of opinion among liberals and conservatives? Could they help explain why a majority of conservatives reject anthropogenic climate change, for example?

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Beyond OWS: Problem #2: The Problem with Politics

1 11 2011

This is part two of my series on Beyond Occupy Wall Street. You can find part one, where I put the boot into contemporary economic dogma here.

In this post, I focus on politics. Or, more specifically, on the failure of the 20th century political paradigm to accord with a 21st century world. Basically, the Left-Right political spectrum as we know it is defunct and, as a result, we’re seeing the political parties of the last century struggle in many democracies around the world, not least in Anglophone world.

In the U.S., Obama was supposed to liberate the country from the bitter partisan politics of the Bush Jr. era, where the Left and the Right had become violently polarised and infected by base-appeasing populism, meanwhile lacking the courage to make the tough decisions that are required to set the country straight. But even Obama – with his feel-good “there’s only the United States of America” – failed to bring the warring parties together.

The recent debt crisis is but one of many, many examples of the abject failure of the two major U.S. parties to put their knives down and govern in the interests of the nation. Not to mention the banality of Fox News and the Tea Party, offering hopelessly simplistic solutions to complex problems – some real, and some fictitious.

In the U.K. and Australia the last elections resulted in hung parliaments, largely due to disillusionment with the major parties and the parlous calibre of political debate. Both countries saw a protest vote lobbed against a long-term sitting government that had gone stale, yet the voters proved unenthused at the prospect of the alternative governments on offer. The result is minority government, with uneasy coalitions formed, which are unlikely to survive the next election.

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Beyond Occupy Wall Street

30 10 2011

I’ve been patiently awaiting the revolution for some years now. It’s inevitable that it was coming. The only question was when. And in what form.

It seems it’s arrived, at least in its embryonic guise, in the form of the Occupy Wall Street movement. But is this really the revolution? Is this movement – without goals, without leaders, without a guiding ideology – fit to call itself a revolution?

Not yet.

But it’s a start. The first step in enacting change is to identify that there’s a problem. That’s fundamentally what OWS is today: it’s a broad protest movement making an unambiguous expression that we (maybe not 99% of us, but a lot) are mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore.

If I could sum up the Occupy Wall Street movement to date in one line, it’d be this: the system is broken and it’s not going to fix itself.

I’ve heard the Occupiers voice this notion in many disparate, fragmented ways. But I have yet to hear or read any Occupier articulate precisely what the problem with the system is. Or, more poignantly: how to fix it.

But to me, the malaise is clear. I’ve been watching it brew for many years. The sickness in the Western capitalist system has many diverse manifestations, but the underlying causes are actually few and simple.

I’m adamant that if OWS is to have any lasting impact, it urgently needs to move beyond being merely a protest movement before people tire of it (or the weather sends it indoors, at least in the northern hemisphere), and move to embrace some positive ideology, one that might genuinely enact change in the world. One that might genuinely be called a revolution.

In the next several posts I’m going to outline my diagnosis of the three core problems with ‘the system’ – the problems that fundamentally underlie the grievances of the Occupy movement – and then offer three solutions as to where the movement could go next if it wants to change the system for the better.

I’ll update this post as a single landing page with links to the others:

Problem #1: The Market Ain’t So Free

Problem #2: The Problem with Politics





Religion’s Retreat from Politics and Other Good News

19 04 2011

The current fancy of religion being intertwined with political conservatism in the United States (and here – we have our own Family First party) is a fleeting trend, and one that is entering its final throes. So said Robert Putnam in a wonderful lecture he gave tonight at Sydney University.

I’m inclined to agree – and not only because I want to agree.

Putnam’s argument – also espoused in his new book, American Grace – was that the close relationship between religiosity and Republican partisanship that we see today only started in the early 1990s, and began as a wedge strategy intended to galvanise a conservative base against encroaching liberalism by appealing to the pervasive religiousness of most Americans, tapping in to socially conservative issues such as abortion as the hot buttons.

And it worked. Putnam showed evidence that around the early 1970s there was no correlation between religious attendance (as a proxy for religiosity) and partisan preference. In fact, in the late 1960s, if you were more highly devout, you were more likely to vote Democrat. But that had all changed by the 1980s, and particularly into the 1990s.

Makes sense. Old school Republicanism used to be represented by the north-eastern industrialists – hardly a religious bunch. Too distracted by money and cigars. Conversely, there were the ‘southern Democrats’ who, until the quakes of the civil rights movement rocked their foundations, were deeply religious but were working class and voted for labour and community issues.

But in the 1990s that changed. And it’s already beginning to backfire.

The United States now sports a record number of what Putnam drolly calls “young nones”; the now 18% of the population – and upwards of 30% of youth – who list their religious affiliation as ‘none.’ However, it’s presumptuous to assume they’re atheists; many still profess a belief in God, but they disassociate with organised religion.

Putnam’s thesis is that they see the vitriol of the religious right directed towards progressive social issues, and they identify religion – particularly evangelical Christianity – with homophobia, militant anti-abortionism, bigotry and other socially conservative positions that are thoroughly unsavoury to minds shaped by the liberal 1990s.

So they move on. Both from organised religion and from Republicanism. As the old conservatives – the relics of the pre-1950s world – die off, these ‘young nones’ will start to have a much greater impact on politics.

The upshot: perhaps we can hope for a world where religiously-fuelled extreme social conservatism is divorced from politics. In fact, let’s not hope. Let’s expect it.

Let’s stop giving credence to the extreme religious lobby. When they pop their heads up and spout some ludicrous line, such as that art should pass through a classification board, let’s just chuckle and say “well, extremists would say that” and move on to more important matters, like deficit reduction or mitigating climate change.

Religion isn’t necessarily socially conservative. Certainly, organised religion leans that way – group membership, loyalty, in-group favouritism and out-group vilification etc are how organised religion stays organised. But religions also preach love, charity, forgiveness, peace – all bastions of progressivism.

By crikey, it’ll be nice to look back on all this. To look back on the 2000s and remark at how aberrant this religiosity was. It may not take long before we’re looking back with a wince and a sigh and saying just these things.





The Revolution is Dead (For Now)

15 03 2011

There aren’t any revolutionaries any more. The closest contemporary figure I can muster from the cloudy reaches of my imagination who might qualify as a revolutionary is Julian Assange. Certainly he’s an original thinker, far more so than most people these days.

But even Assange’s revolution is incremental, if profound. He a seeks to change the landscape of democracy without necessarily wiping the slate clean entirely. His is not a prescriptive vision of a better world, but a solution to the ills of this one, underpinned by a conviction about the particular nature of corruption – or, as he calls it, ‘conspiracy.’

So where are the true revolutionaries? Where are the visionaries with a compelling view of a better world, one for which we ought to fight to bring into reality? Who’s thinking beyond the contingencies of this world to the possibilities of the next?

There was a time, not so long ago, when revolution was in common parlance and bold visions of a new world were talked about openly, debated, fought over and striven for. Only 40 years ago there was talk of building nothing less than a new civilisation.

What happened?

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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.








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