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…








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