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.

Conservatives see the world as a dangerous and threatening place, and conservative ideology is designed to respond effectively to such a world. Closer social cohesion, stronger leadership and loyalty, more regulation of behaviour and an emphasis on conformity, stronger emphasis on defence and nationalism, more suspicion of outsiders, even greater economic freedom under the guise of a dog-eat-dog world where the strong deserve to survive.

Liberals see the world as a (relatively) safe place, and liberal ideology is designed to maximise social interaction and mutually beneficial cooperation as widely as possible in such a world. More tolerance, more individual freedom to behave and interact however one pleases, more concern for equality, more emphasis on reciprocity and preventing harm, more openness to other cultures and peoples etc.

Other elements of both ideologies are related to this core assumption about the world. Conservatives assume that people are essentially bad, and that it takes self-discipline to be good. They also take a ‘law of the jungle’ or Social Darwinist view of the world, seeing it as a meritocracy where the strongest and most enterprising survive.

Liberals assume people are essentially good, and that it’s environment and circumstances that cause bad behaviour. They also see the world as being more benign in general, but one’s success or failure is more a matter of luck than ability.

Also, if people are artificially primed with one or the other worldview – safe or dangerous world – they will tend to lean in one or the other ideological direction. However, when information about the world is incomplete or ambiguous, individual differences in worldview, fueled by individual differences in personality and psychology, lead to a diversity of attitudes about the world, and about which ideology is best (Mitchell and Tetlock, 2009*).

Ideologies don’t only offer a solution as to how to live in a safe/dangerous world, they reinforce the worldview on which they’re premised. This has a tendency to galvanize each ideological position on many people (see my post from the other day).

Greater social, geographic and now information mobility also enables individuals to seek out environments that reinforce their worldview, such as by living in communities with people of similar attitudes, having friends of a similar worldview persuasion, and accessing information sources, such as news and entertainment media, that share and reinforce their worldview.

I really think the safe world-dangerous world dimension might capture a tremendous amount of the difference between liberalism and conservatism, with the corresponding political ideologies emerging over time as abstract theoretical constructs that satisfy these two broad worldviews.

The big question is: is the world actually safe or dangerous?

In the developed world, it’s largely considerably safer than many people might assume, particularly conservatives.

If this is the case, and if conservatism is not the best strategy to employ in such an environment, then it’s crucial that liberals embark on a program to change the perception of people to more closely correspond to reality, stressing that it is, indeed safer than they might assume.

This could begin to affect people’s worldviews and diminish the emotional and intuitive appeal of conservatism.

Discuss.

*Great paper, this. I actually first read it through feeling pretty underwhelmed, but by the time I reached the end, the implication really struck me – that worldview strongly influences political ideology (which I’ve known since reading Lakoff, but it clearly hadn’t really sunk in), and personality only influences ideology indirectly, as mentioned in the post from a couple of days back.

And, yes, these last few posts have all been along very similar lines. That’s because I’m writing the chapter of my thesis about political psychology right now so I’m, shall we say, balls deep in the literature, and have many separate, but closely related, ideas bursting forth daily. And I’m sharing them with you!

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5 responses

8 01 2011
Paul

I’m not sure that liberals think people are inherently good. Liberals will often justify their preference for a strong and active state by citing the necessity to balance power against power. The assumption being that power corrupts. Liberalism, just like conservatism in the U.S., is about who is bad and who is good. Which is to say, who is part of my in-group, and who is part of my out-group. It is quite clear when one looks at election maps of the U.S., that the left/right divide isn’t just about personal differences, but also about what regions of the country should be allowed to rule. Of course, its been that since before the Civil War. The U.S. might just be an outlier due to its enormous size, its history of regionalism, and the heterogeneity of its population, as well as the way in which it citizens have been sorting themselves into different parts of the country based on socioeconomic class. However, politics is still war by other means insofar as it is one group of people competing with another, and I think that throws a significant wrench into the idea that either conservatives or liberals think that everyone is good.

8 01 2011
Tim Dean

Precisely: ‘power’ corrupts people, even good people. It’s an externalist claim.

And I’m not talking about the mechanics of front line politics, which has evolved as a competitive game over many generations. I’m talking about the worldviews behind the ideologies behind that game.

8 01 2011
James Gray

Conservatives see the world as a dangerous and threatening place, and conservative ideology is designed to respond effectively to such a world. Closer social cohesion, stronger leadership and loyalty, more regulation of behaviour and an emphasis on conformity, stronger emphasis on defence and nationalism, more suspicion of outsiders, even greater economic freedom under the guise of a dog-eat-dog world where the strong deserve to survive.

Liberals see the world as a (relatively) safe place, and liberal ideology is designed to maximise social interaction and mutually beneficial cooperation as widely as possible in such a world. More tolerance, more individual freedom to behave and interact however one pleases, more concern for equality, more emphasis on reciprocity and preventing harm, more openness to other cultures and peoples etc.

This is highly speculative and I would like more of a justification. How exactly does the world being safe relate to whether or not harm is relevant? If the world is dangerous, we would still want to try to make the world less harmful.

I see the world as dangerous, but I think nationalism is greatly a cause of that danger. The us vs them mentality is not helping.

9 01 2011
Vance

The Left/Right worldview is to vague to me. Liberals do act like the world’s mommy, Conservatives act like the world’s morality police. The common thread is both are fighting each other for who gets the power to control. But it’s much broader than that, some people fall in the middle, either due to having no opinion, to contextual opinion depending on the situation of the time.
Some people think people should have more personal responsibility and freedom. This moved the needle towards the extreme of anarchy. On the other end of the spectrum you have more central control and less freedom. Totalitarianism. Both parties are moving us that way, two sides of the same coin. And the parties are full of self-righteous people wanting to push THEIR values on others.
Now to me a ideological worldview is pure as long as it is spread through intellectual debate, not by force of law. This is rare these days, ideologies are now twisted and used to gain power.
Why can’t people in ideological debate, just delight in the opposing opinion and vibrant dialogue, and respect the others right to live their own lives? I see a need in a society for some level of control, but a broad and contextual one. When your actions cause physical harm to someone who has done nothing to you, or your actions infringe on the other’s rights, and fraud. This keeps laws simpler and few, and makes people more responsible for their actions, and provides a maximum amount of freedom short of anarchy.

1 11 2011
Beyond OWS: Problem #2: The Problem with Politics « Ockham's Beard

[…] dichotomy, it helps to understand the worldview of each side – which is something I explain in these two posts in more detail – but here’s the […]

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