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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The Ethical Project: Measuring Ethical Progress

27 01 2012

In this post, I consider the notion of ethical progress. It follows on from my review of  Philip Kitcher’s The Ethical Project, then my post looking at the evolution of our moral psychology, and a post on moral functionalism.

One of the core themes of Kitcher’s is to chart, and account for, the notion of ethical progress. If we look back on the changes that have occurred in ethics through history and across cultures, is there any thread that we might declare as representing ‘progress’?

Does the move from a draconinan eye-for-an-eye lex talonis code of punishment to more moderate restitution and rehabilitation represent progress? Was emancipation progress? Was expanding womens’ rights progress? We want to say they were. But on what grounds?

This is ostensibly a problem for a naturalistic anti-realist account of morality – one such as Kitcher’s (and my own) – because there are no immutable moral truths (a priori, non-natural and/or divinely mandated) to which we can peg progress; ethical progress can’t simply be likened to scientific progress, where we gain a deeper understanding of ethical truth and then put it into practice.

Kitcher’s response to this problem is, I believe, the correct one. Once we acknowledge that ethics is a human invention which, according to the functionalist rendering, was created to solve the problems of social living (or “remedy those altruism failures provoking social conflict”, in Kitcher’s version), we can start to make sense of ethical progress.

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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.





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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Mid-terms: What Goes Around…

3 11 2010

In light of the results from the mid-term elections, I direct your attention to a post I made in May last year.

What goes around…

But, in the same spirit, the Democrats aren’t out for the count. They’re just winded. They’ll be back, or a bunch like them.

This is further guaranteed by a fundamental difference between this pendulum tip compared to the one that thrust Obama into the White House: this is not only an election about values, it’s an election driven by ignorance.

Values differ, and it’s to be expected that some people will favour one set of values over another, and each set will probably have its merits.

But facts are facts, and this lot who have swept into both houses of Congress are weak when it comes to their grasp of the facts. As a result, despite any actually good values they might possess, this bald ignorance and intellectual sluggishness will inevitably result in poor policy, and that will hasten their departure.

Let’s check back at the next election and see how this prediction fares in the light of history.