Political Labels and Polaritzation

by Cosmo Houck

It’s easy for many people to forget that political bifurcation in the U.S. is an artifact of our electoral system, and not an insoluble fact of nature. This came up last week when two of my favorite bloggers, Julian Sanchez and Matt Steinglass, both felt compelled to address a piece by Chris Mooney based on his forthcoming book, The Republican Brain.

Mr. Mooney wants to say that certain character types correspond to either a “liberal” or “conservative” political affiliation. As Mr. Steinglass points out, there’s some sense in which this is a reasonable claim: of course our personalities affect our political persuasions. However, that doesn’t mean–at all–that our personalities predispose us toward political beliefs. That’s a problem for Mr. Mooney, because he wants to say that Republicans live in a fantasy world with policy positions that defy evidence. Certainly this may be true for some Republicans, but a Republican in the 1860s didn’t believe the same things that a Republican does today, and the same obviously goes for a Democrat (we’ll leave the Constitutional Union Party out of this). With that the case, it becomes harder to see personality as the totalizing force Mooney thinks it is. Steinglass lays this out while drawing from a post written by Kevin Drum.

What this means for Chris Mooney is that while character type may tell us something about political persuasion within a specific polity, it doesn’t tell us anything deterministic about policy positions. We can fiddle with this; Steinglass takes small issue with Mr. Drum’s claim that European conservatives aren’t anti-science–instead, he seems to say that they’re less anti-science.

Still, I think this is a sufficient reason to dismiss an argument that conflates personality type with policy positions you dislike, and I’m more interested in Mr. Sanchez’s line of attack.

His position is simple: there’s more than two political persuasions for you to be attracted to! Liberals and Conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, are not, absolutely not homogenous groups with universal beliefs. They’re loosely cobbled together coalitions that share diverse and often contradictory policy positions. The reason we think about our polity as bifurcated in this country is because it is systemically. Our electoral system–reliant on plurality voting–essentially ensures two dominant parties. In terms of policy or persuasion there’s no reason why that has to–or does– hold true on a personal level.

Look, this is something I’ve been talking about for a long time. During the height of Occupy I felt that it was telling that both libertarians and people on the “far” left turned out in force: those two groups agree on a lot of things they think are wrong with this country (i.e. endless war, civil liberties, etc.). Furthermore, I’m someone who has repeatedly expressed distaste for the Democratic party as it exists.

It’s a basic point that political philosophy is more fractured than “conservative” and “liberal”, and in a real sense those are meaningless words if you’re talking seriously about anything. Are Locke and Rawls both “liberal”? Or is Locke a “conservative” right there with John Stuart Mill? As soon as you start lumping together philsophers with divergent ways of thinking about the world, you should know you’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere. I’ve been working on Derek Parfit’s On What Matters for some time now, and if you were to ask me whether he’s “conservative” or “liberal” I’d say that you’re mentally ill-equipped to be thinking about the book at all.

And never mind throwing in political economists. Sanchez notes Hayek’s agreement with Rawls on “normative fundamentals”; with the “liberal” moral philosophical ground occupied squarely by those two, where the hell is a “liberal” like Marx supposed to find purchase? It just devolves into inanity.

Unfortunately, you don’t have to look very hard before you find people who don’t care. The Weekly Standard recently published an excerpt of Andrew Ferguson’s new afterword for the 25th anniversary of The Closing of the American Mind. I found it interesting enough that I’m going to go read Allan Bloom’s book, and I’m looking forward to it. It also, unsurprisingly, encouraged fevered reactionary tripe from Commentary Magazine’s Peter Wehner. Here’s the core of his arguement:

It’s quite true that an unwillingness to believe in objective moral truth is widespread in the academy and among those on the left — but only on certain issues. On other matters –gay rights and same-sex marriage, race-based affirmative action, a constitutional right to an abortion, gun control, Enhanced Interrogation Techniques, Guantanamo Bay, rendition, the right to a Palestinian state, anthropological global warming, the Tea Party v. the Occupy Wall Street movement, Rush Limbaugh v. Sandra Fluke, and others — those on the left don’t believe truth is relative. They believe, in fact, that their positions are right, moral, and objectively true and better.

One question and one point for Mr. Wehner:

  1. Where do you get this picture of ideological coherence? For instance, I’m far to the “left” of most people I know, but I’m suspicious of affirmative action of any kind and gun control laws. Putting myself aside, it would be miserly to declare liberal support of Israel anything less than “robust”, writers in The New Republic, New York Times, and The Atlantic (to name just a very, very few) have been avid in their support for all manner of “anti-terror” policies, and writers at those same institutions were intensely critical of Occupy (particularly when it first began). These are just some small examples. Perhaps none of them go as far as you might like, but that seems less like an ideological gulf between you and they and more like differences that could be mediated over a stiff drink. More to the point, the “left” contains all kinds, as does “the right”.
  2. If relativists stop being relativists because they believe in “objective” values like gay rights, then they’re not relativists. You can’t have it both ways. Your complaint is the much more pedestrian, “they aren’t always good at articulating their overarching moral philosophy”. I’ll even give you that: Kant/Rawls/Locke/pick your poison is a hell of a lot harder than the Bible, dude.