Us and Them How Partisan Politics Rule Your Mind

The political language of left and right comes from the French Revolution, with the Left opposing the monarchy and the Right supporting Louis XVI. Not sure which supported school vouchers.

The political language of left and right comes from the French Revolution, with the Left opposing the monarchy and the Right supporting Louis XVI. Not sure which supported school vouchers.

Rule number two here at The Fog of Policy is, “there are no teams.” That isn’t to say you don’t build coalitions in order to affect policy, but if we’re all in this together – and we are – then we can’t afford to reflexively disagree with each other. Of course, everything about the way we do politics is meant to undermine that philosophy. Democratic politics, where the rubber meets the road, is pretty often about little more than winning elections. And elections are pretty contentious affairs where it isn’t terribly easy to split the difference – you can’t give both the Democrat and the Republican half your vote. Asking politicians to not be competitive with each other isn’t very realistic; asking that of political parties misses the entire point of why they exist in the first place.

Up to a point, that’s okay. And the reason it’s okay is that politicians and political parties are only a tiny part of our body politic. The much larger and much more important element of that body is us: the citizenry. And so I’ll tell you where dividing ourselves into teams is an issue. It isn’t in the partisanship but rather in the ideological underpinnings of that partisanship: the notion that we can meaningfully divide the political world between liberals and conservatives.

I won’t bore you with the history of how we came to understand political persuasions as being aligned on a single axis running from ‘left’ to ‘right’. Suffice it to say that this practice has its origin in the French Revolution and, accordingly, red-blooded Americans should be deeply suspicious of it, if for no other reason than what that kind of thinking got the French. I’m counting on that suspicion to help bring you along with my argument that this way of understanding our disagreements is both inadequate and deeply pernicious.

Anyone who makes a habit of discussing public policy, especially anyone who has had such a conversation with a Ron/Rand Paul supporter, already knows how naive the left/right model is. Its most troubling absurdity is that it asks us to believe that we can meaningfully predict how someone should feel about drug policy from how they feel about subsidies for corn. Its main advantage, if you’re an elected official, is that it allows you to talk to voters about drug policy and then use their support to get subsidies for corn.

But heuristics have a way of being self-fulfilling. Tell enough people there’s a relationship between how they feel about gay marriage, abortion, defense spending, and school vouchers and they’ll eventually come to believe it. There are a few reasons for this.

First, no one likes to rock the boat. If you’re weakly attached to a position that people in your social group hold, that attachment is likely to grow over time. Conversely, if you’re weakly attached to a position the people around you object to, either that attachment will weaken or your attachment with those people will weaken. We simply don’t do conflict all that well in small groups. I’m not a big hockey fan, but you can bet a pretty penny if the sport ever takes with me, I’ll end up a Boston Bruins fan and not a New York Rangers fan. Living in Boston, who needs the grief?

Unfortunately, we do conflict very well in large groups. Sometimes it’s easier to know what you don’t like than it is to define what you do like. The space between those two is exactly the space demagogues like to occupy: let me remind you of what you hate, and how what I’m proposing is the opposite of that. Or let me remind you of how who I am is the opposite of who you fear.

Twice-divorced, thrice-married, Newt Gingrich stands for conservative family values.

Twice-divorced, thrice-married, Newt Gingrich stands for conservative family values.

This seems to work well for politicians, even when it’s transparently absurd.

A common example of this is the Republican charge that Democrats are elitists. (Though, truthfully, both parties like to make this charge when they feel they can get away with it.) My issue isn’t so much with the legitimacy of the claim – anyone who runs for public office is an elitist of one sort or another – but rather with the chutzpah with which it’s made.

During the 2012 Presidential campaign, Mitt Romney derided Obama as a Harvard-educated elitist and Clint Eastwood memorably cracked during the Republican convention that maybe we shouldn’t want lawyers to be President. This despite the fact that Romney also holds a law degree from Harvard in addition to his MBA, which is also from Harvard! But that didn’t matter; Republicans were reminding voters that they don’t like elitists and then offering themselves as the alternative. Never mind that it made no sense.

John Edwards stands for great hair, white teeth, and horrible, self-destructive behavior.

John Edwards stands for great hair, white teeth, and horrible, self-destructive behavior.

Second, no one is an expert on everything but everyone wants to have an opinion on the things that matter. When you don’t know, you listen to the people you already trust on the issues that are most important to you. We all have to do this. (This is how I know that the New York Rangers are an awful team.) And because we’re already divided into teams and we get all our information from team-based information sources, those people are most likely going to tell us things that will keep us in the fold.

This is all great for the media, which thrives off conflict and simplicity, as well as for politicians, who have the difficult task of assembling coalitions made much easier. Unfortunately, it really is quite terrible for the country.

I don’t have any great solutions to this little quandary. Truthfully, I kind of think it’s baked into the delicious-but-oftentimes-indigestion-inducing cake that is representative self government. What I can offer, however, is an alternative rubric for classifying political preferences. Why? Because some us can benefit from being reminded how much we agree with the people we generally vote against, as well as how much we disagree with the people we generally vote with.

I break my classification into six dimensions; I can’t label it with an overarching binary because that would defeat the whole point of this exercise. Each dimension represents a range of policy preferences between two extremes. Necessarily, I’m going to use language that is oftentimes bandied about in what I think are contradictory or misleading ways. Please bear with me:

(1) On Change: Conservative vs. Progressive.

Ron Paul: a conservative who wants to change everything.

Ron Paul: a conservative who wants to change everything.

This first dimension captures little more than your personal comfort with and bias towards change, with conservatives preferring continuity and progressives favoring change. I’d argue this dimension is much less important than our use of these terms would imply because our comfort with change has less to do with change, per se, and more to do with the distance between the status quo and our policy preferences.

People don’t generally favor changing or not changing social security because they think change, in and of itself, is a good or bad idea. They favor changing it because they think social security is, in and of itself, a good or bad idea. (Occasionally, someone just wants to change it to make the thing run better, but this rare.) Whether you’re a conservative or a progressive usually depends on the issue.

(2) On the Market: Free-Market Liberal vs. Interventionist.

This category is pretty much about what you think it’s about, though we could set the end points farther from or closer to the extremes in an effort to make sense of the world. We can imagine one end as being comprised of anarchists who wouldn’t even support a role for the state in establishing property rights, and the other end as comprised of supporters of an entirely centrally-planned economy. In reality, Americans tend to occupy the space between “I’d like the government to be responsible for 17% of the economy”  and “I’d like the government to be responsible for 25% of the economy”. Important, but hardly the chasm we’re led to believe.

(3) On Social Issues: Traditionalist vs. Social Liberal.

This one is a bit more complicated than it first appears. This dimension doesn’t capture a person’s personal behavior preference, but rather their public policy preference. So we might imagine a person (let’s call him ‘everyone’) who thinks cheating on a spouse and abandoning them at their death bed is morally wrong, but wouldn’t want to make that illegal. Likewise, we can imagine someone (let’s call him ‘Every President’) who thinks narcotics should be illegal, but is still content to use them recreationally as long as you’re in college.

(4) On Government Structure: Centralized vs. Distributed.

I’d argue this dimension should also be highly issue-dependent; we can all imagine some services which are most effectively provided when they’re centralized (like defense) as well as others which are best provided according to a distributed model (like policing). Of course, anyone who has ever lived in Chicago also knows there is such a thing as too much decentralization – think trash collection and snow removal by ward. There are some issues we’ve come to argue about through this prism – most contentiously social welfare programs – but I’d contend that preferences for centralization are much less consistent and less partisan than we imagine. Think about how abortion, gay rights, environmental policy, and taxes have each seen their fair share of people arguing for a centralization and then a decentralization of policy as political momentum shifts.

(5) On Defense: Doves vs. Hawks.

The caricature ends of this spectrum are the warmongers and peaceniks – one of the few instances where such exaggerated manifestations are truly found in the American spectrum, even if not in the Congress.

(6) On the Role of Government: Libertarian vs. Social/Collectivist.

This is the most complex of these dimensions. One way to look at it is that libertarians emphasize negative freedoms and personal responsibility for outcomes while social/collectivists emphasize social responsibility for outcomes and positive freedoms. This is probably the dimension that most directly corresponds to how we understand the left/right divide in this country, even though the French understood it as a divide between monarchists and revolutionaries. Even so, I’d caution that politicians are usually more keen to classify their policies in particular ways than they are to defend those characterizations.

(I hope this didn’t clarify anything. My intention wasn’t to replace one overly-simplistic model of political disagreement with another slightly-less-simplistic model of political disagreement. Rather, I want to convince you that we have more to gain than to lose from imagining the world more richly than David Gregory would have it be. We miss you, Tim Russert.)

My contention is that these dimensions are logically, even if not psychologically, independent of each other. Though there might be affinities between similar positions among the six dimensions, any combination of preferences could be logically consistent. In fact, an international longitudinal survey would reveal that one of the central things that distinguishes the politics of a particular place and time from those of another is precisely which combinations of preferences come to be understood as ‘natural’.

Few things capture this as nicely as the way in which what it means to be a market liberal has changed over time. Adam Smith and David Ricardo were progressives. By the time we get to Allen Greenspan’s tenure at the Federal Reserve, market liberalism and the Washington Consensus represent a conservative ideology. But then, after the subprime mortgage debacle, some have come to question Greenspan’s free market bonafides and a bolder, more progressive version of market liberalism has been resurgent. Likewise, many of the policies of the Progressive Era, in reference to which that term is most commonly used today, are well-entrenched elements of contemporary America. But we call those who want to radically alter them ‘conservatives’ and those who would least like to change them ‘progressives’ because, well, words don’t actually mean anything.


Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.

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