Philosophy? Or Fear?

What does fear have to do with political philosophy?

According to a fascinating article in Business Insider, a lot.

Academicians who study such things tell us that, in the wake of 9/11, many people who were politically liberal became less so–scientists documented a “very strong conservative shift” in the US after the attacks, with more liberals supporting George W. Bush and favoring increased military spending.

The hypothesis social scientists developed about this effect is perhaps best summed up in a 2003 review of research on the subject: “People embrace political conservatism (at least in part) because it serves to reduce fear, anxiety, and uncertainty; to avoid change, disruption, and ambiguity; and to explain, order, and justify inequality among groups and individuals,” it said.

Researchers have also found that people who self-identify as conservative have larger and more active right amygdalae. This is an area of the brain that has been associated with the expression and processing of fear. A 2011 study looked at MRI scans of conservative young adults and found they had more grey matter in their right amygdalae than their liberal counterparts. Interestingly, when researchers conducted experiments that were structured to make these conservatives feel safer, those conservatives who responded to the constructed environment, who did feel safer, became more liberal.

These results have been linked to evolution’s “fundamental drive for personal safety.” Other political consequences of our evolutionary past have been subjected to experimentation as well. For example, it seems that

washing hands with soap and water can make people less hostile to individuals who are different than they are. Bargh says that’s because to some extent, our modern prejudices are shaped by the way we’ve evolved to avoid unknown, foreign threats like disease.

These studies are interesting, and they have obvious relevance to the partisanship of our current era. That said, they raise thorny questions that have been the subject of philosophical dispute for eons: how much of human behavior is the result of conscious thought? Logical argumentation? Is there such a thing as free will, or are we human animals acting out a lifespan pre-programmed in our genes and modified–if at all–by our very gradual evolution?

Is my opposition to the GOP tax bill really grounded in my analysis of its provisions and my conclusion that it is morally and economically indefensible? Or did I just inherit less gray matter in my amygdala?

Is the revulsion I feel when I see Donald Trump on television a reaction to my conscious recognition that he is totally unfit for the Presidency, is pursuing ruinous policies, and poses a genuine threat to world peace? Or does he simply remind my genes of some primordial cockroach?

It’s a conundrum…


An Epiphany? Or Indigestion?

I was on the treadmill at the gym, watching panelists on “Morning Joe” react to the daily stream of Trumpisms, when I had an epiphany of sorts. Or maybe it was just a bout of indigestion…

We are framing America’s worsening political divide all wrong. We aren’t having a debate between Left and Right, Conservatives and Liberals. We are having a culture war.

Think about it.

Republicans with whom I worked for many years–those in my age cohort–are appalled by what the party has become. They are no less conservative than they ever were, if you define conservative by reference to a genuine political ideology and policy preferences that are congruent with that ideology. They look at today’s GOP, and they don’t see anything approaching a coherent philosophy– or for that matter, any real engagement with reality, or with ideas of any sort.

That reaction isn’t limited to older, bewildered, garden-variety Republicans. It’s also common among  the pundits and think-tank scholars who once represented the intellectual core of a conservative GOP–Norman Ornstein, David Brooks, Jennifer Rubin, Charlie Sykes and numerous others. As Sykes–a radio commentator popular with the Right before he joined #nevertrump–recently wrote,

[Trump] tapped into something disturbing that we had ignored and perhaps nurtured—a shift from freedom to authoritarianism, from American “exceptionalism” to nativism and xenophobia. From his hard line on immigration and rebuttal of free trade to his strange fascination with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Trump represented a dramatic repudiation of the values that had once defined the movement.

Social scientists have characterized this shift in GOP orthodoxy as a move to the extreme Right. I think a recent column by David Brooks hints at a more accurate description. After analyzing arguments made by both sides in the gun control argument, he wrote the following (the emphases are mine).

The real reason the gun rights side is winning is postindustrialization. The gun issue has become an epiphenomenon of a much larger conflict over values and identity.

A century ago, the forces of industrialization swept over agricultural America, and monetary policy became the proxy fight in that larger conflict. Today, people in agricultural and industrial America legitimately feel that their way of life is being threatened by postindustrial society. The members of this resistance have seized on issues like guns, immigration, the flag as places to mobilize their counterassault. Guns are a proxy for larger issues.

Four in 10 American households own guns. As Hahrie Han, a political science professor, noted in The Times Wednesday, there are more gun clubs and gun shops in this country than McDonald’s. For many people, the gun is a way to protect against crime. But it is also an identity marker. It stands for freedom, self-reliance and the ability to control your own destiny. Gun rights are about living in a country where families are tough enough and responsible enough to stand up for themselves in a dangerous world.

The lines I have emphasized describe the people who form the base of today’s GOP. They are not “conservative” in the political philosophy sense of that word; instead, they are trying to “conserve” a world and a reality that is fast disappearing. The nativism and xenophobia that Sykes references are characteristic of people who feel themselves under siege and desperately want someone to blame.

The increasing hostility between the so-called GOP “establishment” and the party’s ever more rabid base is in part a disconnect between people who have relatively coherent and informed policy preferences and people who are frightened and angry and acting out. (I say “in part” because if you define the current GOP establishment as its elected officials, there’s sufficient intellectual dishonesty and outright corruption to justify a good deal of that hostility.)

If we mischaracterize our dangerous and chaotic political environment as a rational (albeit impassioned) debate between philosophies of the Left and Right, we will continue to fight the wrong battles. Thoughtful Conservatives and Liberals can and do find areas of agreement and work together in the public interest. Philosophical and policy differences are irrelevant, however, to beleaguered culture warriors who see modernity as an existential threat, and seek vindication of their worldview in an authority figure who personifies their belligerence and shares their contempt for reason, expertise, moderation and complexity.

We need to fight the right battle.

I wish I knew how.


There’s Another Explanation….

Inside Higher Education has recently joined the chorus of–or at least, provided fodder to– those who equate more education with leftist indoctrination.

Americans with college degrees are to the left of the majority of Americans who lack a college degree. And a new study by the Pew Research Center shows that those who have attended graduate school are even farther to the left than those who have only an undergraduate degree.

File this under “And what else is new?”

The academy has been accused of inculcating “elitist,” liberal, unrealistic attitudes ever since I can remember. The widespread suspicion of people who choose the “life of the mind” over commerce or honest labor is at the heart of contemporary efforts to judge the value of universities by comparing job placement statistics. (It’s okay if you just attend college to acquire skills for the marketplace, but be careful that your job training isn’t subverted by some artsy-fartsy detour into learning for its own sake.)

When you learn more, evidently, it turns you liberal.

To some extent, that’s undoubtedly true. The real problem with today’s facile equation of educated people and political liberalism, however, is that the definition of  terms like conservative and liberal, never very precise, have changed over the years–and rather dramatically, at that.

Today, we dismiss as “liberal” the person who sees issues as complex, who changes her mind about a policy if new evidence suggests that previous understandings were incomplete, who relies on evidence rather than unsupported assertion. (A contemporary liberal is unlikely to sign that petition to keep trans people out of restrooms, for example, because there has never been a reported problem.) Today’s liberal is less likely to believe something because a religious figure has proclaimed that “God said so,” and more likely to accept scientific consensus about things like the age of the earth, evolution and climate change.

In short, today’s liberal looks a lot like the 18th Century Enlightenment figures who gave us science, empiricism and the social contract.

While my students have difficult believing it, liberalism so understood used to be common in the Republican party. Republicans and Democrats used to occupy broad areas of agreement, differing primarily over the policies most likely to achieve agreed-upon ends. Back then, those shared worldviews were labeled “moderate.”

As the GOP turned into the God Squad, and those areas of agreement diminished, “Republican” became synonymous with “conservative” and “Democrat” became another word for liberal.

As a result, when educated people identify as liberal these days, they don’t necessarily mean left-wing populist or socialist.  They certainly don’t identify with the Left as it developed in Europe. They don’t even necessarily “feel the Bern.”

These days, what they mean is something like “I’m not one of the nut-cases doing grocery shopping with my open-carry weapon. I don’t throw rocks at gay people, or burn copies of the Koran, and I don’t forward racist, sexist and anti-Semitic emails. I’m not one of the people calling myself ‘pro life’ when I’m really just pro-birth and anti-woman. I’m not stupid enough to think American can deport twelve million people, or carpet-bomb the Middle East or reverse same-sex marriage. I understand that issues are complicated, that facts matter, and that people who don’t look like me have rights too.”

Today, someone who says those things is a Democrat. Or– in contemporary parlance– a liberal.

It wasn’t always that way.


The Death of Language….

One of my constant complaints–one that undoubtedly gets tiresome–is that the words we use in political discourse no longer mean what they used to. Or for that matter, much of anything.

Thanks to Rush Limbaugh and his ilk, “liberal”–which used to refer to 18th Century libertarian Enlightenment thinkers and later was used to mean “open minded”– was twisted into an epithet and replaced by “progressive.” (“Progressive” gets applied to pretty much anyone who doesn’t hate government and gay people, and send racist emails.)

I used to consider myself something of a cross between an Eighteenth-Century liberal and an Edmund Burke conservative, back before the term “conservative” didn’t call up the image of an angry old white guy in a tricorner hat demanding the return of “his” country. So I was nostalgic reading this recent post about Burke by Andrew Sullivan. I really encourage you to read it in its entirety, but here’s a taste:

For a conservative should not be implacably hostile to liberalism (let alone demonize it), but should be alert to its insights, and deeply aware of the need to change laws and government in response to unstoppable change in human society. Equally, a liberal can learn a lot from conservatism’s doubts about utopia, from the conservative concern with history, tradition and the centrality of culture in making human beings, and from conservatism’s love and enjoyment of the world as-it-is, even as it challenges the statesman or woman to nudge it toward the future. The goal should not be some new country or a new world order or even a return to a pristine past that never existed: but to adapt to necessary social and cultural change by trying as hard as one can to make it coherent with what the country has long been; to recognize, as Orwell did, that a country, even if it is to change quite markedly, should always be trying somehow to remain the same.


This means a true conservative – who is, above all, an anti-ideologue – will often be attacked for alleged inconsistency, for changing positions, for promising change but not a radical break with the past, for pursuing two objectives – like liberty and authority, or change and continuity  – that seem to all ideologues as completely contradictory.

I miss the days when labels had content.


What Those Words Really Mean

According to a post in Daily Kos, in 2010, 42 percent of the electorate self-identified as conservatives, while only 20 percent self-identified as liberals. By 2012, the gap had narrowed to a historic low, with only 35 percent of the Obama-Romney electorate calling themselves conservative, and a full quarter of the electorate (25 percent, the high water mark for the modern era), self-identifing as liberal.

These numbers are intriguing, although I doubt seriously that they signal a shift in political orientation. My theory (for many years now) has been that political terminology lacks much actual content–that the words used to self-describe political philosophy tell us very little about the actual policy preferences of the person using them. What they do tell us is which party that person identifies with. “I’m more like these people and less like those people.”

In other words, in a world where Republicans are seen frugal and self-reliant and Democrats are seen as welfare moochers and members of despised minorities, lots of voters will identify with Republicans. If, on the other hand, Democrats are seen as inclusive citizens who care for the well-being of their communities and Republicans are seen as selfish and bigoted, more people will identify as Democrats.

Credible research into the actual policy preferences of the electorate suggests that Americans are moderately progressive, very supportive of social programs like social security and Medicare, uneasy with abortion but unwilling to reverse Roe v. Wade, and increasingly willing to extend equal rights to GLBT citizens. To the extent that the Democratic party has been able to frame its message to align with those positions, more voters have identified with it. But the real shift hasn’t been better framing by the Democrats; it has been disastrous framing by Republicans.

Whatever one’s views about the actual policies pursued by Ronald Reagan, his GOP was a sunny, affirming party. To use today’s (unfortunate) terminology, it was all about how celebrating the “makers” would benefit the “takers” and all Americans would be better off. Today’s Republicans have painted a very different picture, a picture of a party that believes that the so-called makers are entitled to piss on the so-called takers.

The current image of the GOP–fair or unfair–is of a party unwilling to accept science, unwilling to allow women to make our own reproductive decisions, unwilling to extend equal rights to gays or any path to citizenship to immigrants. In short, it is an image of mean-spiritedness if not outright bigotry.

As a result, the term “conservative” no longer means “prudent and responsible.” And the term liberal–a term Republicans have trashed for at least a quarter of a century–no longer seems like an epithet.