Monday, November 8, 2010

Trusting liberals and competent conservatives

Conservative US columnist Charles Krauthammer has set out how, in the US, conservatives think that liberals are stupid and liberals think that conservatives are evil. (Throughout this post, I am using ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ in their, somewhat odd, American uses—American conservatives being folk who accept what, historically, was liberal politics and economics while American liberals are social democratic/progressivist: but this is the terminology of both American politics and American social science, hence the terminology I will use in this post.)

Amusingly, some recent research suggests an empirical basis for Krauthammer’s polemical dissection. Jacob Vigil, an evolutionary psychologist, working from Jacob Jost’s analysis that political ideologies:
like virtually all other belief systems, are adopted in part because they satisfy various psychological needs … [which] is not to say they are unprincipled, unwarranted, or unresponsive to reason or evidence
has come up with an analysis of liberal-versus-conservative political identity as coming from different personal interaction strategies.

The basic idea is that:
Conservatives, being more oriented toward dominance, tend to acquire a larger group of friends and associates than liberals. They are more sensitive to potential threats because there are more people in their orbit, and thus the danger of their being hurt by a duplicitous person is greater. Liberals, being more inward-oriented, have smaller, tighter social groups and thus feel less threatened, which in turn allows them to be more open to unfamiliar experiences.
Or, to put it even more pithily:
“The basic idea is that folks who have small social spheres are going to be demonstrating more trust cues, and those who have bigger social spheres, more capacity cues.” Liberals, in other words, are demonstrating trustworthiness as a way of attracting the social support they need, while conservatives are demonstrating power for the exact same reason.
So, consider Krauthammer’s take on American liberals:
Liberals tend to be nice, and they believe -- here is where they go stupid -- that most everybody else is nice too. Sure, you've got your multiple felon and your occasional war criminal, but they're undoubtedly depraved 'cause they're deprived. If only we could get social conditions right -- eliminate poverty, teach anger management, restore the ozone, arrest John Ashcroft -- everyone would be holding hands smiley-faced.
Liberals believe that human nature is fundamentally good. The fact that this is contradicted by, oh, 4,000 years of human history simply tells them how urgent is the need for their next seven-point program for the social reform of everything.
Liberals suffer incurably from naivete, the stupidity of the good heart. Who else but that oracle of American liberalism, The New York Times, could run the puzzled headline: "Crime Keeps On Falling, but Prisons Keep On Filling." But? How about this wild theory: If you lock up the criminals, crime declines.
Sure, Krauthammer’s poking fun. But the underlying idea sits rather nicely with Vigil’s analysis.
Then there is how Krauthammer summarises the archetypal American liberal take on conservatives:
They think conservatives are mean. How can conservatives believe in the things they do -- self-reliance, self-discipline, competition, military power -- without being soulless? How to understand conservative desire to abolish welfare, if it is not to punish the poor? The argument that it would increase self-reliance and thus ultimately reduce poverty is dismissed as meanness rationalized -- or as Rep. Major Owens, D-N.Y., put it more colorfully in a recent House debate on welfare reform, "a cold-blooded grab for another pound of flesh from the demonized welfare mothers."
Is this not someone who operates via an intentions-matter signalling-trust mechanism reacting in horror at people operating according to a consequences-matter signalling-capacity/competence mechanism?

Whether Vigil has got the connection between experience in childhood and adolescence and adult politics correct is a moot point. But his descriptions of the adult strategies of signalling competence or signalling trust do seem to be getting at something. So, in his words, people who are:
competency-oriented; they’ve discovered they have the ability to influence the lives of others. They advertise this capacity, which makes them desirable not only as potential mates, but also as potential friends or business associates. Thus they acquire a larger social sphere.
They would have an approach which is concerned with what works, and where finding out about folk’s character, and dealing with them accordingly, is important. That would tend to lead to a certain sort of politics.

Then there is the signaling-trust strategy:
To advertise their desirability as friends or associates, they take a different route, emphasizing their ability to care for, and about, others.
It is all about intentions and compassion: a different sort of politics flows from that.

The work of Jonathan Haidt and his colleagues on the psychological foundations of morality (which I recently posted on) has some congruence with this, in that it postulates a wider set of moral concerns for conservatives over liberals in ways that also seem to overlap with Vigil's analysis. I am sceptical of Vigil’s take on the childhood and adolescent origins of different people-management strategies. But he has broached a line of research that does seem to be on to something worth pursuing.

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