The Psychology of Politics

Years ago, I thought I was going to die. I was a back-seat passenger getting a ride back from a weekend encounter group, and the driver and the other passenger had such a screaming match over politics that I thought a car crash was inevitable.

Ever since then, I have pondered the emotional basis of political views. Knowing someone’s position on gun control, say, is a strong indicator of their position on defense, immigration or crime. What is the cause of this strong correlation? There must be some common attitude.

The Emotion Behind These Positions

For conservatives, the common factor in these positions is fear. Fear of criminals requires being armed; fear of other countries demands a strong military; fear of economic and social impairment demands a restrictive immigration policy; fear of crime demands extensive policing and stern justice.

The fear is of contamination, disruption and dissolution, and the solution is a strong boundary between the trusted and the dangerous world: a gated community, 700 miles of border fence, SUVs that will survive a crash, a strong military always at the ready.

Some kind of boundary is not just reasonable; it is necessary. Consider an amoeba; its cell wall prevents it from dispersing into the environment, and protects its valuable resources from being plundered. So to this day, through a long line of inheritance, we instinctively avoid disease, decay and putrefaction. Yet the amoeba’s boundary cannot be impermeable, because it must allow ingress of nutrients and release of waste products. Likewise, we must breathe, eat and drink; we must buy and sell; we cannot survive without interacting with the world.

The extent to which we fear other people depends on how we perceive them. At one extreme, the liberal believes in the goodness of man: let him be but freed from the yoke of dictators and tyrants, and heaven on earth will unfold. At the conservative end of the spectrum, evil dwells in the heart of man: it takes law and order and constant vigilance to keep chaos at bay.

So the difference between conservatives and liberals is where to draw the line between friend and foe. Neither extreme is tenable; the challenge is to choose the optimum position. Of course, this is not a hard-line boundary. Some way-points for reference are self, family, clan, town, state, nationality, species and life. The liberal would suggest that the further out the boundary can reasonably be drawn, the better off we are, with more friends and fewer enemies. The conservative would respond that the only true and natural boundary is the self. To expand it any further involves loss of autonomy and loss of power through fealty to the larger group, and leaves one vulnerable to the self-interest of other people.

Fear is generated by the amygdala, a primitive brain structure, which tends to be larger in conservatives. When triggered, it overwhelms the rational brain, which is evolutionarily more recent, and the worst-case outcome is predicted1. Yet rational thought is what distinguishes our species from all others, and we have an obligation to use it and not let our impulses overwhelm our ability to think clearly. This is hard to do, because of the nature of fear: it drives us from behind, and we do not see the force behind our actions. Only by looking over our shoulder and staring it in the face can we take charge and exercise our will.

Where and How to Strike a Balance

Classifying people as friend or foe is not an either/or proposition; we recognize degrees and areas of trust. This trust comes about through knowledge of others. We understand their motives, we see their hopes and fears, we learn their values. Today, this knowledge is greatly expanding because of video, social media and the Internet. Film and television are both one-way transmissions, carrying the message of a narrow elite, but now, conversations are taking place all across the world. We are learning about others from their own lips, and the message the elites of this world wish to promote is losing its spell.

Man is a cooperative animal. It is easier for two people to jointly carry two sofas up a flight of stairs than for each to carry one individually. and such behavior over millennia has led to the interdependence that exists today. No man could design and build a freeway, a skyscraper or a jetliner by himself. The benefits we all reap far exceed the satisfactions of being a solitary survivalist, as evidenced by how few people pack a Bowie knife and leave civilization forever.

The basis of cooperation is empathy, and we are now finding its physiological basis in mirror neurons. Empathy is regarded with suspicion by conservatives, as demonstrated by their horror when Supreme Court nominee Sotomayor used the word during Senate confirmation hearings, and research shows lower levels of empathy in conservatives. Nevertheless, it is an important human attribute, and its absence leads to sociopathic behavior.

Given the immense benefits of cooperation, there is a moral obligation on the part of conservatives to relinquish fear, trust their fellow humans, and join in creating a more accepting and peaceful society.

At the same time, there is a moral obligation on liberals to consider the effects of inclusiveness, and to restrict it when the results would have ill effects.

In both cases, we must let facts be the ultimate determinant, not our fears or ideology.

1. Some examples of issues where impending doom did not arrive:

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