Conservatives and Liberals look at the world differently. Because of the conservative need for alignment between their beliefs and the world around them (cognitive closure), they are much more likely to hold beliefs that are out of sync with the facts. That is at first a counter intuitive claim. But the reality is that when conservatives encounter facts that call their beliefs into question, they will deny or warp the facts rather than re-examine the beliefs. That’s called Moral Intuitionism.
The result in the current political scene is a series of political positions that have no basis in fact, but continue to drive the conservative movement.
We’ve looked at a few.
The claim, starting with Ronald Reagan, that the government is the problem. That caused conservative Republicans, among other things, to oppose Hurricane Sandy relief. It also was behind the debt ceiling debate and the claim that government doesn’t create jobs.
Government is not the problem, because in a democracy we the voters choose the government, and surveys have shown that voters generally like the government services that they receive. What conservatives are really saying when they say government is the problem is that liberal government policies are the problem – and that is certainly something the liberals are going to dispute.
The claim, starting again with Ronald Reagan, that lower tax rates will increase tax revenues. That was refined some under GWB, that lower tax rates on the rich will stimulate the economy. We’ve already seen that this is not an effective standalone economic strategy.
Some others that are well known include opposition to climate change, insistence that creationism is a science, and opposition to abortion, immigration, and gay rights.
Roots of Gridlock
Another aspect of how this behavior influences politics that we haven’t looked at is regional distribution of liberals and conservatives. Where did that come from?
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that at least one historian, David Hackett Fisher, traces it back to colonial times.
The north was settled mainly by English farmers, the south by Scots-Irish herders. They each brought their centuries of mutual distrust with them. Herders have an honor culture which is important to being able to be a successful nomad. Their wealth can literally walk away, so they have to respond quickly and forcefully to any real or perceived threat. When those threats have been identified, they depend on eye-for-eye retaliation to protect themselves. Farmers, on the other hand, are more secure because it is much more difficult to steal land. They develop a culture of interdependence, government, and the rule of law.
The farmers in the northeast had come from a Europe where monarchs imposed civilization on their subjects. The subjects eventually overthrew the monarchs and demanded self-determination, but retained the concept that a strong democratically elected central government was the best way to prevent the country from falling back into anarchy.
The herder culture followed settlers west. Initially it was a male dominated anarchy with few laws and many honor killings. As women moved west to help their husbands work the farms and ranches that they had created; churches, laws, and government followed. But the west didn’t go through the monarch phase where a strong central government essentially disarmed the populace and imposed the rule of law by force. Instead women imposed the rule of law by compromise and allowed men to continue support the honor culture.
The political distributions we see today are a direct result of these two cultures mixing. That mix now, however, goes all the way down to neighborhood. Conservatives prefer to live in neighborhoods and towns with conservatives. Liberals prefer to live in neighborhoods and towns with liberals. Toss in a dose of gerrymandering and you have congressional districts where extremism is rewarded and compromise punished.
In North Carolina, congressional districts are either so red or blue that they trend well above the national average in that regard, said David Wasserman, House of Representatives editor at the Cook Political Report.
There are “diametrically opposed viewpoints just across the highway median from each other,” Wasserman said. As a result, in votes like the fiscal cliff showdown, members of Congress “are simply responding to what their districts want.”
“The dirty little secret is that redistricting only explains part of polarization,” Wasserman said. “Congressional districts are polarized partly because Americans have polarized with their feet. It makes it easier for partisan line drawers to draw those lines.”
The result is what we see playing out in Congress today.
The 112th House was roughly 50% more polarized in terms of makeup than that of the 102nd, which convened from 1991 to 1993.
The 112th’s Senate was more polarized than the 46th Senate, which was in office from 1879-1881, just after the Reconstruction era that followed the Civil War.
Liberals and Conservatives do not effectively communicate with each other. That’s because these are emotional discussions about beliefs for Conservatives rather than discussions about fact which is the liberal preference.
The country reflects these differences geographically because of our history.
The current government reflects this differences because of how our representative government is structured.
So is this the doom of democracy or is there a way forward from gridlock to a functioning government?
We’ll take that up in another post.