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"America has two great dominant strands of political thought - conservatism, which, at its very best, draws lines that should not be crossed; and progressivism, which, at its very best, breaks down barriers that should never have been erected." -- Bill Clinton, Dedication of the Clinton Presidential Library, November 2004

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Thursday, February 03, 2005


Blinking without thinking

posted by Razib Khan at Thursday, February 03, 2005 permalink View blog reactions
Recently I've been helping out a friend with setting up a conservative Democratic website. By "conservative," I really mean a combination of mostly social moderation, with a few conservative elements, and generally a liberal New/Fair Deal outlook on fiscal issues. My own personal politics tend to shift in the other direction as far as implementation goes, that is, I am not that far off the "socially liberal + fiscally conservative" stereotype, though I'm a pragmatist about it (I'm consistently a moderate right-libertarian on Political Compass). Nevertheless I have no qualms about helping out my friend, in part because I'm getting paid for it, in part because politics isn't a great burning interest that I take personally, and in part because I think that genuine social conservatives + fiscal liberals need to have a stronger voice to balance out the discourse in this country (I also happen to think social liberals + fiscal conservatives also need to be more prominent).

What I found interesting though is the rapid reaction by some Democrats. Standard responses (from e-mail and the comment boards):
"We are not going to be a party of hate!"
"We are going to be a strong pro-choice party!"
"You're a crypto-Republican"

...and so on. As a point of fact my friend made an explicit statement that his organization and website was pro-choice. His social conservatism manifested itself in a statement that he opposed gay marriage (you know, like that conservative John Kerry). He also has some idiosyncratic ideas (from a standard Democratic perspective) about local control and the importance of the Bible which probably set a few people off.

But, what I found interesting was that people did not really absorb his redistributionist and anti-free trade talking points and consider that such positions indicate clearly that my friend was not a crypto-Republican. Additionally, abortion rights seemed to be something many of the e-mails brought up, sometimes the only point, despite the fact that my friend is pro-choice! (and was clear about this)

Malcolm Gladwell would say that on this issue people are "thin-slicing," that this is "rapid cognition" at work. You can restate the phenomena in a more prosaic fashion, but you get the general drift. A few vague impressions triggered a host of negative assocations, strong enough that people would hammer out outraged e-mails.

This isn't particularly surprising. In Descarte's Error Antonia Damasio made the point that emotions bias our "rationality" a great deal. Also, there are many processes going on under the cognitive hood which run on autopilot which we are unaware of. I am sure many of you know of the experiments which indicate rising stress levels in response to flashes of disturbing imagery which the subjects did not register on a conscious level. Similarly, if you flash a word very fast and give people syllabic fragments people often "guess" correctly the words that were flashed before them at a far higher rate than controls. Sometimes instincts work themselves out in a very strange fashion. During the 1996 Atlanta Olympic bombings if you looked at the videotape you would note that immediately after the explosion everyone froze for about 2 seconds, at which point a few people began to run, and within 4 seconds everyone was running away from the scene headlong. No one seems to have recalled freezing at all, it was an innate response that was triggered by a stressfull input sealed away from our conscious mind.

What does all this have to do with politics and the "Purple Nation"? One of the important points to remember about our republic, and liberal politics (whether that be right liberal, libertarian liberal or left liberal) is that they are based to some extent on an artificial rationalistic basis. John Locke's contractual State of Nature based political philosophy was in some ways a thought experiment writ large, while Montesquieu's checks and balances drew from Polybius' observations about the Roman Republic. The American republic was not necessarily an organically developed entity, it had a "propositional" principled and rationalistic origin. Similarly, many Americans still talk in terms of abstract "rights" and refer ostentatiously to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Ideas matter to us, because even if the reality is messier, our nation's mythos revolves around foundational ideas.

But though Americans speak rationalistically and draw upon a rich history of adherence to abstract law and fidelity to the written Constitution, in our basic make-up we are just as human as anyone else. That means in our day-to-day life we believe we are far more rational, conscious and declaritive in our actions, decisions and reactions than we are. Not only do emotions severely bias our filtering of data and skew the inferences draw from logic, a host of background cognitive processes channel and shape the context in which we make our decisions. Implicit memory and experience swim under the surface of our conscious mind, sealed off from the knife of rationality, but always guiding our hands and weighting our impulses.

Conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats, often illustrate and declare their differences in rational language. Each group identifies, analyzes and categorizes the other, defines what separates them from us, and rationally skewers their un-American platform points. But I suspect that on some level there are many unconscious ineffable truths that are not exposed to conscious thought that serve as the true roots for the differences. Individuals are shaped in very different environments, whether than be a city, a region or a particular subculture. The sum totality of a lifetime's experience is imprinted into the implicit memory, and particular reaction pathways are strengthened via repeated synaptic activity. Cartersian self-reflection has little to offer us in terms self-knowledge in this realm. These phenomena manifest themselves more in the mass action of groups of individuals who share generally similar experiences, "values" which are the culminations of the sum totality of their lives.

And yet just as there are differences, there are commonalities. When a conservative and a liberal look at a towering mountain they feel a sensation which we often term "awe." Apprecation for nature on an elemental level ties together most humans, though they might on the rational level express their feelings about the environment in different ways. A liberal might look at a Republican property owner and conceive of them as a money-grubbing materialist who has no environmental sympathy, but that same individual might view their outlook very differently, taking pride in the greenery that adds a verdant touch to their home. Natural feeling might manifest differently, but the basic impulse is the same for most people.

By analogy, the definition of what "patriotism" is I believe on the most basic level beyond our expression, but I suspect both liberals and conservatives are patriots. The problem is that their patriotism expresses itself differently, and the means to which they intend to acheive their ends contrast a great deal. Falsely assuming that conscious, rational decisions and explicit rhetoric are the sum totality of an individual both groups easily dehumanize each other. On the other hand, and acknowledgement of the deep similarities that most humans share might at least engender some understanding, if not agreemant.

To move Left-Right, Democrat-Republican, religious-non-religious discourse beyond platitudes and cliches I think we need to

1) Acknowledge that we all cheat and sample the opposition, consciously filter and bias what they say dependent upon our preferences, and let our emotions get in the way.
2) We often present a verbally spare and substantively truncated characterization of the indivudal who we oppose on some level.
3) And unconscious variables always shift the ground beneath us without even knowing it.

Our fallibility, our basic humanity which places us only mildly above the beast, is something we should reflect upon. It is somewhat ironic in that I am suggesting our rather modest rational capacities should be brought to bear to acknowledge the importance of the non-rational self, that is, a tool that aids the solution is part of the problem. I do believe that on some level many political games of rhetoric are only words which serve as buttresses for our ego, self-importance and self-perceived uniqueness. Perhaps it will be hard for some to accept the basic sloppiness of the human mind and its crippled abilities to engage in introspection, but we have to start somewhere.

Perhaps you should find someone who you ostensibley disagree with, and drive north of San Francisco on the coast during the summer. Ask yourselves if the ocean around Mendocino looks different to either of you, if it makes you feel different.


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About Nation-Building

Nation-Building was founded by Aziz Poonawalla in August 2002 under the name Dean Nation. Dean Nation was the very first weblog devoted to a presidential candidate, Howard Dean, and became the vanguard of the Dean netroot phenomenon, raising over $40,000 for the Dean campaign, pioneering the use of Meetup, and enjoying the attention of the campaign itself, with Joe Trippi a regular reader (and sometime commentor). Howard Dean himself even left a comment once. Dean Nation was a group weblog effort and counts among its alumni many of the progressive blogsphere's leading talent including Jerome Armstrong, Matthew Yglesias, and Ezra Klein. After the election in 2004, the blog refocused onto the theme of "purple politics", formally changing its name to Nation-Building in June 2006. The primary focus of the blog is on articulating purple-state policy at home and pragmatic liberal interventionism abroad.