I recently read Our Political Nature by Avi Tuschman, an evolutionary anthropologist and former advisor to Peruvian ex-president Alejandro Toledo. The book seems to have been inspired from the intrigue of humanity’s evidently ubiquitous divide into two groups: liberals and conservatives.
This was a must-read for me, because I too am fascinated by the polarizing bipartisanism in the US. Liberals and conservatives are both so staunchly consistent and automatic when it comes to opposing each other, yet, to me at least, so inconsistent within their own ideologies. On the “left” side are those defenders of our social civil liberties and the welfare state, represented in mainstream politics by democrats. On the “right” are defenders of social populism and the free market, represented in mainstream politics as republicans and, more recently, the tea party movement.
One must wonder why almost half the population believes that government should intervene with the market but not with civil freedoms, and another almost half believes the exact opposite. Why not one libertarian-leaning party that believes in less government, and another authoritarian-leaning party that believes in more government? Is there not an inherent connection between civil and economic oppression? Milton Friedman and many other economists believe the two types of freedoms are one in the same. In fact, up until the 20th century, the word “liberal” referred to someone who believed in minimal government, much like modern-day libertarians, who now only have a small and awkward place in mainstream American politics. But why the shift? I had a friend in college pass wisdom along to me that was at least somewhat satisfying: if you believe people are inherently good, you’re liberal; if you believe people are inherently bad, you’re conservative.
The other question our two-party system raises, and one that Tuschman poses as well, is: why do people so often vote against their own economic interests? Think of poor unhealthy Americans who oppose Obamacare, or the so-called “latte liberals,” the wealthy elites who pridefully defend the heavy taxation required to sustain a welfare state.
Here is (part of) Tuschman’s well supported and fascinating answer: for a tribe of humans, too much inbreeding within the tribe can result in genetic problems, while too much outbreeding compromises the tribe’s gene pool. The delicate and evolutionarily successful balance is reached when roughly half of the population is wired for xenophilia, and the other half for ethnocentrism. Modern-day liberals are therefore genetic xenophiles, with their openness to other cultures and high tolerance of unorthodox breeding behaviors. Modern-day conservatives are genetically ethnocentric, with their fear and aggression towards “outsiders,” and their low tolerance for breeding behaviors that don’t advance the tribe in its purity.
Tuschman evaluates other factors, including environmental ones, that can shape a person’s political leanings, and I think those are very important. For this post I am focused only on the proposed political genetics hypothesis, and accept it as at least explaining the voting behaviors of some, if not many. A gut-instinct to preserve ones own “group” could explain many cliche conservative characteristics, such as xenophobia, and religious and cultural zealotry. But the question is still open: why do poor republicans in America choose to vote for the candidate who best represents their Christian Americanism, rather than the one who may offer them the best economic support? Likewise, a gut instinct for the exotic may explain cliche liberal characteristics, but it does not explain why wealthy democrats will vote for the candidate who promises to make sure they lose money. Do people really hold their political ideals above money? Why?
Here’s what I think: liberalism, (classical liberalism) emerged at the twilight of the enlightenment. John Locke and Adam Smith proposed liberal ideologies that stood in contrast to authoritarianism, whether in the form of social authoritarianism or economic authoritarianism. The mantra of liberalism was “freedom” and “liberty,” and any talk of “equality” was referring to equality of opportunity for all individuals. By the 20th century, the freedom championed by classic liberals was (relatively) well-secured by government, yet inequality and unhappiness were still omnipresent. Liberals honed in on their role as defenders of the oppressed, and the mantra evolved into “equality” (of outcome, rather than opportunity) and “welfare.”
The evolution of the modern conservative might have two parts. Some modern conservatives are classic liberals who cherish the free-market above all and are consequently republicans. The other conservatives, the ethnocentric folks, need only be convinced that government entitlement programs or social policies give an unfair advantage to the minority groups they so fear and loathe, and they are now supporters of the free-market as well. Harsh as that may sound, I can balance it by saying that the modern liberal isn’t all that different. While American republicans hate greedy poor people who “work the system,” American democrats hate greedy rich people who “work the system.”
So it’s not a stretch to suggest that, amidst the confetti of red and blue districts that cover the United States, there is a purple majority. They are Americans who don’t take kindly to people who work the system. They don’t really see why the legalization of pot is such a big deal. Though many of them might prefer their kids not be gay, they don’t believe that the legalization of gay marriage will be the harbinger of the fall of civilization. They like the free-enterprise system, so long as the business being conducted is good business: that means visible accounting practices, safe products, and above all, the honest intention to profit in return for a contribution to society. A “purple” individual may believe that his belief system is the best belief system out there, but he knows that only a free and secular society can guarantee that his belief system flourishes. The purple majority believes in voluntary service and donates to those in need. They hate insurance companies, people who sue over stupid stuff, and ridiculous healthcare costs. The purple majority just wants to live, work, and have their kicks before the whole shithouse goes up in flames. In fact, I don’t think purple is even the best color to describe the purple majority because 1) it’s not bold enough and 2) it implies a Frankenstein’s monster-like combination of blue democrat ideals and red republican ideals.
I could be wrong but feel like our cynicism towards democracy must be coming to a head. We hate whatever candidate we didn’t vote for, then, after he spends a few months in office, we hate the one we voted for too. We hate politicians and we hate the two-party system. I hope something can swell up from the middle and break up the bipolar zeitgeist. Maybe proprietism is that something; maybe it’s not. If nothing else, let’s not let republicans and democrats pull us so hard in different directions that we end up ripping our future apart. Let’s find the gold majority, and move forward together.