Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


Thomas Edsall elicits nuanced insights into the core belief systems of liberals and conservatives

What kind of deep-down qualities and values tend to separate liberals and conservatives?

New York Times columnist Thomas Edsall (who, as usual, relies more heavily on scholars to delve into such issues than the usual pundits and politicians) takes a deep dive into that question in his weekly New York Times column, and the insights blew me away, including this one, from one of the many scholars included in the piece:

“It is likely that rather less liberal democracy will ultimately make liberal democracy more secure.”

The rise of Donald Trump, on a platform that included plenty of racism and nativism, led Edsall to pursue, with academics far removed from the more oft-quoted pundits on whom political reporters usually rely, this question:

“What if the belief systems used to justify anti-immigrant policies and to justify race prejudice, for that matter — hostility to outsiders, insularity, high sensitivity to external threat — are as deeply ingrained in the American body politic as belief systems sympathetic to immigration and to racial equality — openness, receptivity to new experiences, trust?”

The answers he obtained were more nuanced than we hear from the usual talking heads on TV. I’ll just give you one taste and then urge you to read the whole thing. Wrote Edsall:

Karen Stenner, a political psychologist and behavioral economist best known for “predicting the rise of Trump-like figures under the kinds of conditions we now confront,” responded to my emailed inquiries by noting the conflicting pressures at play:

“I don’t think I would agree that Trumpian conservative stands on immigration, race and homelessness are a more ‘natural’ or ‘default’ position. Communities with a good balance of people who seek out diversity, complexity, novelty, new and exciting experiences etc., and those who are disgusted by and averse to such things, avoid them, and tell others to do likewise, tend to thrive and prosper in human evolution.”

Finding the right balance, Stenner said, “is vital to both societal cohesion and human flourishing.” But, she warned, “we may have tipped the balance too far in favor of unconstrained diversity and complexity,” pushing the boundary beyond “many people’s capacity to tolerate it.”

At this juncture, she argued, we need to tinker with that balance and get it right for everyone. So there’s the paradox of our times: it is likely that rather less liberal democracy will ultimately make liberal democracy more secure.

Read the whole Edsall piece here.

Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 01/22/2020 - 09:18 pm.

    “we may have tipped the balance too far in favor of unconstrained diversity and complexity,” pushing the boundary beyond “many people’s capacity to tolerate it.””

    Strange faces, places and different ideas instill fear in some and excitement in others. Guess which tends to lean conservative and which tends to lean liberal? Ironically the less diversified areas are more conservative than the more liberal areas and who is panicking?

  2. Submitted by John N. Finn on 01/23/2020 - 09:41 am.

    And another taste of the column:

    “…..a series of tests comparing the answers of two groups to ideologically revealing questions. ….Bar patrons reported more conservative attitudes as their level of alcohol intoxication increased. Because alcohol limits cognitive capacity and disrupts controlled responding, while leaving automatic thinking largely intact, these data are consistent with our claim that low-effort thinking promotes political conservatism.”

  3. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 01/23/2020 - 10:07 am.

    More mumbo-jumbo from behavioral economists.

    This is just more of the same “moderate/centrist” garbage being presented under the guise of scholarly authority. Anyone who doesn’t recognize the fact that political “moderation” has pushed the nation into this crises simply has no credibility regardless of their credentials. The suggestion that anti-liberalism will “save” liberalism is simply facile.

    If Edsall wants to make a legitimate contribution to this conversation he needs to step out his comfort zone and talk to the scholars who’ve been predicting and documenting the rise of neo-fascism since the 1970s, there are many to choose from.

    The fact that no political system or social structure will ever accommodate EVERYONE is a mundane observation pretending to be academic insight. The assumption that such accommodation is the goal of liberal democracies is merely fatuous. The “balance” Ms. Stenner describes has been the primary feature and objective of liberal mentalities for centuries, it’s not a new idea political economists just came up with. Does Stenner imagine that liberal intellectuals strive for diversity and inclusion without seeking “balance”?

    The flaw with Ms. Stenner’s thesis is that it assumes moderate conservative attitudes, stereotypes, and mentalities actually represent liberal American mentalities. Any analysis that begins with the assumption that neoliberal Democrats represent the liberal end of the spectrum is doomed to incoherence.

    If we want to talk about the role of white male privilege, racism, xenophobia, sexism, and the 5th American Great Awakening have played in promoting the rise of Fascism in America we should certainly have that conversation, but that’s a conversation begun by liberals and progressives back in the 1980’s, it’s not something Stenner disccovered in 2005. Hell, Sinclair Lewis predicted it in what? The 30s?

    History has documented the fact that the best and most durable antidote to the totalitarianism and fascism Trump and Republicans represent has been liberalism- liberal liberalism, not marginalized and diminished liberalism. Trump follows decades of moderate marginalization and resistance to liberal agendas and principles. Trump didn’t get elected because liberals won the day and managed to get Sanders on the ballot in 2016.

    Trump doesn’t end up in the White House because Americans have over-embraced “liberalism”, it’s the persistent and decades long suppression and marginalization of liberalism that’s created the current crises. Any suggestion the same marginalization and resistance to liberalism that put Trump in the White House will somehow produce an antidote to Trumpism isn’t merely a failure of responsible scholarship, it may be downright dangerous.

  4. Submitted by Eric Snyder on 01/23/2020 - 11:17 am.

    It seems to me that Karen Stenner’s prescription has it fundamentally wrong and backwards – that we need to accommodate what are arguably regressive tendencies in human psychology and culture – fear of difference, resistance to change, lack of openness to new experience (people, ideas).

    Instead, I submit that we should begin with an inventory of the personality and psychological traits that are conducive to achieving a society that maximizes freedom and well-being. We should also strive for an understanding of the extent to which these traits are “artificially” or structurally suppressed in the population and ask what interventions might take place (in the schools primarily) to encourage their full development in the individual.

    Take complexity. The fact is that many problems in the world exist at a high level of complexity. It’s also a fact that we typically don’t teach for handling complexity. We don’t teach systems thinking, or futures thinking, or how to deal with ambiguity or how to be mentally flexible in handling the inevitable inrush of new information. Scientific thinking skills aren’t particularly high on average – another form of complexity thinking. Climate change is a case par excellence of how poorly prepared the public is to handle complexity (and also scientific information – media literacy plays are part here too, which is another facet of dealing with complexity).

    For the life of me I can’t understand how there could be any defense of the status quo relative to the what must be seen as a general form of illiteracy, and psychological and intellectual under-development – as if these are somehow virtues that fairness requires to have a place at the table, and that represent a morally equivalent orientation to the world.

    Prescribing a “good balance” of complexity versus resistance to complexity, openness to new experience versus resistance to it, openness to change versus clinging to a status quo, etc., can way too easily become a recipe for accommodation with values that undermine human flourishing.

    Ask yourself:

    Do you think we need people in science or medicine who are less open to new ideas and knowledge?

    Does it help us to mindlessly embrace any degree of tribalism -at least as it’s typically expressed throughout our history – given the Holocaust, the human rights violations at the border, religious violence, the intractable scourge of racism, etc?

    Isn’t is rather the case that we’ve never as a species or in large majorities been able to overcome the primitivism of tribe and identity? We don’t know what it’s like to be largely free of these tribal myths and illusions. And if we don’t know how this looks socially and politically, how can we seriously defend tribalism? We normalize our errors and cling to them. How do we know we’re reproducing them under a supposedly wiser guise, as Jonathan Haidt thinks he’s doing?

    We know that human history is a history of one horror after another, probably the near totality of it reflects the mentalities of in-group/out-group, our faith/their faith, our nation/their nation, our race/their race, true Americans/not Americans. Haven’t we had enough of our mistakes? Are we fine with more war, more genocide, more racism?

    What if instead of finding some ostensible contrarian defense of tribalism, we first ask how we can transcend the lies and myths of tribe and identity (see for example, The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity, by Kwame Anthony Appiah)?

    Much tribalism is still at the level of pre-reflection and instinct, lack of learning, incuriosity. This is obvious. And these are themselves social problems. If we want a better future for ourselves we need to create the social supports that will enable more people to transcend our current backwardness. We need more people who are open, who can handle change, who are curious, who can deal with social and other complexities, who can think scientifically and creatively. “Less liberal democracy” only serves one general purpose: It empowers reactionaries and the psychological and cognitive traits they embody to perpetuate patterns of social harm and dysfunction.

    If “low-effort thought promotes political conservatism,” then we have a profound civilization-wide task ahead of us: Creating the social conditions that allow complex cognition to be the norm.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 01/24/2020 - 10:46 am.

      Very nice Eric. My only complaint is your reference to “tribalism”. One who advocates a recognition of complexity might want to avoid simplistic stereotypical references to non-white cultures. Tribes and Tribal people are not euphemisms for the divisive, irrational, and prejudice Europeans and their descendants have been grappling with for centuries. We can discuss these issues without demeaning or insulting other cultures.

      I would suggest that the divisions and prejudices Americans are grappling with these days look more like the religious differences and battles that have plagued America since the Pilgrims arrived and those that dominated Europe for centuries before that arrival. I see no reason to describe Evangelical Christians as some kind of “tribe” for instance when they already have a perfectly good classification as a Christian denomination. Why blame tribes for something they had nothing to do with?

      • Submitted by Eric Snyder on 01/25/2020 - 02:41 pm.

        I’m merely using the label used by Edsall in his piece.

        Of course, this leaves open the question of whether any use of the word ‘tribal’ must involve a slight against indigenous people. Does it? Few terms are available that cover the same sense of in-group chauvinism and high borders erected against the Other. In-group – I just used the word – alone may or may not carry the same nuance.

        You write, “I see no reason to describe Evangelical Christians as some kind of “tribe” for instance when they already have a perfectly good classification as a Christian denomination.”

        But that denominational classification alone doesn’t automatically tell us whether that particular group sees itself as inward looking and apart, or more inclusive, cosmopolitan, and welcoming of diversity.

        There are categories of identification, like you mention, and then there are terms that describe a quality of those categories.

  5. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 01/24/2020 - 01:39 pm.

    “But, she warned, ‘we may have tipped the balance too far in favor of unconstrained diversity and complexity,’ pushing the boundary beyond ‘many people’s capacity to tolerate it.’”

    What about the victims of intolerance? What are we supposed to say to them? “Sorry, but a bunch of very vocal people have issues with who you are or how you live. You’ll just have to step back in line.” If there is a problem with tolerance (or, to be blunt and use a non-genteel but entirely accurate term, if there is bigotry), the “problem” people have is the real problem.

    It is easy to avoid the moral question when we frame tolerance as Ms. Stenner does in terms of immigration. It becomes more difficult when the question is put in the context of an “intolerance” that society has, at least on its surface and in public discourse, concluded is wrong. Suppose we place it in the context of racial discrimination. Is waiting until certain types are comfortable with ending discrimination an acceptable solution? How do the victims of the discrimination feel about that?

    It’s interesting that this piece should have been published during the same week as Martin Luther King Day. Although it is generally regarded as acceptable to remember Dr. King only for one sentence fragment in one speech, he also wrote a number of other pieces for more careful consumption. His Letter from a Birmingham Jail spoke indirectly to the idea that tolerance has to be tempered for the sensibilities of those who oppose it:

    We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have never yet engaged in a direct-action movement that was “well timed” according to the timetable of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “wait.” It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This “wait” has almost always meant “never.” It has been a tranquilizing thalidomide, relieving the emotional stress for a moment, only to give birth to an ill-formed infant of frustration.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 01/25/2020 - 09:58 am.

      Yeah, “unconstrained diversity”? I hate to say it but the only advocates of “restrained diversity” are racial supremacists of some kind. Where are you guys with this Eric, Edsall, and Stenner?

Leave a Reply