24 July, 2021
I spend a lot of time thinking about politics from a holistic perspective, trying to understand the nature of political systems and progress and persuasion. For instance, I've recently been experimenting with writing some code to simulate government structures and how they warp the political persuasion of the populace into a more liberal or conservative country than their people are by nature. It doesn't work yet. It basically says the USA is 100% liberal because it passes every proposed law. Obviously I have a bug. But it's fun and interesting work.
I've been finding myself lately in some conversations with a few friends, one French, another American, and I end up talking about the nature of power, political persuasion, race, and progress in a much more fundamental way. I figure it's time to start formalizing these thoughts into something like a system. Or at least get them down in text.
Openness and Closedness are the Fundamental Political Axis
Society is indeed a contract. It is a partnership . . . not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.
- Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France
I recently wrote 5000 words on the Negroni, Comfort Cocktails, and Political Persuasion that are probably far too discursive for their own good. But one thing I repeatedly hammer on in that essay is the nature of openness and it's relation to liberalness and conservativeness.
There's been a lot of hay made by the Economist set lately about the open-closed political spectrum. The idea is that this is the new political dynamic. I find this intriguing. Not the concept of open-closed, but the idea that this is new. I think the reality is that politics have always been about open-closed. It's just that our politics have rarely been so starkly about conservative-liberal differences. Because our political parties are not instinctually political like we are. I'll talk more about this in the section titled "Race and The Wheel of Political Markets".
Breaking down political persuasion can be complex. We have the traditional left-right division, the two dimensional political compass (where the vertical axis is social and the horizontal axis is fiscal), and now a plethora of different axes systems. I love taking them, and usually bookmark my results. Some sites I've saved the results from have since gone dark, but here are some of my results from different tests:
Political persuasion is a mess of interests, identity, and social connections. Even the political institutions in your country can influence the way citizens recognize their political identity. In multi-party systems people often gravitate into smaller camps (environmentalists, labor, commerce, etc) whereas in big tent party countries like the United States and the UK political persuasion is typically more holistic. In fact, there's some mathematics that Political Scientists have developed that determine how many parties a given democratic system can support. Which is why people that wish America was multi-party make me roll my eyes. There are, in fact, some benefits to big tent two party systems.
But this is too nitty gritty. A detailed analysis of political persuasion, evolution, and identity on an individual level would find some really interesting psychological dynamics involving group identity, personal interests, knee jerk responses, and people with vaguely or ill-defined political attitudes that become starkly polarized under different circumstances.
Conservatism and Liberalism have pretty obvious roots:
We can sit here and talk about how the modern Republican party is the blow-it-all-up party and the modern liberal party is the party of big government and regulation (not "Libertarianism" or "Classical Liberalism" as JS Mill defined) but this is to really miss the point. Edmund Burke saw Conservatism as not so much an ideology but an instinct. Because it is! It's not an ideology, and it's not a system of philosophy with rigorous principes. And, in my estimation, neither the hell is Liberalism, no matter what the Wikipedia wants to say.
Adam Gopnik, my favorite essayist, recently wrote a book, titled A Thousand Small Sanities, about the concept of Liberalism and how it just comes down to a mentality of experimentation and progress. Learning through practice. And this is the reason Liberalism tends toward big government economic solutions in the 20th and 21st century and in no way resembles Classical Liberalism: Liberals saw what unchecked capitalism can do. They saw the sweat shops and child labor and Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire and learned from it. But that's what Liberalism is about, openness to experience and learning from it, not abstract concepts of "liberty" and "rule of law." These concepts are liberal, but they are not Liberalism. They are ideas spawned from the liberal instinct.
Contrariwise, Conservatism is the instinct to fear change. It is to recognize that systems are fragile, that people are dangerous, and that society can, and has collapsed. As an instinct, Conservatism believes the people of the present are not free, but are duty-bound to shepherd the treasures bestowed upon us by the past into the future.
So in the end, I cannot see Open-Closed as anything other than Liberal-Conservative, and I don't see how anyone can say otherwise. They are inextricably, and biconditionally, the same dynamic.
And these two instincts are fundamental. Because politics is, and can only be about, change.
Conservatism and Original Sin
You could not step twice into the same river.
I often coin pithy statements that conceptualize my thinking.
Politics is the power structure that controls a society's legitimate means of force. It is no more, and no less, than that. Howsoever the means of force within that society are controlled, directed, and deployed is what we would call a government. This can be concentrated into one decision maker (a King, or, as we would call them now, a Dictator), or spread out, as in the case of Athenian Democracy. It can be strong, as in the case of the United States where it is impossible to defy, or it can be weak, as in the case of Somalia where there are multiple competing factions and the government is incapable of maintaining control as the sole source of legitimate force. The book The Narrow Corridor and its "Shackled Leviathan" is a really enlightening window into this concept.
But there is one, and only one, reality which politics has to contend with:
I feel like there's no reason to argue this, that no one can disagree, but it would behoove me to at least provide a little evidence for this.
You grow old. New people are born. They will say new words, come up with new concepts, dress differently, live differently, and invent new things. They will try new things. Some of these things will be good, and other people will take them up. They will start new traditions, listen to new kinds of music, and eat different kinds of food. You grew up one way, and that way will no longer exist, even while you are still alive. You will have to deal with this. How you deal with this, how you react to this, is your politics.
I rag on conservatives because I'm an instinctual liberal. But I'm an intellectual conservative, so I want to give them their due. Plus, I don't think any serious thinker about politics ever wants to try to define their terms and analysis such that they write off an entire half of the political spectrum as just bad and wrong. Systems of philosophy should incorporate and understand the purpose of the structures of their subject without prejudice. I have prejudice, against Conservatism, but I have to admit its correctness, in a lot of ways. And the reason for this is simple:
You can go too fast.
There's this famous fact about collisions and billiards balls that after the sixth collision of a ball, in order to calculate the trajectory and speed, you would have to take into account the gravitational pull of all the individuals in the room, and that after something like the 56th, you'd have to take into account every molecule in the known universe. It's often mentioned when talking about how hard it is to make predictions, even in deterministic, simple systems.
This is true in nearly every domain. For instance, we talk about how you can kill one species and the result is a cascading domino effect of other species dying out. They're called keystone species and we count among them frogs, bees, and wolves. Well, society is a very, very nondeterministic and complex system. Making a change to society, no matter how well-intentioned, can easily have unintended consequences. Can easily have bad consequences. Societally destructive consequences.
One easily observable example is the emergence of reaction. I'll get to reaction a little later, but consider the conservative who feels completely disconnected from his society. It is a not-uncommon phenomenon that right wing violence increases in times of extreme change. When people feel their way of life is threatened, they tend to get angry, and violent.
There are certain deep, sublime, and terrifying truths about the human race. One is that we are all capable of evil. Another is that we are all just talking apes. We evolved, and are genetically destined, to have certain instincts and behaviors that we are incapable of controlling. There are a lot of ways to interpret the concepts of The Fall and Original Sin, but one very useful interpretation is this: We are all sinners. We are all capable of evil. We cannot avoid perpetrating that evil until we understand, recognize, and accept that we are. And part of that is understanding, recognizing, and accepting that those around us are also capable of that same evil.
This is the conservative fear. We can move too fast, break something we don't understand, and the result is a mass outbreak of death and violence. You think you'd never do that? You think your society is stronger than that?
El sueño de la razón produce monstruos
Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.
- David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature
Goya's painting, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, is a kind of leitmotif on this for me. There's a handful of names that come to mind that inform my thinking about this link between Conservatism, Original Sin, Change, and the Sublime: Edmund Burke, Francisco Goya, Sigmund Freud, Friedrich Nietzsche, Carl Jung, and David Hume.
I'm just going to talk about Hume and the Belgians.
When I was starting on my road in philosophy at USF, I had to write a paper for Phi 101 about some philosophical subject. I chose free will because I thought I could prove it exists through some convoluted logic regarding Uncertainty in quantum mechanics. It was a very freshman thing to think. I ended up disproving free will by some old fashioned logic we find in Hume.
Basically it goes like this: what is free will? Let's assume we have it. When I take some action, I have an internal volition to perform this action, and I use reason to determine the correct course of action. This volition must be free will.
Okay, so what is this volition? It's a passion. A feeling. But where does it come from? Either I am in control of it, and therefore it is my will, or I am not and it comes to me from some internal process that is out of my control.
Supposing it is in my control, how does my will to control it generate? Where do the volitions to control my volitions come from? Supposing they come from my reasoning about what is best for me, where does my desire to control this volition toward what is best for me come from?
You see, we have a bit of an infinite regress. What's called a Homunculus Argument. This is because free will is an ill-defined concept that evaporates upon examination. At base, we are, even in our own desires, outside our own control at some basic level.
I eventually learned that this is basically what Hume was arguing in his defense of soft determinacy (as opposed to hard determinacy, that the universe is basically just a set of complicated equations which can (ostensibly) be calculated n-moves out to predict the future). But the idea is deeper than that because of its implications in human society. And for this, we can turn to the Belgians.
These deep subliminal volitions over which we have no power, if we don't pay attention to them, can irrupt. This is the basis of Psychoanalysis and the work of Sigmund Freud.
There's this terrifying phenomenon in Belgium, where euthanasia is legal even for mental disorders. In Belgium, you can choose to self-euthanize for depression. Logically, this makes sense: depression can be a life-long affliction and a humane society would allow you to end your life rather than suffer from it for the rest of its span.
But is it humane? It's, to quote an excellent article on the subject:
utopia realized: everything is neat and clean and terrible.
- Herman De Dijn quoted in The Death Treatment by Rachel Aviv, New Yorker, 2015
It is when we become too detached from our subconscious passions and volitions that things begin to seriously derail. Examine Hannah Arendt's observation of the banality of evil: the holocaust was perpetrated as an almost bureaucratic exercise entirely devoid of feeling. The feeling that motivated this bureaucratic machine was unexamined: reason assumed passion was irrelevant.
I am in no way suggesting that reason is to blame for this, it is precisely reason which can prevent atrocities. But it is reason's ignorance of passion that allows them to be perpetrated.
I am not a hippy. I am not back-to-nature. I am not one of civilization's discontents. In fact, I despise anti-modernists that assume the past is better than the present. The present is, demonstrably, better than the past. But I do recognize that these three phenomena, and most evil today, are irruptions of reason's dismissal of passion.
Political Persuasion as the Genetics of Social Evolution
Pointed threats, they bluff with scorn
Suicide remarks are torn
From the fool’s gold mouthpiece the hollow horn
Plays wasted words, proves to warn
That he not busy being born is busy dying
- Bob Dylan, It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)
There's something more to be said about the conservative instinct as a balance to the liberal instinct.
You cannot have a biological system without some mechanism for passing on information. We call this DNA. We literally begin talking about biological systems by starting with the evolution of information systems for reproduction. DNA actually had to evolve itself so there are earlier systems for passing on information, but it is the fundamental construct of any biological system: an information system.
BUT, you likewise cannot have advanced organisms and their evolution without mutation. For every generation there are numerous mutations that occur. Some of these are beneficial. They are reproduced and become a part of the main trunk of genetic code for that species.
There are an insane amount of other features of evolution, including genetic drift, functional equivalence, and spandrels, but at its most basic form, any evolving, biological system has some means of passing on information, and some means of introducing change.
This ability to evolve is not actually about progress. It's about dealing with, and adapting to, changes in the environment. It changes, all the time. Climates change, geography changes, the species around you change. If a species is not adapting to a new environment, constantly, it will be out-competed, out-reproduced, and it will die.
Well, as should be pretty obvious, a society is a massive organism.
Conservatives preserve the societal adaptations of the past while liberals produce the changes for continuous adaptation. Naturally, these forces are opposed, but symbiotic. Without Conservatism, without the preservation of the past, there can be no evolution, no progress. Likewise, without Liberalism, without mutation, there can be no evolution, no progress. Only a static, dying, decadent society.
Meanwhile, the neurotics, radicals and reactionaries, want to either destroy the Body Politic to build some new frankenstein society, or retrograde into their Peter Pan Syndrome fantasy of society's childhood.
Extremes and Neurosis
I like this evolutionary metaphor for political persuasion. I like it a lot. They don't call it the Body Politic for nothing. One thing worth considering is disease: when either of these forces becomes too strong. Namely, autoimmune disorders and cancer.
I love to draw a spectrum like this:
The point on which my theory gets shakiest is here. On the extremes. Sometimes I think Radicals are fundamentally different from Reactionaries, sometimes I think the Horseshoe Theory is fundamentally right. Honestly, I think it is right.
I always want to call Leftists Gauchists, which is just French for Leftist. Leftist implies a symmetry with Rightist, but that's not a good word, so I'm just going to keep calling them Radicals.
You can get so liberal that you don't learn from experience and try new things
to advance, but instead actively seek some ideal future that you have in your
head. We can call this
You can also get so conservative that you don't remember the past and think it
was better than the present and want to go back to it. We call this
The term radical is thrown around as not having a political position but it really does. Wikipedia:
The word radical derives from the Latin radix ("root") and Late Latin rādīcālis ("of or pertaining to the root, radical"). Historically, political use of the term referred exclusively to a form of progressive electoral reformism, known as Radicalism, that had developed in Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries. However, the denotation has changed since its 18th century coinage to comprehend the entire political spectrum, though retaining the connotation of "change at the root".
"But Michael, a word is only what it means to the people who use it!" Shut the fuck up, most people use the word "Conservative" to mean Republican and "Liberal" to mean Democrat and they have no idea what they are talking about. A lot of words only mean what people use them to mean (e.g., decimate, literally, silly), but other words have real meanings that continue in serious places but of which the larger populace is ignorant. That doesn't mean the word doesn't mean what academics use it to mean.
Regardless, just as mutation can result in cancer, and the protective instincts of the immune system can start attacking itself, liberals can degrade a society by moving too fast and conservatives can degrade it by rejecting all progress.
That is to say, a "conservative" is okay with progress, just as long as it's slow, doesn't destroy the society, and is rooted in the past: Burke saw the American Revolution as justified by basing its plaints in the Americans' Rights as Englishmen, and the French Revolution as entirely wrong because it based its plaints on idealized Platonic rights invented by the mind. Whether you agree with him or not, he's representative of a conservative system of belief. Our Declaration of Independence is as much Burkean as it is Lockean, even if that seems anachronistic:
Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.
I have a hard time understanding the mechanism of Horseshoe Theory, but I have little doubt that it is real. By Horseshoe Theory I am of course referring to the theory that the left-right political spectrum is more like a horseshoe than a line, that people on the extreme left and extreme right almost touch.
I think that we can safely just gloss over this fact by pointing out that both radicals and reactionaries are dissatisfied with the present, and so want to destroy the current order, not just change or tweak it. At least, that's what I'm sticking to for now.
Political and Financial Power
Okay, now that we've established how I see political persuasion, change, and evolution in the body politic, I'd like to get into how I see the larger evolution of politics and society.
I am an amateur philosopher. I studied it in school, so I know a lot of names, and a lot of summaries of philosophers, but I'm not exactly "well-read" in a lot of the philosophers that have influenced me. You might call me a poser, I say I'm just really good at extrapolating full systems of philosophy from synopses of theory.
There's an interesting dispute in social philosophy: what is the root struggle?
What is the root motivation of all human interaction? There's a lot of names
that don't directly argue with each other but that propose different
motivations. Freud believed
It's become a bit of a refrain that the West used to believe that with economic
freedom political freedom would follow and that the West was wrong, and China is
the proof. The refrain is correct: political power is the ultimate power, in
that it has the power to end financial power. Whenever any political power is
too concentrated, it will be abused, and usually to negative economic effect.
Because people with power will abuse it.
Whenever any group of people has advantage over another group of people, whenever they have power over that other group of people, they will use that power to their own advantage. This is the reason democracies often become colonialist empires (see, for example, the United States and Athens). People outside of that democracy have no political power within that country, and so they are easily subjugated by that power. I'm on pretty shaky ground here, because I'm directly contradicting the theory that democracies don't go to war with each other. I think, though, the reason for that is largely economic: democracies are almost always free market nations, and why go to war when you can make money?
Countries like China, where power is absolutely concentrated in a nondemocratic oligarchy, can have economic prosperity in the short term, but can never escape the runway of its own potential corruption. No matter how large the country is, concentration is relative; I don't care that the National People's Congress has nearly 3000 members, the country has 1.3 billion damn people. Futhermore, that Congress is not as "free" to vote its conscience as the legislatures of the West.
The reason for this is fairly simple: prosperity is inextricably linked with economic freedom, and when a power capable of restricting that freedom is concentrated, it will be abused to restrict that freedom for its own benefit. If you doubt the necessity of economic freedom for a nation's prosperity you can stop reading now. There exists no controlled economy in the history of the world which has ever prospered in the long term (i.e., on the order of even a hundred years).
On the other side we can see a plethora of examples where too weak a governmental institution results in poverty. The United States from 1880-1940 is a great example of this: poverty was rampant, inequality was extreme, and abject misery was the law of the land during a period of extreme economic freedom.
We can also see interesting examples of hypercapitalism where foreign corporations take advantage of weak local governments to turn a profit. The Bolivian Water Crisis is a fantastic example of this.
There is something fascinatingly perverse about financial power. It is utterly intractable, mechanistic, unable to think beyond the simple concept of profit. The mechanism is obvious: if a company does think beyond profit, another company will beat it. It's nearly evolutionary. Financial power has no conscience, no long term vision, no sense of selfhood. It is ineluctable.
And because it is entirely evolutionary and not at all dependent upon choices of the people, it requires a check: the conscience of politics.
There are two powers in any country: financial and political. A society can only truly be free when they keep each other in check.
The financial power of a society is almost alimentary. It exists to feed
consumption. It is the
Concentration of Power and the Origin of Political Institutions
I have always been fascinated by popular movements, like the protest movements in the sixties and the color revolutions in the 80s. It wasn't until I found Gene Sharp's book Waging Nonviolent Struggle that I learned there were comprehensive studies of popular movements as a phenomenon. I devoured that book, and then bought and read all three volumes of his The Politics of Nonviolent Action.
Gene Sharp's work is especially fascinating because he lays out a pretty comprehensive theory of power and politics. It has profoundly shaped the way I see the world. In fact, his theory is not too different from that of Varys in Game of Thrones:
“Oh, I think not,” Varys said, swirling the wine in his cup. “Power is a curious thing, my lord. Perchance you have considered the riddle I posed you that day in the inn?”
“It has crossed my mind a time or two,” Tyrion admitted. “The king, the priest, the rich man—who lives and who dies? Who will the swordsman obey? It’s a riddle without an answer, or rather, too many answers. All depends on the man with the sword.”
“And yet he is no one,” Varys said. “He has neither crown nor gold nor favor of the gods, only a piece of pointed steel.”
“That piece of steel is the power of life and death.”
“Just so… yet if it is the swordsmen who rule us in truth, why do we pretend our kings hold the power? Why should a strong man with a sword ever obey a child king like Joffrey, or a wine-sodden oaf like his father?”
“Because these child kings and drunken oafs can call other strong men, with other swords.”
“Then these other swordsmen have the true power. Or do they?” Varys smiled. “Some say knowledge is power. Some tell us that all power comes from the gods. Others say it derives from law. Yet that day on the steps of Baelor’s Sept, our godly High Septon and the lawful Queen Regent and your ever-so-knowledgeable servant were as powerless as any cobbler or cooper in the crowd. Who truly killed Eddard Stark, do you think? Joffrey, who gave the command? Ser Ilyn Payne, who swung the sword? Or… another?”
Tyrion cocked his head sideways. “Did you mean to answer your damned riddle, or only to make my head ache worse?”
Varys smiled. “Here, then. Power resides where men believe it resides. No more and no less.”
This is a fairly hand-wavy description, and Gene Sharp's theory is far less nihilistic than Varys's, but the ultimate realization is that power is a collective psychological trick, a kind of mass interlocking fiction. But that doesn't make it fake.
One of the most fascinating results of Gene Sharp's analysis is to recognize that the resulting government structure after its formation derives, almost linearly, from the source of its creation. Governments formed by small groups of elites tend to be less democratic, and governments formed by masses of peoples tend to be more democratic. This makes sense, intuitively, because if a small group of people form a government, they necessarily want to hold onto the power they already have, and don't trust those outside their group. There are exceptions, glaring exceptions, like the United States, I'd say, but in general, these principles hold.
The result in Sharp's analysis is that political change brought about by nonviolent action tends to result in more democratic institutions than that brought by violence. This is because violence is a limiting force. Neither the old, nor the sick, nor the very young can wield it. Therefore, those bringing about the political change through violence, are a subset of the population who will wish to keep the power they've gained.
By contrast, in popular nonviolent movements, anyone can take part. Literally, anyone, and the old, and young, and sick are sometimes the most powerful fighters. Because one major weapon of nonviolent action is motivating the sympathy of the opponent through pathos. There are other factors, and I strongly encourage anyone to read through Gene Sharp's works to learn about them, because he convinced me, quite rationally, that nonviolence is always the answer, and violence never is.
Concentration of Power and the Curse of Natural Resources
This theory is not just Gene Sharp's. I derive a large part of my understanding of the diffusion and concentration of power and its effects from the book Why Nations Fail, which bases its analysis on a simple rule: nations with extractive institutions suffer poverty because of the inherently corrupting nature of power, and nations with inclusive institutions necessarily prosper because of the freedom of opportunity offered to their citizens.
One other result of this analysis, that prosperity is intimately linked with the diffusion of power, is that the Resource Curse instantly becomes explicable.
The Resource Curse is "the phenomenon of countries with an abundance of natural resources (such as fossil fuels and certain minerals) having less economic growth, less democracy, or worse development outcomes than countries with fewer natural resources" (Wikipedia).
The explanation for this is that a nation with natural resources has an easily monopolizable source of power: the resource itself. Natural Resources are physical things. They can be walled off, extracted in mass, and monopolized. This presents a ready-made roadway to concentrating power. By contrast, a nation poor in resources does not have that easy route for concentrated power, and is more inclined to sharing it.
Race and The Wheel of Political Markets
So this essay started in my mind because I basically gave a friend from France an overview of the evolution of the American Party System from 1860 to the present day. I believe here I am walking out onto thin ice, but I am not going to let that deter me from laying out my understanding of the world.
How correct that overview was is largely irrelevant. The shape is correct. I'm going to repeat it now.
I think the American party system is a lot like a giant wheel of shifting political constituencies and party elites trying their damndest to win elections by picking off the edges of their opponent. Here's how I see the history of the United States since 1860:
In the Civil War the parties were pretty well-delineated. The South was held by
the Democrats, a white-identity based party of rural poor and landed
aristocrats. They were very
We can say, at this point, that the central spoke, or axis, of our political wheel was race.
During the war, the commercial interests in the North became very rich, and very Republican. After the war, these commercial interests, being the alimentary canal of society, couldn't give less of a shit about the interests of poor blacks in the poor south. Reconstruction lasted a little under 15 years, while the liberals in the Republican party held onto their power, but gradually, the commercial, business coalition of the Republican party successfully wrested power from them and the Republicans ceased to care about racial equality. It was better for business.
History is never linear, so we saw some anti-business action from the Republican party over the ensuing decades, like Teddy Roosevelt's progressive trust busting, but in general, the Republican party took its business coalition very seriously.
Race, for a time, ceased to be a primary motivating factor in the politics of the US. An apartheid was allowed to be reinstated in the Jim Crow South.
Come the 1930's, the US enters the Great Depression. Extreme poverty lays across the land like a shroud. The Democratic Party, having always been more interested in labor than the Republican Party due to its base in the poor, rural, south, picks up the issue of class and labor as its primary platform. FDR, a [New York] democrat, has 4 consecutive clean sweeps of the South.
Now, FDR was no racial egalitarian. There were quite a lot of racially exclusionary policies during the New Deal. So, the central axis of our politics at this point was class-based.
In the 1950's, we can say, definitively, that the Republican party still had civil rights members: Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican, sent the 101st Airborne into Little Rock to force desegregation, brought upon by a Supreme Court decision lead by his own Republican nominee: Earl Warren. In fact, Earl Warren is known almost universally as a distinctly liberal Justice despite being a Republican. We can say, therefore, that the Republican party had liberal members even into the 1950s. I don't know that we can call Eisenhower a strict egalitarian, there's some evidence I've seen that he regretted having to send in the military, but can we just take a moment and think about how awesome it is that the same company that dropped behind enemy lines the night before D-Day went into Arkansas to force desegregation?
In the 1960s, LBJ started to change the status quo by seeking a new political market. LBJ was a notorious racist, but he must have seen political winds changing because he pursued the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act vehemently to passage. And with that the Democrats became the party of civil rights.
So in the 1960s we have a new battle line drawing. It is the same one as in 1860, only inverted. There is a new unclaimed political market: racists. Southern white segregationists. The Republican party never represented them, and the Democratic party, having pushed the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, is clearly abandoning this demographic in favor of a racially diverse labor demographic.
So in 1968 we have riots, protests, and racial politics. What do the Republicans do? Pick up that racist vote. Thus began the Sixth Party System.
Race as the Central Instinctual Political Axis
If we accept openness and closedness as the central political axis, what is the most essential political issue along this divide? It isn't economic freedom, because we can see conservatives supporting economic freedom in the US, and liberals supporting it in China. It isn't environmental issues, as the basis of environmentalism is, itself conservation. It isn't democracy, either, because there have been plenty of conservatives who have been strong champions of democracy.
No, the central central political issue in instinctual politics, universal across cultures, is race.
Racists are always conservative. They do not want to accept another group of people as themselves. Because strangeness, otherness, is uncertain. Is change.
This is what I meant by saying our political parties are not instinctually political like we are. Our parties are actually rarely divided upon the race axis. And when they are, we have mass eruptions of political turmoil.
Risk, Uncertainty, and Aversion to Change
I think that there's more to the world than I've already discussed and I want to lay a little groundwork for how I expect I'll think in the future.
First, I want to talk in another essay about what I call "The Gray Matter of Political Identity" and how people don't have distinct positions until they're forced to choose. This dovetails with polarization and some stuff Gene Sharp writes about during the commencement of any mass action. I'd also like to talk about the American State Religion. Yes, it exists. But for now I'll talk a bit about how I expect my thinking on what I've talked about to evolve.
I have heretofore described the centrality of change to politics, but really it's more than that: it's uncertainty. Fear of change is fear of uncertainty. Fear of others is fear of uncertainty. Fear itself is uncertainty.
Let's examine this.
There's this one-off fact I read in a Time Magazine cover article titled "The Pursuit of Happiness" once that has shaped a lot of my thinking about all of this:
...that idea got a big boost when investigators at Harvard and Boston University analyzed a gene dubbed DRD4, which is associated with activity in the brain's dopamine receptors. The gene comes in several forms, or alleles. Of the three most common, one codes for even-temperedness and reflection, while the other two code for exploratory and impulsive behavior, as well as a taste for risk taking and a tolerance of novelty.
When the investigators looked at the frequency of the different alleles in people around the world, they found that the farther along the migration route from Africa, the cradle of us all, through central Asia, Europe and the New World, the likelier people were to carry the two novelty-seeking alleles. Studies of another gene called 5-HTTLPR, related to serotonin transport, have yielded similar findings. The allele of that gene that codes for anxiety and risk avoidance is less common in individualistic cultures like that of the U.S.
If we think about this: not only is risk-taking selected for in the America by it's being at nearly the end of prehistoric migration routes (across the Bering Strait), but during the mass waves of immigration in the 19th century you had to be novelty-seeking to risk a months-long journey to a land you'd never seen to start a new life. And if we examine this gene, this novelty-seeking gene, we can easily match it up with the liberal instinct.
There's this idea that the United States is conservative. This is bullshit. I'm going to quote my Negroni article:
America is literally the most liberal country in the world. Here in America we often think of Europe as far more sophisticated and liberal than the US. But it's really not, in a lot of ways. The US may not have the most generous welfare system, but hell, we're the only country in the world to give out one time stimulus payments during the pandemic. We're the most diverse country in the world, and when people think we're the most racist, they aren't accounting for the fact that that diversity allows racism to show it's face, where other countries don't have the opportunity to show racism like we do (ever heard of Black Pete?). First hand accounts of France I've read describe their racial attitudes as being close to America in the 80's. Concepts like Intersectionalism are foreign to their general populace, and the idea of Color Blindness is still pretty standard. Hell, even the liberals in England (J.K. Rowling...) are incredibly transphobic. The French are very Islamophobic, far more Islamophobic than the average American. The Germans, fuck, holy shit are they a mess. They don't even believe in debt! They call it "schuld", a synonym for "shame." (If you don't understand the relevance of this, consider that the concepts of financing and debt are the most liberal of inventions in history: the idea that you can owe people money and it's a good thing, that the owing someone money now will pay off in the future. It demands a belief in progress.) Ronald Reagan, one of our conservatives bragged in his final address about the fact that you can't become a Japanese, you can't become a Frenchman, you can't become a German, but anyone can become an American. This is a profoundly liberal idea. (Watch that speech, please, it's stunning, from a man I do not love.)
Indeed, America is so liberal that our conservatives champion liberal principles: free markets and individual liberty. In America we confused what the world typically means by liberal and conservative. Liberal means free and conservative means the status quo. In America, the status quo is freedom.
But examining this, it seems this American penchant for risk taking shows how liberal America is. How inextricably linked liberalness and comfort with uncertainty are.
I like to think the only great sin is a lack of curiosity. Of overconfidence. Hubris.
Reactionaries fear uncertainty to such an extent that they assume supreme confidence in the most basic of things that they know. They reject nuance, and assume everything to be simple. They tend toward conspiracy theories because they understand evil humans better than complex indeterminate systems. They don't like nuance, they don't like impersonal forces.
Radicals are so overconfident in their reason that they assume, through reason alone, they can find a societal structure which will be better than what has evolved through nature.
Conservatives fear, and Liberals hope, and they're both right, to fear and hope.
Materials that in some way or another influenced the beliefs written in this article
- Encyclopedia Britannica (15th Edition)'s articles on Conservatism and Liberalism
- My Life as a Muslim in the West's Gray Zone
- The Politics of Nonviolent Action by Gene Sharp
- Reflections on the Revolution in France by Edmund Burke
- Blood and Soil by Adam Gopnik
- On Liberty by JS Mill
- Power and Politics in Today's World by Ian Schapiro
- Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson
- The Narrow Corridor by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson
- The Alt-Right Playbook by Innuendo Studios, aka Ian Danskin
- The Division of Cognitive Labor by Philip Kitcher
- The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmnud Freud
- Selected Papers on Hysteria by Sigmund Freud
- Selected Works by Carl Jung
- The Warriors by J. Glenn Gray
- War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning by Chris Hedges