Here’s something that seems to be in the air today.
Yesterday I added a comment to our Benghazi thread from a few days back. As usually happens as threads lengthen, the conversation had wandered off-topic toward the more general sort of ideological scuffling that is a constant attractor in any discussion of current events these days.
I was responding to a typical example of what self-styled “progressives” think conservatives are all about, to wit:
The Republican Party does “really stand for something.” It stands for a lot of things: tax cuts for high income households, subsidies for farmers, science denial, the criminalization of abortion, hostility to immigrants, indifference towards the environment, bans on gay marriage, favored treatment towards their favored industries, and so forth. You could look at the concatenation of Ayn Rand / Rand Paul / Paul Ryan and see a miserly and contemptuous worldview which would make Ebenezar [sic] Scrooge blush.
After I had responded to some of the other points the commenter had made, I ended with:
I will say this though, in a spirit of generosity: leaving aside professional political operatives of both parties, whose only aim is to seize and retain power, I think that both conservatives and well-intentioned liberals such as yourself want the same thing, which is to create and sustain a prosperous and well-functioning American society that maximizes opportunity and happiness, in harmony with our nature. What we disagree about is how best to achieve it (and I think this is due in large part to disagreements about the realities of human nature). It’s wrong of you to impugn our motives so, and I wish you’d stop doing it.
I had also added, but then deleted shortly after posting, an extra passage in which I pointed out an asymmetry between the ways conservatives and liberals view each other — namely that while conservatives generally think that liberals are misguided, and live in deep denial of obvious truths about human nature and the way the world actually works (as opposed to the way they think it ought to work), liberals view conservatives not just as misguided, but as morally evil. From there, it is easy to demonize and dehumanize them.
It may well be that our differences are truly intractable (indeed, I think they are), and that what we need is some sort of divorce, or disaggregation — but at the very least it would be nice to accomplish this without bloodshed, and if history teaches us anything at all, it teaches us that framing your political opponents not only as different, but evil, has a worrisome track-record.
Shortly after I posted this abridged comment, our reader Henry sent along a link to a column by Thomas Sowell, published just today on this very subject.
From the 18th century to today, many leading thinkers on the left have regarded those who disagree with them as being not merely factually wrong but morally repugnant. And again, this pattern is far less often found among those on the opposite side of the ideological spectrum.
The visceral hostility toward Sarah Palin by present day liberals, and the gutter level to which some descend in expressing it, is just one sign of a mindset on the left that goes back more than two centuries.
T.R. Malthus was the target of such hostility in the 18th and early 19th centuries. When replying to his critics, Malthus said, “I cannot doubt the talents of such men as Godwin and Condorcet. I am unwilling to doubt their candor.”
But William Godwin’s vision of Malthus was very different. He called Malthus “malignant,” questioned “the humanity of the man,” and said “I profess myself at a loss to conceive of what earth the man was made.”
This asymmetry in responses to people with different opinions has been too persistent, for too many years, to be just a matter of individual personality differences.
Although Charles Murray has been a major critic of the welfare state and of the assumptions behind it, he recalled that before writing his landmark book, “Losing Ground,” he had been “working for years with people who ran social programs at street level, and knew the overwhelming majority of them to be good people trying hard to help.”
Can you think of anyone on the left who has described Charles Murray as “a good person trying hard to help”? He has been repeatedly denounced as virtually the devil incarnate — far more often than anyone has tried seriously to refute his facts.
Such treatment is not reserved solely for Murray. Liberal writer Andrew Hacker spoke more sweepingly when he said, “conservatives don’t really care whether black Americans are happy or unhappy.”
Even in the midst of an election campaign against the British Labour Party, when Winston Churchill said that there would be dire consequences if his opponents won, he said that this was because “they do not see where their theories are leading them.”
But, in an earlier campaign, Churchill’s opponent said that he looked upon Churchill “as such a personal force for evil that I would take up the fight against him with a whole heart.”
In today’s Best of the Web James Taranto also picked up the same theme. Mr. Taranto commented on New York governor Andrew Cuomo’s harsh remarks about traditional conservatives (he said on TV the other day that they had “no place in the state of New York”) — an opinion that was quickly and enthusiastically seconded by Gotham’s radically left-wing Mayor, Bill de Blasio. Mr. Taranto wrote (my emphasis):
[T]here’s something a bit puzzling about the sheer viciousness of the governor’s and the mayor’s rhetoric. Liberals, after all, pride themselves on their toleration and open-mindedness, but often they sound like Michael Caine’s character in “Austin Powers in Goldmember” who said: “There’s only two things I hate in this world. People who are intolerant of other people’s cultures and the Dutch.” Cuomo and de Blasio, unlike Caine, don’t understand they’re the butt of the joke.
One explanation for this phenomenon comes from social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, author of “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.” Todd Zywicki, coincidentally on the same day Cuomo made his remark, summed up the relevant finding in a Volokh Conspiracy post:
Haidt reports on the following experiment: after determining whether someone is liberal or conservative, he then has each person answer the standard battery of questions as if he were the opposite ideology. So, he would ask a liberal to answer the questions as if he were a “typical conservative” and vice-versa. What he finds is quite striking: “The results were clear and consistent. Moderates and conservatives were most accurate in their predictions, whether they were pretending to be liberals or conservatives. Liberals were the least accurate, especially those who describe themselves as ‘very liberal.’ The biggest errors in the whole study came when liberals answered the Care and Fairness questions while pretending to be conservatives.” In other words, moderates and conservatives can understand the liberal worldview and liberals are unable to relate to the conservative worldview, especially when it comes to questions of care and fairness.
In short, Haidt’s research suggests that many liberals really do believe that conservatives are heartless bastards–or as a friend of mine once remarked, “Conservatives think that liberals are good people with bad ideas, whereas liberals think conservatives are bad people”–and very liberal people think that especially strongly. Haidt suggests that there is some truth to this.
Haidt has a theory that moral reasoning is driven by, as Zywicki writes, “five key vectors or values of psychological morality: (1) care/harm, (2) fairness, (3) loyalty, (4) authority, and (5) sanctity.” Haidt posits that “conservative values are more overlapping than liberals–conservatives have a ‘thicker’ moral worldview that includes all five values, whereas liberals have a ‘thinner’ view that rests on only two variables,” in Zywicki’s summary.
I don’t know much about Haidt’s research, but I do know, from extensive personal experience, the vicious antipathy — it hardly seems excessive to call it hatred — that “progressives” so often feel toward conservatives. Again and again, when I have been with them in social settings, and the conversation turns to politics, I have heard truly intemperate expressions of moral condemnation and venomous loathing expressed about conservatives, with the general agreement of those assembled — and when I have chosen not to sit in silence, but to engage their ideas from a conservative viewpoint, I have seen, again and again, their faces darken with resentment as their eyes narrow with a look of barely contained fury. It is altogether familiar and predictable. It is clear that to them I am not just someone with a different opinion about what makes for happy, harmonious societies: I am a heretic, a malefactor, a threat, a devil. It is distinctly unpleasant to be on the receiving end of such malignance, and for some folks it must even be frightening. I can easily see why some people are afraid to speak up.
Thomas Sowell concludes:
Examples of this asymmetry between those on opposite sides of the ideological divide could be multiplied almost without limit. It is not solely a matter of individual personality differences.
The vision of the left is not just a vision of the world. For many, it is also a vision of themselves — a very flattering vision of people trying to save the planet, rescue the exploited, create “social justice” and otherwise be on the side of the angels. This is an exalting vision that few are ready to give up, or to risk on a roll of the dice, which is what submitting it to the test of factual evidence amounts to. Maybe that is why there are so many fact-free arguments on the left, whether on gun control, minimum wages, or innumerable other issues — and why they react so viscerally to those who challenge their vision.
I’m sure that’s true. But the intensity of this reaction seems to go beyond mere defensiveness about one’s self-image. It seems downright… religious.