Politics is about Ideas

Steve Richards is described as “one of the most influential political commentators in the country” He is the chief political commentator of the Independent on Sunday and in his recent Guardian piece he emerges as the chief defender of the political orthodoxy that politics is, and this is truly incredible, about ideas.   Aye right as we say in Scotland, politics is not about our evolved moral psychology but about a dispassionate, considered and rational discussion about ideas.

In a column called “David Cameron will lose the battle of ideas if he keeps firing 1979’s bullets” he qualifies his assertion in this headline a little saying ” There is a single explanation and it relates, as Miliband suggests, to ideas. For a party to win this contest, its ideas must match the mood of the times.” Then he has David Cameron “must win the new battle of ideas” and concludes that the Government “is failing to win the battle of ideas.  Richards is arguing that politics is about or ought to be ideas.

Actually he doesn’t really believe this orthodoxy and his own column groans under the weight of contradiction – as above the ideas must apparently match the mood (i.e. the emotions) of the country.  Also “the policies that arise from those ideas must form part of a coherent political project”  Oh wait not just ideas then but ideas rooted in a coherent political project.  He means here that ideas must appeal to the moral foundations which underpin the limited number of voting blocks.  He has “most voters do not pay attention to politics, let alone ideas”.  The reason most voters do not pay attention to politics is because ideas don’t engage them, emotions do.

“One of the mysteries in the current political situation is why the Conservatives are not well ahead in the polls.”  Well it is mysterious if you think that politics is about ideas but if you think that politics is moral psychology and rooted in intuition and emotion then the situation in British politics might amenable  to some explanation.

One person who thinks that politics is mediated by emotions which support political strategies which look like conservatism and liberalism is Avi Tuschman the author of  Our Political Nature.  Note how violently Tushman’s thesis contradicts that of Richards:  there were conservatives and liberals 25,000 years ago on the African Savannah and we can be reasonably confident that not a one of those folks living then believed that politics was about ideas or political philosophy.  More likely the ideas and political philosophy that have emerged in the past 400 years have been retrofitted to fit the last 400,000 years of human psychological evolution.

In “Our Political Nature” Tuschman points to a typology of voters that might be useful in understanding the becalmed condition of the British Conservative party.  There are four types -ideologues,  wallet voters, identity voters and non-voters.  Wallet voters (see Labour press this button here)  look in their wallet and if they like what they see they vote for government.  Right now in the UK despite the start of the economic recovery wallet voters have less money than they had several years ago so they didn’t vote Labour in 2010 and are not with the Tories in the opinion polls.   Identity voters can vote as pensioners, as being gay, as being a Londoner, as being self-employed.  They identify with a group and try to vote in the interests of their group.  Some of these identity voters identify as being British or English and formerly they were available to the Conservative Party but now they are with UKIP.  Non-voters are non voters they will vote only if the issue is profoundly simple and deeply salient.  (In Scotland the Yes campaign in the Independence Referendum  is wisely fishing in this pool because the issue is indeed simple and salient).   In the UK general election though nothing is simple or salient enough to bring non-voters to the Tory flag.

If politics is moral psychology why are there non voters, wallet voters and identity voters?  There are two types of answer to this and one is that intuitions and emotions and psychological traits are biological phenomena which always expressed strongly in some and weakly in others, they are also expressed variably and independently.  The voter who believes in social justice and the moral righteousness of his In-Group will have no one to vote for.  Also the sheer ancientness of the psychological traits are adapted to Tanzanian social life 20,000 years ago (not 20,000 year old ideas) and that makes it hard sometimes to make sense of George Osborne.

So the Conservatives are becalmed on three of the four types; what about the ideologues?  Well it is even worse there – there is complete ideological convergence which may be in the country’s interest but it isn’t in the interest of the political parties.  New Labour adopted some of Thatcher’s clothing (rejecting many important items) and added to its basic leftist Haidtian harm reduction and fairness moral foundations the Fiskian Social Structure reference of Market Pricing in its enthusiasm for free markets and capitalism.  In response to this move and the attendant political success the Conservatives claimed social justice as their own (no cuts to the NHS and development aid) and moved away from the In group loyalty foundation (recall “banging on about Europe all the time”).  This last shift was UKIPs opening and now the Conservatives cannot shift these new colonists.

However it is the movement of the Liberal Democrats which completes the ideological convergence – there they are running New Labour’s fierce anti-terrorist policy, reforming education, reforming welfare and cutting benefits, fighting Blairite wars of liberal intervention, cutting taxes…In Fiskian terms they have adopted MP for which they previously evinced moralised antagonism.  They have moved from anti-authoritarianism to mild authoritarianism. If politics was about ideas then changing your mind shouldn’t be too bad – there should be a certain churn of ideas  but that is not what the Libs Dems have done.  They have changed the whole moral psychological basis of their politics and it is that which has led them to the edge of an existential crisis.

In times of continuing austerity none of the three parties can communicate at the level of emotion as effectively as in times of growth.  No tax cuts can be offered, no spending increases can be offered and with three parties fighting on the identical emotional ground it is hard for the Conservatives to break out in opinion poll terms.  Their only hope for 2015 is that wallet voters will conclude that even tough there is less in their wallets than in 2015 than 2008 the best hope for refill in the short term is the Tories.


How to turn a Liberal into a Conservative

Of course if you mug a liberal you can turn them into conservative whereas you need to arrest a conservative to get a liberal. No need to speculate what happens when you mug a Conservative – nothing happens.  Interesting though to speculate as to what might happen when you arrest a liberal but now we don’t have guess as we have recently acquired a data point: in the arrest, conviction and imprisonment of Chris Huhne and his wife Vikki Pryce .  Both parties appear to have had their liberal suspicions about the futility of incarceration to effect moral improvement confirmed.  I am going to put a smiley face here 🙂

Now we have another prominent example of a liberal politician becoming a conservative.  We have David Ward the Liberal Democrat MP saying

“In these circumstances…..after the terror campaigns of Hizbollah/Hamas and Islamic Jihad in which hundreds of Israeli citizens were murdered and maimed in response to Israel’s peacemaking and withdrawal from the occupied territories, after 1600 Hamas rockets had rained down on them with the intention of murdering civilians and then the heart-breaking kidnap and murder of those three kids, I can’t say that I wouldn’t have cheered when  the IDF took on the Hamas terrorists with carefully aimed missiles”

Actually I am paraphrasing him, these, incredibly, are his actual words

“In these circumstances, if I had personally lived year after year after year, hemmed in by air, land and sea by a mighty military force, I might well resist. Wouldn’t you?”

Incredible because the whole point of liberalism is not to talk like this.  Liberals in Israel argue that Israel is bound by the rules of war to conduct its defence with legality and proportionality. Liberals in Gaza are murdered by Hamas so we need liberals not under duress to eschew vengeance and not counsel retaliation against civilians.  To be fair to Ward he has condemned the rocket attacks but fails to see that the Gazans have been hemmed in by Hamas’s policy violent aggression towards the Israeli state which induces the blockade enforced incidentally by that other mighty military force in the region – the Egyptian army.

In Gaza David Ward’s are Gazan Fox News commentary – the obvious righteousness of the ethnicity (In group loyalty) and it just order (moralised authoritarianism) in the shape of the state, the utter depravity of the enemy (out group contempt), the need to seek a just revenge (see vengeance needs and political conservatism) and do so immediately.

So how do liberals get to be conservatives?  The streak of anti-authoritarianism has them hostile to in group authority and its allies – the US and Israel and sympathetic to the enemy of my enemy – the Palestinians and not sympathetic the Israeli civilians.  The bifurcated moral sense there is Us and there is Them.  Nick Cohen documented liberal sympathy for things in the out-group which they condemn in the in-group in his book What’s Left.   David Ward has earned his place in the next edition.

British Poll on Attitudes to Human Rights and Equality Matching

The main claim of this blog is that politics can be understood in part as the interaction of Fiskian Social Models and Haidtian Moral Foundations.  When I set up this blog I speculated that one of Fiske’s models – Equality Matching (EM) had the particular effect of structuring politics as in the following diagram:


Fiske claims that in the EM social relation

“the precepts of equality, of justice as equal treatment, in kind compensation, or the righteousness of strictly reciprocal revenge, together with fairness as an even distribution and uniform contributions, comprise the effects of Equality Matching”

Now clearly the establishment of human rights and their maintenance is psychologically underwritten by the EM social relation.  The notion of justice as equal treatment and fairness as evenness are central drivers in the establishment of rights. Now there is an interesting question as to why it took 400,000 years of human existence before the notion of inalienable rights appeared in the first human brain and the best answer to this is to be found in Our Political Nature by Avi Tuschman . In summary, he argues liberalism can only get going as xenophobia and the absolute centrality of kin relationships decline.  The psychological mechanisms that underpin “justice as equal treatment” and EM as a whole applied initially to kin and then from the 16th century onwards in England and odd thing happened, justice as equal treatment started to include non-relations and the liberal revolution was under way.

I never had any direct evidence for my assertion around EM and its shaping of politics but now I think that I have now – in the UK, the You Gov polling organisation as reported by the Independent has gone and asked British voters about their attitude to human rights to find that 46% of UKIP voters do not believe that Human Rights really exist.  The results were as follows

% Agreeing that Human Rights Really Do Not Exist 2

and inverting the question to ask whether Human Rights exists we get an inversion of the diagram immediately above.  At the top of the page I have a diagram showing free market and national security conservatives (a good descriptions of UKIP) as low in EM


% Agreeing that Human Rights Exist 2 (1)

86% of Lib Dems agree that Human Rights exist compared with 68% of voters, 50% of Conservative voters and 41% of UKIP voters.  Those are very different percentages indeed and contradict the established piety that in democratic politics at least the fundamentals are agreed upon.  The 86% of Lib Dems agreeing is a very strong number bolstered (and made more accurate) by the decline of the Lib Dems in the opinion polls.  The people left saying that they are going to vote Lib Dems are liberals fundamentally.  68% Labour to 50% Conservative is again a meaningful difference, dropping down like a series of steps to 41% of UKIP voters.

The steps are inverted as the question is inverted in a notably symmetrical way.  The headline figure is that only 41% of UKIP voters agree that Human Rights do exist.  Now the question is ambiguous in a way in which it makes it more useful.  Objectively the British do enjoy rights such a fair trials and freedom of speech but UKIP voters may be answering that they don’t agree or have sympathy with those things or more likely, that UKIP voters believe that human rights don’t exist in nature and are an arbitrary and recent social convention.    Another possibility is moralised antagonism to liberalism as different populations on the political spectrum sense the moralised basis of others beliefs (the Lib Dems and Labour) and develop the opposite moralised stance.  Moralised antagonism reveals or moralised psychology is operating as Fiske contends, around his social structures.

Back to Haidt and the differences between Conservatives and UKIP in terms of moral foundations – with the UKIP people more strongly wedded to in-group authority being the key differentiator.  Another reason for the UKIP 41% result could be their perception that human rights are imposed via the European Convention on the same.

Recall that Tuschman argued that liberalism and rights only got going as xenophobia waned and you have another explanatory variable, the waxing of xenophobia is going to be associated with human rights scepticism.