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.

Death of the Great Anti-Authoritarian

In the many obituaries published last week for Tony Benn much was made of his personal warmth, charm and honesty, his conviction politics and his singular commitment to a particular brand of left wing politics, still not reconciled to capitalism. His convictions were on the face of it obvious, indeed we read that they were shining: parliament, democracy, social justice, fairness and the disinterested action of the centralised State. But this isn’t what really animated him, these were the objectives of his politics; the animating moral purpose, the fervour, the passion that drove him was moralised antagonism to in-group authority. Note in-group authority rather than all authority for there were forms of authority that he came to admire, but it was those who were the enemies of his authority’s enemy. Or, at any rate, as he would have put it, he came to see certain types of out-group authority as a great deal more benign than they actually were.

An infamous example was in his stated admiration for Mao Zedong, or his taking to the streets to not defend the Syrian people against the bottomless cruelty of their government but trying to prevent any possible action against the people who deployed poison gas in the Damascus suburbs. It is essential to believe that in-group authority is ineffably morally bankrupt to make that type of journey.

He loved this (revealing) quote about the nature of leadership:

“as to the best leaders – the people do not notice their existence. The next best – the people honour and praise. The next best – they hate. The next best – they fear. But when the best leader’s work is done – the people say they did it ourselves” 

It sounds here like leaders and leadership are the issue. Look at the trajectory of his career: anti-establishment day and night, anti-NATO, anti-EEC, anti-Labour leadership becoming not the leader of the Labour left (that would have been morally suspect) but rather the encourager of it. His political heroes were the anti-authoritarians: the Levellers and Thomas Paine.

Left anti-authoritarianism does believe in social justice but believes that its achievement follows from the overthrow of a morally dissolute authority. When left governments take power no amount of delivered social democracy protects it from the harsh condemnation of that subset of the left which sees the occupation of government as de facto, corrupting.

In his book Dare to be a Daniel Benn has: “My mother, when she read me bible stories always distinguished between the kings of Israel who exercised power and the prophets of Israel who preached righteousness, and I was brought up to believe in the prophets rather than the kings.” His mother also told him that politics was essentially a question of right and wrong. The American social psychologist Jonathan Haidt would recognise this. In his book the Righteous Mind he argues that we essentially conceive of politics as a matter of rights and wrongs based on our moral intuitions. These intuitions form around various moral foundations one of which is Fairness so evident in Benn’s case but also the moral foundation of Authority/Subversion. Haidt argues that moralised anti-authoritarianism is a strong component of left politics.

But how do they go together? It can be seen in Benn’s case that his anti-authoritarianism trumped his sense of fairness. If the Blair government’s tax credits, pension increases, benefit uplifts and minimum wage enforcement lifted five million out of absolute poverty then it had to do so without the public support of Tony Benn. For him and others the moral psychology of anti-authoritarianism trumps fairness. Benn is considered the socialist, Blair the great betrayer, in a spectacular perversion of the left’s social justice goal only achievable by the emotional acrobatics occasioned by thinking in terms of relationships to authority.

Two Amercian political scientists, Hetherington and Weiler (Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics, 2009) have found that attitudes to authority shape all aspects of US political opinion and attitudes. Evidence for the salience of authority as an issue can be seen everywhere in European politics, UKIP’s anti-Europeanism is an echo of Benn’s, and has a contempt for authority running through it top to bottom. In France millions of voters have switched from the Communist Party to the Font National, puzzling if you think in traditional political terms but wholly explicable if you imagine that Communist Party used to be the anti-establishment party and now which party in France is it that makes the Republican establishment lose sleep?

The suspicion about Benn was that he preferred opposition (there are those anecdotes about him glowing with contentment and expectation post Labour’s 1970 defeat). Benn was at the vanguard of huge political change in European Left politics: In Germany Oscar Lafontaine found governing too hard (or more likely found his role as Finance Minister one which made it an impossible position from which to denounce in-group authority as corrupt) abandoned the SPD and set up a new party allied to the famously anti-establishment former communists, the precise achievement of this alliance is the prevention of the confusion occasioned by the existence of a social democratic government.

Confusing, upsetting and confounding social democratic governments are to be prevented in Holland and Denmark by the formation of the Socialist Party and Socialist People’s Left-Wing respectively. These and others parties, like Benn, ensure that anti-authoritarianism purity trumps fairness. The same alarming phenomenon is appearing in UK politics: Neal Lawson of Compass who supported Blair in opposition to Major and then Brown in opposition to Blair and then Cameron in opposition to Brown (At this rate, Cameron will be the saviour of moral society)  As his heroes move to from opposition to in-group authority they abandon him. Like Benn, Lawson met the Labour Government’s poverty reduction and increased public spending with stony silence and proposed the “Good” society as an alternative. Now he moots the possibility that like Fontaine’s Left Party Compass might opt for a new political structure whose immediate effect will be to increase the likelihood of in group authority occupied by the Right as it has done in Holland and Germany. But then if you are animated by moralised anti-authoritarianism that keeps the picture in your head clear and paves the wave for imminent collapse of dissolute authority in favour of social justice. Benn waited his whole life for this and died last week just before this was about to happen.

Look a those opinion leaders in the liberal press – no to Major, yes to Blair, no to Blair, yes to Brown, no to Brown, yes to Clegg, no to Clegg yes to Ed Miliband. Watch out Ed you have six months of grace should you achieve a position of notable authority in the near future.  Ed should you fail in this then expect the warm glow of approbation to continue.

The former Bennite, Dennis Canavan, is currently the Chair of the Scotland Yes campaign to have an independent Scotland, and in this, richly demonstrates the fracturing of the left at the moral psychological level. If you really want to stick it to in-group authority then break up the UK because that will surely aggravate the establishment. The previously culturally and politically dominant Scottish Labour Party is united in defence of the existing Union, arguing that the great ties of solidarity, cooperation and community that the people of Perth have with those in Woking and Newry should be preferred over the the assertion of identity, or the marginal short term opportunity afforded by high oil prices. However, the hard left in the form of the Scottish Socialist Party demands this solidarity with Woking until September the 18th this year and then they reserves the right to repudiate it. That’s right, if you are reading this in Newry, you pay for Scottish roads until September the 18th and then after that Scotland is not paying for yours, and this is the self styled authentic socialists speaking. The Bennite justifies the repudiation of his responsibility to Manchester’s working class because of his moral antagonism to in group authority: the UK is inherently morally suspect.

There is little prospect of Benn’s baleful anti-authoritarianism dying with him as long as the left allows the conflation of anti-authoritarianism with its traditional values of fairness, internationalism, economic progress and solidarity.

On Political Disagreeablness

Sometimes minor political developments illustrate the nexus between personality theory and Haidt’s Social Intuitionist Model of moral judgement better than the big picture processes which are mediated by skilled politicians who are expert at disguising the emotion which guides their actions; hiding them beneath a veneer of cool reason and rationality.

An perfect illustration of this was the recent State of the Union address by President Barack Obama  “Obama promises action on equality” with the classically Liberal President’s address strongly referencing the Care/Harm foundation “restore unemployment insurance to 1.6 million workers” and the Fairness foundation “a rise in the minimum wage for new Federal contract staff”.  Obama couched these claims in calm and logical terms avoiding the more controversial claim that he felt that is was right to do s in the very depth of his soul.

Obama’s is universally agreed to posses a charisma rooted in his warmth and agreeableness and his unusual stillness and calm.  To some unknown extent this agreeableness and low neuroticism must influence his liberalism, his Social Moral Intuitions in Haidt speak but, we don’t appear to know exactly how or why.

A clearer expression of this conjunction of personality theory and Social Intuitions comes from the aforementioned minor political developments in the UK: in Scotland a backlash grows against “nasty cybernats”,  a small minority of SNP supporters who attack their opponents by deploying sustained invective and studied aggression.  There was the startling comments from a UKIP politician already renowned for public unkindness, who managed to publicly abusing someone for being disabled.  At the same time it was reported that a former prominent UKIP politician was involved in political kidnapping in Pakistan.

Geoffrey Miller’s claim that politics can be deduced from personality theory alone seems to overeach, but hear him low agreeableness “Conservatives show lower openness and (more traditionalism and xenophobia)….and lower agreeableness (more hard headed, hard hearted support for their self-interests and national interests).”

Now a caveat, low agreeableness and aggression aimed at political rivals of course is in all parties, and all politics all the time.  The Daily Mail linked is an exemplar low agreeableness itself, but many and most will agree that low agreeableness is more pronounced, more evident towards the extremes in politics.  But does the agreeableness/disagreeable spectrum create the politics in itself?

The other week an authoritarian nationalist politician, the President of the Russian Federation, asked homosexuals “to leave children in peace” during the Winter Olympics.  The word nationalist in the description is key to identifying the Moral Foundations and motivations of their politics.  A strong reference to the “in group loyalty” foundation is evident in Scottish Nationalism as offered by the SNP, British Nationalism from UKIP and Putin’s brand of Russian neo-nationalism.  This intuition about the moral worth of their in-groups and their low agreeableness promotes a moralised form of unpleasant aggression towards political rivals.

For Miller one causes the other, low agreeableness and then the predisposition to the end of the right wing spectrum.  For Haidt we proceed from Moral Intuitions informed by personality traits but Haidt doesn’t identify the traits in detail.  Also what about left wing disagreeableness? The current controversy about the French comedian Dieudonné and his newly infamous Quenelle salute, alleged to be a form of anti-Semitism, is an illustration of left wing low agreeableness rooted in his anti-establishment and anti-authoritarian views.  A moralised hostility to in-group authority and its perceived sympathy and support for Israel leads to the public demonstration of moralised antagonism.

Left wing low agreeableness, even far left low agreeableness, is usually softened and chastened however, by the left’s values, in which a claim that whole racial, ethnic or religious groups are morally dissolute is unacceptable in respect of the Care/Harm foundation.

Miller’s claim that you can derive someone’s politics from the big six personality types is intriguing but the relationship with Haidtian Moral Foundations is uncertain.

Partisan references Haidt’s Righteous Mind

One of the features of the acclaim which greeted Haidt’s the Righteous Mind  was that it was not confined to right or left, and partisans reading the book were not able to claim victory in the long endless war between the blue and the red.  Haidt told us that both their ideologies were based upon beliefs, the beliefs based on moral intuitions which in turn are based on personality traits (as yet imprecisely and tentatively defined).  So when a partisan picks up the book and tries to beat his opponent over the head with it you are in for some confusion.

In the right leaning Daily Telegraph the right leaning journalist Toby Young  uses Haidt to accuse leftists of being disloyal because Haidt has identified loyalty to the in-group as an important moral foundation in right wing politics.  When Haidt talks about loyalty he doesn’t mean loyalty to your broadband provider or your to your spouse or your or to your colleagues he means loyalty to your tribe as your psychology evolved over millennia throughout truly ancient times and which, currently, maps over psychologically to the country, the state or the representation of in-group authority.

The three examples) of leftist perfidy perfectly which he cites (McBride, Ferguson and Miliband) all illustrate his error and the operation of his partisan confirmation bias, something which Haidt speaks about at some length in his book.  The confirmation bias is seeing only what you want to see, that which confirms your existing prejudice so Young, whilst pointing out that Damian McBride the spokesman for a former Labour PM behaved, by his own admission, in a disgraceful way, Young might recall the inverse: that a spokesperson for the current Conservative PM is facing serious criminal charges.  McBride wasn’t motivated by disloyalty; quite the opposite, he thought Gordon Brown “a truly great man” achieving important things in respect of (in Haidt moral foundation terms) fairness and harm reduction and acted for him showing ferocious personal loyalty which trumped all other considerations.  That is Haidt central point – our moralised psychology is different from our normal every day common or garden morality, and the former can trump the later, as it did in McBride’s case.  On the right the same thing: the Republican shutdown of Congress caused great stress and alarm but “they were fighting the good fight in trying to destroy Obamacare”, which they feel violates the moral intuitions they have around autonomy and responsibility and a particular conception of fairness.

Young condemns Alex Ferguson for a lack of loyalty yet it was precisely this characteristic that made Ferguson great – he demanded personal loyalty from his players, not talking to the press, no cliques, no factions, and in turn he promised to make them the best footballer that they could possibly be.  He played them when they were out of form out of loyalty to them because he was in a position of long term mutual co-operation and respect.  When he sensed the loyalty breaking down as it did in a handful of the dozens of players he managed, then the relationship ended.   The whole sequence of great socialist football managers Busby, Shankly, Clough and Ferguson demanded and got loyalty to their teams.  Young is applying the wrong conception of loyalty at the wrong level.

Here is were the left differs from the right on loyalty in Haidt’s terms, and we can use the third leftist that Young cites, Ed Miliband to illustrate.  The right is more likely to think My Country Right or Wrong than the left.  Take the decision to authorise military action on Syria, some of the arguments on behalf of the Government explicitly referenced loyalty: they in turn, demanded unity with the United States, demanded trust in respect of secret intelligence in the possession of the state, asked that the Prime Minister’s authority not be undermined, that the prestige of the Government not be harmed, that support be given on trust.  Miliband rejected those loyalty based arguments and proposed rational arguments about the terms of the proposed action being unclear and too uncertain at that moment.

This is the Haitdain difference, the right has this intuition about in-group loyalty: that its purposes are mostly in themselves are morally worthy, this is an intuition that the left doesn’t share to put it at its most gentle.