Monday, June 04, 2007

Caveman politics

Liberals and conservatives have been at it for eons
– maybe it's time to move on?

Scholars may have uncovered the root causes of political ideology. We can today better understand why a William F. Buckley, a Harold Macmillan or a Binyamin Netanyahu grows up to be a conservative, while a George McGovern, a Tony Benn or a Yossi Beilin develops into a liberal.

Prof. Randy Thornhill and his graduate student Corey Fincher from the Biology Department at the University of New Mexico, writing in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior, argue that all "ancestral humans" are genetically predisposed to either liberalism or conservatism, with the environment serving as a triggering mechanism.

Thornhill and Fincher report: Those with secure childhoods, low stress and strong parental attachments turn out conservative; those who experience stressful childhoods and weaker parental connections (an absent father, for instance) develop into liberals. Evolution required a mix - humans who crave stability, as well as those willing to experiment with new frontiers. For our species to perpetuate, there was a need for both "conservative" family and community builders, as well as "liberals" ready to reach out to humans beyond their own "ingroup."

In their study, Thornhill and Fincher also found that firstborns (who receive a great deal of parental investment) tended toward conservatism, while later- and middle-borns (who, presumably, receive less parental attention) were prone to turn out liberal-oriented.
They conclude that "the relative magnitude of childhood stressors experienced sends conservatives [with secure attachments] down one life track, and liberals [with avoidant attachments] down another."

THEIR NOTION of what makes liberals and conservatives tick flies in the face of conventional wisdom, which holds that insecure children grow up to be conservatives, while confident youngsters become liberals. Indeed, in liberal-dominated academia, liberalism is identified as the "default" normal, while conservative tendencies are viewed as the aberration.

The pre-Thornhill and Fincher distinctions between liberals and conservatives had "optimistic liberals" believing human nature to be essentially good and malleable. This explains why they are always gung-ho on talking, negotiations and peace processes - liberals think people are fundamentally cooperative.

Conservatives, in contrast, are inherently pessimistic about human nature; they assume that no amount of social tinkering can transform man's fundamental make-up. This leads them not to entrust raw power into the hands of the people because "pure democracy" will end up in a tyranny of the mob.

Now along come Thornhill and Fincher to suggest that optimistic liberals had stressful (not to say deprived) childhoods, while distrustful conservatives (like myself) were spoiled with attention.

IN AN e-mail exchange, Fincher clarifies: Conservatives do trust, but only their ingroup - extended family, other conservatives, leaders - but not people who think differently, act differently, pray to different gods.

"You call [them] pessimistic conservatives because they don't believe in the goodness of everyone; while a liberal does believe that everyone has value. We see this as supportive of our findings. Consider that alliances are fundamental to individual survival. Liberals are strategic specialists in developing alliances with just about anyone from their immediate family to former enemies; while conservatives are strategic specialists for developing alliances and maintaining those alliances only within their ingroup."

Individuals who recall growing up in an environment that included a great deal of familial investment and closeness, Fincher wrote me, are primarily conservative and demonstrate a secure attachment style as adults, so they are primarily interested in close, enduring relationships. People who recall growing up in an environment with reduced familial closeness and investment are primarily liberal, and demonstrate a more avoidant style of attachment, meaning they are aloof and lack concern about the permanency of their relationships with others.

"So back to your question, someone is conservative because, in part, their tie to their ingroup is significant and must be maintained. For liberals their tie to any one ingroup is significantly malleable. They have to see goodness in everyone in order to facilitate this kind of mobility."
Broadly speaking, then, what makes people either liberal or conservative is that these are the only two cards evolution has dealt us. How we actually turn out depends largely on the individual nature/nurture experience.

Both liberalism and conservatism are ideologies - or a "coherent and consistent set of beliefs" about politics, according to the venerable political scientists James Q. Wilson. It strikes me, however, that if the liberal-conservative divide is just an accident of the nature/nurture experience, maybe ideological consistency need not be sacrosanct.

MOST ISRAELIS, you'll agree, are not coherent and consistent ideologues. Truth is, you don't much hear the terms "liberal" and "conservative" in the Israeli setting. Instead, people are pigeonholed as right-wing ("bomb the Arabs to smithereens"), or left-wing ("hand the Arabs everything they want on a silver platter, and be nice about it"). Such shallow labeling tells us nothing useful about genuine ideology, or about how thinking Israelis see events.

Speaking personally, I've long known that I'm neither "left-wing" nor liberal because my take on human nature is darkly Freudian. When I lived in the US, I was, like a good conservative, dubious about the government's role in regulating business. I worked in government and knew we didn't always have the answers. I tended to disdain the latest welfare program; I opposed affirmative action, favoring the merit system instead. Still, I was never a social conservative because I opposed government involvement in the personal sphere, and generally favored a broadminded approach to civil liberties.

IN THE decade or so that I've lived in Israel, remaining ideologically "coherent" and "consistent" as a conservative has become ever more difficult. In the Israeli setting, where oligarchs control the bulk of the nation's wealth, I'm not convinced that less government regulation of big business - cable television, telecommunications, transportation, utilities and medicine - is such a good idea.

New York City in my day had nearly 1 million (out of 8 million) residents on the public dole. This struck me as socially debilitating. Plainly, there was something wrong with a system that saw, not atypically, three generations of unmarried women sharing a household, collecting welfare checks and making babies.

There's nothing remotely like that kind of in-your-face abuse of the system here in Israel; no epidemic of welfare queens. But there are plenty of working stiffs earning way below the (modest) average gross salary of NIS 7,491 per month, and they deserve whatever help the state can give them. Certainly when it comes to the truly indigent living below the poverty level, I don't want the state to be parsimonious. And if that breaks with my inherent conservatism - so be it.

In America, like any good conservative, I valued tradition. But here in Israel "tradition" has morphed into religious coercion with ultra-Orthodox rabbis employed by the state controlling citizenship, marriage, divorce and even burial. The bloated religious bureaucracy mixes the worst of liberal big government with the worst kind of personally intrusive social conservatism.

WHATEVER THE answers to the problems of this society, they are not going to be uncovered by an adherence to this or that political ideology. Maybe lockstep ideological consistency is a luxury only people living in a properly functioning political system can afford. But in a system as fundamentally wrecked as ours, adhering to liberalism or conservatism for the sake of consistency seems senseless. And it goes without saying that sticking to even more vacuous left-wing and right-wing distinctions when what most of us really disagree about is managing the Arab-Israel conflict is especially unhelpful.

I'm not saying that there aren't any genuine left-wingers and right-wingers. I'm saying that for most of us they are irrelevant.

MY OWN diagnosis is that Israel's political system suffers from "hyper-pluralism," or group politics run amok. Contending groups are stronger than the government itself. When political parties with diametrically opposing views merrily collaborate in raiding the public purse, the outcome for the overall collective is bad.

In a broken system, ideology offers transparently false choices. After all, say there are new elections tomorrow, and the pro-business Likud Party comes out ahead, does anyone imagine that it would not invite the social-democratic Labor Party to become its coalition partner? And wouldn't both parties gladly bring the centrist Kadima Party into their government? And wouldn't they - disregarding ideology - cut deals with the single-issue parochial parties in return for political backing?

Every Israeli who agrees that this is no way to run the Zionist enterprise has a preferred solution. Mine is James Madison's model of representative democracy, checks and balances, and separation of powers, as embodied in the US Constitution. That comes part and parcel with constituency-based elections.

I'm not holding my breath, but such an idyllic outcome would promote a two-party democracy and pragmatic centrist policies. There would be one large, liberal-oriented party and one large conservative party. Highly ideological single-issue parties would fall by the wayside in a winner-take-all electoral system, and their activists would seek to shape policy within one of the two large amalgamations.

In that long "meanwhile" before the political system is overhauled, both Left and Right need to abandon their dead-end "never-forget-never-forgive" partisanship. When consistency prevents out-of-the-box thinking on both domestic and security issues while tearing the fabric of society apart, it's time to jettison the chains of ideology.

It took a combination of liberalism and conservatism for the human species to evolve. Likewise, Israeli leaders with wisdom must be willing to exploit the best characteristics of both liberal and conservative ideologies in developing a novel, pragmatic survival strategy.

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