A flurry of articles, many from the pages at Salon, have attacked the Republican candidates for their attack on the moderators of the recent CNBC debate, and on the media in general. William Saletan, in Reality Sucks, insists the issue is not a division between the press and the public but between those who listen to evidence and those who are impervious and defiant of it. Saletan maintains that the Republican candidates are merely upset that the moderators are challenging, with evidence, the legitimacy of their policy prescriptions, and they feel wronged. Saletan notes that some reality leaked in when Kasich “debunked his colleague’s tax, budget, and deportation math,” as the moderators themselves were attempting to challenge. If Kasich and the moderators were on the side of evidence, the audience seemed not. Saletan notes that ‘Rubio went ballistic’ when asked about his own personal financial irregularities, exclaiming, “Democrats have the ultimate super PAC. It’s called the mainstream media.” Note that this remark got a huge positive response from the audience. If Saletan is correct, Republican voters are as angry about being called out on the evidence as the candidates are.
Kim Messick, noting that Saletan was merely documenting this notion that the Republican candidates are upset “with the idea that its assertions and proposals be tested against empirical evidence,” takes the argument one step further by documenting the “conflict over the meaning of conservatism in the modern world.” He argues that conservatism from the mid 1850’s to the 1960’s was anchored in a commitment to a market economy, and adapted as the economy changed from small producers and merchants to industrial capitalism. Messick argues that the ‘Southern Strategy’ which brought the South to Republicanism and the Republicans to electoral victory, required ever greater ideological rigidity as time went on. The modern vision of society grants more equality across race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality, and today’s conservatism rejects this in favor of a vision they ascribe to eternal realities and the wishes of God. By withdrawing from history this way, conservatives reject empirical evidence in favor of ideology and are insulted when the debate moderators challenge the veracity of policy prescriptions which leak from this idealogy (see “tax, budget, and deportation math” above).
Plato wrote the allegory of the cave in the Republic. In it, the liberals are chained to the back of the cave watching shadows of things passing by on the wall in front of them. They give names to these shadows, and treat them as reality. A conservative manages to escape the cave and enter into the bright sunshine where he perceives reality. Were he to reenter the cave he would still likely not be able to convince the liberals in chains that they are prisoners to shadows.
Or so a Republican presidential candidate might see it. The notion that Messick is pointing to is that conservatives, and most of the Republican contenders, subscribe to a view that there is a truth that they perceive independent of the empirical evidence (and math) of the world around them, and that they consider it an insult that this view be challenged.
In Our Political Nature: The Evolutionary Origins of What Divides Us, Avi Tuschman enumerates the genetic, biological, evolutionary, social, historical underpinnings of what makes us conservative or progressive. What he explores is less the particular policies that conservatives or liberals might propound, and more these influences which give us a particular world view and lead us to particular policy positions. Patrick Allitt in The Conservative Tradition at Great Courses weighs in on a similar subject when he compares conservatives in Britain with those in the United States. In Britain, conservatives are not proposing expanding rights to bear arms as is the case with U.S. conservatives, nor or they proposing dismantling as socialist the National Health Service as conservatives in the U.S. are proposing dismantling Obamacare. What Tuschman is highlighting, often in concert with the insights of George Lakoff and Jonathan Haidt, are these biological and psychological tendencies which then express themselves in conservative or progressive policy prescriptions.
Aside from the tailoring of our genetic heritage by forming close-knit groups and staying in a circumscribed area where our genes were adapted to fighting off local disease, or alternately the genetic adaptations from developing an openness to new experience required of groups which had to migrate frequently, Tuschman to a large degree sees conservatism as the response to the coming of agricultural and the settling into societies tied to the land. He maintains that hunter-gatherer societies tended to be more egalitarian, including between the genders, because of a high level of mutual dependence and since it was easy to leave the group and set out on one’s own. With the settling into agricultural communities, wealth depended on inheriting land, limiting the ability to leave the group. A division of labor between the genders ensued, in part due to the fact that women could have more children, since they weren’t migrating and needing to carry children with them. Being able to generate a surplus for sale created wealth, and with it power. And families, and society, became controlled by men.
Jonathan Haidt posits six foundations of morality. Liberals emphasize care, fairness, and liberty. Conservatives are a mix of all six, but tend towards loyalty, authority, and sanctity. These latter three do a good job of encompassing what Tuschman’s describes as the consequences of humans taking up agriculture. In George Lakoff’s analysis, we tend to sort ourselves into one of two models, the strict father approach, and the nurturant parent one. The strict father approach also maps closely with what Tuschman sees in the adoption of agriculture and its consequences.
Tuschman describes conservatives as ethnocentric and as scoring high in conscientiousness; Haidt notes that sanctity plays a large role in the conservative view; Lakoff sees adherence to authority as critical to the conservative outlook. Haidt also notes a general belief among conservatives in ‘karma’, that if you do something good, good things will happen; and conversely for bad things. This also then reinforces that notion that those who are wealthier are so because they are deserving; those who are poorer have brought their poverty on themselves by their deeds. The ethnocentrism that Tuschman notes expands on this. The group that has more wealth and authority believes so because it is worthy of it. Its members will also defend it against all takers. Progressives, on the other hand, tend to believe in the innate, inner equality of all people, leading them to ascribe social inequality and injustice to the fact that some people are mired in poverty.
In medieval mystery novels, the hero is often the son who didn’t inherit. Not having a base for wealth, he is left to survive on his wits. Those who were smarter were able to do so, and they became the heroes of such novels. Those who didn’t were forgotten. As society has moved from its agricultural basis to modern industrialism, fewer individuals are subject to the constraints of an agricultural society. More are in a position to succeed on their own wits, as those in the medieval mystery novels. With the move of the population to the cities, individuals come into contact with others of different backgrounds and beliefs, and have to adapt (or perhaps, those who can adapt have a wider choice in mates and are more likely to reproduce). In developing countries, women have fewer children, and invest more time and money into each one. In part to pay the increasing expense of children who remain dependent longer, spending more years in school, women are more likely to enter the workforce, and gain a measure of independence, diminishing the inequality between the genders. Tuschman documents how ethnocentricity is often a result of a group strengthening its genome to protect against the diseases in its geographic area, and insulating itself from the diseases outsiders bring. Haidt reinforces this notion when he highlights conservative attraction to the notion of purity. But in an age of antibiotics and modern medicine, the rational fear of disease is lessened, and presumably with it the strength of adherence to ethnocentricity.
If, as Messick notes, Republicanism until the 1960’s was responsive to the changes in the economy as it moved toward industrial capitalism, since then the party has been dominated by the rural and the religious. While much of the rest of the country has adapted to new social realities, conservatives have stayed true to their values. All of which brings us to the liberal, Saleton/Messick critique of the Republicans candidates as unwilling to acknowledge evidence and math, while the candidates insist, on the one hand, on larger, eternal verities, and on the other, loyalty to just rewards, order, and ethnocentricity.