Political Psychology

In the post below, I make reference to the difficulty of sustaining an agenda of change over the course of multiple elections. Though that point makes intuitive sense to some readers, I thought it would be helpful to elaborate more. In doing so, I will make the argument that a change agenda is difficult to sustain in itself, but further that change, as a positive agenda, is far more difficult to maintain, than its opposite, which is a negative, fear based agenda (not its logical opposite- a status quo agenda).

At certain moments in history, people yearn for change in the political arena. Often this drive for political change is correlated with societal change, as evidenced by the Civil Rights movement and other large social movements. Here, however, social change precedes and leads political change. In other instances, the change sought is more of a political nature. People have what may be an abstract or specific notion that the country is headed in the wrong direction. The most obvious, and I think helpful, example would be the elections of 2006 and 2008.

The country was mired in two costly foreign wars, the economy had started to slide some by 2006, only to see it crater by 2008. The public mood was one of disenchantment, bordering on malaise. The GOP controlled all the levers of government and had done their best to wear out the public’s post 9-11 goodwill. (The probable tipping point seems to have been the Schiavo affair.) When people are feeling economic insecurity, it becomes easy to make the case for change.

The Democrats retook Congress in the 2006 midterms by calling for change. They capitalized on the public’s desire to lead the country in a different direction. Of course, Congress alone cannot make significant change when the White House is controlled by the other party. Though the Democrats were not successful in their change efforts in 2007, the ground had been set for a Democratic presidential nominee to run under the banner of change. Clearly this was made all the more possible by the cratering of the economy and the Bush administration’s fumbling through the early days of the economic crisis and the public’s general Bush fatigue.

In the fall of 2008, Democrats increased their 2006 gains in Congress and elected a President. These successes were all premised on the mantra of change. They promised changes in government (clean up corruption), changes in policy (draw down troops in Iraq; health care reform) and changes in political climate (post-partisanship). These messages drew broad support from an electorate deeply concerned about the country’s direction. Not only did it move regular voters to support the Democratic change agenda, but it brought in millions of new voters.

Some thought we had witnessed a new movement, some sort of seismic shift in our politics. (Of course, we’d been there before with Reagan’s morning in America, Clinton’s New Democrats, etc.) What those people did not foresee, or learn from political history, was the difficulty of maintaining an agenda based on positive change. Unlike social movements, such as Civil Rights, which are focused on one particular set of agenda items (sometimes so narrow as to be one item), a political change agenda is too broad and diffuse.

Though it is undeniably true that Obama and the Democrats ran on some specific change items, voters will tend to over-interpret such broad calls for change. Voters/supporters often make a couple mistakes. First, they come to believe that a particular politician subscribes to their notion of change, regardless of the lack of evidence for such a belief. Also, they tend to underestimate the length of time it takes a large bureaucratic organization, like the US government, to actually change. These two mistakes lead to inevitable disappointment.

This disappointment often leads to a loss of momentum for the change agenda, but it is not a fait accompli. There are steps that leaders can take to minimize the disappointment. Most importantly, political leaders need to keep their supporters informed and engaged. This requires direct communication with their people, and not relying on the media to carry their message. If people are kept “in the loop” about the actions politicians are taking to enact/pursue the positive change, they are more likely to show patience when that change is slower than they might have anticipated and preferred. Beyond keeping their supporters, and the public, informed leaders must be clear about what it is they are doing. In other words, explain their agenda to the public through a variety of ways. This also entails correcting false information about their agenda before it becomes so widespread as to be the accepted reality.

Accomplishing those tasks alone are difficult enough, as voters are busy and often not tuned in to the smaller bore issues facing government. These tasks do not occur in isolation, but rather in an environment where opponents are engaging in their own political rhetoric and activism. Thus, change leaders must not only promote their vision, but counter what is often a disinformation campaign against them.

A much easier political strategy, and one employed largely by the Republican Party over the past five decades, is a negative, fear based agenda. (I am leaving out their opposition to the New Deal and also avoiding the Cold War, which had as many Democratic adherents.) Motivating voters with fear and anger is a far simpler row to hoe for a number of reasons.

Fear and anger are somewhat base emotions. They require no explanation nor any sort of positive aspiration. Hope and change do rely somewhat on emotions, but need to be based upon some tangible policy ends. Anger and fear require no such grounding. And so, Republicans have used a variety of bogeymen to scare voters to their side for over a generation.

Starting with the 1960’s and the Dixiecrats changing of allegiances, the GOP has pursued a policy of demonizing others for electoral gain. It began with talk of state’s rights, a not so clandestine appeal to racist voters upset with the burgeoning Civil Rights movement. Since then there’s been a succession of villains used to raise the level of fear and anger- war protesters, women/feminists, gays and lesbians, the poor, environmentalists, and now Muslims.

There is always some other available to demonize. To frighten voters into believing they are somehow under attack from people who are not like them. It plays into people’s inherent fears and prejudices. And these tactics require little to actual evidence of threat. It’s more of an existential threat to some voters’ notion of America as a white, Christian, straight, male enclave.

Not only is this strategy successful in its appeals, but it is almost impossible to combat. Fear and anger are nearly immune to logic and reason. So, it doesn’t matter how many times it is shown that Obama was born in Hawaii, there are still a high percentage of Republicans who believe he is a secret Kenyan Muslim. It doesn’t matter that all the science shows convincingly that global temperatures are rising and melting the polar ice caps, many (most?) Republicans believe it’s a myth.

All that is needed to sustain the momentum of a negative agenda is a new villain. And so that is why gays and lesbians have recently been replaced with Muslims, as public attitudes towards gays has shifted. So long as you stay ahead of the curve of public opinion with regards to your preferred bogeyman you cannot go wrong. There is no need to keep your base informed, just scared. No need to offer up a policy agenda, just talk about how the other party’s agenda will lead to socialism. And no need to defend the status quo, just talk about fictitious death panels.

Fear and anger, unlike hope and change, require no heavy intellectual lifting. They require no real thinking on the part of voters, which is especially helpful given how little they actually pay attention to politics and government. The Tea Party provides the perfect example of my point. Most of them believe things that are provably untrue; they have no actual agenda other than opposing Obama and the Democrats; most of them know very little about our government or its founding documents. Yet, they are the most energized group of voters heading into the November midterms.

We have survived at least 50 years of this type of politics, but we have not prospered as a country in many ways. Our lack of prosperity is the product of many factors, but one of those is its politics. And it is unclear how much longer we can survive, as a nation, as a society, when we are fed a diet of fear and anger.

There’s Nothing Wrong With Getting Off

Despite the lessening anti-gay rhetoric coming from the political right this election season, as discussed below, there are still a great many vigilant cultural warriors engaging in the battle for sex. These anti-sex warriors decry all sex that is not at least hetero-normative, and would prefer that all sex be procreative. They oppose any sexual pleasure, and one wonders whether they all do it on Saturday night, with the lights off, whilst wearing socks. And, if any pleasure should occur, do they self-flagellate?

I refer to this group of people as anti-sex because they oppose things like contraception, abortion and equal rights for the LGBT community. For these folks, sex is nothing but an animalistic procreative act. Animalistic in that it is done solely for the preservation of the species. Thus things like contraception, anal sex, sodomy and other sexual acts that cannot result in pregnancy are verboten.

Certainly, some animals do engage in sexual activity for pleasure. However, they are rare. In permitting procreative sex only, the anti-sex warriors undermine what to them is a central organizing principle- that humans are, by the grace of God, special among God’s creatures. This begs the question of what is so special about an animal that only copulates according to some unwilled desire to preserve the species. In other words, the anti-sex people, who are near universally religious, have taken away free will over one of our core abilities.

Much has been written, particularly by Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon and other places, about the Right’s anti-woman, anti-sex agenda. And I think Amada is entirely correct in her critique. However, I would add that its agenda is also anti-man in some respects. Let’s take the example of abortion. While some prolife individuals and groups really do focus their opposition to abortion on their belief that it is tantamount to murder, looking beneath some of that rhetoric reveals a very strong anti-woman bias.

It’s best encapsulated by the following- “we need to punish those dirty little whores.” This is part of the anti-sex crowds desire to make sex something more than just getting off. They want it to be something that has CONSEQUENCES. And so, they think forcing a woman to carry to term a fetus and then, presumably, mother that child for 18+ years will teach her some sort of lesson about keeping her legs closed. Or something. Never mind that of all the industrialized countries we have some of the worst birth control options and availability, because the anti-sexers want it that way. Again, consequences.

But consequences also flow to the father of the fetus and child. No matter how much paternal responsibility has diminished in our society, there are still fairly strong societal pressures for fathers to live up their responsibilities. So not only does forcing a woman to carry to term her fetus provide consequences to her, but also to the male in the reproduction equation. Perhaps we should punish all the sluts- male and female.

What’s underlying all of these positions (prolife, anti-equality, no contraception) is the notion that sex ought to have meaning. Of course, for the vast majority of anti-sexers, meaning is rooted in religious notions of morality. They are, in a manner of speaking, sexual ascetics. Unlike other ascetics, they seek not only to deny themselves pleasure, but the rest of us, too.

And that is where the problem lies. Sex is something so inherently personal that we might each attach different levels and types of meaning to sexual activities. Or maybe no meaning at all. I might even argue that the anti-sexers are, on some level, stripping meaning away from sex. Taking it out of the realm of pleasure and feeling and making it a mechanical operation.

It is certainly their right to conduct their sex lives in a manner that fits with their desires and values. Just as it surely is my, and your, right to have what we consider to be healthy and fulfilling sex lives. There really is nothing wrong with getting off.

Ethics and Happiness

This interesting new paper by Harvey James sets out to examine the relationship between ethical behavior and happiness. It’s an interesting addition to the ever-increasing literature on happiness. And it provides some empirical evidence that Plato and Aristotle had it right, after all. After a brief description of the work, I offer my own comments and criticisms.

James utilizes data from the World Values Survey (WVS), using the particular countries of the United States, Canada, Mexico and Brazil, to examine whether those who exhibit more ethical behavior are happier than their less ethical counterparts. Now, those familiar with the WVS will realize that specific behaviors are not included in the survey. Rather, there are questions about attitudes concerning ethical questions. James selects four such questions (answered on a scale of 1-10)- claiming government benefits to which you are not entitled; avoiding a fare on a public transport; cheating on taxes if you have the chance; someone accepting a bribe in the course of their duties- which have a decidedly ethical bent. James conjectures that one’s answers to attitudinal questions about ethical dilemmas will accurately reveal/predict their behavior.

In order to measure happiness, he utilizes respondents’ answers to the question- all things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole these days. Like the four questions above, answers are given on a scale of 1-10. Keeping with the happiness literature, James posits that answers to this question reveal what is known as Subjective Well Being (SWB). He then uses probit and OLS in order to determine whether those who are more ethical indeed do have a (statistically significant) higher level of SWB. The results are not all significant, but do show a clear correlation between ethical behavior and happiness.

Overall, I find this to be a very interesting and well written paper. However, it does have its flaws. First, a nitpicky concern I have is James’ reliance on dummy variables in his model. Not that dummies do not have a place here, but rather that I think he relies on them too much and I question the validity of some of the assumptions he makes when converting ordinal values into dummy variables. Yet, without having access to his dataset, I cannot claim that different parameters for the dummy variables would have yielded different results.

I would also question whether answers to survey questions can function as good proxies for actual behavior. It has been well documented that people will give untrue answers to questions, especially ones that implicate social norms, such as ethical questions. Further, there is also bound to be some distortion between people’s claimed ethical attitudes and their ethics in practice. Answering a question, in an interview room, about whether or not you believe cheating on taxes is justified is far different than sitting down to do one’s taxes.

These criticisms aside, I still find the paper to be compelling evidence that ethical behavior (attitudes) and happiness are correlated. One other note of caution, of course, is that correlation does not imply causation. James does note two potential causal factors for both- income and psychological well-being. He dismisses the former as the results in his model were inconsistent with respect to income.

Psychological well-being is a more compelling causal factor, to James and to me. However, untangling the ways in which well-being, happiness and ethics feed into one another is a task far beyond this paper. It seems reasonable that psychological well-being has a strong causal relationship to both happiness and ethical behavior, but it is also reasonable to assume that there are feedback effects. For example, as noted, altruistic behavior may be caused by psychological well-being, but there are psychological benefits to altruistic behavior. Future research, mainly in psychology, needs to examine what baseline level of psychological well-being is required to cause ethical behavior and bring about happiness.

What Do We Owe Our Furry Friends?

There are many ethical quandaries that we face in our modern lives. Some of these problems may be small in scale and limited to our own personal universe, while others are vast in scope and affect not only our lives, but the planet itself. Unfortunately, much of our civic dialogue on ethics and morality tend to get stuck on a few big issues, like abortion and equal rights.

Against such a backdrop it is understandable, perhaps, that animal welfare gets short shrift. And when issues pertaining to animals do come up they tend to be part of a larger conversation about the environment. Or, as was the case a couple of years ago, some horrific incident of animal cruelty brings light and attention to our forgotten friends.

The discussion that I would like to have focuses on two separate issues pertaining to animal welfare. First, I would like to tackle the treatment of animals in zoos and circuses, which can be quite inhumane. Next, I will take up the debate over factory farming and eating animals in general. I should warn the reader- unlike many of my arguments, this one will not have neat answers and will leave many questions unanswered.

For the vast majority of Americans, their main contact with animals (outside of domesticated pets) is through circuses and zoos. [One point of clarification- I would lump petting zoos and other things of that nature in with circuses, as their mission is very different from stand alone zoos.] Thus, these institutions provide a valuable service in exposing people to nature. This does not apply only to urban and suburban residents, as zoos and circuses contain animals that are not native to the area. The thinking is that such exposure will more favorably incline people towards supporting conservation and environmental policies.

I assume that many people are already aware of the deplorable conditions in which many circus and petting zoo animals are kept. It is disgraceful and inhumane (in Massachusetts there has been a movement to bar the use of chains and hooks that circuses use to handle pachyderms). This seriously undermines any positive value derived from providing people access to animals they would not otherwise encounter.

Zoos are a different story, however. Their missions usually encompass not only exposing people to animals, but educating the public and managing breeding programs to ensure the sustainability of species. As such, zoos are more invested in handling and managing their animals in a healthy and humane manner. Yet, there still is the question– should we capture (or breed in captivity) wild animals and place them in cages or enclosures, deprive them of a natural life, in order to get more humans to support species conservation? Where one comes down on this issue really depends on personal philosophy. If you’re a consequentialist, zoos raise no major ethical problems as the end good (more conservation of species and habitats) outweighs the bad (emotional duress of the animals). If you’re a deontologist, like me, there is a very real concern about the morality of caging and confining wild animals, regardless of the potential benefit. [full disclosure: when I lived in St. Louis, I was around the corner from the zoo and went there weekly.]

The issue of factory farming raises these same issues of animal abuse and cruelty. It is no secret that factory farms can be brutal. The mistreatment of animals in such places has been well documented, therefore I will not cover it again. Suffice to say that if you thought animal testing of cosmetics was bad, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

But what can consumers do, short of turning vegan? One might think she’s doing the right thing by purchasing cage free eggs or chickens. But cage free does not mean that these hens are running freely around a yard, living humane chicken lives. It just means they are not caged! So, cage free eggs could, and do, come from chickens roaming around a concrete floor in a factory. She might also think that buying only organic meat and dairy products means that the animals are treated humanely. Wrong again! Though many organic farmers do treat their animals with care, as demand for organic products has increased the big agri-businesses have entered the market. Should we trust that the same company that produces inhumane non-organic milk is going to treat their organic cows with tender loving care? One option consumers do have is to purchase their meats and dairy products locally, from farmers whose treatment and conditions they can view. Or, there are reputable online retailers of cruelty free products.

Of course, the other option- the more pure, some would say- is simply to become vegan. I say that this is a more pure option because no matter how humanely animals are treated, they are still mere commercial products that will be killed for our consumption. Which raises the question– is there an ethical way to consume meat (aside from hunting and killing your own wild animals)? I am not convinced that there is such a way, yet I remain a fairly voracious meat eater.

Regardless of where one comes out on these issues, it is important to keep them in mind. To be apathetic about the rightness of animal welfare is one step away from ceasing to care about human suffering.

Utilitarianism Yet Again

Once more into the mire, as it were.  I’d like to expand a bit on my minor comment with respect to finding Mill’s view more attractive, but Bentham’s more consistent. This might be an obvious point to some, but I’d like to make my comment more clear.

From the point of view of a practical person (here I am not using practical in a philosophical sense, but in its everyday form), Mill’s account, with its differentiation between pleasures, makes intuitive sense. You would be hard pressed to find someone who thought, after careful consideration, that NASCAR was as edifying as Mozart.

The use of the word thought, as opposed to felt, is important. Mill’s argument rests upon the notion that actors exposed to low and high pleasures would be capable of placing the proper value on each. Underlying this is some sense of rationality or reasonableness. In other words, the ordering of pleasures is not determined by feeling, but by knowing.

And that is where I find his account failing, in at least two respects.

First, there are the obvious arguments about actors as rational and/or reasonable. Beyond the definitional problems, there is a further concern. Why are we to believe that, assuming arguendo that actors meet these conditions, such persons will order pleasures appropriately? I think this is a bridge too far.

Second, notions of promoting the greatest good for the greatest number will still rest upon the values of the particular society. To take an extreme example, imagine a society comprised of 75 adult pedophiles and 25 children. In this society pedophilia is viewed as natural and good. Thus, in order to promote the greatest happiness, pedophilia is not only allowed but is condoned. The calculus is such that the good enjoyed by the 75 is outweighed by the bad experiences for the 25.

Now, Mill might say that pedophilia cannot simply be valued as a higher order good. But why not? If actors are free to determine high and low pleasures, why are we not to believe that those determinations will vary widely among societies and individuals. Of course, anyone would say that pedophilia is simply wrong and shocks the conscience is such a way that it would be impossible for any rational and/or reasonable actor anywhere or anytime to value its practice as a higher pleasure. But I would argue that the history of human experience is one that shows that mores and values vary widely among cultures and even within cultures over different epochs.

If my second argument is indeed valid, and I believe that it is, we are simply left with Bentham’s account of a crude greatest happiness for the greatest number. And, left with this amoral formulation, utilitarianism is essentially doomed.

Quick Follow Up

I made mention below about liberals’ unwillingness, or maybe reluctance, to couch their arguments in explicitly moral language. And I want to revise and extend my remarks a bit here. I do not want to fall victim to what I’d like to term Amy Sullivanism, which is form of accepting the basic premise that liberals are haters of religion.

It should go without saying that most liberals are either religious themselves or religiously tolerant. The stereotype of militant atheists running the Democratic Party is beyond laughable. Yet, it still remains a very powerful myth, especially for those like Pat Buchanan and other nativists who believe they are losing their country.

With that said, I do believe that there is some reluctance among liberals to couch their policy arguments in explicitly religious rhetoric. I would argue that there are a couple of reasons for this phenomenon. First, the language of values/morals/religion has become so politically loaded over the past four decades. While the Religious Right and their conservative political benefactors have made religion a central tenet of their politics, the liberal reaction has been to argue more stridently for separation of church and state. A more potent tactic, perhaps, would have been for liberals to push for their own views of policy driven by religious/moral values. Instead of saying conservatives were wrong for commingling religion with politics, they should have been arguing why those policy ends were wrong and not in comport with their own particular view of religion or morality. (I’m no divinity scholar, but there are ample liberal moral arguments in the Bible and in Catholic social and economic justice thought.)

The other cause of this unwillingness to bring explicitly religious language to liberal politics is the liberal (and by liberal here I would add classical liberals as well) notion that morals do not flow exclusively, or even primarily, from religion. (I would place myself in this second camp.) There is a rich tradition in moral philosophy that holds little account for God. Even some religious moral philosophers (Kant, for example) still set their account of morality in reason, rather than the supernatural (Leibniz).

Leaving aside what is a philosophical (and I think interesting) argument about the nexus of morality, I would argue that liberals do make moralistic policy arguments all the time. What underlies calls for health care reform is not some abstract desire for socialism, but a genuine belief that a good society is one that endeavors to meet its members’ basic needs. Support for a progressive tax system is not driven by class warfare, but by a conviction that a just society ought to to tax its citizens based on ability to pay. Etc.

These policy positions all have explicitly moral underpinnings. That cannot be questioned. But you will not often hear them made as such. (Health care as a right is, obviously, more of a rights based argument than a moral one.)

It is imperative that liberals begin to couch their policy arguments in the language of morals. This is not to say that liberals ought to cover themselves in the cross, as many of the Right have done. But rather that they make their underlying moral values more apparent. Not only for the obvious political value, but for the larger democratic value of fostering a dialogue of ideas and visions.

Common Ground

It is my argument that liberals and conservatives share some basic philosophical common ground. That underneath their particular ideological beliefs, there are some foundational similarities. In order to make this case, I would like to use utilitarianism as something of a foil, if you’ll so indulge me.

First, how are we to define utilitarianism. Is it the unreconstructed Bethamite version or is it the more refined Millian type. Betham held, quite simply, that it was the greatest good for the greatest number. He used one minor qualification, which was “within reason.” Bentham succinctly captures the essence of his philosophy- “pushpin is as good as poetry.”

Mill qualifies utilitarianism a fair bit more. Mill holds that happiness is greater than contentment. And that there is a qualitative difference among the ends that humans might pursue. For Mill, the physical pleasures rank lower than the intellectual ones, generally speaking.*

I believe that we may dispose of the crude Benthamite version of utilitarianism as being well outside of what we might find an acceptable way to order society. But we would not be so quick to dismiss Mill’s version. It has an inherent attractiveness to a democratic society, especially one that is market-based. (Readers interested in Mill’s take on the tyranny of majority should look to On Liberty. I won’t touch on it here.)

It certainly seems sensible that we, as a society, ought to endeavor to promote happiness among our members. And, it makes at least some sense that we should value intellectual, or higher order happiness, over more base versions. Otherwise, we risk becoming nothing more than an amalgam of pleasure seeking libertines.

I hold that neither liberals nor conservatives would rule Mill’s view entirely objectionable. However, I would further argue that many conservatives (in the popular sense of the word) would find the lack of specificity in the distinction between happiness and contentment troublesome. And, more central to my argument, they would argue that liberals accept Mill’s vision in its entirety.

To tip my hand a bit, I do not believe that liberals, generally speaking, accept Millian utilitarianism. (I’ll leave aside the whole moral relativism argument, because it is a disingenuous political argument.) If we listen to liberals speaking about policy and politics, we hear a great many claims about economic inequality, respect for minority rights and other value laden language. I would argue that liberals, in making these arguments, are revealing their preferences for a society that is not distinctly not utilitarian, in any sense of the meaning.

Arguments about economic inequality and minority rights are not couched in a language of greatest good for greatest number, but rather in terms of moral good. It is my argument that liberals would hold these beliefs even in the face of evidence that efforts to stem stratification would lead to great economic consequence. Or that the promotion of minority rights actually impinges on the rights of the masses.

Unfortunately, liberals and conservatives are talking past one another. Much of the reason is political- our discourse has been corrupted to such a point that values means only those things on the cultural right’s radar (abortion, gay marriage). And, liberals share in some of the blame for being unwilling to couch their arguments in moral language.

Underneath both liberal and conservative worldviews, though, is the notion that there is such a thing as moral value. That we are something more than just collectors of pleasure. And that our society ought to be structured in such a way that we look beyond maximization, of profit or pleasure, to loftier ideals.

* This is where I find Mill wanting. There is no objective higher or lower pleasure. Thus, how does a society maximize happiness? I think in some ways it forces us back into Bentham’s version. The Millian conception is more appealing on some level, but I’ve never been convinced that Bentham’s version isn’t more honest.