Personality and Politics

Why do we have the views we hold?   I was struck by the way in which it becomes painfully obvious how the right and left view things differently (thanks again to Jon Stewart and the power of satire).

The right claims that the media virtually ignored the “tea party” march on Washington on September 12, which brought 50,000 to 70,000 to DC, with Fox News anchors like Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity pumping up the crowd and giving the rally massive coverage.   In fact, that rally was in part a media creation, driven by the radio personalities appealing to the right.   America is waking up and demanding Obama be stopped!

Yet, when 50,000 to 70,000 march in DC for gay rights, Fox hardly mentions the story and certainly doesn’t claim that America is waking up and demanding that discrimination against gays stop.   One commentator boldly claimed that an anti-government rally is news while a gay rights rally isn’t.   I have no idea where that logic comes from.

In fact, if you read blatantly conservative vs. blatantly liberal blogs and newsfeeds, you find two entirely different universes.  In the “conservative” universe there will be a focus on anything anti-Obama, and minor tidbits (quotes from speeches that might be embarrassing, etc.) are trumpeted as something profound and important.  If you read blogs and newsfeeds from the left, you’ll see much different results.   There it will focus on the foibles of the right, and stories that put their own ideology in a positive light.   There are also sub-universes for socialists, gun ‘enthusiasts,’ libertarians, and the like.   They scour the news for stories that fit their perspective; they interpret stories within their ideology.

Since most people tend to read what they agree with already, people believe that their viewpoint is more widely shared than it is.  People literally construct realities that they inhabit, certain that their evidence demolishes the views of the other side.  The other side doesn’t know it because it is populated by a mix of idiots, deceivers, and dangerous ideologues with “agendas” to implement.   In a world with a vast cornucopia of evidence and information, every bit able to be interpreted in a variety of ways, it is possible to support any position, and “demolish” any other position.

The hard part is learning how to get beyond that.  Not to settle into a world view, be comfortable there, defend it, and experience the emotions of righteous rage and self-righteous indignation.  The hard part is to find a way to try to get closer to understand how things really are, even though there always uncertainty in a world as complex as this one, subject to multiple interpretations.

There are ways to do this.   First, learn to understand other perspectives.   For those on the left, understand how fans of Glenn Beck think, why people are drawn to Ann Coulter, or how some with a straight face can slam all liberals as morons and socialists.   It’s not easy.   Glenn Beck, for instance, is entertaining and self-effacing enough to be likable.  He’s also a radio entertainer from the “morning zoo” movement.   His charges, often over the top, are not unlike parallel charges from those on the far left.

On the far left, groups accuse America of being a blood thirsty state controlled by big money lining its own pockets, manipulating and using anyone they can.  They point to the horrors of our wars, the environmental devastation of capitalist over-consumption, and big money’s control over politics and media.   To them American capitalism is dangerous, even evil.  When I hear that, I think, “well, they’re going a bit too far, but they have some good points.  And, gee, maybe they are right, maybe I’m being a bit naive.”

Most on the right, when they hear shock jocks like Coulter, Beck and Hannity react in a similar manner.  The “over the top” stuff is more entertaining than the serious and strident left, so they learn to enjoy it, even if they aren’t absolutely convinced.  As one conservative said, “of course Liberals aren’t all evil, we’re all Americans wanting what’s best, it’s just funny how Rush Limbaugh jerks liberal chains.”   When I think of it that way, they’re reaction is understandable.   And, of course, when they hear the far left, they think the neo-Marxists are as weirdly off the wall dangerously looney as I might consider Limbaugh and Coulter.   So…I start to understand how the ‘other side’ views things, and can navigate their perspective.

I’ll also go to blogs where views are different than my own.  In fact, contrary to the norm, the political blogs I read are almost all from people with whom I disagree.   I challenge them, and some (like Renaissance Guy) takes even rather blunt challenges politely, and responds with reasoned arguments.    I like him, and find myself annoyed by those who call him a racist for criticizing Obama.   Yet other cites will take anything I write and attack me (often not the argument) with intense insults, hoping perhaps to get under my skin (not possible — I know the blog comment game too well going back to the usenet in the 90s), or to make me go away to protect the ‘purity’ of the group.   Yet in both reactions I learn more about how others are thinking, I learn to understand that perspective.

And, of course, there are commentators here, like classicliberal2, who is more to the left, who also has a polite but provocative way of putting forth a perspective that counters those on the right.  I certainly can understand that perspective as well — more easily, since it is closer to my own.

So ultimately step one is to learn to identify with and understand other perspectives.  Step two is to self-critique — do the others have a point, either left or right?   Where might I be in error?  Usually I find faults with the arguments of others, and my own perspective remains the most convincing.  Yet I know that is not because I am right, but because I, like everyone else, has a perspective deeply rooted in core beliefs about the world and how it works, and about both human nature and the nature of humanity.    Then it hits me: the reason so much of the debate can’t be resolved is that we hold our positions not because of conclusions based on the evidence, but who we are deep inside.  In a fundamental way, personality drives political perspective.

This isn’t a new or radical theory.  The Frankfurt School in the middle of the 20th century connected the “authoritarian personality” to the rise of Hitler.   William James thought philosophical differences arose from differences in temperment.  Personality gives us our understanding of the self and our environment.  One who is distrustful, has low self-esteem, and believes the world to be a cruel, nasty place will have views on politics and life which reflect that notion.  One who believes life is a gift, is beautiful, and that others are fundamentally good, will have a perspective reflecting that.   Most of us are somewhere inbetween, but have deep core beliefs and values that are resilient despite ongoing experience.   Indeed, we protect them by interpreting the world through those values.   It doesn’t guarantee “left or right,” but shapes ways in which the political and social world are comprehensible to the individual.

Yet that creates a problem: if political differences reflect personality as much if not more than the “facts of the case,” how do we resolve them?  The answer seems simple and born out in experience: we need a political culture that accepts differences and allows people to tolerate each other and make compromises.   Where we see political cultures like that, we find stable systems of governance.  Where there is rigidity and refusal to accept difference, there is often violence and oppression.   The individual confronts politics in the realm of culture and society.   More to come…

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  1. #1 by Mike Lovell on October 17, 2009 - 15:40

    Scott,
    As usual a great post. It seems to be a more in depth and philosophical fleshing out regarding the blogs we both follow, as well as the commentary on your personal blogs more political posts.

    You stated:
    “Yet that creates a problem: if political differences reflect personality as much if not more than the “facts of the case,” how do we resolve them? The answer seems simple and born out in experience: we need a political culture that accepts differences and allows people to tolerate each other and make compromises.”

    In this day and age, I think the “facts of the case” can often get lost in the mess, because anyone can make a study, using facts, logic and statistics to prove any side of any argument. Which only helps those who believe one way to bolster their side of an issue as “the right one.”

    I also think finding a political culture that encourages compromise and open understanding of opposing viewpoints is equally as difficult. People, especially within the American realm, are shortsighted, short on memory, and most never take the time to really develop their core beliefs and stand by them no matter the situation. The media both conservative, liberal as well as mainstream, takes full advantage of this…any chance to exploit things for ratings or bolster their own position is an instant go.

    For example, take public officials and the scandals of their extra-marital affairs. When right wingers get caught, it’s big news on the left’s information stream (and in the case of those who made a big public deal out of family values…rightfully so). The right’s information stream tends to downplay it, or use the defense “remember Monica Lewinsky and President Clinton.

    The common sense approach to me seems to be that the guy having the affair should be called out as the unfaithful idiot he is by both sides, not just people from the opposing side of the aisle, and excuses shouldn’t be made, especially that of “well, they touched me first” mentality. And that should go for anyone regardless of which political side they me from.

    However, in the world of politics, and media, its all about leveraging information, and many people are easily sold into whatever comes their way the most, and as you stated, according to their own leanings.

    And, especially with politics, the word compromise is often a keyword for, “why won’t you agree with anything I’M saying?” It seems many don’t care to give an inch, until they been given an inch first. Sad state of affairs, but quite a reality.

    • #2 by classicliberal2 on October 18, 2009 - 17:10

      “In this day and age, I think the ‘facts of the case’ can often get lost in the mess, because anyone can make a study, using facts, logic and statistics to prove any side of any argument.”

      Not true at all. There is a major effort by the right for decades, now, to try to do that; to convince people to reduce any fact they find inconvenient to an “opinion.” The idea is to subject the truth, itself, to an ideological litmus test–it’s done to deny the other side any sort of “victory” when the facts are on its side. The truth is that phony “studies” that use dishonest methodology in the service of an agenda can be taken apart just as easily as they were assembled. We’ve just seen a perfect example of it in the phony health insurance industry “study” by PriceWaterhouseCoopers. It was assembled, released, repeatedly cited by Republican opponents of reform, but, within two days, it was picked to pieces, and had become an embarrassment to everyone involved in it. I’ve done the same thing myself with more of these phony “studies” than I can easily remember–I’ve always been particularly fond of the Media Research Center’s phony “research.”

      “The common sense approach to me seems to be that the guy having the affair should be called out as the unfaithful idiot he is by both sides, not just people from the opposing side of the aisle, and excuses shouldn’t be made, especially that of ‘well, they touched me first’ mentality.”

      To me, the “common sense approach” would be to grow up, and stay out of people’s private lives. A politician who makes his career on “family values” talk or on pointing fingers should be decimated by a sex scandal. Everyone else should be left alone. The sex lives of politicians is not a legitimate subject of public inquiry (except in cases of hypocrisy, which are cases in which the politician himself has made it one).

      “It seems many don’t care to give an inch, until they been given an inch first. Sad state of affairs, but quite a reality.”

      No, the reality is even worse than that: contemporary conservatives won’t give an inch, even if they’re given five. Realistically, they’re in a diminishing minority in elected offices, and should give an inch in exchange for, say, a quarter-inch. Instead, the Obama gives away the store right up front in a foolish effort at “bipartisanship” (as if that, in itself, has ANY value), and gets nothing in return. That he demands nothing in return speaks to his own foolishness, but he isn’t given anything, no matter how magnanimous he is.

  2. #3 by Josh on October 17, 2009 - 17:39

    I COMPLETELY agree with you about the media coverage of the rallies and tea parties! There is so much inconsistency in the media.

    I agree with Mr. Lovell about the “facts”. One can say something is “fact”, but it has to be proven. That can be very difficult. In a purely theoretical world like mathematics, it is possible (but still not easy) to prove facts by deductive procedures. It’s hard, if not impossible, to prove statements like “everyone on Wall Street is corrupt” or “Barack Obama is not a Christian”. These are extreme examples, but I even think the word “fact” is thrown around too much in the debate over health care, the Iraq war, etc.

    By the way, Mike, thanks for indulging my curiosity about your experience with John Wayne!

  3. #4 by Mike Lovell on October 17, 2009 - 18:05

    Josh,

    First its MR Lovell (by the way, that was my grandfathers name, not mine!), and then it’s informal Mike??? Sheesh…Alert the media, Josh is a certified flip flopper!! LOL As for the John Wayne blog, you’re welcome…but, what’s with the anonymous?

  4. #5 by Josh on October 17, 2009 - 18:37

    As a somewhat new and hesitant member of the blogging/social networking community, I will usually click anonymous when given the option. It’s sort of just an instinct. I’ll try to be less anonymous from now on.

  5. #6 by Mike Lovell on October 18, 2009 - 20:30

    ClassicLiberal-
    You said:
    To me, the “common sense approach” would be to grow up, and stay out of people’s private lives. A politician who makes his career on “family values” talk or on pointing fingers should be decimated by a sex scandal. Everyone else should be left alone. The sex lives of politicians is not a legitimate subject of public inquiry (except in cases of hypocrisy, which are cases in which the politician himself has made it one).

    And I would fuly agree with you that we should stay out of it. Unfortunately whether you or I think that is a moot point. It WILL be a story whether we want it to be or not. It’s kind of like High School. you can ignore anything you want, that doesn’t negate the existence of the drama that will ensue. Sure we should stay out of it, all around, but sooner or later the guilty parties here, only add fuel to the fire…and that’s undeniably true on both sides of the aisle at some point in history or another.

    On the studies issue you said:
    Not true at all. There is a major effort by the right for decades, now, to try to do that; to convince people to reduce any fact they find inconvenient to an “opinion.” The idea is to subject the truth, itself, to an ideological litmus test–it’s done to deny the other side any sort of “victory” when the facts are on its side. The truth is that phony “studies” that use dishonest methodology in the service of an agenda can be taken apart just as easily as they were assembled.

    Maybe you’re cherry picking my argument here, or not taking the following statements with it. I’m not saying the “studies” and “facts” can’t be dissembled from this study or that study, but that most people aren’t as intelligent or dilligent as you are, and are guided by emotional and personality as Scott pointed out, allowing them to accept the “studies” at face value.
    As for your charges against the right’s evil tactics, I think you’re being blatantly dishonest that those on the left haven’t engaged in the same tactics. I don’t think you can confine the practices by political ideology, because otherwise you’d have to reclassify so many people to make your argument fit over and over again, depending on the argument of the day.

    • #7 by classicliberal2 on October 18, 2009 - 22:22

      “And I would fuly agree with you that we should stay out of it. Unfortunately whether you or I think that is a moot point. It WILL be a story whether we want it to be or not. It’s kind of like High School. you can ignore anything you want, that doesn’t negate the existence of the drama that will ensue.”

      I was replying to a comment you’d made about what you’d prefer to see in the real world with my own view of what I’d prefer to see in the real world. Your preference is no more likely than mine (though mine does seem to work pretty well in the rest of the advanced industrialized world, where “sex scandals” are given far less weight, if any, than in the U.S.).

      “Maybe you’re cherry picking my argument here, or not taking the following statements with it. I’m not saying the ‘studies’ and ‘facts’ can’t be dissembled from this study or that study, but that most people aren’t as intelligent or dilligent as you are, and are guided by emotional and personality as Scott pointed out, allowing them to accept the ‘studies’ at face value.”

      I was primarily taking issue with the notion that “anyone can make a study, using facts, logic and statistics to prove any side of any argument.” They can’t. They can make phony ones, as just happened with the insurance industry, but those can be exposed, as just happened with the insurance industry.

      The phony ones can cause damage when they effectively dupe people, but those so duped are primarily those who are willing to allow themselves to be duped by a phony message because it says what they want it to say, and therein lies the real problem, not with the creators of such phony “studies” (who are really just exploiting the problem). I’ve written about what I call the Bubble People phenomenon on the right for years, now, and that’s their problem: They’ve been made to believe that “truth” is subject to politically partisan litmus tests.

      “As for your charges against the right’s evil tactics, I think you’re being blatantly dishonest that those on the left haven’t engaged in the same tactics. I don’t think you can confine the practices by political ideology, because otherwise you’d have to reclassify so many people to make your argument fit over and over again, depending on the argument of the day.”

      I didn’t confine my comments to the right–I simply focused on them, and for obvious reason: They’re BY FAR the major practitioners of this sort of thing, and their nonsense gets all the coverage. They have billions of dollars behind them, and funnel it into, among other things, a think-tank empire (there’s no other word for it) almost entirely devoted to cranking out the sort of nonsense we’ve been discussing.

      In researching medical malpractice, I recently ran into a bogus “study” by some rinky-dink little liberal group that wildly exaggerated the lack of impact of malpractice litigation. There’s no need to do that–the real numbers are effective enough on that point–but they had. The thing is, this was some small org of which I–a VERY close follower of such matters–had never even heard. It had received no press coverage, been cited by no one, and was a non-entity. You know as well as I that the phony assertions from the right on the same subject–that malpractice is one of the primary elements driving up the cost of health care–is routinely offered as a “fact” in the public discourse on the matter. It is, in fact, the only reason the subject is a persistent subject in the public discourse for decades.

      Here’s another one for you: Social Security is gong bankrupt. How many decades have we heard that? It’s accepted, without question, a carved-in-stone fact. Except that it isn’t. All of the gloom-and-doom forecasts about Social Securities’ future are premised on economic growth projections lower than what occurred in the Great Depression. Adjust them to anything like a realistic level, and the program is solvent indefinitely.

      Here’s yet another: Look at what’s happened to ACORN. They’re a small, insignificant org devoted to helping poor people who are demonized, via one false charge after another, as purveyors of voter fraud. The right made a mini-industry of attacking them, because they registered poor people to vote, and those people mostly vote Democratic. As soon as some right-wing activists do a video “sting,” the congress votes to strip them of any public funding. As a liberal blogger asked at the time (probably Glenn Greenwald), can you even imagine that happening to some defense contractor?

      The point? That the right completely dominates public discourse in the U.S., and has made the use of such outright nonsense a daily event. Not just a tactic; an overall strategy. There’s nothing on the left that even remotely compares to it, and suggesting there is amounts to the same sort of false “balance” that renders so much “mainstream” reporting worthless. Damnable practices remain damnable practices, regardless of who uses them. In contemporary American political discourse, one side has honed it to an artform.

  6. #8 by Josh on October 19, 2009 - 01:02

    The thing with many “studies” is that they are based on statistics. Statistics can’t tell you “facts” about a population, only about your sample (unless, of course, your sample IS the population). Therefore, the conclusions of studies based on statistics are largely interpretive. Now this doesn’t mean one can’t reach a conclusion that is highly likely (it’s just not fact).

  7. #9 by Scott Erb on October 19, 2009 - 01:41

    I have been very busy and there is so much here that I could say something to and hopefully will have time to do so, but it’s flattering that my post causes such interesting exchanges.

    As to statistics: While a stats study only says something about that sample, a well designed study can say something very, very likely true about the larger population within a small probability of error. So it does tell us about more than just that sample — but by definition we’re dealing with probabilities and not certainties with stats.

    Larger issue: in my experience in the social science, I tell students to get very skeptical when people say “studies say…” Studies can say almost anything you want them to. There is so much data out there, which can be interpreted and operationalized in so many ways, that it is possible to support almost any position. Classicalliberal2 is right that this doesn’t render us unable to make judgments about the value of these different studies or claims. Indeed, that’s what we try to do in teaching social science — get people to read studies with a critical eye.

    My point was more basic: if people are simply looking for support for their position, and not really concerned about self-criticism, then they can find it. There will be studies there, which people will push. And one can always make up rationalizations for ignoring arguments against those studies, even if those rationalizations are weak. If you’re biased, you will always be able to find support for your bias.

    If, however, you want to be self-critical as well as other-critical, it is possible to scrutinize the studies and draw conclusions that people willing to take the time and think through this logically will agree with. Most people don’t do that. It’s hard work. People are busy, and they don’t especially want to question their biases anyway, they find their biases comfortable. So they go the route of least resistance, just grab support for what they already believe. They do this all across the political spectrum. Thus: most people do not make their political stand based on an objective study of the facts and arguments, but on a biased selection coming (I think) in large part from their personality and experience.

    And, while that sounds cynical on my part, don’t forget that I’ve chosen a profession where I try to do what I can to get people to embrace being both self- and other-critical, and to use their critical and reflective capacities as objectively as possible. Too often even smart and honest people fall in the trap of simply using reason to find ways to defend their bias — nobody likes cognitive dissonance. I think the first step to overcoming that problem is recognizing its hold on all of us.

  8. #10 by Josh on October 19, 2009 - 03:38

    Inferential statistics can help you develop a likely conclusion about a population, but it still can’t be proven (in the mathematical sense) as fact. Of course, one could say something like “at least 20 people (sample) in my population said they would vote for x”. But in context, this is quite trivial.

    I agree that many people will only read studies they agree with. We all need to be careful about this. It does take time to read them. While most people don’t have the time (including myself), I do believe many folks do their best to develop their own beliefs about things.

  9. #11 by Eve on October 19, 2009 - 19:06

    Just a couple of responses to your very good article. First, I have to agree with Mike Lovell: What are facts? There is bias in everything, and when bias is not possible there is biased interpretation. I am reminded of Pontius Pilate asking Jesus, “What is truth?” What, indeed?

    Second, I do not think it is enough to see the other person’s perspective by temporarily assuming his vantage point. One only returns to one’s own spot later, as you illustrated by stating that you usually find your own perspective the right one. That made me laugh delightedly. You’re such an honest fellow.

    From a depth psychology perspective, we have these schisms because we are divided against ourselves. I coincidentally happen to have written about this same topic today. We won’t lose our emotional fire or fervor over the idiocy or wrongness we perceive in others until we see that same content in ourselves. Once we find it inwardly–and it is there or we wouldn’t need the emotional charge–then we run it to the ground. After that, we don’t need the charge and we can turn our energy (libido) to more worthy things, such as what we can actually influence or change realistically speaking, rather than spending our energy on what’s truly impossible to do anything about.

    King David wrote in one of the Psalms, “I do not involve myself in matters too great for me,” and yet he was a king. There’s the picture of a man who had finally come to the end of himself–but not until he had been hunted, lost a son, and had his friends turn on him. I believe that the endless arguing happening these days is a symptom of a deep ill: a culture full of people divided from their own selves and on the verge of riots and uprisings that will most likely be externalized rather than turned inward to true philosophical and spiritual benefit.

    I love your blog, Scott.

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