I just finished reading Our Political Nature: The Evolutionary Origins of What Divides Us by Avi Tuschman, an appropriate topic for this election year. While well-written, this heavily-researched, scientific analysis of where and why individuals fall on the political spectrum of left to right might not be everyone’s idea of summer reading, so I will give a very brief summary of its main points.
Conservatives are extremely concerned with protecting their in-group from all those who are in the out-groups, which is the vast majority of the rest of the world. Fear drives their ideology, leading them to want to build walls, both metaphorical and actual, to protect their in-group from ‘invasion’ and change.
Liberals are open to new experiences and groups. They are drawn to those who are different from themselves and don’t really see the world in terms of in-groups and out-groups. Rather, they see everyone’s humanity. Because of their desire to connect, liberals build bridges. They view change as a virtue rather than as something to fear.
As with all traits, physical and behavioral, genes and environments interact to produce a bell-shaped distribution curve. Most individuals fall in the middle: they are conservative in some ways and liberal in others. In political terms, this means that compromise is possible. However, as one moves towards the tails (i.e. ‘right-wing’ and ‘left’wing’), individuals become more ideologically rigid and less compromise is possible. In fact, at the extremes, compromise is disdained and vilified.
The ideologies of the extreme right (rigid hierarchies, extreme inequality, little individual freedom) and the extreme left (extreme equality, much individual freedom, little hierarchy) are utopian in nature: both believe that they are creating the perfect world. However, both become authoritarian regimes where the rulers are treated as semi-divine. Tuschman considers communist regimes as exemplars of the extreme left. Although he does not explicitly state this, it appears that he would place the social democracies of Europe more within the liberal section of the curve than the extreme left.
Our Political Nature was published in 2013, well before the current election cycle, so I am extrapolating from Tuschman’s analysis for the remainder of this essay. While the US has yet to devolve into either extreme form of authoritarian control, the current US House of Representatives is under the sway of individuals who express an extreme right-wing ideology. Compromise is evil and their patron saint is the semi-divine Ronald Reagan whose name has been plastered everywhere.
Until this election cycle, the US has not had an extreme-left candidate who managed to obtain national prominence, but this changed with the candidacy of Bernie Sanders who has a utopian, leftist ideology of revolution leading to extreme equality. As with right-wing extremists, left-wing extremists are unwilling to compromise. Their ideology is right and just; therefore, compromise is not possible. I imagine this is why Sanders and his staunchest followers are finding it almost impossible to accept defeat. It also explains the cult of personality Bernie has engendered. If he somehow became president, I would expect that his name would be plastered everywhere. Fortunately for the US, Bernie Sanders will not be president as, according to Tuschman, the extremes always lead to an authoritarian government no matter what their utopian intentions were.
Compromise is not a dirty word. It is what enables liberals and conservatives to work together to create a functioning, democratic government; one where there can be tariffs (walls) to protect the country while also having treaties (bridges) to bring differing groups closer together.