Why We Disagree and How We Can Come (Closer) Together

Three Questions

Respectful and constructive dialogue is vanishing from American political life.  There is, arguably, no more urgent question for American society today than how we can listen and talk with each other constructively, with less hostility and contempt.   In several short essays, I will present an explanation of our political disagreements.  Then, I will offer ideas about how we can more often understand each other’s concerns, engage in dialogue and reasoned debate, find common ground, and come closer together.

The starting point for these essays is an observation that has intrigued me for over 50 years.  As a college student in the early 1970’s, I was puzzled by the consistency of political attitudes across different issues, in different spheres of life.   At that time, political leaders who espoused conservative positions on economic and social issues also tended to be hawkish on questions of foreign policy. Liberal politicians, conversely, favored increased spending on social welfare programs and opposed increased military spending and the war in Vietnam.  I wondered, then and now, why do these attitudes and opinions go together?  What is the logical (or, more likely, emotional) relationship of these different opinions?

This consistency of political opinions, with some exceptions, remains true today, perhaps to an even greater extent, and includes many more issues.  Liberals and conservatives differ in their opinions on health care, abortion, immigration, gun control, gay rights, and the threat of climate change. On all of these issues, liberals are (most often) liberal; conservatives are (most often) conservative [1].

This is the first question.  What is the inner coherence of liberal and conservative ideas?   What is their “deep grammar”?   What is the theme that can be heard throughout many different variations? [2] What are our disagreements really all about?

Psychologist Steven Pinker asks the same question.  Pinker writes, “Why on earth should people’s beliefs about sex predict their beliefs about the size of the military?  What does religion have to do with taxes?  Where is the linkage between strict construction of the Constitution and disdain for shocking art?” [3]

My first question then quickly led to a second question, and then others. What is the origin of our conservative or liberal attitudes and opinions?  Why do we become liberal or conservative?  Why are some of us hawks and some of us doves?

And then, a third set of questions:  How can we understand each other and talk together in a more productive way?  Why do friends and family members discuss politics for decades, present arguments and evidence for their views, but remain adamant in their opinions and not change their minds?  (Except sometimes they do, and why?)

Why is it so hard for us to listen to each other and allow ourselves to be influenced by each other’s point of view?   Why do we so quickly become defensive and descend to the level of grade school argument?

Why is it difficult for liberals to understand a conservative’s fear of crime?  Or the need for military preparedness and a strong national defense?  Or for liberals to understand conservatives’ belief that the values that have guided their lives (for example, self-reliance, patriotism, and personal responsibility) have been eroded?  Or that high taxes and excessive government regulation may inhibit economic growth and leave us a poorer, less innovative, country?  Or that liberalism can become corrupted and illiberal, and intolerant of free speech?

Why is it difficult for conservatives to understand the devastating effects of poverty on the life chances of children growing up in conditions of extreme hardship?  Or the pain of the families of Trayvon Martin, Philando Castile, and George Floyd (and many others)?  Or that increasing inequalities of wealth may be destructive of the shared social capital and civic engagement necessary for a healthy society – a shared sense of purpose – and undermine the equality of opportunity that has been a core principle of the American narrative?  Or that, in a wealthy society, it feels wrong to many of us that any person lose their life savings because they become ill or that life-saving treatments are available to some and not others?

Why is it difficult for liberals and conservatives to understand these concerns, even if they propose different answers to these problems.  Why, in our politics, is there so much partisanship, extremism, hypocrisy, and bad faith?

In stating the questions in this way, I have made a conscious effort to observe a basic principle of reasoned argument – the principle of charity.  Charity, in this sense, is not about being generous or kind.  This principle states that, in any discussion, we should acknowledge and accept the best version of an opponent’s ideas, not an exaggerated or distorted version, a “straw man.”  The principle of charity requires moral and intellectual effort; it is rarely evident in contemporary political debates, where deliberate or unconscious distortion is the norm.

Reason and Emotion

There are many ways to find answers to these questions.  We could begin by asking voters, politicians, and political theorists themselves.  We could simply ask liberals and conservatives about the origin of their beliefs – why they believe what they do.   We can study the writings of liberal and conservative authors and politicians and look for organizing premises and principles.

When asked why we are liberal or conservative, we will give our reasons.   We are likely to justify our opinions based on evidence and reflection, on what we have learned from personal experience.  To some extent, rational considerations – the reasons we give for our political opinions – must be real and sincere.   Often, however, this cannot be the whole story.

Although we may want to believe otherwise, we are not liberal or conservative in our head, but in our gut. A Supreme Court justice is not conservative because he is an “originalist” or a “strict constructionist.”  He is a strict constructionist because he is conservative.   Antonin Scalia disputed this, even called it a slander, but his argument is unconvincing. Liberal justices are not liberal because they believe in a “living constitution.”  They believe in a living constitution because they are liberal.  For Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the starting point and core premise of her judicial philosophy was the awareness of injustice.  For Scalia, the starting point was what he perceived as moral decadence in society and the need to defend traditional values.  This is why Scalia and Ginsburg, friends for decades, continued to disagree.

Evolution, Genetics, and Personality

Social science has also attempted to answer my questions. There is now extensive research on the nature and origins of our political differences.  The most surprising fact that has emerged from this research is the role of genetics in political beliefs.  We are “predisposed” [4] toward liberal or conservative attitudes in both politics and culture.  Correlations in political attitudes of identical twins are significantly higher than for fraternal twins.  Identical twins raised apart, in different families, are very similar in their political beliefs; fraternal twins raised apart are not.

These findings are challenging to both sides.  When asked why we are liberal or conservative, we may cite our upbringing, our values, or our reasoned assessment of current social conditions.  All of these, of course, influence our political opinions.  Very few of us, however, are likely to answer, “I was born this way.”

Research in political psychology has established a catalogue of personality differences between liberals and conservatives.  Here are some examples:  John Hibbing and colleagues report, “Across a range of topics, …. liberals consistently favored the new experience, the abstract, and the nonconforming. Conservatives just as consistently favored traditional experiences that were closer to reality and predictable patterns.  Conservatives, for example, preferred their poems to rhyme and fiction that ended with a clear resolution” [5].

In experimental situations, conservatives and liberals differ in their unconscious emotional reactions.  Conservatives, for example, look longer at threatening images and show greater physiological responses to images that evoke disgust.  Other research has identified differences between liberals and conservatives on measures of tribalism [6]; attitudes towards inequality [7]; fear and the need for protection from perceived threats [8]; and the need for certainty [9].

Liberals and conservatives not only prefer different policies; they see reality differently, especially differences between rich and poor.  Conservatives are more likely to believe that current government policies favor the poor; liberals believe that the same policies favor the wealthy [10].  Hibbing and colleagues propose that our core biological predispositions are openness (liberalism) and fear (conservatism).  Liberals, who approach political life from an attitude of openness, are more likely to favor social change; to support greater tolerance for difference and engagement with out-groups; and to believe in a more democratic, egalitarian society (and more egalitarian relationships in general, for example, in families).  Conservatives, who approach politics and society from an attitude of fear, are more likely to believe in preserving tradition and the importance of authority; loyalty to in-groups and wariness toward out-groups; and are less troubled by social inequalities.

A Rosetta Stone for Understanding Political Differences?

Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler have presented a similar framework for understanding political differences, also based on recent social science research.  Hetherington and Weiler argue that conservatives and liberals have different “worldviews” that influence their opinions and preferences on a wide range of issues.  In this model, alertness to threat is fundamental to a “fixed” (conservative) worldview; in contrast, “the appeal of the new and novel, and welcoming … people who look and sound different” is central to a “fluid” (liberal) worldview [11].

A person’s worldview is reflected especially in his or her parenting values.  When presented questions about the qualities they most want their children to have and asked to choose between alternatives, people with a fixed worldview choose obedience, respect for elders, good manners, and good behavior. People with a fluid worldview choose independence, self-reliance, curiosity, and being considerate. With these questions, Hetherington and Weiler believe that they have found “something of a Rosetta stone in understanding contemporary American public opinion.”

These research findings are an important contribution to understanding the origins of our political beliefs.  Predispositions, however, are only predispositions.  Researchers in political psychology acknowledge the limitations of biological and personality variables as explanations for why we disagree.   Hibbing and colleagues note that the correlations observed in research on political psychology, although reliable, are often modest. (Conservatives, for example, are more “conscientious” than liberals, but only slightly so. Conservatives and liberals may differ in their conscientiousness, but this cannot be the defining difference.)

And, of course, people change their minds.  Many prominent conservative politicians in the modern era were once liberals or socialists.  (Ronald Reagan is probably the most well-known example of this change of mind and heart, but there are many others.) Hibbing and colleagues conclude that “biopolitics” has the equivalent of a pair of nines – in five card stud poker, a winning hand about half the time [12].

In subsequent articles, I will discuss other ways of understanding our political differences.  I will offer my own synthesis and present principles of constructive dialogue among people who disagree.  If we draw a few more cards, we may end up with a better hand.


References

[1] There are exceptions, of course, to this ideological consistency; we may be conservative on one issue and liberal on others. (Political partisans, however, are remarkably consistent, perhaps now more than ever.) Some political scientists have argued for a pluralistic understanding of modern politics.  From this perspective, what we call liberalism and conservatism are not coherent ideologies, but, instead, coalitions of convenience among disparate political philosophies and interest groups.  In some ways, the pluralist perspective must be correct.  There are important differences (and, at times, schisms) within both liberal and conservative schools of thought. Most scholars, however, accept a liberal – conservative distinction as a meaningful way of understanding our political differences. Political psychologist Avi Tuschman (2013, Our Political Nature: The Evolutionary Origins of What Divides Us. Prometheus Books) cites evidence that a left-right or liberal–conservative political spectrum is present in all cultures and different periods of human history. Tuschman notes that, ”ordinary people everywhere use the concepts of ‘left’ and ‘right’ to describe their political orientation.”  Psychologist Sylvan Tomkins (1995, Exploring Affect: The Selected Writings of Silvan S. Tomkins, Cambridge University Press) offered a helpful analogy. Tomkins compared ideologies to families; ideologies are families of ideas.  Following Tomkins’ metaphor, different forms of liberalism and conservatism are siblings or cousins. They are different but share important characteristics and a common parentage or grandparentage.

[2] Robin, C. (2018). The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Donald Trump. Oxford University Press.

[3]. Pinker, S. (2002). The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. Viking.

[4] Hibbing, J.R., Smith, K.B., & Alford, J.R. (2014). Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives, and the Biology of Political Differences. Routledge; Tuschman, A. (2013). Our Political Nature: The Evolutionary Origins of What Divides Us. Prometheus Books.

[5] Hibbing, J.R., Smith, K.B., & Alford, J.R., op. cit., p. 94.

[6] Tuschman, A., op. cit.

[7] Tuschman, A. ibid; Jost, J.T., Federico, C.M., & Napier, J.L. (2009). Political Ideology: Its Structure, Functions, and Elective Affinities. Annual Review of Psychology, 60, 307–37.

[8] Hetherington, M, & Weiler, J. (2018). Prius or Pickup: How the Answers to Four Simple Questions Explain America’s Great Divide. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

[9] Jost, J.T., Federico, C.M., & Napier, J.L., op. cit

[10]  Hibbing, J.R., Smith, K.B., & Alford, J.R., op. cit., p. 134

[11] Hetherington, M, & Weiler, J., op. cit.

[12] Hibbing, J.R., Smith, K.B., & Alford, J.R., op cit.

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Kenneth Barish is Clinical Professor of Psychology at Weill Cornell Medical College and Visiting Professor at Wuhan Mental Health Center, Tongji Medical College, in Wuhan, China.  He is on the faculty of the Westchester Center for the Study of Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy and the William Alanson White Institute Child and Adolescent Psychotherapy Training Program.  He is the author of How to Be a Better Child Therapist: An Integrative Model for Therapeutic Change (W. W. Norton, 2018) and Pride and Joy: A Guide to Understanding Your Child’s Emotions and Solving Family Problems (Oxford University Press, 2012).  Pride and Joy is winner of the 2013 International Book Award and the 2013 Eric Hoffer Book Award. In addition to his teaching and clinical practice, Ken plays jazz trumpet.

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