"If the misery of the poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin."
- Charles Darwin

Mar 9, 2009

The Nature of Partisan Politics-Part I

Yuval Levin justifies partisan bickering based on false assumptions about human nature.

Conservatives and liberals conflict over their basic views on human nature.
Image: Artist Unknown

As an evolutionary anthropologist and student of history, I am always fascinated to learn what politically motivated figures have to say about human nature. It’s one area of life where people require zero expertise about the subject they claim such authority in.

In the Feb. 23 issue of Newsweek, Yuval Levin, Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative think tank, continues in this fine tradition where he claims that "Partisanship is Good" because it is based on conflicting assumptions about human nature.

Our deepest disagreements coalesce into two broad views of human nature that define the public life of every free society. In a crude and general way our political parties give expression to these views, and allow the roughly like-minded to pool their voices and their votes in order to turn beliefs into action.

Levin builds his case about these two schools of thought based on the overarching connections between different policy positions. Conservatives want traditional values and a strong military because "both views express an underlying premise about the intractability of human nature" while liberals apparently want "a large welfare state" and favor diplomacy in global conflicts because "both views express an underlying sense that most problems are functions of an imperfect distribution of resources."

There are several things wrong with this argument, which I will address. But Levin then uses this appeal about separate but equal views on human nature to justify his point that Obama shouldn't complain about Republican stonewalling on his economic recovery plan. Never mind that, according to the Wall Street Journal, the tax cuts in Obama's stimulus bill (at $282 billion or 36% of the entire package) will be the largest immediate tax relief in US history. Never mind that the last three conservative administrations are responsible for 75% of our national debt (or $8.3 of the current $10.85 trillion according to the 2009 Budget Historical Tables, 7.1). And never mind that deregulation of the financial services industry, backed by conservative policies, is what led to our current crisis. Never mind all of that. Republicans are from Mars and Democrats are from Venus and we need to value both views of human nature equally.

To ridicule these disagreements and assert as our new president also did in his inaugural that 'the time has come to set aside childish things' is to demean as insignificant the great debates that have formed our republic over more than two centuries.
Of course, one has to question his sincerity about respecting different points of view considering this is the same person who wrote, “By her husbands logic, Michelle Obama must be a heavily armed xenophobic religious zealot, because boy is she bitter." This after her speech about families struggling to make ends meet that she gave on May 2, 2008, just four months before the economic crisis made front-page news.

But I won't demean Levin's argument as insignificant; to do so would not be in keeping with the great debates of our republic. In fact, I would even go so far as to say that, where it comes to the conservative view of human nature, Levin is generally correct. The range of issues bundled under "right wing" ideology include such seemingly disconnected policies as a strong religious devotion, the rejection of public assistance programs as well as a firm support for increased police and military funding. I would suggest (and I think Levin would agree) that all of these issues are based on the assumption that human nature is fundamentally flawed and that to deviate from tradition is to invite social disintegration.

Conservatives view human nature as a delicate balance between order and social chaos.
Image: Sadegh Tirafkan,"Temptation"

At first glance it’s difficult to understand why those people who are most willing to bow their heads to the prince of peace would also be interested in funding weapons of war – let alone to ignore his call to help the least among us. Likewise, it's curious that the logic of cutting our already underfunded social programs because we need to be "fiscally responsible" doesn't also apply to the $711 billion price tag for military spending in 2008-2009 (about 25% of our national budget and nearly as large as the rest of the world's military spending combined). Even in the conservative stalwart position on states' rights there is some cognitive dissonance. States should have the right to restrict abortion despite the Supreme Court's ruling, but there should also be a constitutional amendment to keep Massachusetts and Connecticut from allowing gay marriage. It's difficult to understand any justification that would allow someone to hold two opposing and contradictory views simultaneously on a single issue. But, rest assured, cartwheels of logic aside, there is a connection.

Underlying all of these issues lay a basic belief in traditional gender roles and an assumption that human nature is essentially base, self-indulgent and unchanging. We therefore need a strong authority to keep our rapacious vices at bay and a firm hand to guide our moral character. We should appeal to Christ for the salvation of our own wickedness, but keep a large arsenal at the ready to protect against the wickedness of others. Furthermore, governments shouldn't coddle those who make the wrong moral choices but should encourage strength and independence so they can stand on their own two feet – after all, people will only take advantage of government assistance. From this basic assumption, conservatives transform what looks like economic lunacy from one perspective into their argument for fiscal responsibility. As for the "wedge" issues of gay marriage and abortion, it is simply that allowing behavior that deviates from traditional norms could upset the balance of heterosexual monogamy. By doing so we would be flinging open the gates for a whole range of deviant behaviors and desires that would assail our carefully balanced civilization. It's not simply about sex; it's about stability. For a conservative, then, human nature has us tiptoeing precariously along the ledge between right and wrong, with temptation always grappling at our feet.

Click here for The Nature of Partisan Politics - Part II

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