"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 12, 2009

The Nature of Partisan Politics-Part II

Republicans from Mars, Democrats from Venus and the partisan assumptions about human nature.

Liberals embrace a human nature based on equality and cooperation.
Image: Eric Drooker, "People vs. Military"

Click here for The Nature of Partisan Politics - Part I

Liberals also have a unique perspective on human nature, though it would seem that Levin's ideological blinders prevented him from seeing it. Levin claims that liberal assumptions are based on the view that "most human problems are functions of an imperfect distribution of resources." This is a tenuous connection at best and seems intended merely to connect liberalism with Marxism. While economic justice is an important issue for liberals, the areas of concern are considerably broader than simply focusing on how resources are divided.

For example, concern for gay and lesbian rights is not based on economic inequality nor does the environmental movement build its foundation on a desire for the redistribution of wealth. In fact, the environmental movement has had a difficult time reaching out to labor unions based on the (largely erroneous) fear that the two are at odds with one another. It's also difficult to see how Levin can equate diplomacy with economic redistribution. Unless we're talking about paying someone for a peace treaty – like General Petraeus did with the Sunni insurgents in Iraq – most diplomacy is "the art of relating states to each other by agreement rather than by the exercise of force." Of course, that's the view of the renowned liberal Henry Kissinger, so shouldn't be taken in any way seriously.

However, there is a connection between such seemingly disparate issues as workers rights, environmental sustainability, a progressive income tax and gay marriage. What all these areas of concern are based upon is a moral sense of equality and fairness. Workers are small players in a larger financial system; by helping them join together in unions to collectively bargain with their employer it helps to level the playing field. For centuries the natural world has been used only for its supply of cheap resources or as a waste dump; now that the full picture of this human impact has been revealed we must advocate for our collective future. Issues of civil rights, women's rights, gay and lesbian rights or animal rights; all fall under the broad category of nurturing a society based around notions of equality. The assumption about human nature inherent in the liberal worldview is that fairness and equality can ultimately be achieved and that our innate character is both flexible as it is fundamentally decent. Liberals therefore assume that the social ills that plague our society – unemployment, crime, racism, homophobia – are all moral issues that can be resolved by improving the environment where these problems prevail.

In other words, our "deepest disagreements" are that conservatives think human nature is fixed and a problem to be guarded against while liberals think human nature is flexible and that experience either corrupts or refines. Conservative commentator Thomas Sowell calls these the "Tragic" or "Utopian" worldviews while liberal cognitive scientist George Lakoff refers to them as the "Strict Father" or "Nurturing Parent" traditions. To put these same categories into religious terms, where a conservative would thump the pulpit preaching dominion, a liberal would organize the poor around the cross of liberation theology.

The science of human nature has been studied for more than three hundred years.
Image: Vesalius, De Humani Corporis Fabrica / University of Glasgow

What's important to point out, of course, is that whatever the conservative or liberal assumptions about human nature may be, they have no bearing on what human nature actually is – something that political theorists often forget. The father of political science, Thomas Hobbes, justified monarchy based on his assumption that humans in a "state of nature" (what we would now call indigenous societies) lived a bestial existence that was "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." Ever since then appeals to a human nature of this sort have been used as an excuse for all manner of draconian policies to maintain order. That there have now been three and a half centuries of research in anthropology and biology on this very question doesn't seem to have filtered down yet to the level of politics.

So, which view is the correct interpretation of human nature? Clearly this question can't be fully addressed in such a short space, but the simple answer is that both are flawed, but one more than the other. Human nature is not intractable. To say that would be like suggesting a healthy lifestyle would have no effect on someone born with the genetic predisposition for a fatal disease. Biology is not destiny, but neither is it unimportant. Morality and cooperation are intrinsic properties of human nature, just as the self-indulgent and antisocial behaviors are that conservatives fear. All societies at all times in history (and pre-history) have had a firmly entrenched moral code; that this code frequently applies only to the in-group is one of the human tragedies to be overcome. Furthermore, most social species – and primates in particular – have an intuitive sense of right and wrong and will work in cooperation with their social group more often than not.

As a social species ourselves, and one that has adapted to thrive in an enormous range of habitats and conditions, we are influenced significantly by our environment and will alter our behavior based on experience. But we are not infinitely flexible. Left-wing totalitarian assumptions that human nature could be “reeducated” to fit the interests of the state were as flawed as right-wing assumptions are now that suggest homosexuality is a lifestyle choice that can be learned or unlearned at will. However, by influencing people's environment you can, to a significant extent, influence the social outcome. This makes having a better understanding of human nature all the more vital, since important decisions based on faulty assumptions could be corrosive to human liberty.

Conservatives show their determination to embrace partisanship on their terms.
Image: RJ Matson, The St. Louis Post Dispatch

While such ultimate questions about human nature will continue to be pursued for many years to come by both scientific thinkers and political pundits alike, Mr. Levin's current use is particularly unfortunate. It's not simply that he would seek to misuse these assumptions to beat his ideological drum; it is that his support for the intractable partisanship on which it is based would be as harmful to the nation during a time of crisis as it is personally disingenuous.

The day after the 2008 election, on November 5, when it was disclosed that Rahm Emmanuel would be the top pick for President Obama's Chief of Staff, Levin lambasted his choice as someone who was "a vicious graceless partisan: narrow, hectic, unremittingly aggressive, vulgar, and impatient." This, for Levin, was a bad sign and he criticized the new President because it "suggests both that he wants to be ruthless and partisan and that he does not have a clear sense of how the White House works." Perhaps his essay should have been titled "Partisanship is Good (But Only If My Side Wins)". With such a statement it would seem that Levin’s view of human nature has no concept of hypocrisy. Such outright duplicity not only illuminates his approach as an advocate of Ethics and Public Policy, it is the very nature of partisan politics that we should all seek to avoid.

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