In a recent column I mentioned that people tend to vote their identity, even in instances where this goes against their economic self-interest. This issue was explored by author Thomas Frank in his book What’s the Matter with Kansas? Frank noted that the economic policies of conservative administrations had cost many working and middle class people their jobs. Yet even in a state like Kansas – which was once the most progressive in the nation – more and more people were voting for Republicans. His answer was that they weren’t voting for Republican policies so much as they are for what Republicans are perceived to stand for.
Research on twins separated early in life has shown a genetic component to our political views. Even when separated twins have had very different upbringings, they tend to share the same beliefs (and this extends far beyond political beliefs). Research indicates that conservatives are more easily frightened while liberals seek new experiences. Conservatives are neater but liberals have an easier time assimilating new information. These innate tendencies form the foundation of conservative and liberal political beliefs, giving each party its own identity. And these liberal and conservative identities often trump actual policies when people cast their votes.
Sociologist Christian Smith maintains people exist within “networks of meaning” that define their view of the world. These networks define one’s political identity, and differ for conservatives and liberals. Author Jonathan Haidt, in his book, The Righteous Mind, expands on Smith’s ideas. The “liberal progress narrative,” according to Haidt, is “that traditional societies were unjust, repressive, and oppressive. People who valued autonomy, equality, and prosperity struggled against the forces of oppression, and established modern, liberal, democratic welfare societies. But the struggle for a good society in which individuals are equal and free to pursue their self-defined happiness is not over.”
I think we can all see our ancestors in this narrative – they struggled against European oppression to found America. Over time this struggle turned to freeing the slaves and granting women the right to vote and work outside the home. And the struggle continues, including for some in opposing the growing inequality of wealth.
But this is only half the story – there is also what Emory University psychologist Drew Westen calls the “master conservative narrative:” “Once upon a time, America was a shining beacon. The liberals came along and undermined America by building up the federal bureaucracy and choking off the free market. They opposed God and faith. They took money from hardworking people and gave it to welfare queens. They worried more about the rights of criminals than those of victims. They pushed the sexual revolution and weakened the family by promoting first a feminist agenda and then a gay one. They cut military spending, disrespected our soldiers, and burned the flag.” Conservatives, since at least the time of Reagan, are out to take the country back (largely by defunding and thus dismantling the federal government).
These are diametrically-opposed narratives, and it’s no wonder that conservative scholar Norman Ornstein and liberal scholar Thomas Mann agree, in their jointly-authored book Its Even Worse Than It Looks, that “our government isn’t just gridlocked – it’s broken.”
For our country to heal, these narratives must somehow be reconciled. Both are reactionary – liberals see only the abuses of power while conservative see only the abuses of freedom. I may be a hopeless idealist, but I believe there’s a lot of space between tyranny and anarchy, and by and large Americans have traditionally done a good job of avoiding these extremes. Now more than ever, this tradition needs to define our nation’s collective “network of meaning.”