I can’t not write about the election.
But this post won’t focus on the candidates’ policy differences, the game of campaigning, or the newly-created problems of misinformation spread via social media. This post will focus on the very basic psychological frameworks that can lead to drastically opposing political leanings. This post is not about Clinton versus Trump; it’s about the psychology of globalism versus nationalism.
One of my favorite thinkers is NYU Stern professor Jonathan Haidt. This genius writes about everything from morality to religion. Way back in September, months before the election, he published an awesome article in Minding Nature that helped me to contextualize the US presidential race in global terms. He highlighted the following events that took place in the span of just over a single month:
“May 22: Austria comes within one percentage point of electing Norbert Hofer as president, which would have made it the first European nation in modern times to choose a national leader from a far-right party with historical links to Nazism.
May 26: Donald Trump secures enough delegates to virtually guarantee that he will be the Republican nominee for president of the United States, despite his pledges to ban immigration by Muslims and to build a wall along the entire length of the Mexican border.
June 12: A young man who swore allegiance to ISIS murders forty-nine people at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida; it is the worst mass shooting in American history, and the worst terrorist attack in the United States since September 2001.
June 16: An old man shouting “Britain First” murders Jo Cox, a member of the British Parliament and a leading voice against Britain leaving the European Union.
June 23: Britain votes to leave the European Union.”
What’s going on, not just in the US, but across the world? What is this surge of right wing, anti-immigration anti-globalism? And why is it happening in some of the richest countries in the world?
Haidt makes a compelling case for several contributing factors. But I want to focus on one for the sake of space. The answer lies in one’s fundamental view of human nature. Economist Thomas Sowell offers a beautiful framework for what he calls the “unconstrained vision” and the “constrained vision” of human nature:
Human beings need external structure or constraints in order to behave well, cooperate, and thrive. These external constraints include laws, institutions, customs, traditions, nations, and religions. These constraints are built up slowly and organically in local communities, but they can be destroyed by radical reformers who don’t understand their value.
Human nature is malleable and can be improved […] if social conditions are improved. Anything is possible, if the artificial constraints placed on human beings can be removed. We must therefore free people from the petty tribal loyalties that cause mistrust and war.
Now – and here’s the most fascinating part of what Haidt points out – notice how Sowell uses the term “vision” to describe the two distinct outlooks. Sowell suggests that our constrained or unconstrained worldview is just as basic a process as that of sight itself; when we see the physical world – leaves blowing in the wind, a car zooming down the highway – we are oblivious to all of the physiological processes that make visual perception possible. We aren’t aware of the rods and cones in our eyes sending electrical signals to the occipital lobe of the brain. Haidt writes: “Reality presents itself to us as fact, not an interpretation. Therefore, if someone else sees the physical world differently, it can be quite upsetting, as we learned in the Internet craze of 2015 when the world debated whether a dress in a photograph was black and blue or white and gold.”
"Sowell’s point is that social and political perception is like visual perception: social reality presents itself to us as fact, not as interpretation. People who hold the unconstrained vision believe that people are fundamentally good, and they think it is obvious that all have the same potential to succeed. Any inequality we find in the world is therefore obviously caused by institutionally entrenched racism, sexism, or some other form of injustice. This is why the unconstrained vision is usually held by people on the left; it underpins and gives rise to the progressive impulse to question, challenge, and replace existing institutions in the name of “social justice.”
But people who hold the constrained vision of human nature see things differently. They start from the presupposition that people are deeply flawed, egocentric, irrational, and prone to violence. They see peace and civil order as hard-won accomplishments; barbarians and chaos are always waiting to crash through the gates. Furthermore, it seems obvious to them that people are different—some are smarter, stronger, or harder working than others, and therefore the mere presence of inequality in the world is not proof of injustice. This is why the constrained vision is usually held by people on the right; it underpins and gives rise to the conservative impulse to maintain the status quo, even when that status quo contains inequalities, and even when the person him or herself seems (to a progressive) to be a victim of that status quo."
Framing political worldviews as the product of such basic or fundamental processes makes me feel so much empathy. I start to really get why conservatives and liberals alike believe so deeply in their candidates or the policies that align with their basic perception. For humans, these differences are not a matter of interpretation. To us, it’s the way the world is, and we have so much trouble understanding why our political opponents could “see” it any differently.
Maybe next post I’ll make a case for why the unconstrained view is so compelling to me personally. Why I think that, when worldwide economic productivity rises to a place where we can take at least basic care of the world’s population, war and conflict will continue to fall just as they generally have been doing for the past several millennia (consistent with growing real GDPs globally). Maybe I’ll call upon another favorite thinker of mine, Harvard’s Steven Pinker, to help me make that case. But for today, if we can at least start to empathize with our fellow humans and understand their political loyalties in light of a process as basic as sight, I think we’ll take a step in the right direction.