Too much discipline on the left, too little on the right

Check out my latest essay on Medium, Restoring Political Health, Left and Right.

People with a temperament that is high on openness and low on conscientiousness are inclined toward the left and tend to be curious, tolerant, and willing to explore the world with a commitment to intellectual honesty. People with a temperament that is low on openness and high on conscientiousness are inclined toward the right and tend to emphasize standards of decency, restraint, and good behavior. As shorthand, I will refer to these as the left and the right, respectively. We are plagued today by an authoritarian left and a badly-behaved right. Restoring health will require work on both sides.

The opening of the essay owes something to Jordan Peterson’s observations about psychology and politics (e.g., here or in his conversation with Jonathan Haidt), as well as to his use of metaphor. But the substance of the essay represents issues that have long concerned me. A dozen years ago, I had the insights that were the seeds of The Three Languages of Politics in an essay that I called Folk Beliefs Have Consequences.

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24 Responses to Too much discipline on the left, too little on the right

  1. Charlie says:

    You define identity politics as prioritizing group identity over individual identity. I think a more charitable view of identity politics is:

    Recognizing that in the US we have rhetorically prioritized individual identity but group identity has often been just as if not more important as individual identity. In fact, only certain groups have been able to have individual identity for parts or perhaps all of US history. So recent identity politics is trying to acknowledge the reality of the situation.

    The dander you identify is that after acknowledging the situation the best approach would be to move society toward everyone having an individual identity. But many on the left are embracing group identity and pushing for that, just with different groups dominating.

    The charitable view is again that we will never achieve everyone being evaluated as an individual, so those on the left are doing the next best thing by trying to raise various groups.

    • Octavian says:

      If we accept that we will never be evaluated as individuals then why is equality even desirable? Groups aren’t equal, not in their abilities or accomplishments or usefulness to other groups. Nor are individuals, of course. The only meaningful notion of political equality is rooted in the notion of moral and legal equality of individuals. If that’s just a pipe dream, I don’t see why it really is ‘the next best thing’ to treat all groups equally.

  2. Handle says:

    If there isn’t a strong overlap between one’s proposed notion of “left” and “reliably votes for left-wing parties” then I don’t think it’s a very useful framing in terms of predictive accuracy. For example, certain identity groups vote almost exclusively for the Democrats, but it strains belief to imagine that nearly all members of those groups share personality types.

    On the one hand, your “leftist personality type” is “high on openness … tend to be curious, tolerant, and willing to explore ..”

    On the other hand, “identity politics authoritarian leftists” ban speakers and demand segregated safe spaces free of disagreement and ‘intellectual contamination’ against claims they hold in nearly sacred regard.

    Which sounds a lot like the behavior of your “conservative personality types.”

    One can frame this as “the incentives of a particular, democratic coalition-organizing, political formula ‘corrupting’ people and causing certain personality types to act counter to their impulses, ” or one could also say that it’s simply a contradiciton and the framing is not accurate, though it might be useful for a rhetorical perspective if it convinces / shames progressive elites to embrace a certain vision of what “leftist politics” ought to be and walk back off the cliff of identity politics.

    I doubt that rhetoric will work; there is an unavoidable feedback between political ideology and the requirements of expediency in terms of obtaining and maintaining a hold on political power, the the former existing largely as a rationalization for the latter.

    It is probably more accurate to say that certain kinds of “open” or “closed” behavior that we attribute to personality types does not translate well into the political arena, where support for openness vs. authoritarianism seems to depend almost entirely on the strength of ones political position, with those out of power using the ‘political language’ of free expression and tolerance and experimentation, and those in power arguing for the moral imperative of censorship and consolidation.

    • lliamander says:

      I’m given to understand that the correlation coefficient between the traits Openness and Conscientiousness and political preferences is about .4 to .5 or so, which is actually phenomenally good by the standards of psychology (the median correlation coefficient found in most studies in that field is about .2) but obviously that leaves a lot of variance to be explained. I know this to be true because my wife and I are very high in openness, but only middle of the road in terms of conscientiousness, but we are both quite conservative (or conservative-libertarian).

      Some of it just has to do with the coarseness of the analysis. If you break political views down into social and economic issues[1], or if you break the big 5 personality traits down into constituent aspects[2], you get a more complete picture.

      You also get more insight by looking not only at the individual traits, but at the interaction between traits [3], you get even further insight. For instance, my wife and I are both low on extroversion and neuroticism, which are indicators for libertarianism.

      With regard to the “authoritarian left” you are actually more spot on than you perhaps know. Jordan Peterson recently conducted an analysis trying to identify if there was a thing as “political correctness” and if so to identify the psychological predictors[4]. He found that there were two types of Politically Correct individuals: the PC-Liberals and PC-Authoritarians. The PC-Liberals were high on verbal IQ and openness, whereas the PC-Authoritarians were high on orderliness (an aspect of conscientiousness that correlates fairly well with authoritarianism). What united PC-Liberals and PC-Authoritarians from a psychological perspective was significantly higher levels of the trait agreeableness.

      I doubt seriously doubt that personality will ever account for all of a person’s political attitudes. People can hold beliefs contrary to their temperament. I am also concerned that attempts to “psychoanalyze” political beliefs can lead to the pathologizing of “un-orthodox” beliefs as being the result of a “deviant personality disorder” rather than a set of ideas that should be engaged at an intellectual level.

      No amount of psychological analysis will ever tell me whether a set of ideas is true or false. All that it can do is tell me what concerns tend to motivate people who believe differently than me (concerns that I may not be adequately addressing).

      Also, it is useful to know the ways in which the people of an opposing side may be similar or different in temperament to the people who (purportedly) represent them. It helps us see the opposing side outside the lens of warring media outlets.

      [1] https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1412863
      [2] http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.397.4526&rep=rep1&type=pdf
      [3] https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1665934
      [4] https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/beautiful-minds/the-personality-of-political-correctness/ (sorry, I couldn’t find a source for the actual study)

      • lliamander says:

        Hm.. my #2 citation actually doesn’t break things down by the Big Five Aspect Scale (BFAS), but it does add additional analysis that includes race (and maybe other things) so still useful to see to what degree other factors influence the results.

        Here is a link to a study that includes an analysis of political ideology using the BFAS: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20371797

      • Handle says:

        In general I believe that a high level of suspicion and skepticism is warranted about these kinds of psychological-political claims. In particular, there is very little attention paid to the critical problem of potential spurious correlations originating in the derivation of certain aspects of reported self-regard from the socially-desirable values in an individual’s social reference group.

        Let’s say that one has a society divided into two groups: Spartans and Romantics, with different political perspectives deriving from different philosophical outlooks. The Spartans, regardless of the actual distribution on inborn predispositions, idealizes the stoical and cynical: they are supposed to be contemptuous and skeptical of emotional displays, and would otherwise be seen as weak and naive. The Romantics, again regardless of actual population distributions, idealizes the touchy and feely: they are supposed to be emotively expressive (otherwise cold and insincere) and trusting (otherwise callous and harmfully discouraging.)

        Now, If you ask someone how they rate themselves on, “I feel others’ emotions,” and they answer “strongly agree”, is it because they actually feel others’ emotions, or because, in their social scene, empathy and sympathy are extremely important values signaled by the highest status people and ones only wicked or strange people would fail to signal? There are possibilities of conscious deception and also subconscious self-deception deriving from these social incentives.

        One could probably really trust such answer if coming from a Spartan, because he is making “an admission against interest” which is more reliable, but it would wise to take it with a grain of salt if coming from a Romantic, because that’s what his political group tells him that he is supposed to say, if he is to be regarded as a good and normal person.

        Now, what should one conclude from discovering a strong correlation between this self-reported measure and membership in the Spartan or Romantic political groups? One interpretation is that the answer is accurately getting at the real lived experience and ‘personality’ of the individual, and that genetic personality types are sorting themselves into Spartan or Romantic camps. But another interpretation is that one is getting unreliable answers because those individuals are coming from Spartan or Romantic groups, and group pressures are the causative factor encouraging them to answer in that way.

        There is no good way to separate many questions of self-regard of inclinations and behaviors from ideological value judgments about the social desirability of those inclinations and behaviors. And it’s particular bad ‘science’ to give people a psychometric questionnaire of a large number of propositions when it’s not clear how ‘politically loaded’ some of those questions may be, or how mixed the test is between those politically loaded questions and more ‘accurately predictive’ personality questions with a tighter correlation between given answers and actual reality.

        In economics there is the famous deviation between “state preferences” and “revealed preferences”, and it’s clear that market research deriving from observations of actual consumer behaviors and purchases is immensely more valuable and accurately predictive than the information one can gather answers to surveys.

        And what I’m saying is that I believe the correlation between political affiliation and ‘personality type’ is a stated preference that is completely at odds with my observations of revealed behaviors, which smells fishy and raises my skepticism shields.

        Now, in Kling’s Medium essay, he frames the issue as ‘identity politics’ having corrupted liberals and somehow encouraged them to deviate from the impulses congruent with their natural and instinctive personality types, turning them into close-minded, norm-cementing ideological authoritarians, ‘against their nature’, so to speak. Well, that’s one framing and interpretation.

        But a rival interpretation is that self-identifying liberals answer the personality test questions in a particular way because their social, political, and ideological milieus strongly encourage them to answer in that particular way, even though it’s not actually true in fact.

        Which is actually what one would expect if one imagines the human mind as being quite culturally flexible and highly sensitive to circumstantial context and social incentives, and as having the ability to instinctively and immediately switch between distinct, discrete psychological modalities and adjust social behaviors and signals to match the optimal needs of particular situations. E.g., when his faction or coalition is out of power, an individual, of whatever innate personality type, argues for openness and tolerance, and when it is in power, he turns on a dime without skipping a beat and argues for consolidation and orthodoxy, and with zero sense of hypocrisy or inconsistency.

        Another example: maybe liberals have been taught that people who ‘like order’ (a typical personality test question) are proto-nazi authoritarians, who every good liberal is supposed to completely oppose and be nothing like. But in fact, in the way they live their actual lives, and the way they express their preferences for the working of institutions and society, maybe they actually reveal a strong preference for ‘strongly ordered existence’, regardless of how they imagine themselves to be or like to conceive of the kind of person they are.

        All of this is to say is that the politics-personality correlation types have not done an adequate job of demonstrating that a so-called “personality test” is not in fact, at least in part, also a “proxy political ideology” test.

        To the extent it is, then these supposed correlations are empty and extremely misleading.

        • Roger Sweeny says:

          “I’m a strong supporter of free speech. But hate speech isns’t free speech. And I have a loooooong list of things that are hate speech.”

        • lliamander says:

          > All of this is to say is that the politics-personality correlation types have not done an adequate job of demonstrating that a so-called “personality test” is not in fact, at least in part, also a “proxy political ideology” test.

          Most personality tests rest on self-report. Analysis based on self-report in general is subject to the weaknesses you describe. The question is whether this has adequately been accounted for in the Big 5 personality tests.

          We can start by asking ourselves whether people would have an incentive to self-report dishonestly or inaccurately. We would certainly expect this to be the case with self-reports of, say, IQ, because of the positive associations with high IQ. With personality traits it’s not so clear because each trait can be described using both positive and negative adjectives.

          (It’s worth noting that the Big 5 was developed by simply giving people a randomly sampling of adjectives, asking them how well each adjective described themselves, and then looking at what adjectives clumped together. The theory was developed afterward as an explanation to this clumping).

          You make the sound point that the emotional valence of adjectives can vary depending upon one’s social context, including the political values of one’s community. So the question becomes, do these personality traits correlate with other traits that are not obviously related to political values? We do know that they correlate with media genre preferences[1], which is at least not obviously politically motivated.

          But, as you rightly point out, the real question is whether self-reports of these personality traits are also consistent with objectively observable behavior, as that isn’t so easily falsifiable. While I don’t have studies handy, my understanding is that we do have evidence of such correlations. For instance, Openness is correlated with creative ability (as found in artists and entrepreneurs). Conscientiousness is correlated with behaviors like keeping a schedule, keeping a clean living space, and success in highly structured, rules-oriented environments.

          Now, there is the meta-question about how reliable these results are. Given the general state of the social sciences at present, a good deal of skepticism is warranted. On this I will say two things. The first is that the current social science establishments tend to be less critical of results that conform to the politically correct/social-constructionist consensus, whereas many of the results from personality research are decidedly not politically correct. The second is that those who have done the most to criticize the lack of statistical rigor in the social sciences have also tended to stand by the results of psychometric research (IQ and the Big 5).

          The million-dollar question though, is this: how do we explain the authoritarian behavior we have seen from the supposedly “open-minded” Left? That question deserves a whole other essay, but for now I would just like to observe that at least in our present circumstance this is in part due to an ongoing political re-alignment.

          [1] http://www.overcomingbias.com/2015/10/media-genre-more-basic-than-politics-or-personality.html

        • Octavian says:

          I didn’t read your whole novel, but I think your seconds last paragraph is quite right. I know of closed minded progressives who purport to be open to anything and may even be able to convince a personality test of that; as well as conservatives who’s ideas on things like sexuality would lead them to be considered bigots, but who are perfectly able to countenance extremely opposing views or behaviors with equanimity.

          I’ve always thought personality tests don’t so much tell us about one’s personality as how one wants others to view one’s personality.

          • lliamander says:

            > I didn’t read your whole novel…

            No worries :).

            TLDR – The Big Five Personality Index, even when administered as a self-report survey, is actually fairly predictive of a lot of objectively observable behavior.

          • lliamander says:

            Doh! Just realized you were responding to Handle.

  3. Ben Kennedy says:

    It’s a good piece that I enjoyed reading, but I don’t think you are achieving your goal. You deploy Godwin’s Law against the Left, while your main critique of the Right is fiscal irresponsibility (which the Left is even worse at). I think you’re correct in all your points, but the tone does not feel balanced.

    It is however a great critique of identity politics! Maybe spin that out, and remove the inflammatory references to Hitler and Stalin….

  4. collin says:

    The main aspect of disagreement on the 2016 is the idea of Identity Politics on the left and right:

    1) Good candidates are able to build voting coalitions by promoting positive Identity Politics. Think Reagan 1980, Bush 2000 or Obama 2008. Realize Obama 2008 won a lot of middle class 2004 Bush voters with a positive identity politics.

    2) Can we call the anti-Bobo voters what it is? It was WWC identity politics voters who hate the free trade agreements of NAFTA and illegal & legal immigration. And the complaints of immigration mostly came from states that least amount of immigrants the last 30 – 40 years.

    The states that moved the most to Trump (Maine, Iowa, Ohio, etc.) are states with the least immigrants to ‘lower wage’ and it was the SW borders (TX, AZ, CA) that moved the most to HRC. (FYI NV stayed about the same and NM moved to Trump.)

    And if you don’t believe watch a night of Fox News to see what the Trump base is voting for.

  5. Tom DeMeo says:

    There are two different perspectives. There is the elected, and there is the electorate.

    With the elected, we just have two parties. The philosophical differences aren’t that important. They are just poles where power is gathered, and behaviorally, all of the competition of any given political event is now understood to be based on marginal pressures on these poles. Everyone has learned that winning these battles is the more successful immediate game strategy. Almost no one works off core principles, because the marginal actors will beat you if you do.

    Unfortunately, the best game strategy has the long term problem of pissing off the electorate, which isn’t subject to marginal pressures, because they aren’t competing. They just believe things, and when politicians compete at the margins, all they see is a bunch of amoral jerks.

    • Jay says:

      I call this phenomenon “cola wars”, after the longstanding and often intense advertising battles between Coke and Pepsi. Both markets and politics allow the public to choose, but the choices are provided by organizations subject to converging evolutionary pressures. The result is usually a choice between indistinguishable alternatives, heavily marketed.

      Last year, enough people were fed up with the indistinguishable alternatives that we got Trump. Why settle for the lesser evil?

  6. Lord says:

    Abandon all hope then.

    • Lord says:

      On the left there is wide acceptance of different views such that authoritarians are on the fringe and criticism is widespread. Pragmatism reigns. On the right there may be different views but criticism is considered extreme and ostracized. Loyalty reigns. This is the exigency of being in power. Reversal of fortune should reverse these but often leads to greater extremes first by winners who believe in blank checks and losers who fail to get the message. It is the motivation of the disaffected that ends up dominating, not the partisans, and there will be a whole new class of disaffected those in power are doing their best to create.

      • Octavian says:

        This is demonstrably false. Congressional Democrats vote and think in lockstep while Republicans struggle to cohere around even lowering taxes, the Center piece of their ideology. There are no free market leftists, old Liberals, or even hardly any blue dog Democrats any more. There’s almost no variation or serious disagreement left on the left at the high levels. Slight deviation is treated as heresy. Just ask the Christakises or Larry Summers.

        • Lord says:

          Quite wrong. It isn’t they agree on policy, but they agree on what isn’t appropriate policy. Even now many are satisfied with adjustments to the ACA while others want single payer. These differences are out in the open, in contrast to the lockstep opposition to it which concealed there wasn’t any real consensus underlying it. It is easy to be against something, much more difficult to be for something. I was constantly reminded of all these Republican plans for what not at the time that have proven imaginary because there was never any buy in. They were just window dressing to answer they had a plan. Now if they really wanted a plan that would survive this congress, they would not be asking for Democratic support, they would be insisting on it. That this is beyond any possible conception for them is a sign they aren’t leadership material.

  7. RohanV says:

    Something about this essay bothers me, and I think I’ve figured out what it is. I don’t think this paragraph is correct:

    The left’s mission is to explore outside our castle. Exploring will uncover new possibilities and eventually lead to growth and improvement. The left seeks to venture into this unknown territory and return to the castle with beneficial discoveries.

    When I think of the older left, I think their mission is to take care of the poor and sick within the castle. Charity, hospitals, older causes like improving the lot of millworkers and climbing boys. I think that throughout history, these sorts of causes are far more likely to be heart of the left, rather than exploring. If you think of early Christians as leftist compared to the Romans, I think the Romans are far more likely to be explorers, yet the early Christians are recognisably more leftist. Or say Quakers (more left) compared to the Church of England (more right).

    In this view, identity politics–or conflict theory–isn’t separate from the left. It’s not something alien which has captured the left. It is the left’s heart taken to an extreme, the ultimate outcome of the caretaker worldview.

    Perhaps the explorers are a third group who were nominally allied with the caretakers. Or maybe it’s gendered such that the male left are explorers, and the female left are caretakers. Regardless, I think the initial axiom of the left as explorers and the right as defenders is not correct, and it misses the greater role of the left as caretakers.

  8. Leftists have always had a totalitarian streak–think the US Communist Party, popular in the 1930s. I think your personality distinctions between Left and Right are wrong, if not completely backwards. For example, there’s no institution in America more retrograde and conservative than higher ed, and they’re Leftist. The bomb throwers, e.g., Steve Bannon and Newt Gingrich (in his day), are Rightists.

    Regards deficits your larger point is correct. But it’s more complicated now. The trade deficit is roughly a mirror image of the federal budget deficit, so we can’t balance the federal budget without bringing trade back into balance. Or vice versa–I don’t know which is the chicken and which is the egg.

    Currently g > r, which means the feds can borrow money from abroad and still make a profit. So now seems like a strange time to be demanding that the federal budget be balanced.

    But for state and local budgets your point is 100% right. States like (Puerto Rico), Illinois, Connecticut, New Jersey and California are so far in the hole they’ll never get out. And unlike the feds they can’t borrow at less than g.

  9. Weir says:

    They can devote their lives to getting ahead, sucking up to the boss, doing and saying everything right, with perfect restraint and decency, but in their minds they’re rebellious spirits, part of the resistance.

    They see themselves as just as free and feckless as anyone from that underclass they’ll never have to meet. That’s how neatly they’ve arranged their lives, their careers, their families, their investments, and their estates.

    They just don’t, as Charles Murray says, preach what they practice.

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