I’m in a real quandary, and have been for a number of years. I don’t think there’s anyone I want to vote for. How am I going to cope with the next UK election?
In recent years, I’ve looked at politicalcompass.org to see if any party is a reasonably close fit to my own views. It’s a good test in that it provides an objective way to describe the political positions of candidates, parties and voters. It clearly defines what it means by ‘left’ or ‘right’ wing (state controlled economies through to unregulated markets), and separates this from how much social control a government should exert (‘authoritarian’ to ‘libertarian’).
However, it does have its limitations – it can’t tell you about how important specific issues are for each party (eg, national independence for the SNP compared to Plaid Cwmry), or anything about a party’s batshit-crazy tendencies (as the FAQ states, how agreeable a politician is to you has no bearing on the actual policies they support…).
When I took this test before the 2010 election, I was economically centrist, tending ever so faintly towards the left (largely because I have no idea how money works, despite my best efforts, so I try to strike a balance; more on this another time), and as a socially liberal type, I think governments should guide the populace with only the lightest of touches.
Have I always been this way? Will I stay this way? I retook the test and found that my economic views have shifted slightly leftward, perhaps a response to having a number of friends being adversely affected by the economic downturn. Otherwise, my views haven’t changed in the past four years. Do I have some sort of predisposition to be like this?
According to Jonathan Haidt, I do (explained in this TED talk, and also in subsequent publications). Socially conservative voters have stronger reactions to disgust than socially liberal ones, and this disgust could be physical or moral.
There are five core moral dimensions that matter: Harm/care, In-group loyalty, Respect for authority, Purity/sanctity, and Fairness/reciprocity.
People who are socially conservative (ie, authoritarian) are concerned with all five, but emphasise In-group loyalty, Respect for authority and Purity/sanctity the most. People who are socially liberal tend to be more concerned with Harm/care and Fairness/reciprocity. (It’s important to define what we mean by ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’, as these terms can change their political meaning from country to country and throughout history.)
These differences can be measured in personality tests: social conservatives score highly on the trait of Conscientiousness, but low for Openness to new experience; socially liberal people are high scorers for Openness and Agreeableness.
Another key difference, related to being open to new experience, is in the responses to fear or threats. Socially conservative voters tend to be more sensitive to perceived danger, implying an instinctive basis for our political preferences. Of course, such experiments tend to be run on WEIRD college kids so there are bound to be limits on just how far one can generalise from these findings.
It’s not just our biology that can affect our political preferences; upbringing plays a part too. To summarise it as succinctly as possible, authoritarian parents who value obedience tend to raise fearful children who end up endorsing socially conservative ideologies, where as more egalitarian parenting produces children with socially liberal attitudes.
So, our political biases are instinctive and emotional. Any reasons we might give for supporting a candidate, party or policy are post-hoc justifications. We don’t ‘choose’ our political views, we instead try to justify them. You could say that this is a cynical view, but I like to think it’s informed cynicism.
But this isn’t my only problem with politics (to be continued)…