My problems with politics, part 1: political biases

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  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’).

The political compass

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)…

9 responses to “My problems with politics, part 1: political biases

  1. Pingback: My problems with politics, part 2: we, the electorate | Observaterry·

  2. I am glad that there is someone else in the same dilemma as I – I also tend to libertarian left consistently on these things. I’ve gotten more libertarian as time goes on.
    I think Haidt is wrong on ‘liberals’ not being driven by In-group loyalty, Respect for authority and Purity/sanctity. I think that ‘liberals’ are driven by these concepts but in quite different ways to conservatives. In my youth I was briefly involved with student activism and in-group loyalty was very strong there – as well as respect for certain authorities – it is just that the authorities differed entirely from those which would motivate a conservative. Moreover if you look at the eating habits of many progressive people, I think there is a strong purity/sanctity streak (look at vegans, vegetarians, people who eat organic, people who avoid fast food etc). Anyway, that’s my theory.

    • I suspect it’s not that socially-liberal types are ‘not driven by in-group loyalty’; rather that on average, social-conservatives value it far more than social-liberals do.
      There’s also the difference between those who follow ideas dogmatically, and those who take a more sceptical approach, which might account for clusters of group-think among different political supporters?
      In any case, I do acknowledge that the political compass is limited. You can indeed have people who are socially-conservative in some specific respects, but socially liberal for everything else; on average, they will score quite low down the vertical axis, and still harbour a deep desire to control other people’s behaviour in certain areas.
      (I can see this feeding into another blog post!)

  3. Pingback: My problems with politics, part 3: politicians | Observaterry·

  4. Pingback: My problems with politics, part 4: party pooper | Observaterry·

  5. Pingback: My problems with politics, part 6: promises, promises… | Observaterry·

  6. Pingback: My problems with politics, part 7: policies and stupidity | Observaterry·

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