The Primate Diaries

The Nature of Partisan Politics

Conservatives and liberals conflict over their basic views on human nature.

As an evolutionary anthropologist and student of history, I’m always fascinated to learn what politically motivated figures have to say about human nature. It’s one area of life where people require zero expertise but can still claim authority in. A case in point appears in Newsweek where Yuval Levin, Fellow at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center, insists that “Partisanship is Good” because it is based on conflicting assumptions about human nature.

Our deepest disagreements coalesce into two broad views of human nature that define the public life of every free society. In a crude and general way our political parties give expression to these views, and allow the roughly like-minded to pool their voices and their votes in order to turn beliefs into action.

Levin builds his case about these two schools of thought based on the overarching connections between different policy positions. Conservatives want traditional values and a strong military because “both views express an underlying premise about the intractability of human nature” while liberals apparently want “a large welfare state” and favor diplomacy in global conflicts because “both views express an underlying sense that most problems are functions of an imperfect distribution of resources.”

There are several things wrong with this argument, which I will address. But Levin then uses this appeal about separate but equal views on human nature to justify his point that Obama shouldn’t complain about Republican stonewalling on his economic recovery plan. Never mind that, according to the Wall Street Journal, the tax cuts in Obama’s stimulus bill (at $282 billion or 36% of the entire package) were the largest immediate tax relief in US history. Never mind that the last three conservative administrations are responsible for 75% of our national debt (or $8.3 of the current $10.85 trillion according to the 2009 Budget Historical Tables, 7.1). And never mind that deregulation of the financial services industry, backed by conservative policies, is what led to our current crisis. Never mind all of that. Republicans are from Mars and Democrats are from Venus and we need to value both views of human nature equally.

To ridicule these disagreements and assert as our new president also did in his inaugural that ‘the time has come to set aside childish things’ is to demean as insignificant the great debates that have formed our republic over more than two centuries.

Of course, one has to question his sincerity about respecting different points of view considering this is the same person who wrote, “By her husbands logic, Michelle Obama must be a heavily armed xenophobic religious zealot, because boy is she bitter.” This after her speech about families struggling to make ends meet that she gave on May 2, 2008, just four months before the economic crisis made front-page news.

But I won’t demean Levin’s argument as insignificant; to do so would not be in keeping with the great debates of our republic. In fact, I would even go so far as to say that, where it comes to the conservative view of human nature, Levin is generally correct. The range of issues bundled under “right wing” ideology include such seemingly disconnected policies as a strong religious devotion, the rejection of public assistance programs as well as a firm support for increased police and military funding. I would suggest (and I think Levin would agree) that all of these issues are based on the assumption that human nature is fundamentally flawed and that to deviate from tradition is to invite social disintegration.

Conservatives view human nature as a delicate balance between order and social chaos.
Image: Temptation / Sadegh Tirafkan

At first glance it’s difficult to understand why those people who are most willing to bow their heads to the prince of peace would also be interested in funding weapons of war – let alone to ignore his call to help the least among us. Likewise, it’s curious that the logic of cutting our already underfunded social programs because we need to be “fiscally responsible” doesn’t also apply to the $711 billion price tag for military spending in 2008-2009 (about 25% of our national budget and nearly as large as the rest of the world’s military spending combined). Even in the conservative stalwart position on states’ rights there is some cognitive dissonance. States should have the right to restrict abortion despite the Supreme Court’s ruling, but there should also be a constitutional amendment to keep Massachusetts and Connecticut from allowing gay marriage. It’s difficult to understand any justification that would allow someone to hold two opposing and contradictory views simultaneously on a single issue. But, rest assured, cartwheels of logic aside, there is a connection.

Underlying all of these issues lay a basic belief in traditional gender roles and an assumption that human nature is essentially base, self-indulgent and unchanging. We therefore need a strong authority to keep our rapacious vices at bay and a firm hand to guide our moral character. We should appeal to Christ for the salvation of our own wickedness, but keep a large arsenal at the ready to protect against the wickedness of others. Furthermore, governments shouldn’t coddle those who make the wrong moral choices but should encourage strength and independence so they can stand on their own two feet – after all, people will only take advantage of government assistance. From this basic assumption, conservatives transform what looks like economic lunacy from one perspective into their argument for fiscal responsibility. As for the “wedge” issues of gay marriage and abortion, it is simply that allowing behavior that deviates from traditional norms could upset the balance of heterosexual monogamy. By doing so we would be flinging open the gates for a whole range of deviant behaviors and desires that would assail our carefully balanced civilization. It’s not simply about sex; it’s about stability. For a conservative, then, human nature has us tiptoeing precariously along the ledge between right and wrong, with temptation always grappling at our feet.

Liberals embrace a human nature based on equality and cooperation.
Image: People vs. Military / Eric Drooker

Liberals also have a unique perspective on human nature, though it would seem that Levin’s ideological blinders prevented him from seeing it. Levin claims that liberal assumptions are based on the view that “most human problems are functions of an imperfect distribution of resources.” This is a tenuous connection at best and seems intended merely to connect liberalism with Marxism. While economic justice is an important issue for liberals, the areas of concern are considerably broader than simply focusing on how resources are divided.

For example, concern for gay and lesbian rights is not based on economic inequality nor does the environmental movement build its foundation on a desire for the redistribution of wealth. In fact, the environmental movement has had a difficult time reaching out to labor unions based on the (largely erroneous) fear that the two are at odds with one another. It’s also difficult to see how Levin can equate diplomacy with economic redistribution. Unless we’re talking about paying someone for a peace treaty – like General Petraeus did with the Sunni insurgents in Iraq – most diplomacy is “the art of relating states to each other by agreement rather than by the exercise of force.” Of course, that’s the view of the renowned liberal Henry Kissinger, so shouldn’t be taken in any way seriously.

However, there is a connection between such seemingly disparate issues as workers rights, environmental sustainability, a progressive income tax and gay marriage. What all these areas of concern are based upon is a moral sense of equality and fairness. Workers are small players in a larger financial system; by helping them join together in unions to collectively bargain with their employer it helps to level the playing field. For centuries the natural world has been used only for its supply of cheap resources or as a waste dump; now that the full picture of this human impact has been revealed we must advocate for our collective future.

Issues of civil rights, women’s rights, gay and lesbian rights or animal rights; all fall under the broad category of nurturing a society based around notions of equality. The assumption about human nature inherent in the liberal worldview is that fairness and equality can ultimately be achieved and that our innate character is both flexible as it is fundamentally decent. Liberals therefore assume that the social ills that plague our society – unemployment, crime, racism, homophobia – are all moral issues that can be resolved by improving the environment where these problems prevail.

In other words, our “deepest disagreements” are that conservatives think human nature is fixed and a problem to be guarded against while liberals think human nature is flexible and that experience either corrupts or refines. Conservative commentator Thomas Sowell calls these the “Tragic” or “Utopian” worldviews while liberal cognitive scientist George Lakoff refers to them as the “Strict Father” or “Nurturing Parent” traditions. To put these same categories into religious terms, where a conservative would thump the pulpit preaching dominion, a liberal would organize the poor around the cross of liberation theology.

The science of human nature has been studied for more than three hundred years.
Image: De Humani Corporis Fabrica by Vesalius / University of Glasgow

What’s important to point out, of course, is that whatever the conservative or liberal assumptions about human nature may be, they have no bearing on what human nature actually is – something that political theorists often forget. The father of political science, Thomas Hobbes, justified monarchy based on his assumption that humans in a “state of nature” (what we would now call indigenous societies) lived a bestial existence that was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Ever since then appeals to a human nature of this sort have been used as an excuse for all manner of draconian policies to maintain order. That there have now been three and a half centuries of research in anthropology and biology on this very question doesn’t seem to have filtered down yet to the level of politics.

So, which view is the correct interpretation of human nature? Clearly this question can’t be fully addressed in such a short space, but the simple answer is that both are flawed, but one more than the other. Human nature is not intractable. To say that would be like suggesting a healthy lifestyle would have no effect on someone born with the genetic predisposition for a fatal disease. Biology is not destiny, but neither is it unimportant. Morality and cooperation are intrinsic properties of human nature, just as the self-indulgent and antisocial behaviors are that conservatives fear. All societies at all times in history (and pre-history) have had a firmly entrenched moral code; that this code frequently applies only to the in-group is one of the human tragedies to be overcome. Furthermore, most social species – and primates in particular – have an intuitive sense of right and wrong and will work in cooperation with their social group more often than not.

As a social species ourselves, and one that has adapted to thrive in an enormous range of habitats and conditions, we are influenced significantly by our environment and will alter our behavior based on experience. But we are not infinitely flexible. Left-wing totalitarian assumptions that human nature could be “reeducated” to fit the interests of the state were as flawed as right-wing assumptions are now that suggest homosexuality is a lifestyle choice that can be learned or unlearned at will. However, by influencing people’s environment you can, to a significant extent, influence the social outcome. This makes having a better understanding of human nature all the more vital, since important decisions based on faulty assumptions could be corrosive to human liberty.

Conservatives show their determination to embrace partisanship on their terms.
Image: RJ Matson / The St. Louis Post Dispatch

While such ultimate questions about human nature will continue to be pursued for many years to come by both scientific thinkers and political pundits alike, Mr. Levin’s current use is particularly unfortunate. It’s not simply that he would seek to misuse these assumptions to beat his ideological drum; it is that his support for the intractable partisanship on which it is based would be as harmful to the nation during a time of crisis as it is personally disingenuous.

The day after the 2008 election, on November 5, when it was disclosed that Rahm Emmanuel would be the top pick for President Obama’s Chief of Staff, Levin lambasted his choice as someone who was “a vicious graceless partisan: narrow, hectic, unremittingly aggressive, vulgar, and impatient.” This, for Levin, was a bad sign and he criticized the new President because it “suggests both that he wants to be ruthless and partisan and that he does not have a clear sense of how the White House works.” Perhaps his essay should have been titled “Partisanship is Good (But Only If My Side Wins)“. With such a statement it would seem that Levin’s view of human nature has no concept of hypocrisy. Such outright duplicity not only illuminates his approach as an advocate of Ethics and Public Policy, it is the very nature of partisan politics that we should all seek to avoid.


  1. #1 Pierce R. Butler
    July 28, 2009

    Republicans in the last decade or so have been wrong about, approximately, everything. The wars they started, economics, climate, education, the Constitution, health care, science, the “culture war” (which they also launched) – you name it, they’ve blown it.

    Claiming to be non-ideological, they insist what matters is “character” – then they cheer for Bush, Cheney, and a crew of accomplices that make the Hogwarts faculty at its worst look like a troop of Brownies.

    The (perhaps still avertable) great tragedy of Obama is that he tries to appease these corrupt fanatics.

  2. #2 JThompson
    July 28, 2009

    I thought conservatives favored free money for the rich because they either are rich or delude themselves into thinking they’ll be rich in the immediate future.

    I thought liberals typically favored all things liberal because they want to see the most good done for the most people, while conservatives are generally only worried about themselves.
    Watch how fast a conservative’s opinion often changes on things once they strike at them directly. Losing insurance, needing FEMA, losing their job, etc.
    Of course quite a few can delude themselves even while using the very safety net they bitch about. The attitude rapidly changes to the idea that only they deserve it. Everyone else using that particular program are thieves stealing hard earned money through taxes.
    I’d love to have an honest answer about how many teabaggers were on social assistance of some kind. (I’d bet 25% at the very least.)

  3. #3 Les Carpenter III
    July 29, 2009

    As a true independent conservative, one with no party affiliation, I agree with the assessment that the Republican Bush administation was lacking at best and a disaster at it’s worst.

    I am also amazed that the commenter’s have fallen into the very same intolerance of idea’s they oppose as I see in the radical and misguided fringe right.

    The great tragedy of Barrack Hussein Obama is that he is a Marxist to his very core and will, if permitted, drag this great nation to the brink of Soviet style society. Which, if you compare that to the Fascist style society the Bush agenda was on they look pretty much the same. The only real difference is the flavor of the cool aid bring served.

    The battle will be won on the battlefield of civil discourse and rational minds will prevail. The strength of logical reasoned thought will eventually overtake the irrationallity we see today. At the end of the day (or night) true rational conservative philosophy will win.

    The typical garden variety conservatism held by the current batch of corrupt so called conservatives will fail. So will the current garden variety progressiveism held by the current corrupt batch of so called progressives. Failure of both will be a good thing.

    Onward with the furtherance of the real conservative philosophy. Limited government, free market, individual rights above the collective right, responsibility for oneself, respect for all viewpoint, respect for individual property rights, sound fiscal judgement and responsibility, and on it goes.

    Be well,

    Les Carpenter III
    Rational Nation USA

  4. #4 CPR
    August 1, 2009

    As I read this excellent essay, I kept thinking, “Yes, but the conservative mind set allows itself utter hypocrisy and every form of deception in order to win — something it sees as the greater good.” And then you ended with that very insight. This is why conservativism, as practiced in the U.S., is anti-science. Science can’t be twisted and manipulated to always come out the way you want. This is also, confusingly, why conservative sex scandals are less damaging to their power and reputations: hypocrisy is allowed (even encouraged — see the C Street “Family”) if it’s seen as advancing the conservative agenda. There’s a Nietzschean premise that the conservative agenda is superior to all others and anything is justified in its advancement. The liberal agenda has no parallel (which is why liberals are constantly opposing each other).

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