Paul Pillar

Ideology and Tribalism

Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker offers an explanation for why so much of the United States has become divided fairly clearly and consistently into red and blue states—into regions that lean decidedly toward Republicans or toward Democrats. Borrowing ideas from other scholars, including historian David Fischer and psychologist Richard Nisbett, he suggests it is largely a legacy of the patterns of settlement in colonial America. The North was settled mostly by English farmers; the inland South mostly by Scots and Irish herders. Anthropologists tell us that herders, whose wealth is mobile and can easily be stolen, develop a “culture of honor” with an emphasis on using self-reliance and one's own guns, rather than depending on government, to avoid being victimized by rustlers. And from that one can implicitly draw various positions that are associated with the present-day political Right. Farmers do not have the same set of vulnerabilities and thus developed a different culture. As time passed and each culture moved with the frontier westward, the political traditions persisted.

It is an intriguing hypothesis and probably has some validity. There are many other aspects of current American attitudes that are strongly rooted in American history, even going back to colonial times. But before getting to the regional question, Pinker addresses why the views on disparate political issues tend to correlate at all into a Republican clump and a Democratic clump. Why, for example, does knowing someone's view on gay marriage help us to predict the same person's view on military spending? Pinker adduces an explanation—which he appears to accept as valid, even if it does not explain as much as the anthropological hypothesis about settlement patterns—that is based on contending views about human nature. The Right, according to this explanation, has a “Tragic Vision” of people being “permanently limited in morality, knowledge and reason.” This leads to views ranging from the need for guns and a large military for protection against unreasonable people, to respect for customs of religion, sexuality and the like to avoid a slide into barbarism. The Left is said instead to have a “Utopian Vision” that considers human nature to be malleable and “articulates rational plans for a better society and seeks to implement them through public institutions.”

This explanation is not persuasive, partly because it is blatantly inconsistent with some actual political positions associated with the Right or Left. Consider foreign policy, where one of the biggest and clearest examples of a utopian vision is found in the neoconservative belief in being able to remake foreign societies in America's image. The neoconservatives' biggest project, the Iraq War, was about implementing an ostensibly rational plan for making a better society in the Middle East, administered from above by the Coalition Provisional Authority and based on a belief that malleable Middle Easterners could be made into reasonable practitioners of liberal democracy.

Explanations for political beliefs that are based on something like a supposedly coherent view of human nature give far too much credit to present-day American ideologies for being logically consistent. There isn't really any good, logical reason particular views on gay marriage ought to accompany particular views on military spending; it takes intellectual gymnastics to try to tie the two together.

Such explanations nonetheless continue to be offered, largely for two reasons. One is that the explanations themselves may be part of a political agenda or political slant. Pinker acknowledges “conservative thinkers” to be the source of the concept about Tragic Visions and Utopian Visions. That is not surprising. Utopianism is something one is much more likely to attribute to an opponent than to claim for oneself.

The other reason is the tendency of intellectuals to over-intellectualize—to come up with a nifty logical construct and then to assume this reflects the thinking of others. Another example of this is the lead article in the current International Security, which offers an explanation for the different policies of presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy toward the defense of Western Europe, with the former preferring to rely on self-defense by the Europeans and the latter favoring more of a forward commitment by the United States. The article, by Brendan Green, is based on solid scholarship and explores in admirable detail the perspectives of the two presidents to the challenge of deterring aggression by the Soviet Union. But the author then invokes Isaiah Berlin and his two concepts of liberty and tries to explain strategies for European defense in terms of “negative liberals” and “positive liberals.” That's a stretch.

When looking not at presidential policies but instead at voters' preferences, explanations of this type are not just a stretch; they are simply incorrect. Voters going to the polls next week will not have made their choice after brushing up on their Isaiah Berlin and contemplating the different varieties of liberty. Nor will they have contemplated human nature and deduced, based on that contemplation and on ideas about tragedy and utopia, the best ways of dealing with the human condition.