Political debate is often unpleasant because most people are blind to the reasons and assumptions of the other side. I believe that understanding the deep assumptions behind political beliefs will minimize political conflict and increase respect for each other. It might even help us make political progress. Here are 4 book recommendations that enlighten the deep assumptions that fuel the political divide.
A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles
This is by far my favorite book about understanding the deep assumptions behind political beliefs and it is one of my favorite books in general. The author Thomas Sowell, starts by pointing out the consistency by which people hold political beliefs. According to Sowell:
A closer look at the arguments on both sides often shows that they are reasoning from fundamentally different premises. These different premises —often implicit—are what provide the consistency behind the repeated opposition of individuals and groups on numerous unrelated issues. They have different visions of how the world works.
Whether one tends toward politically right or politically left views depends on one’s vision about human nature. According to the early twentieth century intellectual Walter Lippmann, “At the core of every moral code there is a picture of human nature, a map of the universe, and a version of history.” Beliefs that are often associated with the political right assume that human nature is inherently limited in knowledge, wisdom and virtue and social arrangements must acknowledge those limits. Sowell calls this the Constrained Vision. Political beliefs associated with the political left assume that psychological limitations are artifacts that come from our social arrangements, and we should not allow them to restrict our gaze from what is possible in a better world. Sowell calls this is the Unconstrained Vision.
These visions cover a wide range of political beliefs on both sides including different views about knowledge and reason, tradition and markets, age and experience, sincerity and fidelity, justice and equality, and power and freedom. In my experience, this way of looking at political beliefs has been so accurate that when I have identified the vision of a particular individual, I can quite confidently predict what they believe about such disparate issues as gun control, markets, abortion, religion, gender issues, education, war, healthcare, and more.
The book treats both sides quite fairly and evenly. It covers intellectual history and gives many examples of specific thinkers that have contributed to each vision. Every reader will gain a greater understanding of the reasons behind their own political beliefs as well as the beliefs of those with whom they disagree.
Here is a good introduction to this book by the author:
The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature
This book by the cognitive scientist Steven Pinker details the history of the blank slate which the belief that people are born without any innate dispositions, abilities, or preferences. This belief implies that all behavior is learned from one’s environment and that everyone has equal opportunities to succeed if they are raised in the right environment. The blank slate premise leads to conclusions about politics, violence, gender, parenting, the arts, and much more.
Pinker shows how the study of evolutionary psychology thoroughly debunks the blank slate and the linked dogmas of the “noble savage” and “the ghost in the machine. The noble savage is the view that man is born good and is corrupted by society. The ghost in the machine is the view that everyone has a soul that can make choices free from biology. He not only shows how these theories are false, he also shows how the blank slate has been used to justify disastrous political experiments such as totalitarian social engineering.
At one point in the book, Pinker refers to The Conflict of Visions. He wrote, “The most sweeping attempt to survey the underlying dimension is Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions. Not every ideological struggle fits his scheme, but as we say in social science, he has identified a factor that can account for a large proportion of the variance.” Pinker refers to the constrained vision as the Tragic Vision of human nature and he calls the unconstrained vision a Utopian Vision of human nature. Pinker then suggests that the constrained vision is a more correct view of human nature than the unconstrained vision. ”The new sciences of human nature”, Pinker says, ‘vindicate some version of the Tragic Vision and undermine the Utopian outlook’.
This book is quite profound and a pleasure to read. Pinker weaves in many popular references with dense scientific critiques of the blank slate. It was a pulitzer prize finalist and essential reading for anyone interested in understanding the political divide.
Here is Pinker’s TED talk about the book:
The Three Languages of Politics
This brand new book is very short and very cheap—only $1.99 on the Kindle store. Arnold Kling shows how different ideologies speak different languages. Progressives, Conservatives, and Libertarians each have an axis of concern:
• The Progressives narrative follow an “oppressed vs. oppressor” axis.
• The Conservative narrative follow a “civilization vs. barbarism” axis.
• The Libertarian narrative follow a “freedom vs. coercion” axis.
This three-axes model helps us see how and why people demonize those who don’t agree with them. For progressives, conservatives and libertarians want to oppress the poor. For conservatives, progressives and sometimes libertarians unwittingly encourage barbarism and undermining civilization. For libertarians, progressives and some conservatives support policies that undermine freedom.
We can be more charitable to others by speaking their language and showing why a particular axis narrative does or does not apply to a given political situation. Kling makes a distinction between motivated thinking which is based on unexamined intuition and emotion and constructive thinking which is based on logic. Understanding the three-axes model and being more charitable to others will stimulate our constructive thinking. We should try to understand why we think our political opponents are wrong instead of automatically assuming those on the other side are irrational. Our own rationality is called into question when we automatically assume that other people are irrational.
The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion
I just finished this book the other day. Jonathan Haidt uses what he calls “Moral Psychology” to show that human beings evolved certain moral intuitions that influence their political and religious beliefs.
One of Haidt’s metaphor that I like is the “Elephant and Rider” metaphor. The rider represents the conscious controlled processes and the elephant represents all of the automatic processes. These two systems evolved for to perform different functions. Our elephant is our primary decision maker and our rider is our press agent. Most of the time, the rider justifies why we did what we did. Only rarely does the rider actually influence the elephant.
Haidt argues that reason is vastly overrated and that intuitions are much better at guiding our political beliefs. I personally think that he pushes this point too far because of course, he has to use reason in his arguments that try to undermine reason. Nevertheless, he makes good points about understanding the relationship between our intuitions and reasons.
Haidt also develops “Moral Foundations Theory” where he talks about 6 moral foundations that inform our intuitions. These foundations include the following:
Haidt uses details surveys that measure how sensitive each person is to one of the moral foundations. He found that liberals and those that are left-wing value the care and fairness foundations and tend to minimize or ignore the other 4 foundations. Conservatives on the other hand value all of the evolved foundations equally. Although Haidt is a liberal, he argues that conservatives have a more balanced intuitional foundation. Understanding these moral foundations can help us to understand the intuitions of those with whom we disagree.
These 4 authors have greatly influenced my thinking about how to understand political beliefs. These 4 books would make a great foundation for a course in understanding politics. The authors span the political spectrum. Thomas Sowell tends to be more conservative. Steven Pinker is moderate but seems to lean to the right. Arnold Kling is a libertarian. And, Jonathan Haidt is a liberal.