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It’s Worse Than It Looks: What Most People Don’t Understand About the Partisan Divide

It is NOT TRUE that the partisan divide is a struggle between similar people who happen to vote differently. It IS TRUE that it is between different kinds of people. The implications of this are enormous.

The primary factor that differentiates the two kinds of people is cognitive style – operating system, if you will, of social cognition – evident across nearly all of human history, as described by Arthur Herman in his book The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization.

Image of Cover of The Cave and the Light

The two predominant cognitive styles are WEIRD Platonic Idealism on the left and Holistic Aristotelian empiricism on the right, both of which bear striking similarities to descriptions of left and right offered by multiple other researchers.

The secondary factor that differentiates the two kinds of people follows from the first. It is the moral matrix.

A moral matrix is the particular blend and prioritization of six* evolved psychological mechanisms of subconscious social cognition called moral foundations.

Moral foundations are products of natural selection. They are pattern recognition modules of social cognition, constantly operating outside of our awareness like tiny subconscious social radars, perpetually scanning the social environment for patterns of thought and behavior that represented threats and opportunities to our genetic ancestors. When patterns are detected the mechanisms send signals to us in the form of instincts and intuitions of like/dislike, approach/avoid, and fight/flee we experience in response to the things we see in the social world around us.
The moral foundations are care/harm, fairness/cheating, autonomy/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and purity/degradation.

The moral matrix of the left rests almost entirely on the first two foundations. The moral matrix of the right rests on all six equally. These findings hold true on every continent.

There’s no leftist foundation that is not also a conservative, but half of the conservative foundations are effectively inaccessible to leftist social cognition.

Therefore it is NOT TRUE that the left-right dynamic is like that of a tug of war between the first three foundations (on the left) and the latter three foundations (on the right).


Rather, it IS TRUE that the left-right dynamic is a clash between a two-dimensional world view and a multi-dimensional world view; like colorblind vs fully sighted, where the colorblind left thinks the fully-sighted right is crazy for seeing colors (moral foundations) that don’t exist, and the fully-sighted right thinks the colorblind left is naïve for not seeing all of them.

A great metaphor for the left-right dynamic is the story Flatland, written in 1884 by English novelist Edwin Abbot, in which the left is represented by the 2D characters and the right is represented by the 3D characters. Here’s a summary of it from page 182 of The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, by Jonathan Haidt

“One day, the square is visited by a sphere from a three-dimensional world called Spaceland. When a sphere visits Flatland, however, all that is visible to Flatlanders is the part of the sphere that lies in their plain-in other words, a circle. The square is astonished that the circle is able to grow or shrink at will (by rising or sinking into the plane of Flatland) and even to disappear and reappear in a different place (by leaving the plane, and then reentering it). The sphere tries to explain the concept of the third dimension to the two-dimensional square, but the square, though skilled at two-dimensional geometry, doesn’t get it. He cannot understand what it means to have thickness in addition to height and breadth, nor can he understand that the circle came from up above him, where “up” does not mean from the north. The sphere presents analogies and geometrical demonstrations of how to move from one dimension to two, and then from two to three, but the square stilI finds the idea of moving “up” out of the plane of Flatland ridiculous.

This dynamic explains the long-evident phenomenon of the right seeing the left as good people with bad ideas and the left seeing the right as bad people. Two examples:

Example One, from Thomas Sowell:

From the 18th century to today, many leading thinkers on the left have regarded those who disagree with them as being not merely factually wrong but morally repugnant. And again, this pattern is far less often found among those on the opposite side of the ideological spectrum.

The visceral hostility toward Sarah Palin by present day liberals, and the gutter level to which some descend in expressing it, is just one sign of a mindset on the left that goes back more than two centuries.

T.R. Malthus was the target of such hostility in the 18th and early 19th centuries. When replying to his critics, Malthus said, “I cannot doubt the talents of such men as Godwin and Condorcet. I am unwilling to doubt their candor.”

But William Godwin’s vision of Malthus was very different. He called Malthus “malignant,” questioned “the humanity of the man,” and said “I profess myself at a loss to conceive of what earth the man was made.”

This asymmetry in responses to people with different opinions has been too persistent, for too many years, to be just a matter of individual personality differences.

Although Charles Murray has been a major critic of the welfare state and of the assumptions behind it, he recalled that before writing his landmark book, “Losing Ground,” he had been “working for years with people who ran social programs at street level, and knew the overwhelming majority of them to be good people trying hard to help.”

Can you think of anyone on the left who has described Charles Murray as “a good person trying hard to help”? He has been repeatedly denounced as virtually the devil incarnate — far more often than anyone has tried seriously to refute his facts.

Such treatment is not reserved solely for Murray. Liberal writer Andrew Hacker spoke more sweepingly when he said, “conservatives don’t really care whether black Americans are happy or unhappy.”

Even in the midst of an election campaign against the British Labour Party, when Winston Churchill said that there would be dire consequences if his opponents won, he said that this was because “they do not see where their theories are leading them.”

But, in an earlier campaign, Churchill’s opponent said that he looked upon Churchill “as such a personal force for evil that I would take up the fight against him with a whole heart.”

Examples of this asymmetry between those on opposite sides of the ideological divide could be multiplied almost without limit. It is not solely a matter of individual personality differences.

Example Two, from Jonathan Haidt:

If you don’t see that Reagan is pursuing positive values of Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity, you almost have to conclude that Republicans see no positive value in Care and Fairness. You might even go as far as Michael Feingold, a theater critic for the liberal newspaper the Village Voice, when he wrote:

Republicans don’t believe in the imagination, partly because so few of them have one, but mostly because it gets in the way of their chosen work, which is to destroy the human race and the planet. Human beings, who have imaginations, can see a recipe for disaster in the making; Republicans, whose goal in life is to profit from disaster and who don’t give a hoot about human beings, either can’t or won’t. Which is why I personally think they should be exterminated before they cause any more harm)3

One of the many ironies in this quotation is that it shows the inability of a theater critic-who skillfully enters fantastical imaginary worlds for a living-to imagine that Republicans act within a moral matrix that differs from his own. Morality binds and blinds.

Other Implications:

Moralities are emergent complex systems that are greater than the sum of their parts. They manifest as an overall sense of right and wrong; a Prime Directive, if you will.

The Prime Directive of the left is a sense of care/compassion/sympathy/empathy/kindness. The Prime Directive of the right is a sense of social capital and the appreciation that it is difficult to create and maintain but easy to destroy.

The perceptions, values, beliefs, tenets, principles, positions, and world views of each side follow from their respective cognitive styles, moral matrices, and prime directives.

In other words, a fundamental principle of moral psychology is: “Psychological profile comes first, moral intuitions follow.”

WEIRD Platonic idealists tend to value intellect, education, credentials; things that are measurable. They tend to see a world full of objects rather than relationships. They are referred to as the Front Row by Chris Arnade in his book Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America, and as the residents of the town of Belmont by Charles Murray in Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.

Holistic Aristotelian empiricists tend to value community, neighborhood/location/home, social capital; things not measurable. They tend to see a world full of relationships rather than objects. They are Arnade’s Back Row, and Murray’s Fishtown.

The two profiles internalize different conceptions of the social world; what it is, how it works, what it can be, what it should be, their ability to influence it, and their roles and responsibilities in doing so.

Words like liberty, equality, justice, and fairness take on different meanings depending on one’s psychological profile.

On the left, liberty tends to mean “Freedom to…” This connotation is known as positive liberty.

On the right liberty tends to mean “Freedom from…” This is known as negative liberty.

On the left, equality, justice, and fairness tend to be seen as outcomes; relatively equal quality of life, and relatively equal levels of success in one’s chosen endeavors.

On the right, equality, justice, and fairness tend to be seen as processes; one set of rules that applies, and is applied, the same to everyone.

Even the concept of knowledge depends on psychological profile. On the right it is collective, institutional, accumulated across generations, greater than any one person’s or generation’s. On the left it is discernible by individuals or groups through current reasoning alone.

Similar disparities exist for concepts such as the nature of man, trade-offs versus solutions, social morality and social causation, order and design, and process costs.

The two sides use the same words but conceptualize them differently, effectively speaking different languages without knowing it. They talk past each other, and are often dumbfounded as to how the other can think the way it does.

It is INCORRECT to understand left and right in terms of beliefs, tenets, principles, or positions on the issues. To do so is to put the ideological cart ahead of the psychological horse.

It is CORRECT to define them in terms of the immutable psychological traits that underlie, and lead to, those beliefs. As Heterodox Academy’s Musa Al-Gharbi observed:

in many important respects, progressives and conservatives are not just the same kinds of people who happen to vote differently (in which case discrimination seems less clear), but are increasingly different types of people.

Insofar as our minds create our realities for us, the political left and right exist in different realities that occupy the same time and place, like the wizarding and non-wizarding worlds of Harry Potter.

Parallel universes exist. We’re living in one.

But unlike the parallel universes of Harry Potter, ours are self-segregating geographically, mostly by virtue of the migration of WEIRD Platonic idealists to urban areas, leaving Holistic Aristotelian empiricists to flyover country.

We’re insulating ourselves from each other. With each passing day it becomes ever more difficult for us to understand one another. Evidence: Murray

The urban areas to which WEIRD Platonic idealists are migrating also happen to be the locations in which most of the industries and institutions that control the culture are owned and operated; education, media, and entertainment.

By virtue of their self-segregation to those geographic areas and their dominance in those industries and institutions, WEIRD Platonic idealists enjoy near complete hegemonic control of the culture.

They determine what’s important and what’s not, what gets said and what doesn’t, how it’s said, and the rules of debate.

They are boxing out Holistic Aristotelian empiricists from participation in the culture; denying them a voice; marginalizing them.

If a historically disadvantaged identity group were treated the way Platonists treat Aristotelians then the Platonists would call it out as the Civil Rights Issue of our time.

They’d organize protests against disparate impact; against systemic, institutional prejudice and discrimination; against bigotry and hate born of ignorance. They’d march on Washington.

They’d be right.

We miss the forest for the trees if we think the main problems we face include a lack of viewpoint diversity, the prevalence of cancel culture, or the illogic of social justice.

Those are secondary symptoms of a deeper primary cause: Bigotry; born of the toxic mix of the myopia of the two-foundation moral matrix exacerbated by the epistemic certainty of WEIRD Platonic idealism, and the resulting belief that…

…people who think differently are malformed, sick, broken, and therefore deserve their secondary status, belong in backwater flyover country, should be de-platformed, and must be prevented access to the reins of power. THEATER CRITIC QUOTE?

The left’s dominance of the culture, its framing of pretty much everything non leftists think, say, or do, as evil, and its active campaign of persecution via cancel culture, afflicts more people and harms more “others” than does any other ID group.

Progressive Supremacy is a bigger problem than white supremacy.

How do we get past it? Four recommendations.

  1. Recognize the problem for what it is; Discrimination, prejudice, bigotry, and hate against one group by another based on innate immutable traits of the victim group.
  2. Expand the Civil Rights Acts to include political/ideological persuasion and belief.
  3. Since most hate is born of ignorance. Reduce the hate by reducing the ignorance. Some sources and suggestions:
    a. Towards a Cognitive Theory of Politics
    b. The Water We Swim In: A Need To Look At Causes As Well As Effects
    c. Understanding Human Nature is the Best Way of Fixing Our Political Culture
    d. What the Coddling of the American Mind Fails to Spell Out. Book Review
    e. Springtime for Snowflakes: “Social Justice” and its Postermodern Parentage: A Review
    f. Constructive Criticism of Our Open Mind Conference
    g. Freshman Class: How Education Can Shrink the Partisan Divide
    h. Sample Lesson Plan
  4. Accept the fact that all reasoning is motivated reasoning, which means that pitting the reasoning of the left against the reasoning of the right is a fool’s errand that only perpetuates conflict. Instead, do an end-run around the Maginot line of reasoning. Steel man the reasoning of each side into narratives, then test those narratives against evidence. Use the findings to improve current policies and/or create new ones. A model for this approach is Haidt’s “Stories About Capitalism.” The model could/should be applied to “Stories About Government,” “Stories About Abortion,” “Stories About Guns,” “Stories About Taxes,” etc.


2 thoughts on “It’s Worse Than It Looks: What Most People Don’t Understand About the Partisan Divide

  1. Great work and I hope your health is improving. Thank you for this and many other great pieces.


    Posted by JSH | March 17, 2020, 6:41 pm
  2. This was excellent. Thank you.


    Posted by Amatsu Kazu | March 8, 2020, 2:30 pm

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