October 25, 2012 · 0 Comments
By Ira Chernus:
The prominent psychologist Steven Pinker has a long piece on the New York Times website, trying to explain why Republicans do so well in the South and the West but not in the rest of the country. It seems that it all comes down to how different regions have, historically, dealt with the eternal threat of societal anarchy. Harvard media stars rush in where careful historians usually fear to tread, or at best tread very lightly.
There are plenty of holes in Pinker’s speculative framework big enough to drive most any vehicle you can think of through. For starters, if the North is indeed historically accustomed to counting on government to tame anarchy, as he argues, how explain the Republican strength in New Hampshire, or in the non-urbanized areas of northern Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois? And if the West (which one assumes includes the “red” Great Plains states) is so accustomed to rejecting government as the tamer of anarchy, how explain the great political success of Progressivism and farmer-labor coalitions in those states in the days of William Jennings Bryan?
If Pinker’s whole edifice is taken seriously, it quickly dies the death of a thousand qualifications.
But rather than subject it to such a slow, painful death by analyzing it in detail, I’d rather look at the part of the article that has some persuasive power. That means setting aside all the speculation about the history of geographical regions and looking at politics in terms of personal decisions. What makes some people choose a candidate who sees a prominent role for government in society, while others choose a candidate who wants to limit and weaken government’s role?
Pinker is an expert on the history of the long-term decline in human violence. So his focus, naturally, is on how people deal with violence and the prospect of it being inflicted upon them.
He links the small-government view to the culture of honor, where individuals — mostly men — decide for themselves when they have been offended and how to punish the offenders. They keep “the safeguarding of their personal safety” as their own private prerogative. At best, they cede that power to “their own civilizing forces of churches, families and temperance,” created largely by women.
Those who would allow government a much larger role “are extensions of Europe and continued the government-driven civilizing process that had been gathering momentum since the Middle Ages.” They are especially extensions of “the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment, [when] governments were forced to implement democratic procedures, humanitarian reforms and the protection of human rights.”
If there’s any truth in this speculation, it suggests that less-government advocates live in a social world where collective institutions for curbing violence appear to be relatively weaker and less dependable, compared with the social world of more-government advocates. (Note that I say social, not geographical, world. Two next-door neighbors can — and from the campaign yard signs I see in my town, often do – live in totally different social worlds.)
Explaining how and why those different social worlds arose is like explaining the weather: The causal factors way too complicated, with far too many variables, to be modeled completely on even the most sophisticated computers. The best we can hope for are partial explanations, depending on what particular questions are asked. Historians and social scientists should certainly keep on vigorously pursuing those questions. But they should not hope for the kind of simple, all-encompassing explanation that Pinker offers here.
However, like the weather, the effects of different social worlds can be understood with a lot more certainty than the causes. People who feel relatively less protected from offense and violence, for whatever reasons, are more likely to feel more vulnerable, to see the world as a more threatening place and other people as sources of threat. So they are more likely to draw upon the mythology of homeland insecurity to make sense out of their experience — a mythology based on the premise that we Americans will always face some serious threat to our very existence.
People who feel relatively safer from offense and violence are more likely to feel more protected, to see the world as a place where people can cooperate because others are not such sources of threat. So they are more likely to draw upon the mythology of hope and change to make sense out of their experience — a mythology that says people can work together to make a better community for all, using government as their collective agent.
In the current presidential election we might seem to have a direct head-to-head competition between the two social worlds, with the two locked in a virtual tie. But things are more complicated. The number one apostle of the mythology of hope and change, Barack Obama, states bluntly that “the first role of the federal government is to keep the American people safe.” That’s “homeland insecurity” at its best.
Perhaps he is simply trying to appeal to the less-government advocates, so he can peel off enough of their votes to eke out a victory. If so, it’s good evidence of how strong the mythology of homeland insecurity is.
But I think this is better evidence of how closely the two great mythologies are intertwined. Pinker’s “red state vs. blue state” kind of analysis is popular for the same reason athletic contests of all kinds are so popular. We want to see two clearly defined sides fight it out and, in the end, have a clear-cut winner and loser.
But it doesn’t match the reality of American life. No one feels absolutely threatened or absolutely secure. Like Pinker’s “red state” and “blue state” personalities, these absolutes are ideal types, useful only for theoretical purposes.
In fact, all of us live somewhere on a spectrum between those two theoretical constructs. All of us feel some degree of threat and vulnerability, and some degree of safety and protection. So all of us are drawn to both of the great mythologies. How we vote will depend largely on the particular mix of the two within our minds and our autonomic nervous systems.
It’s not surprising, then, to see both of the major party presidential candidates drawing on both of the mythologies and blending them together. Each does it in his own way, gesturing somewhat more toward one end or the other of the spectrum. But both recognize that the crucial swing voters are in the middle of the spectrum, with their sense of vulnerability and their sense of protection balanced in roughly equal measure.
That seems to sum up the state of the union in the autumn of 2012. No one can yet predict which way the balance will tip by Election Day.
For the as-yet-undecided, it’s worth remembering that even the smallest gesture toward one end or the other of the spectrum is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Those who act as if the institutions that protect us are relatively weak end up weakening the institutions that protect us, so that ultimately we are all in fact more vulnerable. And that’s true no matter where we live.