Over the past year I’ve outlined in the comments an alternative triplet political model to the standard left/right description that’s the usual default. It’s the default for a reason, it’s simple and most of the time it’s a ‘good enough’ approximation to reality, and nothing I’m going to suggest below is intended or expected to replace it. But as most people who study the politics game for any length of time should know this binary lacks nuance and explanatory power some of the time, and in my view it’s innate polarity encourages a certain mindless tribalism that hinders the peaceful resolution of conflicts.
There are four ways to manage conflicting interests, unity, persuasion, negotiation and coercion, the first three are predicated on dialog, the last not so much. Which is why ‘cancel culture’ or the silencing of voices we don’t like is so potentially dangerous – it tends to drive toward coercion.
The art of political persuasion and negotiation depends on being able to hear what your ‘opponent’ is saying. In order to hear people accurately, you need to understand what they value. Political loyalty is derived from moral orientation, a theme Jonathon Haidt has spoken on in some depth. Haidt places his model in a conventional American liberal/conservative framework, but I’d propose his ‘moral foundations theory’ could be enhanced by adding a third pole – the socialist. This would align nicely with his six moral themes:
Care/harm: This foundation is related to our long evolution as mammals with attachment systems and an ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others. It underlies virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.
Fairness/cheating: This foundation is related to the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism. It generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy.
Loyalty/betrayal: This foundation is related to our long history as tribal creatures able to form shifting coalitions. It underlies virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group. It is active anytime people feel that it’s “one for all, and all for one.”
Authority/subversion: This foundation was shaped by our long primate history of hierarchical social interactions. It underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.
Sanctity/degradation: This foundation was shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. It underlies religious notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way. It underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants (an idea not unique to religious traditions).
Liberty/oppression: This foundation is about the feelings of reactance and resentment people feel toward those who dominate them and restrict their liberty. Its intuitions are often in tension with those of the authority foundation. The hatred of bullies and dominators motivates people to come together, in solidarity, to oppose or take down the oppressor.
Now lets correlate these six moral motivations with the three political modes of this trifold model:
Socialist: Clearly the primary motivation here is Care, with secondary drivers in Fairness and Loyalty.
Conservative: Primary motive is Sanctity, secondary drivers are Authority and Loyalty
Liberal: Obviously the primary falls to Liberty, then Authority and Fairness as secondaries.
Now these are not intended as hermetic categories, people are in reality more fluid in how, when and why they will put different weightings on different motives. But it’s useful in that it can help us both identify what our political ‘opposites’ have in common with us, and what we don’t. And why we argue so much, when in reality we all have more fundamental interests in common than not.
In this trifold model, each political pole is contending not with one other opponent but two, yet we almost always we tend to conflate the two. For example socialists routinely place both liberals and conservatives into a lumpen category of the ‘right’, when from the perspective of their values and motives they’re not the same at all.
Also it may usefully inform us about where each is likely to go too far – due to a distorted overweighting of their primary motive. Conservatives become tyrants when driven by a sense of ‘purity’ engage in race supremacy and jingoist fascism. Liberals when their desire for ‘freedom’ becomes a repudiation of society and manifests as libertarianism and neo-liberal economic theories. And socialists are prone to stepping over the ‘caring’ line when they promote political theories intended to impose equality of outcomes – marxism and it’s modern derivatives in particular.
It’s a feature of human psychology that we’re highly sensitive to potential threats posed by others. For example this is the why reason most left leaning regulars here are highly motivated to condemn (and rightly so) theories of racial supremacy and neo-liberalism. We have a hyper-acute sense of when liberals and conservatives are behaving like arseholes. Yet keep in mind they have exactly the same sense about their own ‘opposites, and the socialist left in particular.
Put in a nutshell – the socialist left does not trust conservatives not to be tyrants and racists, and liberals not to dismantle collective government so as to benefit only the most powerful individuals behind our backs. And they in turn distrust the left because they sniff communism in our every proposal. From this perspective while we should recognise a broad zone of legitimacy across all three modes, at the extreme each goes out of bounds. Understanding where those boundaries are located and why they arise falls naturally out of this model.
The conservative bundle of moral drivers, sanctity/authority/loyalty can be wrapped in a single word – stability. Human society absolutely needs functions like food, water, energy, transport and security to function predictably day to day, and preserving them is a prime virtue. But when stability is used to justify exclusion of ‘others’ or the tyranny of stifling orthodoxy – it steps over a boundary.
The liberal bundle of liberty/fairness/authority condenses down to the notion of progress. The liberal instinct is attracted to evolving existing structures and harnessing creativity and discipline, to innovate and generate. But because the point of change always lies within the genius of the individual, the temptation to discount the disruptive impact of change or our essential collective social nature – steps them over another boundary.
The socialist bundle of caring/fairness/loyalty is wrapped into the notion of distribution, rooted in the powerful spiritual principle that all humans are of equal dignity and worth and must be included. Yet when this is extended to the the idea that personhood can be erased and equality of outcomes imposed, and this righteous goal justifies any amount of disruption – well the 20th century informs us what happens then.
Cancel culture wrestles with the reality that we know some ideas are dangerous and reprehensible. This trifold model gives some sense of where the boundaries of those ideas might be located – and more importantly why otherwise good motives when over-extended into singular, ideological magic bullets for all of our problems, become monsters.
None of the above is an argument for ‘radical centrism’. I’m of the view that while there must be at least a few people who’re genuinely equally balanced across the six moral foundations, the vast majority identify primarily as one of socialist, liberal or conservative. The idea of some large mass of people in the ‘centre’ is mostly a myth. The centre is perhaps better conceived as that political space which is the sum of those ideas and agendas that all sides will concede legitimacy to.
This makes the centre a space across which we can persuade and negotiate our differing interests. Cancel culture hacks and slices at the breadth of it’s legitimacy, rendering down political dialog to a shrill, hostile and coercive bullying.
A willingness to resort to coercion in order to achieve the zealot’s ‘righteous goal’ is another feature of stepping over the boundary. There is a tacit awareness exhibited by all extremists that their views will never be acceptable to most people, therefore at some level they would, at least in principle, have to resort to violence in order to impose their agenda.
Let’s loop back to the three primary moral foundations at work here; caring, freedom and purity. Each is a powerful social force that springs from deep wells within the soul of humanity – yet when reduced by materialist thinking to weapons, each becomes a source of great sorrow. Paradoxically it’s the moral values we’re most deeply attached to that have the power to lead us into hell.