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Trifold Politics and Boundaries

Written By: - Date published: 8:47 am, January 30th, 2021 - 34 comments
Categories: conservatives, democratic participation, liberalism, Politics, social democracy, uncategorized - Tags:

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.

34 comments on “Trifold Politics and Boundaries ”

  1. Forget now 1

    You seem to have reverse engineered Schweder's; Community/ Autonomy/ Divinity triad of moral concerns, upon which his former student Haidt elaborated their ‘moral foundations theory’. If you can find a copy, this book by Jensen; Moral Development in a Global World, may interest you:

    The central thesis is that humans are born with a shared moral heritage and that, as we develop from childhood into adulthood, we branch off in diverse directions shaped by culture – resulting in novelty and contention. An international group of eminent and cutting-edge scholars from anthropology, psychology, and linguistics addresses this timely topic and explores how gender, social class, and 'culture wars' between liberals and conservatives play into moral development across cultures…

    {From Index:}New Zealand, 121, 197 divinity in, 134–5 emerging adulthood in, 124 ethic of community in, 133


    The Aotearoan research is in; chapter 6, by; Guerra & Giner-Sorolla: Investigating the three ethics in emerging adulthood: a study in five countries; 117-140.

    • RedLogix 1.1

      Cool. I'll look into that. I had in mind that the ideas in the OP were unlikely to be wholly original.

      Also it links to another book written by the late Terrence Watts, Warriors, Settlers and Nomads. I corresponded with him a few times about 15 yrs ago and it’s likely to have influenced my thinking here.

  2. gsays 2

    Cheers RL, I am headed to a beach campground with a couple of antagonistic types (not counting myself). I will test this out.

    [Removed spurious word from user name again]

  3. Robert Guyton 3

    I found that piece very interesting, RedLogix and I concur with your proposals. She's a complex wee beastie, is society! I question whether, using our powers of thought, we humans will ever smooth-out the bumps in our political thinking; I suspect we'll have to take advice from some non-human agency 🙂

  4. DukeEll 4

    Thanks RL. Your comments always carry a good degree of thoughtful pragmatism and cooperation, without sanctimony. This is a great contribution the debate about how society should envisage the individual and the collective

    • weka 4.1

      edited your email address to the same spelling as last time. You’ll need to remember exact spelling of username and email address if you want your comments to not get caught in the spam filter.

  5. Tiger Mountain 5

    Hard to go past a good waffle–tart fruit compote or sugary syrup–adds to the comestible fun. But really, how does the “trifold model” advance the need to organise communities, and pressure the timid Labour Caucus even one millimetre?

    • RedLogix 5.1

      advance the need to organise communities, and pressure the timid Labour Caucus even one millimetre?

      I'm very aware of the point you're making, the OP is little more than a hypothesis, with no research to validate it. It will only have value if it can help achieve outcomes.

      Anyone who has tried to do any community work will know that you quickly encounter people who for one reason or another, resist, derail or disagree with you. In order to get anything done you have to negotiate with them. And this means understanding what's important to them, and more importantly the underlying moral drivers of why they don't trust you just yet.

      If you have any ambition to be an effective leader of in any context, having the tools to understand why people often behave in ways you find baffling or infuriating is a huge head start.

      The Labour Caucus is not timid just because they're all bad people. They act 'timid' because they work in a democratic system which requires they must gain consensus and momentum across the spectrum to achieve anything of lasting value. If activists were to more often consider how to best frame what they want in terms of constructive negotiation "I'll give a bit of what's important to you, if you'll do the same for me" – rather than just 'defeating the right" – we might see more good outcomes.

      In short I want to see the socialist left do effective politics. Just yelling abuse at each other is the definition of failed politics.

      • Tiger Mountain 5.1.1

        I am not being contrarian for the sake of it, just imo more ways of describing the situation the working class of this country are in, is not necessarily going to change anything. As a unionist with a class left world view, understanding others positions and thinking is important and part of the territory. Where is the point of unity–or not?

        Politics for some of us is indeed “goal oriented” rather than an academic exercise.

        Put it this way, Ihumātao was progressed by hard work behind the scenes, and at the vital moment mass mobilisation of supporters. Organisation, lobbying, education, campaigning and direct action when numbers are there, and pressure points identified is how to achieve change on specific issues. There can be long periods, years, when not much happens, then much can happen in a few days or weeks.

        NZ Labour is not timid on a number of things–snappy answers have been forthcoming during their 4 years when it comes to defending and sustaining neo liberal hegemony, and structural items such as Reserve Bank Act, State Sector Act, and SOEs.
        Wealth tax, CGT, rent freeze, Benefit increases etc. got prompt definitive ‘No’ answers from the PM and senior Ministers.

        70 plus NGOs have made a detailed case to the Govt. and have been politely told to sod off, meanwhile billions was essentially gifted to Finance Capital and property speculators. Trifold politics as described here, would enable a nice look inside the heads of people ensuring thousands of New Zealanders remain in cars, motels, garages, and lean tos (Far North).

        • RedLogix

          All that makes perfect sense. But like Ad you've leapt forward from the moral foundations which drive our political motivations and orientation – to the exercise of political influence itself. There is nothing wrong with this, it's like I'm talking about how the car engine is designed – and you're thinking about how to drive the car and where to take it.

          Both are essential and related – without the engine the car cannot move, and without a competent driver it goes nowhere.

  6. Ad 6

    If this theory worked in real life it would be reflected in the parties who actually hold power. It hasn't for the last 90 years in New Zealand.

    Some other axes are more important in how power is distributed and redistributed:

    • Mandate: does the public trust institutions to stabilise and redistribute power?
    • Agency: is there the capacity to change stuff, as individuals or as local or central entities, and am I sufficiently pissed off to want to change them?
    • Loyalty and charisma: More powerful than whether one is liberal or conservative etc, is whether one will follow the leader?

    Those who are engaged are usually engaged for one of the above.

    For the remainder 90% its simply down to the last two engagements they had with any public sector entity, including how they come across on the telly.

    • RedLogix 6.1

      Moral foundations nonetheless are the precursors to power. And more importantly the outcomes you want from wielding it.

      But yes the hypothesis in the OP doesn't attempt to explain the nature of political power – which has it's own principles and logic. That's worth a whole series of posts yes

      • Ad 6.1.1

        We haven't had a moral foundation to anything in a very, very long time. Do you remember a moral foundation being formed that generated a movement now in power?

        Precursors are kinda interesting in an historiographical sense.

        What would get anyone engaged now is whether their intersection with a public network or service was sufficiently disturbing to get up off of their lounge suite. 90% don't engage, and there's good reasons for that – none of which indicate presence or absence of moral foundation.

        • RedLogix

          I agree we've not arranged our collective politics on a moral basis for a very long time. But that doesn't mean the six moral motivations no longer inform our personal (often subconscious) orientations.

          In this I'm seeking to extend Haidt's research which quite reliably predicts individual political orientation. Keep in mind Haidt is coming from an evolutionary biological perspective, not a religious one.

          Or to frame this in the negative – what was the aspect of Trump that made him so viscerally loathed by the left? The lies and chaos are a superficial explanation; I believe it was his psychopathic lack of empathy (the caring principle) and his utter self-centredness (the fairness principle) that was so repugnant to us. Every time he spoke there was a sense of violation of our values – even in those moments when objectively he was making sense.

          Yet 74m other people voted for him (the largest ever to sitting President) and it's worth understanding why they could vote for him. Put simply, they could see his lack of empathy and narcissism, but other moral drivers (that Trump frequently exploited) ranked higher for them.

          And even for the 90% , while they don't engage much, most do get to vote. And they do play an important role in defining the Overton Window.

          Here's a thought. While power has, and is likely to remain, a constant in all human affairs (we're an irredeemably hierarchical creature after all) – what actually constitutes it changes with time. For much of our history it was the ability to invoke naked violence, then it morphed into more indirect forms, wealth, charisma, competency became the dominant factors. As you describe above.

          It's my view that as we politically evolve into a unified global civilisation – the most legitimate form of power will gradually become the capacity to be of service to others. Nothing else really works in such a context.

          But yes I’m reading your feedback as a valid challenge to moral foundations theory and how it relates to political power.

          • Ad

            I just spent the afternoon at the 80th birthday of two people who really ran a local council from an ideology.

            Their charisma remains powerful. Ideology and collections of explicit value were at their foundation and it was that which formed the propulsive seduction of their politics. I worked at that council for 6 years.

            From that family reunion – from which I am recovering this evening – we are delighted to remember our triumphs, remember who was present at the creation, remember it as tragedy and as love I guess.

            But actually theirs is a rare impulse of charisma, quickly swallowed up and actually which forms a very small part of our whole effort.

            Most of that effort and originary impulse was swallowed up in mergers and restructuring legislation.

            So I can't but frame a model of what it means to be a citizen through that which I devoted my lifework to.

            • RedLogix

              Oddly enough Ad when I read that I knew exactly what you were saying. I could relate a very similar experience working for a council (albeit in a less junior role) myself. Thanks for reminding me.

              Yes – personal power, competency, charisma and agency are precisely what I think more of us on the socialist left might do well to take more seriously.

        • Incognito

          Arguably, the NZ pandemic response has a moral foundation with engagement, one way or another, from the team of five million. In fact, a sample of snot of a 56-year old woman produced a number in a modern version of witchcraft and reading entrails that not only got the active attention of pretty much the whole population, all politicians, and the press media (incl. internationally), but has had a major influence and impact on the actions and behaviour of thousands of people. We have been at it with quasi-religious fervour for a year now and no sign of let up after a reminder by the high priests and throwing billions at it in a constant demonstration of sacrifice and redemption. Yet, with other crises that are affecting thousands of people on a daily basis, we get working groups & reports and loads of handwringing, at best, with the outcome being the only one that is acceptable and desired by the majority: status quo. This world is weird!

          • RedLogix

            There is good research (it would take me time to dig up a reference) that demonstrated how people living in countries with endemic infectious diseases tend to be more socially conservative.

            The deep biological explanation being that in times of plague, those who reacted by slamming closed the borders of the village were more likely to survive. And the whole notion of 'bodily purity' resonates very closely with ancient religious rules around hygiene and diet – many of which made a great deal of sense in a pre-medical era where disease was a daily and deadly foe.

            • Incognito

              Covid-19 is certainly at the forefront of our minds and is ‘endemic’ in that sense. Whether it’ll mean that we are or will become more socially conservative, I don’t know, but it is quite possible judging by reactions of people so far.

              Some countries are dangerously close to Code Black situations, which will and already has forced a fierce debate about ethics. The vaccination roll out is another ethical can of worms.

              My thesis is that moral foundations have never left (us) and if or when we dig deep enough, e.g. because of a pandemic, we find them as a hard and unforgiving bedrock. For some reason, the public and political debate have been framed as health vs. economy and almost actively and deliberately avoided any hints of morality. Is it a sin of modern political discourse talking about and in terms of morality, e.g. because it doesn’t fit within the neo-liberal narrative of rationalism? Yet, our individual and shared values underpin everything …

              I’ll bail from this now. Bye.

              • RedLogix

                Is it a sin of modern political discourse talking about and in terms of morality, e.g. because it doesn’t fit within the neo-liberal narrative of rationalism? Yet, our individual and shared values underpin everything …

                Yes. The death of organised religion (a related theme deeply explored by many others way more erudite than me) has made any mention of the human soul and morality a public taboo. But it seems to me this has left a religion shaped hole in our psychology that we often fill with ersatz ideologies for better or worse.

                The astounding success of the 'rational scientific method' and it's impact on our material welfare has indeed crowded out awareness of our spiritual welfare. But the two are not opposed to one another. There is only one singular reality, one creation if you will. Therefore all valid models of it, whether based in science or religion, must ultimately align with and complement each other.

                And usefully this also tells us that when the materialist and spiritual descriptions contradict, you know the model you're working with is incomplete.

                In short while we're really good at dialog rooted in external information – maths and maps – we're a lot less comfortable discussing our own inner realities.

          • Ad

            Functioning nation-states respond to crisis really well.

            I don't see any particular theumaturgic impulse in that – entrails or otherwise.

            But what I find weird is that we've had a reasonable-scale crisis about once every 2 years in New Zealand – and it hasn't let to any political renewal, or parties formed, or indeed movements evolve. It's almost like crisis is the only thing we really respond to.

            Not even crisis forces charisma now.

  7. Stuart Munro 7

    It's an interesting breakdown. But in recent political times there is not even a pretense of a possibility of good faith deals between opposing parties. They may not espouse actual left or right policies, but aside from a love affair with neoliberal dysfunction, they struggle to find anything resembling common ground.

    Paradoxically it’s the moral values we’re most deeply attached to that have the power to lead us into hell.

    The failure of contemporary NZ politics has been an inability to draw lines protecting our poor and disadvantaged. So we have record environmental destruction, inequality growth and suicide. At the political level there is little or no evidence of moral values, and it is the absence of them that has sent our self-styled leaders down the well-trodden path to cargo-cult corporatism. I'm going to reject your assertion there – as a presumption that does not account for contemporary phenomena.

    • RedLogix 7.1

      But in recent political times there is not even a pretense of a possibility of good faith deals between opposing parties.

      Well maybe we should consider what it would take to start getting better at them. All the alternatives being much worse.

      The failure of contemporary NZ politics has been an inability to draw lines protecting our poor and disadvantaged.

      Absolutely agree – and this being the consequence of a period during which the principle of freedom and growth were overriding the ones of caring and fairness. (And even those of stability and loyalty to some degree.)

      There is one more aspect to this trifold hypothesis that is based on little more than personal observation, but it's worth mentioning. Consider the major economic systems of the past 400 years and the order in which they appeared – first capitalism, then communism, then fascism in the period leading up to WW2. Expressions each of the dominance of the liberals, the socialists and then the conservatives.

      Since WW2 the cycle seems to have repeated itself in various 'neo-'; guises, neo-liberalism, neo-marxism and now neo-nazis have each in turn returned as echoes of their original forms.

      Pure speculation, but the kind of confectionary I can't resist. devil

      • Stuart Munro 7.1.1

        Well maybe we should consider what it would take to start getting better at them. All the alternatives being much worse.

        Attempts at good faith relationships with corrupt exploiters are unlikely to succeed and not in the public interest even if they did. We'd need a cleanout of Augean proportions before it’d be worth entertaining.

        • RedLogix

          Conservatives/liberals think all attempts at a good faith relationship with resentful communists who have lists of people to line up against walls is unlikely to succeed either.

          • Stuart Munro

            Who said anything about resentful communists? Thieving corrupt corporate shills are the bitter enemies of even the most moderate Fabian socialists – any attempt to tolerate their chicanery just results in massive thefts of public assets like Rogergnomics – the comprehensive economic failure that set our country back thirty years of relative prosperity. The divide in NZ is not left and right, but corrupt and not corrupt – and Labour sit on that fence like a row of starlings.

            • RedLogix

              Who said anything about resentful communists?

              Not the socialist left as a rule.

              As I mentioned in the OP it's a feature of human psychology to be hyper-aware of the threat others might pose – while at the same time we hold ourselves to be benign and well intentioned.

              • Stuart Munro

                Whether I'm well-intentioned or not is irrelevant – in the name of "centrism" the disastrous policies of Rogergnomics rain down on us like a biblical plague.

                public asset theft

                mass low-wage immigration and slave workers

                resource thefts like those of public water rights

                These are real problems happening right now – but you are determined to impugn my norms of good governance in the name of an utterly fallacious unprecedented and unachievable consensus.

                Your thesis is fatuous.

                • RedLogix

                  It might help if you're clear on this distinction.

                  • Stuart Munro

                    You have a forest of fatuity to justify a nonsense that strikes at the heart of the principles of democratic representation.

                    Instead of representing constituents and a consistent line of policy – MPs are to be instead an elected oligarchy who horsetrade away every public good they were to promote to their political enemies, whose votes they don't need anyway all under NZ's tightly whipped system.

                    I grant you it does look a lot like our government's weaksauce response to the largest majority since MMP – but there is nothing desirable about it.

                    • RedLogix

                      I'm not responding to this further.

                      Take a break and if you want to contribute to this thread later, re-read the OP with fresh eyes. Including Jonathon Haidt's research that's the source material for much of my hypothesis.

  8. Gabby 8

    [RL: Deleted.]

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