Surprise! Your Politics (Probably) Aren’t Based on Principle

You hold your political beliefs because they’re correct, of course. If only other people would look at the evidence — really look at it — they’d find that it supports your position. If only they’d follow reasonable lines of thought to their unbiased conclusion, they’d find that you’ve been right all along.

Of course, this is what you believe about yourself. Other people — those blow-hards, bleeding hearts, or extremist loonies — who don’t share your political stance must’ve come to different conclusions not because they really looked at the evidence and followed reasonable lines of thought to their unbiased conclusions. No, those other people are just stupid or evil. They’re stupid because they’ve misinterpreted the evidence — and that evidence is so clear that only an imbecile would do that. Or they’re evil because they hold to a moral system repugnant to all that is good and humane, a moral system that leads them to such obviously wrong politics.

All of which is, in the case of the great portion of those of us with political opinions, utter bullshit. Progressives aren’t progressive because they carefully and without bias considered the evidence and found progressivism to most closely match it. Conservatives aren’t conservative because they carefully and without bias considered the evidence and found conservatism to most closely match it. Instead, there’s something else going on — and it has nothing to do with principled investigation leading to reasonable conclusions.

The Geography of Political Preference

To immediately see what’s wrong with the politics-as-principle idea, we need only ask ourselves why political persuasions map so well geographically. Why are urban areas (typically) blue, while rural are (typically) red? Why is nearly every college campus filled with progressives, while every mega-church is filled with conservatives? Why is the middle chunk of America overrun with red states, while the coasts mirror the blue of their sea shores?

Before positing answers to those questions, though, let’s temporarily abandon politics and turn to something much less likely to cause rioting in the streets. Why do people throughout the south dig country music, but folks in upscale urban areas throughout the north loathe the stuff?

It can’t be genetics. Americans move around all the time, so if there were an overriding genetic component to musical taste, you’d expect to see interests spread relatively evenly. But does that mean that listeners objectively sampled every musical genre, comparing its qualities, and decided which was most appealing on an individual by individual basis? Of course not. For most of us, we like the music we like because that’s what our friends like. If everyone in your high school can’t get enough Kenny Chesney, chances are you’ll fill your iPod with country, too. But if they’re instead fans of Jay-Z, then you’re more likely than not to develop a fondness for hip-hop.

This isn’t just because we tend to like what we’re exposed to, though that is part of it. What’s guiding much of our musical taste is a desire to fit in. We want to like the same things our friends like because we want our friends to like us. Only a very few are legitimately non-conformists — and those who are tend to be outcasts because nobody can figure out how to relate to them. The rest of us want to share tastes because it gives us something to talk about, something to agree on, something to share and experience together.

This tendency to conform isn’t necessarily conscious, either. Few of us say, “I want to fit in so I’m going to buy the same records as the cool kids.” In fact, the people do consciously shift their tastes to match their social environment are often looked down upon as poseurs and ridiculed for “not being themselves.” No, we instead do our conforming very much unconsciously. We think we really do like heavy metal or Christianity or high school football because those varieties of music, religion, or sport are the best. We don’t realize that they’re the “best” because they’re the ones, in our particular circumstances, it feels the best to like. And it feels the best to like them because, in liking them, we share them with our peers.

That’s why musical tastes appear geographically. It’s also why communities share political views.

Politics as Conformist Moral Posturing

These pressures are even greater when it comes to political beliefs. Unlike music and sports, politics provoke moral judgements. The weird kid who only listens to New Wave is just weird. But the guy who thinks the government shouldn’t collectively bargain with its public employees is one tiny step away from Hitler.

Political taste, then, drives us toward conformity and in-group/out-group thinking much, much more than music or clothing — or even, in many cases, religion. Because politics is so caught up in morality, and because all of us like to see ourselves as moral people, we come to associate being moral with having certain political views. This insulates our political opinions, whatever they might happen to be, from evidence and argumentation. If we admit that organic food isn’t healthier and better for the planet or that illegal immigrants aren’t the cause of all of America’s economic woes, we’re not only changing our political views, but we’re undermining our very own moral foundations.

We want to fit in. We want to be liked. We want to be good, decent people. And feeling all of those things about ourselves demands seeing ourselves as reflected in the judgements of our peers. Thus we have a deep and powerful motivation to profess beliefs that will be judged kindly by our peers. And there is no better way to convincingly profess a belief than to actually believe it.

That is why political debate almost always turns rancorous. And it is why, for most of us, our politics aren’t actually based on principle.