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Books
What it really means to be a political animal
From the Financial Times of Sun, 14 Dec 2014 12:43:24 GMT

In What’s The Matter With Kansas? , Thomas Frank found the ghost of Friedrich Engels haunting the Great Plains. The author of the 2004 bestseller argued that by voting Republican, and therefore against redistribution, poor Kansans had a case of false consciousness. Democrats were soothed by the idea put forward by Frank that, for the working class, re-electing President George W Bush was a form of masochism, and that their party simply had to make these people realise that voting for them was in their own interest.

Today, Frank’s question could be rephrased “What’s The Matter With Clacton?” or “Quel est le problème avec Fréjus?”, to pick two European areas where populist parties have flourished. The UK Independence party and, in France, the National Front, are also seen as duping the white working class with their populist appeal.

Some political psychologists believe the workings of the mind, rather than political false consciousness, best explain this. In The Political Brain , Drew Westen argued Republicans are better than Democrats at appealing to emotion, which is more important than reason in swaying voters. Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind suggested lefties and conservatives evolve fundamentally different moral instincts and values. Like Frank, both of these influential authors think narrow self-interest is unimportant when explaining people’s politics.

But, in The Hidden Agenda of the Political Mind , Jason Weeden and Robert Kurzban claim psychological research shows that egoism is the main cause of political beliefs — we just don’t know it. The University of Pennsylvania evolutionary psychology researchers argue that politics, like life, involves “social animals competing over advantages”. It is one of the means through which humans battle it out in zero-sum games for status, money and even sex. This is not Marx and Engels. This is Hobbes lying on Freud’s couch.

Weeden and Kurzban acknowledge that theirs is a “deeply cynical” view of politics. But they have a case. Studies show that humans tend to think of their own views as enlightened but others’ as motivated by mere self-interest.

They also describe the prevalence of “motivated reasoning”: believing what we want to believe. They cite studies showing we are more likely to accept new information when it supports our prejudices or comes from our political group.

To support their claims, they crunch data from polls and large attitudinal surveys. Some of their conclusions are unsurprising. People, including Kansans, like more money rather than less. The rich are less supportive of government transfers such as welfare benefits.

But their argument extends to lifestyle. They note that Americans who attend church regularly are likely to oppose abortion. This is not mainly, they say, because of religious beliefs: it is in the interest of people who live traditional lifestyles to increase the costs of others having sex. By making contraception harder to obtain, they are trying to make infidelity and divorce less likely, which in turn helps protect their ways of life.

The political left and right, Weeden and Kurzban argue, do not represent coherent world views. The authors show that knowing that someone opposes abortion, for example, does not tell you much about their views on taxes. Parties are coalitions of self-interest not moral fraternities.

The book is a thoughtful reminder that politics is often simply a contest over finite resources in which different voters want opposing things. Self-interest is the pretext for much political rhetoric. Voters are not masochists — not in Kansas, Clacton or Fréjus.

But, in reducing the voter to a kind of homo politicus, the authors risk explaining everything and yet nothing. Politics involves self-interest. But are voters steadfastly rational? If so, why are campaigns using behavioural nudges — as well as on mining voter data — to gain a competitive edge?

More importantly, interests do not emerge from a vacuum, as the authors fleetingly admit. They are shaped by ideas, experiences, culture, family and our peer groups. Self-interest may determine our beliefs but our beliefs determine our self-interest, too.

The writer is an FT commentator

The Hidden Agenda of the Political Mind: How Self-Interest Shapes Our Opinions and Why We Won’t Admit It, by Jason Weeden and Robert Kurzban, Princeton University Press, £19.95/$29.95



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