Creatures of Habit

Everyone falls into habits. You develop routines – stuff you do on autopilot every day, like loading the coffee-maker thing the night before and locking the front door, and perhaps going through the sections of the newspaper the next morning in the same order, each day, and then driving to work the same way every day, which always gets you there without excessive bother. The socks go in this drawer and the other stuff in the other drawer, and when you go to lunch with your friends you almost always order the same thing – it’s just easier, and you get what you want, and what you expect. Yeah, your friends sometimes make fun of you. Where’s your sense of adventure? But that’s okay. That’s who you are. And sooner or later your habits define who you are – not just in their eyes, but in your own. To say we are creatures of habit is to minimize matters – our personality is an aggregation of our habits. Some chic women just have an innate style about them – an identity that is all of a piece no matter whether they’re wearing sweats or the slinky cocktail dress. And some guys are just cool, no matter what the circumstance. But they don’t work at it. It’s a matter of the habits they’ve fallen into.

And some people are just ordinary. There’s an aggregation of habits that represents comfort with the conventional – you don’t go off and do odd things. You’re responsible. You don’t find such folks sky-diving. And they’re the folks you knew in high school who are still in the old hometown, now with the nice house in the suburbs near the old high school, and snug and happy. It’s like ordering the same thing at lunch each day – you get what you want, and what you expect. And of course they are conservatives, in the general sense, and most likely conservative in the political sense – because that involves respect for authority and received wisdom, without question, and doing things as they have been done in the past, or as they have been told they were done in the past. It’s a habit of mind. It may not be a hereditary trait – their parents may be been hippies or gangsters or circus clowns – but it’s probably congenital. Distaste of risk, trying something just to see what happens, and scorn for change, may be congenital. See Neural Correlates of Value, Risk, and Risk Aversion Contributing to Decision-Making under Risk – it may be built in, something you’re born with, like shyness. Political conservatism may not be a reasoned-out philosophy of government. Perhaps you’re just wired that way. That’s how you were born. It’s a personality-type. Take the test – find out which personality-type you are.

But you already know. It was 1981, after the first divorce, and deciding to leave teaching – if it was a decision – and chucking everything to move to LA and find something else to do. There was no job out here, just a place to crash. But somehow it was falling into aerospace and ending up a senior systems manager. What the hell – the ride was cool. Then after the second divorce it was moving to the heart of Hollywood. Why not? Then, as one should do something special on one’s fiftieth birthday, it was that first trip to Paris – alone, not really knowing the language, and knowing no one there at all, with no particular agenda of things to do or things to see. As the big Air France non-stop from LA slid into its long easy approach at dawn – Dover and then the Channel and then Calais and then the French countryside rising up to say hello, there was that twinge of something like fear – but it was more like suddenly realizing you had a very odd personality-type. What were you getting yourself into? None of your former teaching colleagues back in Rochester, New York, would do such a thing – nor would the folks you went to high school with who were snug and happy back in Pittsburgh.

But what the hell – you’d figure things out. You had decided Paris was a good place back when you were ten years old, and had long thought that one day you’d drop by and hang out for a few weeks to get a feel for the place. And sometimes you just do things – to get a feel for them. Why not?

And it turned out fine. Paris felt like home – more like home than any place ever has. And all the subsequent trips – always alone, for at least a few weeks – just confirmed that. And how else would you find that out? Had you been born congenitally risk-averse and scornful of change you’d still be dragging those tenth-grade kids through Great Expectations and driving home through the snow to spend the evening grading those unintentionally incomprehensible essays on Pip and Estella. And that was death. You need to take risks to live. Of course that might explain the two divorces. Some risks don’t work out.

But, for some, that falling into habit, and avoiding risk, is life – and sometimes that seems like all the people around you. They’re the conservatives, generally and politically. And you’re not. And there is no point in arguing with them, because you’re never really arguing political philosophy and the policies that naturally follow from a given set of political principles – you’re saying which way of doing things falls within your comfort zone, as they say. We are creatures of habit, and some things are not habitual to us. That’s just how we’re wired. And it seems that right now more people are wired for risk-aversion.

Steve Benen wonders about that:

On Election Day 2008, Barack Obama had the highest vote percentage of any Democratic presidential candidate in 40 years. He had the highest non-incumbent vote percentage of any candidate, from either party, in 56 years. The same day, voters elected the largest Democratic House majority in two decades – and the largest Democratic Senate majority in three decades.

It sure looked like there were more people who would say what the hell and chuck it all and move to LA – or just fly off to Paris alone to check it out – than there were folks who would buy a nice house by the old high school and settle down and never leave the county. But that might have been deceptive – after the Katrina fiasco and then, just a few months before the election, with the total collapse of the economy, the Republicans had clearly screwed the pooch. And it didn’t help that their candidate, McCain, came off as the angry old man yelling at the cloud and kept saying the fundamentals of the economy were sound, and he gave us Sarah Palin, who many saw as a bad joke – and that George Bush hid. You might not want to draw conclusions about the nation’s new fondness for risk and change. That may have been a “damage control” election.

Benen points out that the day after the election the word was not-so-fast – NBC’s Tom Brokaw described the country as “center-right.” Benen has discussed that at the time here – he didn’t buy it. And that was followed by the Newsweek cover story that told us all to relax – the United States was really a “center-right” nation. Obama would have to be just like Bush or something, and there was Paul Waldman and his take on this:

When Republicans make gains in federal elections, it’s perceived as evidence of a national shift to the right. When Democrats make gains, it doesn’t matter, because the nation still leans to the right. When Republicans win, it’s incumbent on Democrats to move to the center. When Democrats win, it’s still incumbent on Democrats to move to the center.

Of course David Sirota also made an interesting observation at the time. He charted the frequency that the term “center-right nation” appeared in major media – it spiked the day after the election. And now Benen says this:

But as much as I’ve scoffed at the establishment’s near-obsession with the dubious observation, the question of whether it might actually be true seems to have become more relevant recently. After all, self-identified conservatives outnumber self-identified liberals by a two-to-one margin – a phenomenon that’s been consistent for decades – and even modest attempts at progressive governing over the last 20 months have caused some major-league hysterics in some circles.

What’s more, consider the trajectory of the Republican Party over the last several decades. The Republicanism of the Eisenhower/Nixon years would fit comfortably in the Democratic mainstream of the 20th century, while the radicalism of the contemporary GOP doesn’t seem to bother voters much – at least not if this year’s polling is any indication.

Benen is beginning to think that there might be something to all this “center-right” talk. And he cites Ezra Klein in this Washington Post item where Klein argues that Americans are not particularly ideological – it’s just that our politics are resistant to change. And that’s not the same as saying that we are a “center-right” nation:

America’s center-rightness is supposedly proven by the fact that we don’t have a government-run health-care system. But we love our Medicare. We prefer it, in fact, to our private insurance. And we’re less satisfied with our system than Europeans are with theirs. So we’re a country that opposes government-run health care – except when we have it, and then we far prefer it to the private market, and we’re more likely than people in other countries to demand that our health-care system gets rebuilt.

Klein has the links to prove that – we do prefer out reliable Medicare to for-profit insurance – we’re not dumb. And Europeans like their system and we hate ours. Go figure.

And Klein draws this conclusion:

I think that the exceptionalism of the American political system comes from its structure, which is conservative with a small-c.

Because it’s harder for the government to do things, the government does fewer things. At least seven presidents have run for office with some sort of universal healthcare plan. In another system, one of them would’ve succeeded, and we would have had national health care by the mid-20th century, and one of the central policy differences between America and Europe wouldn’t exist. As it happens, our system makes legislative change difficult, and so they all failed. But in the cases when they succeeded – Social Security and Medicare – their successes are wildly popular, and efforts to roll the programs back have been catastrophic failures.

So it comes down to this:

The American political system isn’t so much biased against the left or the right as against change in general, and though there are occasional moments when events and majorities align to allow a political party to achieve a lot of the items on its agenda, they’re quite rare, and almost never durable.

Benen adds this:

That sounds right to me. We saw just such a moment in the wake of spectacular recent Republican failures, which gave Democrats an unusually-large majority, and an opportunity to complete some historic achievements. It’s that “durable” part that’s proving difficult, especially in the midst of a still-struggling economy.

So what it comes down to is dealing with creatures of habit, and they may well be congenitally risk-averse and scorn change. And we have developed a political system to match that. So it’s not politics, really. It’s brain damage.

No – that’s unfair. Everyone has their comfort zone, and your personality-type is what it is. You did not choose it and you cannot really change it. But maybe you shouldn’t claim that it’s a coherent political philosophy. Go ahead, scream about those awful gays, and those awful Hispanics, and that awful Islamic community center planned for a side street in Lower Manhattan, and about the return of the marginally higher marginal tax rates for millionaires, and how no one really appreciates NASCAR and how awful the French are, along with Thomas Jefferson and all of Jefferson’s crap about the separation of church and state – knock yourself out. We have a black president whose middle name actually is Hussein. And times are tough. You’re uncomfortable – fine.

But don’t pass off your discomfort as thoughtful and coherent political theory. The same sort of thing happens to us on the other side too.

But you might, just for the hell of it, try flying off to Paris all on your own, to see what happens – you might just like it. But Rio is supposed to be pretty cool too, or there’s Stockholm or London or Rome or Sidney.

But you won’t do that. We’re all creatures of habit. And that makes politics impossible at times.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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