The Hot Wind off the Desert

The evening of Tuesday, November 2, 2010 – Election Day in America – and of course that’s odd out here in Hollywood. The polling place, as usual, was just down the street at the local union hall (of sorts) – the International Cinematographers Guild on Sunset Boulevard. No, really.

It wasn’t a Norman Rockwell scene. It just didn’t look like the little town hall in Vermont in some Rockwell painting – palm trees and Ray-Bans preclude that. And there was the usual dome of high pressure stalled out over Las Vegas – that drives the dry hot wind full of dust and alkali across the desert and then screaming through the mountain passes into the LA basin, where it sits and stews with the local photochemical smog – it was over ninety by noon. So it was hot and everything was gritty and electric. That makes everything seem unreal, or too real. It puts people on edge. Cats jump and dogs growl. And on people’s faces you can see that they are thinking dark murderous thoughts.

After voting, a quick drive down to Venice Beach seemed best – watching the surfers clears your head. But Election Day out here, edgy and surreal and angry, seemed emblematic. Throughout the evening the results came in – thanks to the Tea Party crowd the Republicans now control the House, although most of that Tea Party crowd thinks most Republicans are fools and not pure enough in their opposition to the government’s doing anything at all. The Democrats seem to have held the Senate, barely. So the next two years will be gridlock. The Republicans now have the means to make good on their threat – unless Obama repeals all that healthcare reform stuff, every single bit of it, they’ll shut down the government, as the House can just refuse to fund any government operations at all.

It now seems certain they’ll do that. No air-traffic controllers, the military out of funds to do anything at all? Blame Obama – he wouldn’t give in. The notion that they’ll freeze the debt ceiling and thus make it impossible for the government to pay even interest on any treasury bonds – forcing America into default on all its debts, and thus into actual bankruptcy – is out there now too. We should live within our means and defaulting on all our contractual promises would clear the books and let us start again. And no institution or country would ever buy a US Treasury Bond again, of course – we don’t pay our debts, or pay even the interest on our debts. So if it can’t be paid for out of current funds, it doesn’t get done.

Yes, this would cause the total collapse of the world’s economy, but it’s the principle of the thing. There’s also talk of defunding the Supreme Court unless it rules the right way on abortion and school prayer and whatnot, but only talk. Folks are on edge, like LA when those winds are blowing in off the high desert. Raymond Chandler’s 1938 story “Red Wind” opens with this – “There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Ana’s that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen.”

And anything did. The next two years are not going to be pretty. And much analysis of what happened will no doubt follow, along with talk of what it all means. Those of us who follow such things, and try to see the agreements and patterns, do not look forward to plowing through all that. But something changed. Or the same seesawing of who we are is playing out again.

That’s discussed by Tom Jacobs in this discussion of an evolutionary psychologist who proposes a new framework for understanding the root causes of our political beliefs – and it’s not the Santa Ana winds.

Jacobs notes that with these elections “opinions predictably have hardened as voters gravitate toward candidates who best embody their particular political position.” Yes, partisans do “divide the world between right-thinking, like-minded people and those fools who just don’t get it.”

Hey, that’s what the guys on cable television scream at us all, so it must be true. O’Reilly has his closing nightly list of Pinheads and Patriots, and Olbermann had his Worst Person in the World segment. But Olbermann unilaterally disarmed – he’s dropping the segment. Olbermann decided Jon Stewart was right at that Rally to Restore Sanity – “The press can hold its magnifying glass up to our problems, bringing them into focus, illuminating issues heretofore unseen – or they can use that magnifying glass to light ants on fire and then perhaps host a week of shows on the sudden, unexpected dangerous flaming ant epidemic.”

That hit too close to home. One can be a partisan, but one need not be a smug and smarmy asshole. Olbermann is now leaving that to O’Reilly. How Olbermann’s audience reacts remains to be seen. There are right-thinking, like-minded people and those fools who just don’t get it. Everyone knows that. They’ve always known that.

But that’s the problem that Jacobs wants to tackle:

As much as we stake our identity on such core beliefs, it’s unlikely we emerged from the womb as little liberals or libertarians. This raises a fundamental question: At what point in our development did such predispositions begin to form, to coalesce and to harden? What is it about our biology and/or psychology that propel us toward a liberal or conservative mindset?

And why do some of us live in Hollywood? But geography aside, Jacobs notes that the question has always been out there, and social psychologists like NYU’s John Jost of have looked into that. Jost published a 2003 review of fifty years of research on the question – and it seems the overwhelming evidence is that political ideologies “like virtually all other belief systems, are adopted in part because they satisfy various psychological needs.” Jacobs adds that Jost qualifies that, as this “is not to say they are unprincipled, unwarranted, or unresponsive to reason or evidence.” It’s just that the underlying motivation to believe in what you believe seems to come from some deeper place, and not the rational, conscious mind.

Jost had showed that, for example, most of the research literature “suggests that conservatives are more easily threatened, more likely to perceive the world as dangerous, and less trusting in comparison with liberals.” And Jacobs adds this:

This is fairly self-evident. If you perceive the world as a threatening place, you’re more likely to cling tightly to those you trust (i.e., your in-group, however you define it), and to warily eye those you don’t.

It’s easy to see how this translates into strongly held positions on subjects ranging from immigration to foreign wars. A lack of trust in others also presumably leads to wariness regarding social-aid programs, since there’s an assumption many people will freeload off those who are doing the work.

Yes, that’s often said, even if it pisses off conservative no end. Jacobs notes the new book On Second Thought by Wray Herbert – “People who are the most fearful seek safety in stability and hierarchy, where more emotionally secure people can tolerate some chaos and unpredictability in their lives.”

As Jacob wryly notes, “The implication – presumably unintentional, but still stinging to some – is that conservatives are somehow emotionally impaired, and vaguely inferior to the more open-minded people on the left.” Maybe they aren’t the Worst Persons in the World.

Could that be so? If so, then the issue comes down to explaining these differences in a way that doesn’t suggest one side or the other is wrong or aberrant, or psychologically stunted, or brain-damaged. For eight years the right talked of Bush Derangement Syndrome – Bush’s critics really were not disagreeing with Bush’s actions or policies, they had just been driven mad by Bush’s awesome manliness and even more awesome authenticity, and they were just jealous, sissy self-loathing wimps that they were. That was the line on Fox News for years. How could you disagree with any of Bush’s policies? It must be some sort of girly-man snit, a kind of limp-wristed lisping madness. This was the counter to all the academic studies noting that conservatives seem to be a stunted fearful lot.

Jacobs is interested moving beyond the schoolyard taunts, so he sits down with Jacob Vigil – an evolutionary psychologist at the University of New Mexico, who had has come up a new way of looking at all this, one that links political orientation with the way we seek to fulfill fundamental human needs. For Vigil, it’s all good:

A lot of the literature is morally loaded. It’s easy for people to gravitate to language that fits into their predisposition. In my framework nobody’s right or wrong. It’s just that we’re using different behavioral strategies, all of which exist for a reason.

And Jacobs summarizes Vigil’s thesis:

Conservatives, being more oriented toward dominance, tend to acquire a larger group of friends and associates than liberals. They are more sensitive to potential threats because there are more people in their orbit, and thus the danger of their being hurt by a duplicitous person is greater. Liberals, being more inward-oriented, have smaller, tighter social groups and thus feel less threatened, which in turn allows them to be more open to unfamiliar experiences.

So we’re dealing with a basic duality of human nature, and as “humans are highly dependent upon one another biologically” and we seek to foster the good will of others, so we “advertise” either trustworthiness or competence.

Vigil argues it’s an evolutionary thing:

A basic question to ask is: How does another person have significance in our life? My answer is it comes down to whether they have the ability to either harm or help us, and the probability of them actually doing so.

Someone may be very competent, but if they have no intention of influencing your life in any way, they mean nothing to you. Likewise, if they’re motivated to help or hurt you but have no ability to do so, they have zero value to you.

From that vantage point, it looks as though social perceptual systems should be rooted in the ability to evaluate basic constructs of competency and trust in others. That’s what the human brain does: It targets basic levels of trust and competency.

Jacobs takes it from there:

Vigil contends people who go through childhood, adolescence and early adulthood without serious obstacles are more competency-oriented; they’ve discovered they have the ability to influence the lives of others. They advertise this capacity, which makes them desirable not only as potential mates, but also as potential friends or business associates. Thus they acquire a larger social sphere.

On the other hand, those who have experienced numerous setbacks (illness, injury, an unstable home environment, etc.) are less likely to work their way into such a dominating position. To advertise their desirability as friends or associates, they take a different route, emphasizing their ability to care for, and about, others.

That seems likely, but then size matters, or at least Vigil thinks it does:

The size of our social network limits the amount of time we can spend with folk. If we have a big social network, it limits our interactions to short-term relationships. We have finite time and resources. If we have fewer social partners, it frees up our time to establish more continuous types of relationships.

The basic idea is that folks who have small social spheres are going to be demonstrating more trust cues, and those who have bigger social spheres, more capacity cues.

Ah, so liberals are demonstrating trustworthiness as a way of attracting the social support they need, and conservatives are demonstrating superbly competent power to do the same. That could make political action impossible. But Vigil is saying that these two fundamental ways of creating and maintaining relationships are equally valuable, even if neither side believes it – “A demonstration of trust and a demonstration of capacity are equally plausible ways of manipulating other folks.” You can use both. You can switch them off and swap one for the other, as appropriate to the situation and as most people do on an unconscious level.

It’s all good. But how do you run a political campaign on that? But Vigil persists – “When we experience hardships, we take advantage of them by using them as an opportunity to more effectively demonstrate our trustworthiness. We can do that better when we’re truly vulnerable.” You can switch modes, based on circumstances. And Vigil suggests that people should move more to the left as they become older, as they become more physically vulnerable.

Jacobs notes that this contradicts another recently published study, one that shows the elderly become more culturally conservative precisely for reasons of psychological comfort and adds this:

Of course, an older person who has accumulated a lot of wealth can presumably still demonstrate capacity to influence others, say, in the form of giving big donations to favorite causes. In Vigil’s framework, this would keep him or her on the conservative side of the divide. It also raises the intriguing question of whether Medicare and Social Security, in removing much of the vulnerability from old age, has disrupted what would otherwise be an expected movement to the left.

But Jacobs notes that there are lots of theories, like one from Louisiana State University political scientist Christopher Weber – a 2007 paper where he finds early-in-life emotional difficulties are likely to lead to political conservatism. Jacobs’ summary – “If you grow up believing others can’t be relied upon, you’re likely to develop a more individualistic orientation, and/or a sense that the world is a threatening place. Either of these would tend to push one to the right (to a libertarian stance in the first case, or an authoritarian one in the second).”

And Jacobs note’s there’s the 2005 paper by the late Berkeley psychologist Jack Block:

He compared personality attributes of nursery school children with their political orientation 20 years later, and found kids considered “self-reliant, energetic, somewhat dominating” grew up to be liberals, while those described as “easily victimized, easily offended, rigid” grew up to be conservatives.

But he also notes Vigil will have none of that:

Vigil suspects some level of liberal bias crept into that study. He insists no ideology is inherently superior to another; rather, they simply reflect different means of attracting needed comfort and support.

“Both sizes of social spheres, big and small, provide benefits, and those benefits are probably optimized under different life conditions,” he says. “Under hardship, a smaller social circle is more protective. It allows more time to strengthen relationships with reliable social partners, and limits our interactions with risky folks. You can make the inverse argument for having a big social sphere when things are going really well.”

And there’s this:

Vigil suspects this dynamic operates on a group as well as an individual level. This helps explain why the Depression years led to a period of Democratic dominance, while post-war prosperity led to the Reagan era. If the current recession continues for years to come, Vigil predicts a societal shift to the left, although he adds that the “natural balance of demonstrating dominance and submissiveness” will inevitably mean another shift to the right after that.

It seems that the same seesawing of who we are is playing out again, dress it up any way you want.

Still this midterm election was startling. The hot winds were blowing. Cats jump and dogs growl. And on people’s faces you can see that they are thinking dark murderous thoughts. And they voted.

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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