Temperamental Fools

That recent column was a bit of a goof, the one that reviewed recent discoveries of structural differences in the brain structures of conservatives – there the part of the brain associated with anxiety and emotions, and which generates terror, is enlarged, and the area at the front of the brain associated with courage, and looking on the bright side of life, is somewhat atrophied. Fascinating stuff, but something that raises more questions than it answers. And over time one gets used to all the talk from the right – things are dire and we’re all gonna die, this might be the end of everything unless we do this, that or the other thing, right now, and so on. Is that due to brain damage? The left shrugs and the vast middle is puzzled.

And the left is always saying we can fix this – it’s not the end of everything – so let’s give it a go and see what happens. We can reform healthcare and goose the economy to get things moving again, and maybe we can figure out a way to have all those illegal immigrants, who want to be here anyway, become useful citizens – real citizens. There’s no point in being frightened. And a skeptical public would rather just watch American Idol or play with the dog – doing big stuff always leads to trouble, and public policy is boring anyway. They don’t feel particularly terrified or particularly inspired to change the world, with a goofy smile on the face. Most folks just aren’t political animals.

But many are, and the retired newsman in Atlanta shot an email off to this desk here in Hollywood:

I loved hearing that amygdalae stuff about the conservatives, although I suppose you realize you’re engaging in wild hyperbole to call it “brain damage” – that you’re just having fun with it. I personally believe we are born with our temperament, which in turn influences our politics, but wouldn’t consider this proving our politics are “hardwired” in the brain.

Of course not – the research was tentative. The folks in the white lab coats did admit it’s hard to say whether those conservative brains had been born that way or had developed through experience. They’d rather not speculate about cause and effect.

But temperament is another thing entirely – shyness, an impulse for risk-taking, thinking versus feeling, sensing versus intuition. All that stuff in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator – personality – may be fixed, and have nothing to do with brain structure. And certain personalities seem to have an affinity for particular political positions, and that’s more of an issue here.

And that plays out in tactics. In the Economist (UK), Erica Greider wonders why Republicans always support their most conservative policies and political candidates with vigor, while Democrats generally find full-throated support of their most liberal policies and candidates somewhat distasteful:

There seems to be a certain temperamental difference between conservatives and Republicans on the one hand and liberals and the Democrats on the other. In broad strokes, Republicans, especially of the tea-party stripe, are typically proud, at least unapologetic, and sometimes belligerent about their beliefs. Democrats, in contrast, seem to adopt the defensive position by default. …

Why are Democrats more anemic? One thought comes from the liberal journalist Thomas Frank. Writing in Harper’s, Mr Frank argues that while Republicans respond to their base, Democrats have a misbegotten faith in a “Magic Middle” of centrist ideas that are tolerable, at least, to most Americans.

And she adds this:

I’m not sure whether Mr Frank intends this as an ideological explanation: Democrats see an intrinsic value in bipartisanship and are therefore disposed to its promotion, even if it requires some concessions from the liberal side. If so, I’m not sure I entirely believe it.

And Kevin Drum says there really is no reason to believe this:

The real explanation, at least for the past few decades, is much simpler: about 40% of the American population self-IDs as conservative, compared to only 20% who self-ID as liberal. You can argue all day long about what people really mean when they tell pollsters they’re conservative, and you can argue all day long that liberals need to do something to change this instead of simply accepting it, but for any politician running for national office in the here and now, this is just the lay of the land.

A hardcore conservative with hardcore conservative beliefs can count on a pretty big base of support right from the start, while a hardcore liberal candidate can count on bupkis. Conservative Republicans can win. Liberal Democrats generally can’t unless they’re running in very liberal congressional districts. If you’re looking for a reason why liberal politicians tend to compromise more, you really don’t have to look much further than this.

Ah, their temperament has nothing to do with it. Democrats seek the middle, and compromise left and right, because they have to. Too many Americans are temperamentally uncomfortable with the idea of just fixing things for the better – that’s what matters more.

But that leads to some odd places. For example, Mike Konczal says two of his biggest disappointments of the last two years have been Congress’ failure to enact a carbon policy, and Obama’s continuation, and actual expansion, of the Bush-era civil liberties policies – we’re still wiretapping without warrants and all the rest. But his other disappointment is that he thinks Obama never learned to lose well:

By losing well, I mean losing in a way that builds a coalition, demonstrates to your allies that you are serious, takes a pound of flesh from your opponents and leaves them with the blame, and convinces those on the fence that it is an important issue for which you have the answers. Lose for the long run; lose in a way that leaves liberal institutions and infrastructure stronger, able to be deployed again at a later date.

Yep, think about it – the Obama administration has deported more illegal immigrants than any administration before, and then couldn’t get Republican support for the DREAM Act anyway. It just didn’t matter:

This is losing poorly. It makes major concessions without getting anything in return, conceding both pieces of flesh and the larger narrative to the other side…

This is true of many issues, ranging from unions fighting for the ability to unionize easier to the technology groups fighting for Net Neutrality. Why should these groups be happier with the past two years, even if they thought on day one that they wouldn’t win anything? How are either stronger for the next battle?

And here Kevin Drum says we have a real mystery:

It’s never been clear whether Obama makes these pre-emptive concessions because he genuinely believes they’re good policy or because he genuinely thinks it will draw out Republican support down the road. Neither really seems to make sense. Even if he thinks they’re good policy, it’s still smarter to hold them back as bargaining chips for broader policy victories. And quite plainly they did nothing to endear him to Republicans, who are almost unanimously convinced that he spent the last two years ramming an ultra-liberal policy agenda down their throats using a combination of bald lies and Chicago-style thuggery. It’s hard to believe that Obama ever thought they’d react differently.

So Drum finds this aspect of Obama’s presidency perplexing too:

Compromise is one thing: it’s baked into the cake of mainstream American politics. But I expected that even as he inevitably compromised, Obama, with his famously long view of things, would steadily try to push the public in a more liberal direction. As Mike says, this may mean eventually compromising on a policy that appeals to the broad middle of the country, but doing it in a way that hurts your opponents and energizes your friends for battles to come. Obama seems to have done exactly the opposite. It’s hard to understand.

But maybe it’s a personality thing. Some folks just aren’t demonstrative or something. Or maybe it’s so subtle and clever that no one understands it, yet.

But subtle and clever is a personality trait, a matter of a sort of temperament that the other side doesn’t have. After all, Republicans will open the 112th Congress by reading the Constitution out loud – that would be every word, because… well, because. And after reading the document aloud, Republicans will then force House members to include a statement from bills’ sponsors “outlining where in the Constitution Congress is empowered to enact such legislation.” Steven Benen suggests the reading is a bit of pandering to a confused party base and a rather meaningless stunt. The second item is just superfluous, and Ezra Klein tackles that here:

What’s the evidence that this will make legislation more, rather than less, constitutional, for whatever your definition of the Constitution is?

Let’s take an example: Most legislation doesn’t currently include a statement of constitutional authority. But there’s one recent measure that did: Section 1501 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act – that is to say, the individual mandate.

“The individual responsibility requirement provided for in this section (in this subsection referred to as the requirement) is commercial and economic in nature, and substantially affects interstate commerce,” reads the opening paragraph. Shortly thereafter, the legislation makes itself more explicit: “In United States v. South-Eastern Underwriters Association (322 U.S. 533 (1944)), the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that insurance is interstate commerce subject to Federal regulation.”

Has that statement convinced the GOP that the individual mandate is constitutional? Of course not. Currently, two judges have ruled in favor of the provision and one judge has ruled against. The split has been clean across partisan lines. The political verdicts have been little different: Sen. Chuck Grassley went from co-sponsoring an individual mandate in June of 2009 when it was still an idea connected to Republicans to condemning it as unconstitutional a few months later when it was clear that President Obama owned it and no Republicans would be joining his health-care bill.

Klein just sees this as absurd:

My friends on the right don’t like to hear this, but the Constitution is not a clear document. Written more than 200 years ago, when America had 13 states and very different problems, it rarely speaks directly to the questions we ask it. The Second Amendment, for instance, says nothing about keeping a gun in the home if you’ve not signed up with a “well-regulated militia,” but interpreting the Second Amendment broadly has been important to those who want to bear arms. And so they’ve done it.

That’s their right, of course. Liberals pick and choose their moments of textual fidelity as well. But as the seemingly endless series of 5-4 splits on the Supreme Court shows, even the country’s most experienced and decorated constitutional authorities routinely disagree, and sharply, over what the text means when applied to today’s problems. To presume that people writing what they think the Constitution means – or, in some cases, want to think it means – at the bottom of every bill will change how they legislate doesn’t demonstrate a reverence for the document. It demonstrates a disengagement with it as anything more than a symbol of what you and your ideological allies believe.

It’s bullshit, but it is satisfying bullshit, if you’re of a certain temperament:

In reality, the tea party – like most everyone else – is less interested in living by the Constitution than in deciding what it means to live by the Constitution. When the constitutional disclaimers at the bottom of bills suit them, they’ll respect them. When they don’t – as we’ve seen in the case of the individual mandate – they won’t.

Steve Benen sees it as a matter of temperament:

The rhetoric about constitutional fealty from the right of late has taken on a certain childish quality – the founding document supports their preferred policy goals, because they say so. It’s the basis for this legislative push – prove your legislation is constitutional, by including a statement saying it’s constitutional.

This is terribly silly. If constitutional law were easy and straightforward, watching the Supreme Court would be exceedingly dull – the justices would hear a case, read the document, and issue one 9-0 ruling after another.

But that’s not the case:

Interpreting 18th-century text, applying it to 21st-century law, and considering how and whether to consider framers’ intent, context, and forethought is inherently tricky. The far-right Republican Party and its activists are convinced that they know what is and isn’t constitutional now – even on policies where they believed the exact opposite up until extremely recently – but their rhetoric is painfully shallow.

Benen has already written about what this is – “part of a larger, misguided push intended to show that conservatives are the Constitution’s true champions.” And now he adds this:

But there’s a problem with this: it’s crazy. We are, after all, talking about a House Republican caucus with leaders who support allowing states to overturn federal laws they don’t like.

Yes, that is so – it’s almost as if these guys long for the Articles of Confederation – the first “real” Constitution, abandoned in 1788 when it became clear you couldn’t have a real country if the states retained sovereignty over all governmental functions not specifically relinquished to the national government, and there’d be no tax base, and no executive agencies or judiciary. But many on the right now actually envision something like the European Union – but don’t tell them that. There is a big push for a constitutional amendment that would allow any state to be allowed not to follow any federal law they don’t like. It’s early 1788 again. As Benen puts it – “In recent years, congressional Republicans haven’t just endorsed bizarre legal concepts; they’ve advocated constitutional concepts that were discredited generations ago.”

And Benen also notes that they do have ambitious plans “to shuffle the constitutional deck more to their liking.” In the last campaign you heard talk about scrapping the 17th Amendment, repealing the 16th Amendment, getting rid of at least one part of the 14th Amendment, “restoring” the “original” 13th Amendment, and proposing dozens of new amendments. In fact the Associated Press suggested that Republicans are now hot and cold on the Constitution:

Republican Rep. Paul Broun of Georgia won his seat in Congress campaigning as a strict defender of the Constitution. He carries a copy in his pocket and is particularly fond of invoking the Second Amendment right to bear arms.

But it turns out there are parts of the document he doesn’t care for – lots of them. He wants to get rid of the language about birthright citizenship, federal income taxes and direct election of senators, among others. He would add plenty of stuff, including explicitly authorizing castration as punishment for child rapists.

This hot-and-cold take on the Constitution is surprisingly common within the GOP – particularly among those like Broun who portray themselves as strict Constitutionalists and who frequently accuse Democrats of twisting the document to serve political aims.

Republicans have proposed at least 42 Constitutional amendments in the current Congress, including one that has gained favor recently to eliminate the automatic grant of citizenship to anyone born in the United States.Yep, forty-two – as it seems these guys are bold. It’s their temperament. Some folks are intemperate. It’s a personality trait.

Brian Beutler has more in the Top Six Established Laws That Tea Partiers Claim Are Unconstitutional – and those would be Social Security, Medicare, Minimum Wage, our participation in the United Nations, Unemployment Benefits, and most if not all of the Civil Rights Acts. Those are all clearly unconstitutional. Beutler has the links and video clips. There are lots of folks arguing just that.

And then there’s his bonus, Healthcare Reform:

This isn’t just a Tea Party thing. Practically everybody in the Republican Party thinks at least one part of President Obama’s health care reform law – the individual insurance mandate – is unconstitutional. The most common argument against the mandate is that in giving Congress the power to regulate interstate commerce, the founders didn’t create the authority for the federal government to regulate inaction. In other words, they say citizens can’t be compelled to participate in interstate commerce, such as buying health insurance. Most legal scholars disagree with this interpretation, though many think the issue will ultimately come before the Supreme Court whose five conservative justices could strike it down. If they did, the ramifications for current and future policy could be huge.

So what will become of this clash of temperaments? Perhaps personal experience can shed some light on that. Imagine an older man married to a much younger woman, and in the fifth year of marriage it is clear that things are not going well. The details don’t matter, but it’s not the age difference. The two just seem far apart. And inevitably that leads to marriage counseling. And the earnest marriage counselor suggests the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Let’s look at the personality traits here, the ingrained and fixed ways of dealing with the world, and see what we’re dealing with.

So the husband and wife each tackle the forms and answer the questions – you prefer this to that, and in this circumstance you’ll do this rather than that, and so on – question after question. And a week later there’s another session to review the results – and yes, there’s no right or wrong. It’s just an analysis of how you deal with the world, and all ways of dealing with the world have their advantages. And who you are is how you deal with the world.

And the earnest marriage counselor lays out all the terms and shows all the marks in the little quadrants, and says what’s necessary. File for divorce. This isn’t going to work out.

And maybe that’s where we’re heading.

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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1 Response to Temperamental Fools

  1. Rick says:

    The main reason I liked that amygdala stuff yesterday was it explained conservative paranoia, which seems to be near the basis of their political philosophy — an assumption that there are millions of people out there trying to get away with something, and are being enabled by liberals, who are either too feckless to do anything about it, or actually want to help those lazy losers get their hands on rich people’s money. Your former friend of conservative persuasion definitely felt that way, as have members of my own family. But whether they were born with a gene that makes their amygdalae puff up like that, or if it just got swollen from too many years of harboring exaggerated beliefs that the meek are indeed inheriting the earth, is just too hard to say at this point. We need more studies.

    But there are two possible explanations not mentioned above as to why liberals are more likely to give in to conservatives, rather than the other way around:

    (1) Conservatives tend to be competitive, with an over-arching desire to win (“Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing!”), while liberals tend to be cooperators, doing what they can to make everyone get along (“It doesn’t matter if you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.”)

    (2) Maybe just a variation of the above, but liberals and conservatives don’t just differ on “fiscal” issues, they mostly differ on views of political governance. Liberals tend to believe in “democracy,” in which the “people” rule, while conservatives believe in “republics,” in which “qualified voters” rule. Liberals think we’re all in this together, and tend to trust that the wisdom of the people, even people they disagree with, should reign supreme. Conservatives don’t trust “the people” and tend to believe that only “propertied” people, with “skin in the game,” should be allowed to vote — and maybe should first have to pass some test to prove they possess enough smarts about the issues.

    In fact, it’s my belief — and not many from either side would agree with this, maybe because they don’t give it enough thought — that all dictatorships are, in essence, right-wing, whereas all communities with universal suffrage are left-wing. This means labeling Soviet style communism as “left-wing” or “liberal” is a mischaracterization, since the people were never in charge; we saw this as the USSR collapsed, where we all, in the jargon of the time, differentiated between the “reformers,” who wanted to do away with communism, and the “conservatives,” who struggled to keep it. Not that there isn’t such a thing as left-wing socialism, of course, but they are most often called “social democrats” who want a society where the people chose their own leadership, but where the state owns and/or controls the economy. So the main difference between “social democracies” and “communist nations” is not in their economic systems, but in their political systems — democracy versus dictatorship.

    I also wonder about those “self-ID” polls: is it possible many would-be “liberals” instead call themselves “progressives”? I also think more liberals than conservatives just don’t like being labeled, especially with a term that has been so roundly discredited.

    Also, I recently heard (I think on CNN, from one of their pundits) of a survey that showed that “compromise” is a word thought of as a negative by most Republicans, while it’s considered a positive by the majority of Democrats. Which would explain a lot about how Republicans acted during Obama’s first two years.

    I’m thinking maybe nobody with an MRI showing a puffy amygdala should be allowed to vote — although I’m pretty sure liberals, with their exaggerated sense of fairness, would never allow that.


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