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Part 3: The Puzzle of "Liberal" Obama's Support for the TPP

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I myself was a pre-teen living in New Zealand when Roger Douglas from the traditionally left-liberal Labor Party began dismantling New Zealand's welfare state and instituting other social fabric-ripping neoliberal reforms. So I got dosed with the unreliability of left-of-center parties at a pretty early age. I would even say that left-of-center parties and leaders are the most effective tools of neoliberalization you can get when a charismatic right winger like Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher is not available--and when circumstances do not allow big business to install a murdering torturing dictator like Augusto Pinochet.

I'm inclined to blame ingroup favoritism and the halo effect for this left-liberal talent at getting away with betraying their base (s ee Part 2 ). Also, when the left-liberal base sits on their hands in disgust with their own party, they are often punished with the rapid political rise of sociopaths and nutjobs, like Newt Gingrich's  Contract on America  in 1994 and the Tea Party in 2010 (though Tea Party has actually turned out to be a valuable ally of sanity on some issues).

If all attempts to hold the less-despicable major party accountable result in the catastrophic ascension of the most despicable wing of the more-despicable party, this is essentially a kind of plutocratic blackmail. The political lesson this blackmail teaches is: let the less despicable party do whatever it wants to you, no matter how vile. It can and will get worse otherwise.

In any case, plutocrats know that outrages against democracy, equality and public health by left-of-center leaders will arouse less opposition than when "right-wing conservatives" execute the same outrages. Thus it serves the interests of plutocrats when we expect too much from left-liberal politicians, or when we have too much fear of right-conservative politicians. The latter can do terrible things, but at least we notice when they do.

Liberal-Conservative Is Not The Same Dimension as Left-Right

So now it's time for an interlude to help you relieve your confusion (i.e. adopt my point of view) regarding the words "liberal" "conservative", "left" and "right." People often take "liberal" as a synonym for "left", perhaps because liberals and leftists often get together politically to take on conservatives and rightists (and vice versa). If you want conceptual clarity, though, it is best to think of "liberals" as hedonistic, open-minded, stimulation-seeking, self-directed types of people and conservatives as devout, obedient, traditionalist, security-concerned people. Liberals like sexual exploration, tweaking their consciousness, watching foreign films, and having scintillating conversations with diverse views expressed. Conservatives like going to church/mosque/synagogue/temple, doing wholesome things with their families, and building up a simple and satisfying existential routine in a stable place they can call home.

On the downside, liberals are somewhat more likely to be psychopaths , drug addicts and sex addicts than conservatives and conservatives are a lot more likely to be homophobes and opponents of abortion rights than liberals. Though it is possible to be liberal and conservative at the same time (and aiming for the best of liberalism and conservatism is a worthy goal), in practice one lifestyle, taken out far enough, tends to become competitive with the other lifestyle for most individuals.  A large chunk of people tend to describe themselves as "moderate" or "neutral" with regard to liberalism vs. conservatism, and politicians often pose as being at the center of these poles for that reason.  But it there is a wide range of meaningful variation at this "center"--variation along another dimension that is very morally-relevant.

Both liberals and conservatives can be attracted to what I call "the left" or "the right", since this is a potentially independent dimension both conceptually and empirically. What I am going to call "Lefties"--and forgive me for a very idiosyncratic definition of this term--tend to be concerned with benevolent treatment of others around them and a benevolent universalistic system of practices and power relations for all. That means lefties tend to support egalitarian social arrangements, peaceful means of persuasion, impartial procedural justice, care for the environment, restorative over punitive justice, etc. The "right" on the other hand, is tremendously concerned about power and achievement, getting things done, accomplishing goals, and making "greatness" happen--generally their own.

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As with "liberal" and "conservative", it is possible to be "left" and "right" at the same time--sometimes a deft mixture of the two will facilitate serious political accomplishment, though the mix can also turn into something ugly fast. " Actually-existing communism " might be thought of as something that began as a powerful combination of left-wing ideology with right wing methodologies and then quickly became a hollow shell of leftism filled with a particularly putrid and vile form of rightism.  It is even plausible that a leftist orientation that gets overtaken by methodological rightism leaves a bigger crater in all things just and fair than simple old rightism by itself.   Giving leftists God-like totalitarian powers over the lives and deaths of millions of people has a particularly bad record in world history.  

In the long run, then, these leftist and rightist inclinations tend to be in tension for most people, since an excessive focus on your own power and achievement might make you lose touch with how that power and achievement could negatively affect others. Conversely, living with intent to do right by others all the time may run so much against the grain of self-interest that it can distract leftist do-gooders from taking practical steps towards power and achievement.

Thus the down side of right wingers by my definition is that they are much more likely to be rights-abusing psychopaths (or tools thereof) than left-wingers and also more likely to support destructive and oppressive political policies, while left-wingers are somewhat more likely to be disorganized, motivationally anemic, and ineffectual.



Schwartz Value map by Jun Hu

The left-right dimension and the liberal-conservative dimension should be thought of as independent from each other, like north-south and east-west on a map of the world. The names left and right translate easily into west and east, and liberals and conservatives can argue over who gets to be north. The empirical evidence for conceptualizing ideology this way comes from cross-cultural work on values by psychologist Shalom Schwartz and to some extent from Moral Foundations Theory work by psychologists Jesse Graham and Jonathan Haidt. The way I have described "conservative" (vs. liberal) derives from the Schwartz dimension of "conservation" vs. "openness to change." That dimension correlates with what Graham and Haidt call "binding morality"--a morality concerned with "ingroup", "authority" and "purity". The way I have described "left" (vs. "right") derives from the Schwartz dimension of "self-transcendence" vs. "self-enhancement." That dimension correlates with what Graham and Haidt call "individualizing morality"--a morality concerned with "care" and "fairness" for others.

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Schwartz explicitly treats these two dimensions as independent from one another, like an elevator that goes up and down and a moving walkway that runs from one side of each floor to the other. Two dimensional models allow for using 2-dimensional shapes--like circles--to frame one's thinking about things. Indeed, in the Schwartz model, ideological positions are not presented as points along a line, but rather as wedges in a circle , where steady movement from the outer edge of one wedge to the next will eventually lead you all the way around the circle.

Graham and Haidt's research provides as much evidence as Schwartz's does for a two-dimensional understanding of values/ideology because "individualizing" and "binding" are also independent, perpendicular dimensions. But Graham and Haidt collapse the interpretation of their findings into one dimensional discourse: i.e. left-liberal vs. right-conservative . They define left-wing liberals as being lower-than-average on binding morality--Ingroup, Authority, Purity; and higher-than-average on individualizing morality--Care and Fairness. Right-wing conservatives, of course, they define by the opposite pattern.

Though these definitions are empirically-rooted in left-liberal vs. right-conservative self-labeling, they unfortunately confound the two crisp clear independent dimensions discovered by Moral Foundations research (specifically confounding high binding with low individualizing) and thus keep a lot of the ambiguity in political discourse that their research could have cleared away.

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Ian Hansen is a social psychology professor specializing in cultural and political psychology and a part time activist on behalf of the good things in life.

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For a more (unintentionally) sympathetic view ... by Ian Hansen on Monday, Jan 20, 2014 at 2:31:47 PM
I can't be sympathetic toward Obama one bit. I vo... by Elizabeth Hanson on Monday, Jan 20, 2014 at 5:31:46 PM
Thanks so much for supporting the essay!  I h... by Ian Hansen on Monday, Jan 20, 2014 at 9:15:25 PM
I never understood the perception of Obama as a ... by frang on Tuesday, Jan 21, 2014 at 10:23:34 AM
I see where you're coming from and I appreciate h... by Ian Hansen on Tuesday, Jan 21, 2014 at 2:47:42 PM
Continuing my point... I think our corporate sh... by Ian Hansen on Tuesday, Jan 21, 2014 at 2:49:27 PM
This author is totally out of it and has no idea o... by kappie on Wednesday, Jan 22, 2014 at 9:15:14 AM
I think you're using "liberal" the way Jonathan H... by Ian Hansen on Sunday, Jan 26, 2014 at 8:43:56 PM
Complex and challenging read but it does describe ... by paulvcassidy on Wednesday, Jan 22, 2014 at 10:13:52 AM
Thanks for your comments. I'm very much s... by Ian Hansen on Sunday, Jan 26, 2014 at 9:34:59 PM
Thanks for replying. I've read on to your last off... by paulvcassidy on Wednesday, Jan 29, 2014 at 12:51:50 PM
Oh, that's a bummer you can't see Pray the Devil ... by Ian Hansen on Wednesday, Jan 29, 2014 at 1:56:55 PM