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12 comments, In Series: Sleeping Through the TPP Coup: Why a Trans-National Corporate Power Grab That Hurts Almost Everyone Is Arousing So Little Outcry

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

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One (hopefully unintended) consequence of one-dimensionally dichotomizing left-liberals and right-conservatives is that when Graham and Haidt say an attitude, policy or person is "conservative" it is unclear if they mean "lower-than-average individualizing" (i.e. unconcerned for care and fairness towards others) or "higher-than-average binding" (i.e. concerned for ingroup, authority and purity).

The distinction between "high binding" conservatism and "low individualizing" right wing atrociousness matters, because if a supposedly "conservative" policy is really about defecating all over care and fairness, then it is perhaps more accurately labeled a "right wing" or even "fascist" policy, with all the negative connotations that term deserves. If you dress up a right wing policy--which most people who aren't Wall Street CEOs or defense contractors would oppose--as a "conservative" policy--which about half of humanity would support--then you have done a disservice to the truth, and to that large part of humanity who are not Wall Street CEOs or defense contractors.

In Graham and Haidt's defense, ideological confusion over the difference between liberals and the left (and conservatives and the right) has plagued discourse in social, personality and political psychology for quite some time. One of the more influential measures of "right wing" attitudes in political psychology is Bob Altemeyer's " Right Wing Authoritarianism " and it's not actually a very good measure of right wing attitudes as I have defined them here. RWA correlates better with conservation and high binding than it correlates with self-enhancement and low individualizing . A truer measure of right wing attitudes is probably Jim Sidanius and colleagues' Social Dominance Orientation --which correlates more with self-enhancement and low individualizing than with conservation and high binding.

If I were to rename these two commonly-used scales, I'd call them "Conservative Authoritarianism" and "Right Wing Dominance Orientation" respectively. And while I was at it I'd rename Graham and Haidt's "individualizing" dimension. It's confusing to use a word that sounds like the opposite of "binding" for what's actually an independent dimension. A better name, perhaps, would be "other respecting"--i.e. having enough respect for others to be caring and fair towards them.

Taking it back to Obama

Anyway, in contrast to a linear, dimension-confounding left-liberal vs. right-conservative view of values and ideology, Schwartz's " circumplex " view is much more conceptually helpful for making sense of why a supposed left-liberal like Obama would be trying to fast-track the TPP. Obama is liberal and even "left-wing" to some extent (at least in his rhetoric), but since he's president of the most powerful country in the world and his legacy is determined by his power-wielding achievements, the constraints of his office are likely to shift his focus from benevolence, universalism, care and fairness to achievement and power.

Obama can try to embrace both ends of this dimension at once, but it is hard to sustain that balancing act over the long term, especially now that he is chronically violating human rights, the Constitution, the environment, and the idea that all people's welfare matters. Those kinds of betrayals of universalism and benevolence tend to stir up cognitive dissonance, and reducing that dissonance usually means effectively moving your psyche (if not your explicit political orientation) to the right.

What Obama can do more easily, though, even as he signs off on murder, torture, oppression and destruction, is stay "liberal." That is, he can continue to be cool and laid back, intellectually curious, appreciative of eating in foreign restaurants, and pluralistic on issues of sexual-relational mores. That's because liberalism-conservatism is on an independent dimension from left-right. Some of his liberal positions obviously affect human rights matters that should concern leftists too--like equal marriage--but taking a pro-human rights stand on this issue by no means guarantees a generally pro-human rights commitment.

Conformity and Obedience

Obama's right wing policy positions might also be explained situationally, rather than in terms of his free choices causing value-shifting dissonance. Obama is surrounded by advisors from the culture of violent imperial power who are likely telling him (effectively) that he has to scorch the earth, set terrible legal precedents, as well as mass murder, torture and impoverish people if he is going to achieve even a fragment of his legislative agenda.

Solomon Asch's social psychological studies on conformity are relevant to judging how these social pressures are likely to influence Obama. Asch's studies examined individuals who were subjected to repeated pressure to conform. He exposed participants to 12 experimental trials in which the apparent consensus of the crowd was out of step with what was obviously right. His studies--which have been replicated in recent years--showed that even in an individualistic culture like the United States, 75% of participants gave in at least once to the apparent consensus against their better judgment.

And insofar as any individual figure close to Obama can assume the role of an authority over him (yes, this is possible even with presidents--especially young, inexperienced presidents), we should also consider the relevant research on people's obedience to authority. 65% of research participants in Stanley Milgram's most well-known obedience s tudy (Milgram did several variations) delivered what they believed were escalatingly intense and painful electric shocks to an aging veteran with a heart condition. Over the course of the experiment, the veteran demanded to be released, screamed repeatedly in pain and then fell silent as if dead.

For the most part, though, participants only delivered the most painful shocks if prodded to do so by an authority. When left to their own devices--even with an authority's moral blessing to do be as shock-happy as they wanted--the vast majority of participants stuck to the lower shock levels . Milgram concluded that people aren't as intrinsically thirsty for violence as many human nature-haters would believe, but most are still pretty pathetic at recognizing and resisting the violent commands of malevolent authorities who perch themselves above them.

Another feature of Milgram's experiments to keep in mind is that when an authority was present, the shocker had to verbally resist the authority four times in a row in order to be counted as "disobedient" and released from the experiment. I imagine that anything Obama has said "no" to has left him subjected to way more than just four, or even twelve, prods to fall into line. And the stated or implied negative consequences for Obama of non-compliance have likely been more extreme than "looking weird in front of people" or "shame at being rude to an authority."

For both Asch's conformity experiments and Milgram's obedience experiments, participants showed evidence of not wanting to go along with what they did under these social pressures. That is, a large number of externally conforming or obedient participants did not realign their internal understanding--they kept their own counsel about what was right, even as they betrayed it with their actions. It is possible Obama is doing the same.

The left hopes and the right fears that Obama is like Quentin Tarantino's Django --he pretends to be okay with watching racists sic dogs on a human being and tear him apart, but secretly he still harbors an intention to burn the whole disgusting edifice of oppression and violence to the ground. Outwardly, Django-Obama complies with the system of oppression, but inwardly, he has a plan. The trouble is, the more Obama mixes his labor with ripping human beings apart, the more likely he is to become like Calvin Candie (the nemesis of Django Unchained--a sadistic slave owner fond of torture, blood sports and phrenology). As much as we might hope that good people can be undercover forces of conscience from within the belly of the beast, the beast tempts them to do things that can potentially cause dramatic inward changes; compliance can become character.

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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