Liberals Don’t Get It: It’s Human Nature

Feb 13, 2012 | Culture, Politics, and the Ways We Live Now

Liberals often don’t seem to get it. The current brouhaha over the contraception provision in the new health care law proves it again. Liberals propose what they judge to be reasonable policies for serving the American people—like expanding health care protection—then they stagger when many of those people recoil with impassioned accusations of evil government intentions, frequently supported by pseudo-facts. Liberals greet such outbursts with bemused head shaking, and usually a little condescension, wondering how people can be so irrational. But that’s what they don’t seem to get. It’s human nature, alas.

The liberal faith in rationality–and, ironically, it is as much faith as fact, after all–has now got the Obama administration into a battle with the Catholic Church and right-wing ideologues over religious freedom. The Catholic Church opposes contraception in general and claims that the mandate for insurance companies to provide contraception coverage violates the church’s freedom to deny that protection to employees of its universities, hospitals, and other affiliated institutions. The administration marshals scientific facts of health benefits, statistics of near universal use of contraception among women, and rational arguments to defend the rule. But that is all beside the point. Religious convictions don’t yield to facts and arguments. They are rooted in emotions and faith–for better and worse. And right-wing ideologues can feast here on a so-called anti-religious campaign of an over-reaching liberal secular government. Even if the great majority of Americans favor the administration’s contraception policy, the fervor of the right on issues like this–whether genuinely felt or politically opportunistic–always ignites emotions and channels them to conservative political ends. Obama will suffer the political consequences, just as he did during the original health care controversy, contrived as it might have been. How the Obama-ites failed sufficiently to foresee this displays nothing more than the liberal blindness to the power of unreason in human nature.

It is not news that liberals tend to count on human beings to value rational coherence, common sense, and facts in claims to truth. This tendency goes back a long time. We might say it started with Aristotle. He philosophized in the Ethics that rational choice (“activity of soul in accordance with a rational principle”) distinguishes human beings from all other creatures. And he concluded from this that people live best when theygovern their lives rationally, steering clear of doing too much or too little of anything. His Ethics, as he said, led directly to his Politics, where he explained how laws can facilitate this “blessed life” of the rational good, at least for those able to achieve it. Aristotle was no egalitarian. He was a liberal-minded humanist confident in the rationality of human nature to give us the good life.

Later, John Locke parlayed a kindred, if more politically radical, idea of human rationality into an intellectual inspiration for modern democracy. “Reason,” he wrote in the Second Treatise on Government (1690), “teaches all mankind” that “being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions,” and therefore government should protect these natural rights from the less rational and more selfish impulses that lurk in the hearts of human beings. What is more, he went on, people have a right to rebel against governments that neglect this protection.

Thomas Jefferson echoed Locke in the Declaration of Independence. There he justifyied political revolution to preserve the “self-evident…unalienable rights” of human beings to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” In that same year (1776), the Scot Adam Smith applied a related liberal rationalism to modern economics. In The Wealth of Nations, he argued that capitalism benefits everyone because a free market has an “invisible hand” that leads the rational economic self-interest of individuals and nations to general prosperity.

These pioneers of political and economic liberalism glowed with optimism. They envisioned a benign future for societies freed from irrational authority and shaped by rationality at last. Later, the pioneer of social liberalism, John Stuart Mill, aspired to the same end against a social tyranny unwittingly born of liberal democracy itself. Confident that reason will prevail over unreason in an open society, Mill insisted in On Liberty (1859) that individuals should be completely free to think and to live as they choose—even if not to everyone else’s “convenience,” short of doing obvious harm. Only through such unfettered individuality can the mind grow, and individuals, societies, and humanity flourish. I might add that Mill’s younger contemporary Karl Marx carried the liberal confidence in rationality—albeit not individualism—to the conclusion that only a communist utopia could free human beings to live truly rational human lives politically, economically, and socially.

Such historic names only mark a few familiar early classics of the liberal rationalist tradition. I do not mean to imply that this tradition has denied human irrationality—or that ideologues and activists on the far left have not made use of it. But the liberal tradition has clearly expected reason to eclipse unreason in an enlightened life. The conservative tradition has been more skeptical and “realistic”—and opportunistic.

Here we could start with Plato, whom Karl Popper famously derided as the original enemy of the “open society” for his ideal state ruled by an intellectual elite and hostile to change. Plato imagined this elite trained to harness their own irrationality in order to govern everyone else. To achieve these ends, Plato advocated, for one thing, censoring art from childhood onwards, lest it feed the “low elements of the mind,” subverting reason and the state itself—as he thought art has a tendency and power to do. Plato stands at the origins of the political conservatism that grasps human irrationality and tries to harness it for the public good in a society of inviolable order (modern libertarianism is another breed).

The father of modern political thought, Machiavelli, saw human irrationality even more clearly than Plato, but he was not as politically idealistic. He gave us in The Prince a picture of politics as an arena of bestial struggle where rulers must cope with human beings “as they are in real truth, rather than as they are imagined.” And, in truth, as he said, they are “ungrateful, fickle, liars, and deceivers, they shun danger and are greedy for profit,” they deceive themselves no less than others, they succumb to fear over love, prefer appearances to reality, and they side selfishly with immoral leaders over moral leaders while professing to do the opposite. Machiavelli was cynical, perhaps. But his observations on human nature and politics have made The Prince a perennial source of political advice—and a book more congenial to conservatives than to liberals.

Not that modern conservatives would dub Machiavelli their mentor. That title went first to Edmund Burke (some conservatives might pick the psychologically pessimistic Thomas Hobbes, but his conservatism held more ambiguouity), who viewed human nature less harshly than Machiavelli but nonetheless found it deeply irrational, requiring historical anchors and institutional constraints, not rational enlightenment. Burke denounced the French Revolution early in its course for defying this truth as it uprooted traditional social, political, and religious institutions and attempted to implant a more rational egalitarian order in their place. That act, he declared, could yield only chaos, because without the non-rational bonds of tradition and authority and religion human beings will run amok—which they did during the Reign of Terror. Burke’s reactionary French disciple Joseph de Maistre went still farther in this direction. Seeing little in human nature but animality and evil, he declared that “man, in general, is too wicked to be free” and urged authoritarian politics and infallible religion as the sole prospects for saving human beings from themselves.

In America the revolutionary democratic spirit gained inspiration, to be sure, from rationalist ideals of equality and natural rights. But the American political system actually took form from some rather more conservative judgments about human nature. James Madison gets much of the credit for this. The “father of the constitution,” Madison, notably warned in the influential Federalist #10, for example, that “as long as the reason of man continues fallible,” human beings will act from the “self-love” and “passion” that are rooted in “the nature of man.” And they will form “factions” aggressively seeking to impose their own selfish interests on everyone. Such are the “mortal diseases,” Madison lamented, “under which popular governments have everywhere perished.”

You cannot change human nature, Madison conceded, but you can restrain some political consequences of self-love, passion, and faction. To do this, he advocated a representative, instead of a direct, democracy. For when citizens choose legislators to represent them, those legislators must compromise among diverse interests—and the more of these interests the better. These compromises cause the legislative process to be laborious, but they lessen the pernicious effects of self-love, passion, and faction. To further thwart those effects, Madison proposed splintering political power at all levels. Hence America’s constitutional structure: separation of federal and state authority; a federal legislature divided between a House of Representatives representing many small congressional districts and a Senate containing but two senators for each state; and discrete, counterbalancing responsibilities for the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of the federal government. America may be the world’s preeminent liberal democracy, but it owes its constitutional structure—and political stability—to a rather conservative view of human nature. If this sounds like a basic civics lesson, it is even more a lesson in political psychology.

I should also point out that the rise of the social sciences in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries often supported the conservative, more than the liberal, view of human nature—if not always conservative politics. Anthropology, sociology, psychology, and their fellow disciplines showed that much of human behavior has roots in non-rational, often unrecognized, needs and desires. Sigmund Freud became the emblem of these intellectual discoveries, of course—and he grew more pessimistic about human nature after World War I, even chiding Marxists in Civilization and Its Discontents (1930) for thinking they could fashion a rational utopia devoid of instinctual human aggression. A contemporary of Freud’s, the influential French intellectual George Sorel, focused directly on social/political psychology in Reflections on Violence (1908). People don’t really act on facts and rationality in politics, he said, but on social myths. These are big, simple ideas and images that seize emotions and spark political action, even though these myths can never be realized in fact. And he advised making the most of this human reality for radical political change. Both Communist and Fascist propagandists did just that in the dark years of the twentieth century. And some, like Mussolini, tipped their hats to Sorel for the gift.

No one saw the pernicous effects of this kind of politics clearer than George Orwell. After World War II, he demonstrated in “Politics and the English Language” (1946) how political language on both the left and right had come to manipulate minds and emotions instead of telling the truth. Then he put this idea to chilling fictional effect in 1984, a novel about nothing so much as the psychology of political domination, bequeathing to us the adjective “Orwellian” for the political management of language and facts to stifle rationality and control how people feel and think.

Meanwhile, the fledgling profession of advertising mirrored and abetted these developments by supplanting previous reliance on the public’s rational judgment with appeals to feelings and desires. As the professional advertising publication Printers’ Ink baldly put it in 1920: “The appeal to reason doesn’t contain the elements that make a man want to do the thing you want him to do…. Emotions must be aroused.” Along with Sorel’s “social myths,” here lies the seed of modern political campaigns.

Recently, the widely publicized writings of the cognitive linguist George Lakoff (such as, The Political Mind, 2008) offer telling variations on these themes. His branch of science, Lakoff says, proves that the human brain by nature contains not only inherent powers of rationality but those of emotions, illogic, and unconscious impulses. And he scolds liberals nowadays for largely overlooking this fact and depending on a naive notion of human rationality. Consequently, he says, unlike conservatives, who are quite at home with human irrationality, liberals fail to “frame” political issues and policies with manipulative language that influence the emotional undercurrents of thoughts in order to achieve their political ends—as the Bush administration did with Orwellian bravado. You need not be pernicious to do this, Lakoff implies, only psychologically realistic—although nowadays right-wing media demagogues and their political acolytes exploit this “realism” daily to rouse hostility against their enemies on any subject, not unlike the orchestrated “Two-Minute Hate” episodes in 1984.

There is, by the way, one conspicuous exception to the conservative tradition of stressing the irrationality of human nature. This is the theory of the free market. Following Adam Smith, exponents of the free market have always believed it driven by rational self-interest and poised to make rational self-corrections if necessary. But the economic cataclysm of 2008 proved them wrong. Even the libertarian economic guru Alan Greenspan expressed “shocked disbelief” that so many managers in the financial markets could have taken the irrational risks they did. He and other conservative free-market economists seem to have possessed a faith in human economic rationality that no traditional political conservative would have embraced. When it comes to economics over the last century or so, liberals have tended to be more conservative than conservatives—liberals don’t trust “economic man” and free markets to operate altogether rationally, and so they seek institutional constraints to rein them in. But, economics aside, in politics, liberals remain more the rationalists and conservatives more the non-rationalists (notwithstanding neo-conservative intellectuals who hauled baggage of liberal rationalism with them from the left to the right when they promoted the Iraq war with raional certitude and utopian idealism).

Political conservatives today frequently even scorn the liberal demand for rationality as a mere sign of liberal intellectual elitism. And they have successfully demonized the very term Liberal as code for every social, political, economic, and cultural evil. Liberals themselves have caved in to this, now defensively defining themselves as “progressives.” At the same time, the anti-tax, anti-government, anti-egalitarian, anti-secular, anti-abortion, anti-gay, and other anti- movements have turned the politics of the far right into a crusade of rage that feeds on myths and traffics in incendiary slogans, outrageous accusations, and self-righteous hatreds. When self-proclaimed patriots urge overthrowing the federal government or advocate state secession, cheering every failure of the nation’s Democartic president and spurning every success; when crowds rally against a purported conspiracy by the president to turn America into a socialist/fascist/communist state (whatever that means); when crowds scream about a planned government take-over of health care (including, in an utterly irrational charge, government control of Medicare!); when large numbers of Republicans continue to assert that Obama was born in Kenya; when religious so-called “pro-life” zealots murder doctors who perform abortions, and their pious allies hypocritically applaud; when rabid right-wing demagogues in the media and politics brazenly invent and repeat factual untruths to stir fears and focus resentments; and when millions of Americans consume such right-wing propaganda from radio and TV daily and consider it news—I could go on and on—you know that political conservatives have made human irrationality their chosen arena, a place bereft of common reason and defying most reality except that of irrational human nature itself. Here is the same political twilight zone inhabited by the likes of Holocaust deniers and the Arabs still convinced that Jews were behind the events of 9/11.

So it should come as no surprise that liberals today–including the very centrist Obama administration–seem blindsided by the ravings from the right against what they try to do. Like their liberal forebears they dismiss these ravings as the aberrations of irrational individuals and groups. And they try to prevail on their own more rational terms.

But if the Obama administration and liberals hope to gain sway over the forces of unreason on the right, they had better reread and heed the likes of Machiavelli and Madison, Sorel and Orwell, and other psychological realists. This would encourage them to see the paradox of their own irrational blindness to the irrationality in human nature. And it could help them anticipate and head off the irrationality that is bound to come at them from the right every day–whether that comes from rabid ideologues, opportunistic politicians, or honest believers. It could also show them how to adroitly turn human irrationality to their own reasonable ends. Liberalism could never thrive on the irrationality of human beings, as much of conservatism has done. That would betray its hopeful, if sometimes naive, vision of creating a better world. But that shouldn’t keep liberals from having the realism to recognize and accept, even to appreciate for its virtues and and exploit for its benefits, how irrationality works. It’s human nature, for the better and the worse.