Regardless of who wins the presidential election, we already know now how most of the electoral map will be colored, which will be close to the way it has been colored for decades. Broadly speaking, the Southern and Western desert and mountain states will vote for the candidate who endorses an aggressive military, a role for religion in public life, laissez-faire economic policies, private ownership of guns and relaxed conditions for using them, less regulation and taxation, and a valorization of the traditional family. Northeastern and most coastal states will vote for the candidate who is more closely aligned with international cooperation and engagement, secularism and science, gun control, individual freedom in culture and sexuality, and a greater role for the government in protecting the environment and ensuring economic equality.
America’s political map may have its roots in the way each region’s settlers tamed social anarchy. But why do ideology and geography cluster so predictably? Why, if you know a person’s position on gay marriage, can you predict that he or she will want to increase the military budget and decrease the tax rate, and is more likely to hail from Wyoming or Georgia than from Minnesota or Vermont? To be sure, some of these affinities may spring from coalitions of convenience. Economic libertarians and Christian evangelicals, united by their common enemy, are strange bedfellows in today’s Republican party, just as the two Georges — the archconservative Wallace and the uberliberal McGovern — found themselves in the same Democratic Party in 1972.
But there may also be coherent mindsets beneath the diverse opinions that hang together in right-wing and left-wing belief systems. Political philosophers have long known that the ideologies are rooted in different conceptions of human nature — a conflict of visions so fundamental as to align opinions on dozens of issues that would seem to have nothing in common. Conservative thinkers like the economist Thomas Sowell and the Times columnist David Brooks have noted that the political right has a Tragic Vision of human nature, in which people are permanently limited in morality, knowledge and reason. Human beings are perennially tempted by aggression, which can be prevented only by the deterrence of a strong military, of citizens resolved to defend themselves and of the prospect of harsh criminal punishment. No central planner is wise or knowledgeable enough to manage an entire economy, which is better left to the invisible hand of the market, in which intelligence is distributed across a network of hundreds of millions of individuals implicitly transmitting information about scarcity and abundance through the prices they negotiate. Humanity is always in danger of backsliding into barbarism, so we should respect customs in sexuality, religion and public propriety, even if no one can articulate their rationale, because they are time-tested workarounds for our innate shortcomings. The left, in contrast, has a Utopian Vision, which emphasizes the malleability of human nature, puts customs under the microscope, articulates rational plans for a better society and seeks to implement them through public institutions.
Cognitive scientists have recently enriched this theory with details of how the right-left divide is implemented in people’s cognitive and moral intuitions. The linguist George Lakoff suggests that the political right conceives of society as a family ruled by a strict father, whereas the left thinks of it as a family guided by a nurturant parent. The metaphors may be corollaries of the tragic and utopian visions, since different parenting practices are called for depending on whether you think of children as noble savages or as nasty, brutish and short. The psychologist Jonathan Haidt notes that rightists and leftists invest their moral intuitions in different sets of concerns: conservatives place a premium on deference to authority, conformity to norms and the purity and sanctity of the body; liberals restrict theirs to fairness, the provision of care and the avoidance of harm. Once again, the difference may flow from the clashing conceptions of human nature. If individuals are inherently flawed, their behavior must be restrained by custom, authority and sacred values. If they are capable of wisdom and reason, they can determine for themselves what is fair, harmful or hurtful.
But while these theories help explain why the seemingly diverse convictions within the right-wing and left-wing mind-sets hang together, they don’t explain why they are tied to geography. The historian David Hackett Fischer traces the divide back to the British settlers of colonial America. The North was largely settled by English farmers, the inland South by Scots-Irish herders. Anthropologists have long noted that societies that herd livestock in rugged terrain tend to develop a “culture of honor.” Since their wealth has feet and can be stolen in an eye blink, they are forced to deter rustlers by cultivating a hair-trigger for violent retaliation against any trespass or insult that probes their resolve. Farmers can afford to be less belligerent because it is harder to steal their land out from under them, particularly in territories within the reach of law enforcement. As the settlers moved westward, they took their respective cultures with them. The psychologist Richard Nisbett has shown that Southerners today continue to manifest a culture of honor which legitimizes violent retaliation. It can be seen in their laws (like capital punishment and a stand-your-ground right to self-defense), in their customs (like paddling children in schools and volunteering for military service), even in their physiological reactions to trivial insults.
Admittedly, it’s hard to believe that today’s Southerners and Westerners carry a cultural memory of sheepherding ancestors. But it may not be the herding profession itself that nurtures a culture of honor so much as living in anarchy. All societies must deal with the dilemma famously pointed out by Hobbes: in the absence of government, people are tempted to attack one another out of greed, fear and vengeance. European societies, over the centuries, solved this problem as their kings imposed law and order on a medieval patchwork of fiefs ravaged by feuding knights. The happy result was a thirty-fivefold reduction in their homicide rate from the Middle Ages to the present. Once the monarchs pacified the people, the people then had to rein in the monarchs, who had been keeping the peace with arbitrary edicts and gruesome public torture-executions. Beginning in the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment, governments were forced to implement democratic procedures, humanitarian reforms and the protection of human rights.
When the first American settlers fanned out from the coasts and other settled areas, they found themselves in anarchy all over again. The historian David Courtwright has shown that there is considerable truth to the cinematic clichés of the Wild West and the mountainous South of Davy Crocket, Daniel Boone and the Hatfields and McCoys. The nearest sheriff might be 90 miles away, and a man had to defend himself with firearms and a reputation for toughness. In the all-male enclaves of cattle and mining towns, young men besotted with honor and alcohol constantly challenged one another’s mettle and responded to these challenges, pushing rates of violence through the roof.
Another cliché of the cowboy movies also had an element of historical truth. As more women moved west, they worked to end the lifestyle of brawling, boozing and whoring they found there, joining forces with the officials in charge of the rowdy settlements. They found a natural ally in the church, with its co-ed membership, norms of temperance and Sunday morning discipline. By the time the government consolidated its control over the West (and recall that the “closing of the frontier,” marking the end of American anarchy, took place just more than a century ago), the norms of self-defense through masculine honor, and the restraint of ruffianism by women and church, had taken root.
But then why, once stable government did arrive, did it not lay claim to the monopoly on violence that is the very definition of government? The historian Pieter Spierenburg has suggested that “democracy came too soon to America,” namely, before the government had disarmed its citizens. Since American governance was more or less democratic from the start, the people could choose not to cede to it the safeguarding of their personal safety but to keep it as their prerogative. The unhappy result of this vigilante justice is that American homicide rates are far higher than those of Europe, and those of the South higher than those of the North.
If this history is right, the American political divide may have arisen not so much from different conceptions of human nature as from differences in how best to tame it. The North and coasts are extensions of Europe and continued the government-driven civilizing process that had been gathering momentum since the Middle Ages. The South and West preserved the culture of honor that emerged in the anarchic territories of the growing country, tempered by their own civilizing forces of churches, families and temperance.
From THE STONE October 24, 2012. Steven Pinker is Harvard College Professor of Psychology at Harvard University and the author, most recently, of “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.”
The Stone features the writing of contemporary philosophers and other thinkers on issues both timely and timeless. The series moderator is Simon Critchley. He teaches philosophy at The New School for Social Research in New York. To contact the editors of The Stone, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include “The Stone” in the subject field.