In my last two posts, I asked the knotty question of whether or not religious faith or lack thereof was a matter of free will. Now that that big question is behind us, (not for good, mind you) let's ask another tricky question: are one's political beliefs something we are born with? Do we come to our political conclusions through careful consideration of the issues (like we like to think we do), or do we simply have inherent, inborn biases that make those conclusions foregone decisions?
This question becomes even more difficult when one looks at the electoral map above and realizes how little change there has been in the red and blue columns over the years; that is, the Republican red states have been red for years, and the Democratic blue states have been blue for years. There's been so little change in most of them that, during recent presidential elections, California and Texas are almost completely ignored by the candidates (except as fundraising cash machines) despite their large populations. Why? Because our winner take all electoral system means that once a candidate wins a state, they get all of that state's electoral votes, and the winners of Texas and California are known well in advance. So candidates focus almost entirely on so called swing states, that is, those few states that may go either way.
But why is that the case? Why are most red states so red and most blue states so blue? If people make political choices based on examining the issues and the candidates, why do so many people in one region of the country come down strongly on one side and people in another region on the opposite?
In his fascinating book THE BETTER ANGLES OF OUR NATURE, WHY VIOLENCE HAS DECLINED, writer Steven Pinker puts out an interesting theory that makes a lot of sense to me. It all goes back to the original British settlers of America; the northern areas were mostly settled by English farmers, while the southern parts were settled by Scots-Irish cattle ranchers and herders. These two different methods of survival led to different life styles: if you're a farmer, no one can just swoop in and steal your farmland overnight (they could take your crops, but not the land itself), if, however you're a person who's livelihood lies in livestock, it is entirely possible that some thief in the night could make off with all your valued goods, leaving you destitute. Add to that the fact that in those early settler days, the nearest law authority figure was often miles away, and you can see why herders created a different culture than farmers. For a herder, buying a gun meant more than hunting, it was for protecting one's valuable livestock, hence the pervasive gun culture and the attitude of violent retribution that goes with it, that still exists in so many red states. Along with building a strong gun culture, herders also built a strong honor system as a way to deter criminals, which explains why so many low down villains in old westerns are horse thieves and cattle rustlers. Another factor was the fact that herder communities usually lived in isolated, mountainous regions, which led to a general distrust of strangers, because any outsider might be a potential thief. Again, this has echoes today in the conservative mindset (promoted by conservative thinkers like David Brooks and Thomas Sowell), that has a Tragic Vision of human nature, one that thinks things like a strong military and harsh criminal punishment (with a death penalty), tempered by the good influence of the church, are needed to control the base animalistic nature that drives people to do bad things. The state of Texas is a good example of this; when one thinks of Texas, we think of a big gun culture, a strong sense of honor ("don't mess with Texas!"), conservative politics, and a stronger belief in the death penalty than any other state. They're also famous for their ranching history, with expressions like "big hat, no cattle" coming from there, not to mention a college football team named the longhorns, who's mascot is a bull. It would seem that these two aspects of Texas society have fed on each other over the years.
So, the culture that our ancestors marinated in and passed down from generation to generation still effects us to this day, even when most of us are no longer farmers or ranchers. And these attitudes go beyond politics: I'm a northern born liberal, and I once had a job with a boss who was a mid western born conservative. Although we got along well despite our political differences, it never failed to amaze me just how much she lived in fear, and how little she would trust people she didn't know. I remember when I told her that I was going to a training school to learn how to teach English to people in other countries with the intention of traveling, the first words out of her mouth was a stern warning about how the people at the training school might use me as a drug mule. Not, "how interesting" or, "good luck with that", no, it was straight to the fear that people who took the time to open a training school for teaching English were really drug runners! This also explains why the conservative media seems so over the top in its messages to those who aren't conservative; when they say Barak Obama "hates America" and wants to "destroy it", they're playing to the increased fear response in their conservative audience.
Back in 1992, conservative political figure Pat Buchanan may have inadvertently helped Bill Clinton's presidential campaign when he announced in frightening tones that there was a "culture war" going on in America at the Republican convention scaring moderate voters away from the Republican party. As much as I hate to agree with Buchanan on anything, he may have been on to something there, in that there is a deep divide that separates this country. It really does seem that there are two very different cultures at war in America, with two distinct views of the world that rarely can agree on anything. So when a liberal sees undocumented immigrants who came to the US out of economic necessity to do tough jobs that Americans don't want to, a conservative looks at the same group of people and sees illegal immigrants who snuck in our country to suck up our welfare programs and deal drugs. Sadly, these different world views often lead to national gridlock, in which both sides of an issue dig in and refuse to compromise, leaving a country where only local governments, usually dominated by one party, can get anything done. And this all may be because of dyed in the wool beliefs we gained as children raised in one part of the country or the other. As with religious belief, free will seems to take a back seat to forces beyond our individual control in our political outlook, muddying the waters of the entire concept of personal self determination.
|The Loyal Opposition|
Ah, but there is a glimmer of hope! In 2004, George W Bush won reelection as president, despite the increasingly unpopular Iraq war, partly by promoting a constitutional amendment outlawing gay marriage, which had little support at that time. But in nine short years, there has been a sea change on this issue in this country, with public opinions polls slowly but surely showing a movement towards support for gay marriage. This appears to be inevitable as more and more people come out of the closet, and some of those people are friends and family members of conservatives. Former vice president Dick Cheney and senator Rob Portman are two of the most prominent republicans to support gay marriage, and in both cases it's because they have children who are gay; simply put, it's easy to hate gay activists who live far away in San Francisco, it's much harder to hate someone you know and love. Even the conservative arguments against gay marriage have gotten weaker and weaker, from shouts of "marriage is under assualt!" to vague mumblings about "redefining marriage". Perhaps there is some chance for America after all, when conservatives can give up their natural distrust of strangers by realizing that every gay and lesbian person in the world is somebody's son or daughter. We'll see.