The Psychology of Partisanship

In his press conference following last week's election, President Obama told a questioning reporter that he "didn't believe people carried around with them a fixed ideology"--that if you'd asked most people on Election Day, they would have said that there were some things they agreed with Democrats on and some things they agreed with Republicans on. In a column over the weekend, New York Times writer Charles M. Blow disagreed with the President's assessment, presenting results of national election surveys dating back to 1982 that showed a significant and relatively steady decline in the percentage of self-described conservative and liberal voters who had voted for any candidates of the opposing party. "In the Obama land of open minds and collegial cooperation," Blow wrote, people might not cling to fixed ideology, "but in the real world, that's what most do."

Sadly, psychological researchers tend to agree with Blow. Jordan Peterson is a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of Toronto who has been studying the architecture of people's beliefs for almost 20 years. And he says that humans are far more inclined to attach themselves to rigid ideology than they are to navigate the unmapped and complex world of the open-minded center.

"Life is really complicated," Peterson explains. "We're surrounded by problems whose magnitude exceeds our computational complexity. So much so that we often don't even know what the actual problem is. For example, when you're buying a car, what problem are you solving? Status? Financial? Getting to work? Emissions going to destroy the planet? All those and a bunch more that you're not even really aware of. And every decision is complex like that.

"And the way people shield themselves from that complexity is by identifying more or less arbitrarily with a set of opinions and then sticking to those things like glue. People barricade themselves inside fortresses of knowledge. They're very territorial about their ideological structures. And they like to be in there with a bunch of other people who think like they do." Hence the immense popularity of highly polarized and politicized cable news shows.

To be fair, there is an evolutionary benefit to our inclination to join with others of like minds. It helps us to generate cooperative action toward a common goal. If a group of us all believe the river should be saved, we are more likely to join together to clean it up. The problem arises when we follow that impulse too far, into a rigid need to have our group's view be the only "right" view.

"Everyone has to have knowledge and opinions," Peterson says. "The question is what attitude you have about that knowledge. One attitude is, 'Well, hopefully I know some useful things. But if I shut up and listen, I might learn some other useful things.'" But another (and more common) attitude is, "'I'd bloody well better be right, because the world is a complex place, and if I'm not right, I'm screwed.' Being 'right' is like being inside a fortress," Peterson explains. "You might starve in there, but you're safe."

And just to complicate things, that need to "be right" is also intensified by our need for hierarchical status.

"Humans are very status conscious creatures," Peterson says. "They hate [losing status] more than just about anything. So if I'm trying to score points off of you [by proving I'm right], we're not having a discussion or trying to solve a problem, we're engaged in a primate hierarchical dispute."

In other words, there are lots of motivations for us to gravitate toward one corner or the other and stay there, shouting down the opposition--especially as the economy languishes in an alarming recession, the complexity of international trade and threats increases, and the pace of change itself accelerates in ways many people find disturbing. Camping out in rigid ideological corners gives us the comfort of seemingly clear answers and the status bump and security of feeling "right." It also explains why voters this time around seemed to respond to messages of "take no prisoners" from candidates. Compromise and cooperative efforts take place in an uncharted, messy and uncomfortable middle ground where there's no status from victory, and no comfort to be derived from clear ideological structures.

But, Peterson cautions, there is danger in giving in to the comfort of ideological certainty and the pleasure of "being right." For one thing, he says, "it turns out that most sets of opinions are pretty blunt tools. They're not really designed for the kind of detailed problem solving that would aid you in life." Worldview, in other words, can get in the way of seeing clearly, or seeing creative, unconventional options and possibilities that might exist. In addition, the more time we spend in our ideological fortresses, Peterson says, the less able we become to ever leave them.

"When you start to question your fundamental assumptions about the nature of the world," he explains, "you end up in a place that you don't understand very well. And when you're in that place you don't understand very well, you have to be confident that you can find your way. And you're not confident that you can find your way unless you've practiced doing that. So what happens to people is exactly what Alexander Solzhenitsyn said happens to them. They obliterate their ability to operate in the territory that exists outside of their own certainty, because they don't have any confidence left."

What's more, as the world changes and becomes more complex, there are fewer places and situations where those in rigid ideological corners--on both sides of the aisle--can feel comfortable or "right," leaving them feeling increasingly cornered. And the dangers of that extend far beyond a stalemated Congress. While acknowledging that it's an extreme example, Peterson points to psychologist Erich Fromm's classic treatise on the appeal of totalitarianism, Escape from Freedom, which Fromm wrote in 1941 after observing the Nazi party's rise to power in an economically ravaged Germany.

"The fact that people tilt toward totalitarianism is ... a terrible, murderous problem," Peterson says gravely. "Millions of people died in the 20th century because people had to be right. It's awful. It's arguably the worst problem we have."

So, one feels compelled to ask, is there any hope of solving such a seemingly intractable and instinct-driven problem? Yes, Peterson says, although he acknowledges that the solutions are not easy. When people despair of changing the current slide toward more and more polarized camps in America, he says, it comes from "an impoverished view of human potential."

Humans, Peterson says, are far more powerful than people realize--if they are willing to lead by example. He points to Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who wrote in the Gulag Archipelago that one man who stops lying can bring down tyranny.

"If you realize that people like to stay in their own little territory, but there is a place that is not mapped, the next thing you do is show people how to operate in unmapped territory," he says. "To live that way has more effect than people realize. Gandhi was a good example. Vaclev Havel in Czechoslovakia. Mandela in South Africa. Solzhenitsyn in Russia. What you do is live your life outside of ideology. That IS the right answer."

That answer, of course, takes a lot of courage. Leading by example often has a cost attached to it--beyond mere discomfort, in the case of elected officials. Congressional moderates may not face imprisonment by an authoritarian regime, but one after another has lost their bids for re-election--in no small part because they eschewed gaining valuable status points by playing hierarchical status games and proving their opponents "wrong," and because they required voters to contemplate the discomforting, unmapped zone outside of clear and unyielding ideology.

And yet, we can't blame it all on the politicians, or even the cable news networks. Blow's review also revealed that voters identifying themselves as moderates stayed home on election day in record numbers, ceding the ground and the day to more ideologically extreme views. So if we really want moderation back on our politics, we need to demand more than just leaders who will lead by example. We need to make a greater effort to lead by example, ourselves.