Notes from the Publisher

August 03, 2008

Politics / Generative, Rhetorical, and Historical Roots of Politics (Moral Politics, Pt 1)

JB

This is the first post of a series on the book Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think.  I am blogging as I read, so parts of this may wind up being different than where the author is ultimately going.  In any case, the discussions in Moral Politics provide a good springboard for discussions.

The main idea in Moral Politics is to identify how conservatives and liberals process their political beliefs cognitively, and what the difference is. This is not problematic, per se, except that I think that the author is overgeneralizing the words we use to describe politics to the way we really think about politics, and along the way is missing some important distinctions. 

The fundamental thesis is that conservatives think in terms of a "Strict Father" morality - one that is based on discipline and self-reliance, while the liberals think in terms of a "Nurturing Parent" morality - one that is based on mutual respect and providing for others' needs.

Now, there are several causes for our political beliefs.  I think the three most important are:

  • Generative - these are the first principles of politics (the specific principles used vary from system to system) which are combined, elaborated, and applied systematically to create a political system.  This could also be referred to as ideological.
  • Historical - these are the associations that are built up through history.  For example, two groups may be historically related in a political system even though they have little in common anymore.  Perhaps in their history they persued common paths, but now their link is no longer in their generative theories but simply because their organizations have grown so closely together.  This can also happen when two groups face a common enemy.
  • Rhetorical - these are the words used to communicate politics (whether generative or historical) to others (whether to other politicians or to the public at large).  Interestingly, rhetoric can itself become a cause - kind of a substitution for a generative idea. 

Now, when communicating with others (i.e. rhetoric), the most important thing is to establish a common frame of reference.  If I were communicating with physicists, I might try using analogies from the laws of thermodynamics.  If I am communicating with computer scientists, I might use analogies related to data gathering or representation.  However, in all these cases, the analogies are used to explain the ideology using a common reference point, not as a substitute for the ideology. 

The fundamental problem with Moral Politics seems to be that the author is approaching rhetoric as being able to identify the fundamental causes of politics.  I think that is fundamentally erroneous.

The reason why family is often used as a metaphor for political action is that everyone is the product of some sort of family.  Therefore, the most inclusive type of analogy that can be used is that of family.  The author seems to want to be using family structure as the core of political belief, and then specifying the branches and alternatives as modifiers within the scope of the notion of family structure.  Instead, while the examination of family morality rhetoric may be interesting and useful, I think that thinking of it as fundamental is a non-starter.  This is more useful information if you want to know how to convince a group of people to believe in your political ideology - you need to know what sorts of analogies make sense to them - but it is not quite so useful in determining either the source of an ideology nor whether or not it should be followed.

The real difference between conservatives and liberals in America is secular verses theistic models of government.   And, interestingly, you actually find that as far as generative models go, liberals are closer to libertarians thaneither one is to conservatives.  But we'll save that for later.