I’m pretty convinced that in the end, political attitudes are not determined based on rational choices or a weighing of evidence, but are derived from mentality, or ‘character’ (whatever that may be). You almost instinctively feel drawn to a certain strand of political thought, and have an inherent dislike to some others. I, for instance, am naturally freaked out by most versions of conservatism, particularly when they stress authority (and want to impose group beliefs). While I may have a lot of factual evidence or logical reasoning to ‘prove’ conservative or right wing prescriptions for society are wrong, ultimately it may come down to the fact that as a person, I don’t wish to be told what’s right by some group or authority, and value individual freedom and open-mindedness. That’s why I instinctively don’t like conservatism or ‘the right’.
But where does that come from? A while ago, we posted about cognitive neuroscientific research showing that conservatives or right-wingers have bigger amygdalas – the part of the brain that regulates fear and stress. Liberals or left-wingers, on the other hand, were shown to have bigger medial prefrontal cortexes, which suppresses fear. Science Daily now reports about a new article in Current Biology, demonstrating pretty much similarly that differences in political orientation may be tied to differences in brain structure.
Individuals who call themselves liberal tend to have larger anterior cingulate cortexes, while those who call themselves conservative have larger amygdalas. Based on what is known about the functions of those two brain regions, the structural differences are consistent with reports showing a greater ability of liberals to cope with conflicting information and a greater ability of conservatives to recognize a threat, the researchers say.
“Previously, some psychological traits were known to be predictive of an individual’s political orientation,” said Ryota Kanai of the University College London. “Our study now links such personality traits with specific brain structure.”
Kanai said his study was prompted by reports from others showing greater anterior cingulate cortex response to conflicting information among liberals. “That was the first neuroscientific evidence for biological differences between liberals and conservatives,” he explained.
There had also been many prior psychological reports showing that conservatives are more sensitive to threat or anxiety in the face of uncertainty, while liberals tend to be more open to new experiences. Kanai’s team suspected that such fundamental differences in personality might show up in the brain.
Pretty much ties in with what you already know about people from certain political persuasions, eh? In my experience it does, at least.
Some caveats though. First, the liberal-conservative divide is very much an Anglo-American construct. While I believe that - in terms of attitudes at least – it corresponds by and large to the ‘left’ and ‘right’-wing divide in continental Europe (which, despite nuances, pretty much exists, let’s be honest), it’s not exactly the same. Where does socialism fit the bill, for example? I may describe myself as left-wing, but definitely not as a socialist, while some other left-wingers would. The difference between us is probably how we value the role of the state in society and believe in the necessity of material equality. But how could that be fitted in the fear/non-fear conservative-liberal divide described above?
Secondly, and most obviously, there’s the question to what extent upbringing and life experiences play a part in determining political attitude (and may perhaps even affect brain structure).
Interesting research though. It may explain why, even though you know and like someone very well, you still can’t get exactly to the bottom of why that person has different attitudes about something. Trying to explain that in terms of character traits can, I think, deliver interesting results.
From a North American (or even in Australia, my current home away from home) Cohen’s patience and near silence while the right-wing negotiations proceed is jarring. Instead one would expect Cohen to take every opportunity to rail against Wilders’ potential involvement in governing as well as against the other potential coalition partners for allowing Wilders to even get near such an opportunity. Cohen could easily have added pressure to the already splintering CDA. And his incentive seems to be clear enough: if the current right-wing talks had failed to deliver a coalition agreement, the next iteration of negotiations would likely have included Cohen’s PvdA front and centre.
Harper also had some comments on minority governments and coalitions, given that Cameron is the head of a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition.
“Losers don’t get to form coalitions,” Harper said, in a shot apparently aimed at Canadian opposition parties…
“And of course this coalition in Britain, I would note, doesn’t contain a party dedicated to the break up of the country. And these were, as you know, the two problems in Canada, the proposition by my opposition was to form a coalition with the purpose of excluding the party that won the election and for the purpose of including a party dedicated to the break up of the country,” Harper said.
The British situation has some “instructive lessons for Canada,” he added.
Harper made the most of the opportunity to misrepresent not just the Westminster system and responsible government, but also a nearly formed coalition set on ending his grasp on power shortly after the last Canadian election. Without getting into all the gory details (see link below for more info), the key point is this: Harper in facing down a potential coalition consisting of the centrist Liberals and social democrat New Democratic Party that relied on the separatist Bloc Quebecois in much the same manner that Rutte and Verhagen will rely on the Islamaphobe Wilders, launched into all sorts of invective to (effectively) turn public opinion against the coalition effort.
A fiery Harper, in turn, accused Dion of “playing the biggest political game in Canadian history,” saying the [then] Liberal leader would recklessly attempt to govern the country amid a global economic crisis under threat of veto by “socialists and separatists.”
The over the top rhetoric hit its peak when Harper’s Conservative Party sent out Member of Parliament Daryl Kramp to the mic to address the proposed coalition’s effort to unseat the government and gain an opportunity from the Governor General to govern in its place:
“This is over the top now. This is a coup d’état. It makes us look like a banana republic. The only difference here is there’s no blood, thank goodness.”
To those paying attention, like prominent Canadian pundit Paul Wells, Harper has already made clear that nearly two years later he intends to continue to campaign on much the same lines:
On Sept. 14 in a wedding hall in Edwards, Ont., Harper said, “Friends, next time the choice will be either a Parliament where we Conservatives have the majority of seats, or one where the Liberals, NDP and Bloc Québécois have the majority of seats.”
Pay no attention to the opposition’s current silence on the matter, he said. “Regardless of what they tell you during an election, they will form a coalition the day after that election is over. Last time they waited—and they found out that that meant they couldn’t get away with it without having another election.” He said the opposition could never campaign on an explicit promise to form a coalition. “They would have been slaughtered.”
I’ve noticed this line of argument repeatedly from Harper over nearly two years, and written about it often on my blog.
His speech last Tuesday at the Canadian Club of Ottawa was expected to be about the Canadian economy. Instead, it turned into a highly partisan rant about an “Ignatieff-NDP-Bloc Québécois Coalition” that will take over and bankrupt the country unless the Conservatives are elected to a majority.
Flaherty used the word ‘economy’ eight times in the speech. He referred to the coalition 14 times.
The speech, less than 24 hours after Parliament reopened for the fall sitting, ended any premise of civility and co-operation between the government and opposition and automatically had the election-speculation meters running.
While I would have been much more happy had the negotiations for the forthcoming right-wing Dutch government fall apart, and I have no particular sympathy for CDA, I do have a great appreciation for Cohen’s willingness and ability to reinforce the perception of Netherlands’s more consensual politics by not taking up the opportunity to vilify his opponents for the sake of grabbing power. And to be clear, this is not a call for the end of politics (what would I do with that half of my waking hours?!?!). But, there is much to be said for a more mature brand of politics than that currently practiced by governments and opposition alike in Canada, the United States or Australia.
Now hopefully the Netherlands’ seemingly inevitable new right-wing government will self-implode before they cause too much damage…
Of course challenges to my argument are most welccome!