By Cass R. Sunstein
WHAT DIVIDES the right and the left? Not 50 years ago, or 20 or even 10 years ago, but right now?
Here’s one speculation: Conservatives tend to be localists; they focus on their families, their towns, their states and their nation. Progressives are far more likely to be universalists who focus on human beings as such.
New evidence strongly supports this speculation, and explains a lot about current political divisions, not only in the US and Canada but also in Europe and elsewhere. It also offers concrete lessons for aspiring politicians, whether they’re on the right or the left.
The relevant studies were conducted by a team of researchers led by Northwestern University’s Adam Waytz and including New York University’s Jonathan Haidt, who has done the defining work on the differences between conservatives and progressives. Their principal finding is that conservatives show a clear preference for tighter and “more defined” social circles, emphasizing “their immediate social groups,” while progressives favor looser circles, and express “compassion toward individuals broadly construed.”
In one of their studies, more than 14,000 participants were asked to say how much they identify with — that is, feel a part of, feel love toward, or have concern for — groups of various sizes, including their community, their country, and “all human beings everywhere.”
Progressives were more likely than conservatives to identify with all human beings everywhere. Conservatives were more likely than progressives to identify with their community and their country.
In another study, more than 3,000 participants completed a “love of humanity” survey, in which they were asked to say how strongly they agree with statements about family, friends, and humanity. For example: “There are times in my life when I’ve felt strong feelings of love for all people, not just the specific people I’m close to.”
The key finding was that as compared with conservatives, progressives had higher numbers on love of humanity, while as compared with progressives, conservatives registered higher on love for family and friends.
But the most intriguing finding, and the wildest, involves neither identification nor love, but rather geometric shapes. More than 4,000 participants were asked which they like better: tight shapes (on-screen dots retaining the form of a triangle) or loose ones (on-screen dots moving around and orbiting one another freely). Assuming that the localist-universalist distinction “reflects a worldview beyond policy interests,” the researchers hypothesized that conservatives would prefer tight shapes and progressives, loose ones.
That’s exactly what they found. As the researchers put it, “the relationship between ideology and preference for geometric looseness–tightness is related to preference for social looseness–tightness.” More speculatively, they suggest that the “more ‘primitive’ preference for looseness–tightness might drive people of different political ideologies toward social circles of different expansiveness.”
Step back and consider that. Divisions between conservatives and progressives, or between Republicans and Democrats, are often thought to turn on economic equality, race and sex discrimination, or perhaps climate change and the environment. But Waytz and his colleagues suggest the divisions run even deeper.
When President Donald Trump rejects “globalism,” and emphasizes instead “patriots,” he speaks to a large chunk of the American electorate — as do Brexiters who favor a British identity over a European one.
Conservative politicians are smart to emphasize their concern for the local and the national over the global — and to criticize their opponents’ priorities. (Note to those who seek to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions: “Global warming” might not be the most effective term.) Even many who do not identify as conservatives might well be moved by politicians who talk about the importance of family, friends, and localities, and left a bit cold by abstract appeals to human beings as such.
It follows that if progressive candidates want to have broad appeal, they should be eager to speak in intensely local terms, and show voters how their policies would help the people closest to them. And when they speak of policies that would help people outside voters’ circles — refugees, say, or asylum seekers — they would do well to enlist the time-honored sentiment that links localism with universalism: “There but for the grace of God go I.”