The Political Brain

Imagine for a second you get a job opportunity in a new city. You like parts of your current job and you enjoy the city you're in but there are all sorts of things you don't like as well. Do you move or stay put? How do you go about making that decision? 

Change is risky. Things can always get worse. You could end up in a work environment with people that make your life miserable. The job could turn out to be intellectually unsatisfying and the city could lack the cultural comforts you're used to. Then again, this could be the opportunity you've been waiting for that will make your life better in innumerable ways. What should you do? 

Part of the process of making decisions is creating imaginative future scenarios you play out that highlight the things you're striving for as well as the disasters you hope to avoid. This process can become corrupted in that you may have a tendency to lean too heavily on the positive side (creating happy visions that ignore large swaths of reality) or the negative (obsessing over the disasters that are undoubtedly going to destroy you).  Either way, you can't just sit around and create imaginative scenarios all day. You have to go out and see if what you're imagining conforms to the world in a discernible way. This means getting online, researching, asking friends their opinion, or better yet, taking a trip and visiting the city yourself. The more information you gain, the more it constrains both your positive and negative future projections.

For instance, if you find out the city in question is Cincinnati, that the job is at an architecture firm and that housing is fairly inexpensive, that information is going to constrain your imaginative capacity in helpful ways.  However, even visiting Cincinnati will not tell you what it's like to live there.  You have to take that new information you've gained and use it to make a more accurate projection. A healthy decision making process then combines an exploratory capability (to create positive/negative visions for what could exist) and the ability to constrain that vision with information of what is known to be true.

What I'm describing is not just some abstract conceptual conflict that goes on in our meaningful world, but one that has biological roots in the hemispheres of the brain. The brain is too complex to have simple personality traits ascribed to the differing hemispheres yet there are important differences between them. In the book, "Master and his Emissary" Iain McGilchrist points out that, "the brain is, in one sense, a system of opponent processors. In other words, it contains mutually opposed elements whose contrary influence make possible finely calibrated responses to complex situations." In an interview with Jordan Peterson, McGilchrist goes on to point out that the right side is more exploratory while the left side is more inhibitory. What should be noted is that this conflict between the two hemispheres is built into the system. It wouldn't work properly if one side completely dominated the other. There is a subtle and important negotiation that takes place between the two that gets played out below our level of awareness. This is obvious given the fact that one could live an entire life and never realize the brain has two hemispheres. Consciousness seems like a singular unified experience. It seems counter intuitive that it's split in a division of labor that has competing desires, visions and reactions to the world we are unaware of, and yet, given what we currently know about the brain, this seems to be the case. 

This decision making process, of negotiating two competing visions of the world, does not just happen in our own subjective experience but plays out on the political landscape as well.  In which direction should we move as a society? At what speed should we change given the fact that the current system is causing suffering? What are the things we're not seeing and what kinds of unintended consequences will result from our actions? What positive visions for our collective future are we striving for and what negative visions are we trying to avoid? Instead of these problems being negotiated between the hemispheres of the brain, we have grouped ourselves into political parties that are somewhat representative of these biological functions. Generally speaking conservatives are more inhibitory, risk averse and more wary of change. Progressives are more exploratory, less risk averse and attracted to novelty. 

In a healthy political system conservatives would act as a skeptical check on the progressive vision, not by using religious texts or appeals to authority, rather they would do it in the same way an individual checks their overactive imagination, by doing research and going out and experiencing the world. The combination of empiricism and lived experience is the correct method with which to temper the progressive vision and conservatism as a function of inhibition needs to choose a defensible means of constraint that can be universally applied (nothing that's sectarian i.e. the bible). 

Simultaneously, a healthy version of progressivism would accept the conservative critique, but push back in ways that do not conflict with the data based argument they would present. After all, remaining the same throughout time is a poor evolutionary strategy and so change is not just important but necessary. There is undoubtedly a way of being that is better than what we're currently experiencing and to have a group of people striving to create a multiplicity of visions is just as important as trying to hang on to the good which we've already created. But what parts change and what parts remain the same? This is the necessary conflict of negotiation that needs to be managed. 

What I am offering is a not a solution to our political polarity but a metaphor that I find useful for a variety of reasons. Political parties are not hemispheres of the brain (there's more than two after all) and given how little we know about the brain, it may turn out that the conceptions I've outlined are overly simplistic. The root idea though does not rely on accurate knowledge of the brain. To look at this another way, at the end of an EconTalk podcast with James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose, James offered a car metaphor that his father used to describe this same political dynamic. In his conception conservatism is framed as the brakes and progressivism is framed as the gas pedal.  The similarity between these two is that the metaphor encapsulates the parties in a unified functional system where the differences that have developed are the result of a necessary division of labor, not because they are evil, wrong or dim witted. They are useful tools that will take us where we want to go, but if used improperly (pushing down on the brake and the gas at the same time) will be damaging to the overall functioning of the whole.

When progressives talk about conservatives they often conceptualize them as "a roadblock". They see where they want to go and view any obstruction to get there as necessarily inhumane, as they see themselves as leading society towards a better future where there's less suffering and more equality. Conservatives think of progressives as destroyers of culture which can be conceptualized as a cloth "our culture is unravelling" or as a vehicle "our society is breaking down". Their threat detectors are on high alert and they view the expansion/reconfiguration of critical institutions as a kind of destruction since they may not share in the vision that's guiding the change. Both of these metaphors describe partial realities, but they do not highlight the overall functionality of the whole. Instead they paint the other side as nothing but a problem, a hindrance, an enemy to be defeated or overcome.

There are healthy and unhealthy ways to make decisions both on the individual and political level and I'm not so naive that I expect our political parties to behave in the healthy ways I've described nor do I think that talking differently about them is going to cause a substantial change in how they operate.  I do think it's necessary as a starting point in our political discussions to have a unifying metaphor that can be appreciated by both sides of the political spectrum. We all want to be better decision makes. We want to weigh our risks appropriately. We want to be able to imaginatively explore the possibilities of what could be, but necessarily constrain that vision with hard checks of what we currently know to be true. In order to move closer to this political reality we have to have a healthy respect for the functionality of the conflict that is inherent in decision making. We need to understand that the division of labor that's developed (both biologically and culturally) is functional, if we choose to use it correctly.  Instead of picking out the worst version of our opponents and using them as punching bags, instead of vilifying and name calling, we would become better decision makers if we started using both hemispheres of our collective political mind.