Interview: Avi Tuschman on “Our Political Nature”

Avi Tuschman is an expert on the evolutionary roots of human political orientation. He began his career in politics as the youngest advisor in the government palace in Lima, Peru at age 23. While serving as the senior writer to Peru’s President Alejandro Toledo, Tuschman produced numerous articles and speeches designed to shape public opinion. In 2009, Dr. Tuschman joined with Toledo and seventeen other former presidents to co-write a regional policy agenda on democratic governance. United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon lauded the document and called it historically unprecedented. Tuschman holds a doctorate in evolutionary anthropology from Stanford University. Associate Interview Editor Matthew Cook interviewed him by email to discuss his book Our Political Nature: The Evolutionary Origins of What Divides Us, which was published in September 2013.

GPPR: You start the book off by talking about political polarization in the US. How would you frame this polarization from an evolutionary perspective? There are a lot of theories about how this polarization came about, but it seems like your argument looks at it differently.

Avi Tuschman: Our Political Nature’s primary task is to explain the structure of the left-right political spectrums that run through countries around the world, as well as the natural history of these spectrums. Although the underlying structure of these spectrums remains the same from country to country, they are flexible; numerous factors can shift these curves to the left or the right, flatten and expand them, or narrow them.

The book tests the conventional wisdom that economic stress deepens a nation’s ideological divide and sometimes leads to political extremism. Data from over 70 countries suggest that this is true. Indeed, the fallout from the Great Recession of 2008 contributed to the broadening of the American political spectrum in both directions. First, the Tea Party emerged, further to the right of the mainstream Republican Party. And then by 2011, the Occupy Wall Street movement materialized on the far left. Our Political Nature offers a psychological explanation of this phenomenon, whereby economic pressure polarizes people in the direction of their predispositions.

This recent fracturing, however, does not explain the long-term trend in America’s political polarization that began about fifty years ago. I’ve just published an article about this long-term trend, and the explanation entails insights from the fields of demographics and evolutionary anthropology.

GPPR: You talk about having “evolutionary glasses.” What do you think these glasses would provide to those working in politics and policy?

AT: A lot of people have thought that Our Political Nature is a political book. It’s really not one at all. This is a science book whose topic happens to be human political orientation. So there aren’t too many explicitly prescriptive parts in there.

Nevertheless, the book highlights tools that people can use to measure public opinion in ways that are more rigorous than the conventional methods. There’s a problem when we only use terms like “Democrat” and “Republican,” since they do not always mean the same thing in all places (e.g. in different state legislatures). It’s important to quantify the underlying ideologies of individuals and groups.

In fact, it’s even possible to compare left-right placements across different countries. This would have been helpful, for instance, during the debate about the ideological leanings and intentions of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. We could have quantified the ideology of a representative sample of their followers and cross-compared it in a meaningful way with the numbers for other political groups in Egypt and in other countries. In today’s world, public opinion is more important than ever; collective attitudes put greater and greater constraints on leaders, even in societies that are currently less democratic. So being able to accurately measure and predict these forces is an increasingly important task for political analysts.

GPPR: During President Obama’s State of the Union address, there was a large focus on inequality in America. You have a section on this in your book. Did you see any themes of your argument running through the speech? How does one’s view of inequality tend to divide people? 

AT: Yes, the book explains why variation in people’s tolerance of inequality is one of the three universal factors underlying left-right political orientation. People on the left tend to be less tolerant, to varying degrees, of inequality–both in society and within the family. People on the right, in contrast, show greater tolerance for hierarchies in both spheres.

One of the most useful psychological constructs we can use to measure tolerance of inequality is called “Belief in a Just World” (BJW). This is the idea that people generally get what they deserve and deserve what they get. Conservatives are more likely to agree with this politically divisive statement, while liberals tend to disagree.

Let’s put this into the context of Obama’s State of the Union address last month: just after referring to the deepening economic inequality in the US, the president lamented that “too many Americans are working more than ever just to get by, let alone to get ahead.” His assumption is that people are generally hard working and that inequality is caused by systemic, exterior obstacles that block many people from achieving the success that they deserve. The next time in the speech when he mentions inequality, it’s in reference to “access to higher education.” Equal access to college and graduate school, he implies, would create a more equal society.

Conservatives, in contrast, have a higher tolerance of inequality because they have a higher BJW. They see social and economic inequalities as reflections of inner inequalities in work ethic, intelligence, morality, etc. They focus much more on individual responsibility and failures of it. They point out that some people have stronger work ethics than others, and they are more sensitive to the problem of free riders.

The most interesting thing about tolerance of inequality and BJW is that they do not have a meaningful relationship with income. That is, being in the “one percent” or the “99 percent” has little bearing whatsoever on your political orientation, or even your preference on fiscal policy. According to the American National Election Studies (ANES), the correlation between family income and party identification for white voters in the 2012 US presidential election was 0.03 (it goes up to 0.13 if you include the entire electorate). Rather, your tolerance of inequality in society runs in parallel with your tolerance of inequality within the family.The book explains why evolution has selected for a substantial range of predispositions toward these moral emotions, which lead people to vote against their economic interests just as often as not.

GPPR: How does knowing our political nature “raise the level of our political discourse and strengthen our democratic processes?” Have you come across any ways that these political divisions can be effectively crossed?

AT: Higher levels of education, along with greater interest in and exposure to politics, have a negative side effect: political polarization. Liberals become more liberal, and conservatives, more conservative. The great multiplication of media outlets and the competition between them to occupy particular segments of the political spectrum certainly hasn’t helped. Today it’s all too easy for people to weave themselves into partisan cocoons. There’s a constant supply of political junk food designed to gratify partisan tastes. It’s important to eat a well-balanced media diet. And our media should be nutritious–that is, less individual opinion and more contextual geopolitical analysis.

Luckily, it is possible to continue our education in new directions that don’t strengthen polarization. In particular, there’s a fascinating new body of scientific research about our political nature that incorporates insights from fields like genetics, neuroscience, and primatology. When researchers and readers take a step back and learn about the deeper roots of our political attitudes, I’ve found that they can open themselves to increasing political moderation and, ultimately, greater peace of mind.

Our political orientations are certainly not set in stone. Only about half of the variance in them comes from genetic differences between individuals, and the rest comes from the environment. So it’s certainly possible to transcend the attitudes that threaten to divide us. Doing so requires realistic expectations and deeper understandings of the structure and properties of public opinion. I’m optimistic that Our Political Nature can play a small part in this process.

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