Voters don’t make decisions based upon cold calculation of self-interest. They don’t rationally and objectively weigh the facts. Rather, political preferences are determined by habits of thought and emotion, and by social, cultural, and geographical context. New work in cognitive science, economics, sociology and political science has shown us that we humans are not the critters we thought we were.
It turns out that political leanings have more in common with genre preferences than they do with traditional concepts of ideology or self-interest. Genres, in popular music, fiction, etc., attract a self-reinforcing fandom. Mystery readers very seldom abandon the genre. Same with science fiction, country music, and, we see now, politics. In fact, socially, politically and geographically, genre boundaries seem to be hardening.
As Bill Bishop explains in his new book, "The Big Sort," decades of economic expansion and unprecedented mobility and choice have led Americans to migrate to what I call Genre Communities, that is, communities of more or less homogenous tastes in politics and culture.
"Americans segregate themselves into their own political worlds, blocking out discordant voices and surrounding themselves with reassuring news and companions," Bishop writes. He illustrates the point by quoting the country song, "Streets of Bakersfield."
You don’t know me but you don’t like me.
This is why the margins in presidential elections continue to get larger in many localities. The more Republican voters there are in a community, the more there are likely to be next year. Same with Democratic regions.
Another way to look at the progressive challenge: We have to win support from people who moved elsewhere so they don’t have to listen to us. That’s a high hill to climb, especially when we admit that we ourselves hunkered down in the valley so we don’t have to listen to them.
So it’s no surprise that we have faltered. Too many Democratic campaigns are based on the premise that if we just give voters the facts and tell them how our policies enhance their interests, we’ll win. A red state will blue up if they’ll just start thinking like we blue people do. Well, if a frog had wings, as they say.
Despite the bad habits, this looks to be an election year which favors progressives. The incumbent Republican president is less popular than any in history. The occupation of Iraq is a failure. Republican economic policies are crushing the middle class. U.S. Sen. Barack Obama’s campaign is operating at a level of competency Democrats have not seen in recent years. The success may be temporary, however, if we don’t embrace and act upon new insights into how humans think and act.
Genre politics is real. Even the late Paul Lazarsfeld, a sociologist in the rationalist tradition, recognized this decades ago. "The preference for one party rather than another must be highly similar to the preference for one kind of literature or music rather than another," he wrote in the ’50s.
Genre politics is real, but it is bad for democracy and bad for progressive goals. Genres reinforce difference and lead to in-group/out-group biases. A new term in sociology, infrahumanization, describes a human propensity to strip out-group members of their full humanity. "You don’t know me, but you don’t like me." An early study of infrahumanization is available as a pdf here. Studies have found this unsettling behavior in all kinds of cultures and all kinds of people. I can’t deny it in myself, and I bet you can’t either.
This is one reason why genre politics helps conservatives while it hurts progressives. Blind, rigid judgment of outsiders who don’t measure up is a conservative value. This is the way of Nature (to the social Darwinists) and God (to the Christian Right). Genre politics embodies conservative values.
Some recent Leftist thought has played right into the genre trap. Much of what’s called "identity politics" can run counter to the progressive values of pluralism and equality. While it’s natural and important for an oppressed group to demand recognition, dignity, freedom and opportunity, it becomes dangerous to those very values once such an endeavor achieves the status of genre. The core values are threatened by an outlook which judges as less-than-human all those not members of or supporters of the in-group.
Last week I wrote about progressives and country music. The piece was aimed more at genre-busting or border-crossing than glorification of the contemporary genre. My heroes are the new artists working in the loose Americana tradition. People like James McMurtry or Steve Earle.
I admire them not because they have rejected conservative values that I, too, disagree with. Rather, it’s because they employ many of the features of the old country music genre they critique. They are speaking the language of those whose minds they want to open to new points of view. A great example of genre-stretching is the title track of R&B star Marcia Ball’s new album, "Peace, Love & BBQ."
These artists are broadening genres by obscuring the in-group boundaries. They are not doing this by feigning allegiance to conservative ideology. In politics, that’s the counter-productive, genre-reinforcing approach of the Democratic Leadership Council and other so-called centrist Democrats. No, these artists maintain the integrity of their vision. But they use the language of a particular political genre while critiquing and expanding genre boundaries. Of course, this isn’t an overnight process and many artists like Earle and the Dixie Chicks have earned the enmity of conservative traditionalists who find the challenge more than they can stomach. Nonetheless, this effort is a model progressives would be wise to learn from.
In travels around the country, the question I get most often from progressives is, "How do I talk to conservatives?" I’m suggesting that instead of insisting that they first learn our language, that we learn theirs. Find values and cultural preferences held in common. Build on that commonality. Even if this doesn’t lead to immediate political success, it will lead to a deeper understanding of our fellow Americans.
There are three broad political genres, as identified in the ’60s by Daniel Elazar. They are the 1) traditional progressive, communitarian morality of the Northeast; 2) the Southern hierarchical or traditionalist politics; 3) the Western Individualistic politics. Elazar traced these "political cultures" from the time of the early immigration to North America through the various intra-American migrations that followed. The genres have proved very persistent.
Look at the following two maps. The first is an overly simplified geographical representation of Elazar’s political cultures, or what I’m calling genres.
The second is a mapping of urban American language dialects.
I juxtapose the maps to highlight just how persistent the broad political genres have been. Elazar’s political cultures trace rather closely the same lines contemporary linguists have used to group differences in dialects. Such deeply ingrained cultural habits – reinforced by our tendency to live and work among the like-minded, the creation of Genre Communities – are not going to be overcome by a silver-bullet political sound bite.
In "The Big Sort," Bill Bishop points out that linguists like William Labov, whose work includes the map above, are discovering that regional dialects are becoming more distinct. There is strength in diversity, but only if there’s communication among the diverse. It’s troubling that we are growing more distant from one another in our very language.