Sunday, April 26, 2009

The End of the Left-Right Political Model?

We think we live in a left-right world, but I’m not so sure that’s the case anymore. If, as Nicholas Nassim Taleb says, we now live in Extremistan, then why do we not see our world as made up of “Extreministas” and “Moderationals”?

In the book “Gross National Happiness”, Arthur Brooks points out that self-described “extreme” conservatives and “extreme” liberals make up 10-20% of the population. Yet they are the ones that seem to be in control of the political process. Political primaries are dominated by the extremes. In 2004, for instance, 1.53 million people voted in Texas primaries (840,000 Republicans and 690,000 Democrats), but 7.4 million people voted in the general elections in the state. That means the primary turnout was just 20% the size of the general election. Yet the primaries are ultimately where “Moderationals” can make the most difference.

What’s wrong with Extreministas? There’s nothing inherently wrong with being passionate about your own beliefs, but the partisan rancor exhibited by both extremes actually makes us unhappy as a society, according to Brooks. Using “feeling thermometers”, political scientists can use public opinion polls to try and chart how we feel about our political opponents. Researchers use a “likeability” scale of 0-100, and ask respondents to rate both themselves and those they disagree with, with the higher score being better. According to Brooks, “in 2004, conservatives gave themselves a toasty average score of 81, but gave liberals a cool 39. Liberals gave themselves 75 but rated conservatives 38.” These are just your garden variety voters. The Extreministas on the left and the right give their ideological opposites scores that are less than 20. By comparison, in 2006 the country of Iran scored an average of 27. The people who make up the most involved portion of the electorate hate their fellow Americans more than they hate the leaders of a country that shout “Death to America” during parliamentary sessions. I don’t see how that fact can be a good thing for the political health of this country.

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