Psychology has made great strides lately in understanding the values that guide our political decisions. Activist Eric Balkan compiles the most relevant—and the most useful—in his book Why Liberalism?: How our Sense of Empathy and Fairness Determines our Political Orientation. But for all its clarity and utility, Balkan’s otherwise insightful analysis falls victim to binary thinking.
Balkan’s argument relies primarily on the “Empathy-Fairness Graph” (EFG), a histogram you’ve probably seen online. It relies on an XY graph in which one axis runs from fairness to stability, and the other runs from empathy to self-interest. Identifying where a person lies on each axis categorizes a person’s political beliefs. Conservatives, Balkan says, score high on self-interest and social stability, while liberals value fairness and empathy.
So far, so good. Conservatives generally desire continuity and regard individual desires as paramount. Liberals generally seek to reconcile conflicting interests based on equality and rights. Though we may need to juggle vocabulary, most people would agree that these value judgments distinguish the primary political poles.
But Balkan himself admits his definitions don’t always hold. Some putatively liberal issues run against fairness, as when environmental concerns conflict with blue-collar jobs. Conservatism, meanwhile, requires us to value others’ self-interest as equal to our own. Which means the EFG gives us a foundation that only goes about so far.
Politics, with its relationship between individuals to groups, always means attempting to communicate complex concepts in an attempt to create some unity. Therefore, we must find ways to translate our values into others’ language. If I can stage the social safety net in terms of stability rather than fairness, or if I can present tax cuts, a self-interest issue, in terms of empathy, we can like one set of political values with another.
Unfortunately, Balkan has his own set of blinders on. In the introduction, he admits he wrote this book after struggling to understand why he couldn’t persuade more people to his progressive views. He might check his own prejudices about conservatives. He describes them as “narrow minded,” “not self aware,” and “ignorant of the facts.” He at least has the courage to concede some limits of his own position, but minimizes them in light of conservative limitations.
Like me, Balkan calls himself a former libertarian who could no longer sustain certain contradictions. So he should know that libertarians see self-interest as a fairness issue: that is, what’s mine is mine, and any levy on it is theft, which could happen to anyone and thus should be stopped. But Balkan puts these two values on completely different axes.
Perhaps Balkan should observe his own stipulations. He concedes that that the frequent overlap between fairness and empathy makes defining borders impossible. But that applies all around the graph. Without clear, unambiguous definitions, we cannot say where anyone falls on the spectrum. When my fairness becomes your arrogance, or my order becomes your tyranny, we lose the ability to communicate.
This is not a made-up issue. The culture war has been waged in largest part by people who redefine values on new cores. During FDR’s administration, I doubt anyone would have dreamed that workers would vote for politicians who promised to cut millionaires’ taxes. But by redefining group identity away from jobs and economic standings, people who would previously have served as liberalism’s core voting bloc have become overwhelmingly conservative.
Thus, Balkan’s system is simultaneously not wrong and not right. The fundamental values have persisted since time out of mind, yet the applications have shifted so that workers’ issues get served by the rich, it’s unfair to say anyone owes the prior generation for its gifts, and the difference between duty and burden depends on who’s asking. This layering of values, though both natural and inevitable, confuses an already confusing domain.
Perhaps the problem lies in trying to reduce complex questions of power and society to either-or binaries. But our winner-take-all electoral system rewards such simplification. Nations that rely on proportional representation permit more nuanced politics, as demonstrated for instance by Germany’s historic reliance on coalition governments. This both allows more substantial debate and has prevented a recurrence of 1928.
Balkan’s pamphlet-sized book raises several important points that can help advance the debate. Understanding the psychology of political discourse will permit more productive resolution to problems. But this provides only a foundation, not a complete edifice, and we must keep addressing political controversies on a case-by-case basis. Only this will permit sufficient subtlety to resolve our deeply human conflicts.