Savages & Sycophants: The Broad, the Narrow & the Seduction of Ideology – Pt. 2

Note: This post uses religious symbolism for secular purposes. It is not a tool of proselytization.

Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

Matthew 7:13-14 New International Version (NIV)

 There is one institution of society that unquestionably prefers polarity to balance: politics. The American electorate, which once enjoyed ideological diversity, is actively moving towards a tribal biopoly. I find Christ’s metaphor of the ‘broad’ road and the ‘narrow’ path particularly fitting when it comes to discussing political ideology, for several reasons. First, the percentage of Americans that opt for the narrow, centric path, which compounds the assets and limits the liabilities of the spectrum’s poles, is decreasing. Second, the percentage of Americans that prefer one of the wide paths of opposing extremes is increasing. Americans have become unable to resist the allure of radicalism and simplicity. The father of utilitarian ethics, John Stuart Mill, had some valuable wisdom on this topic:

Mill wisely observed that ideal public policy and governmental efficiency comes from the synthesis of both sides’ views, not from the destruction of one side by the other. A healthy number of political moderates is the currency of a functioning republic. The endangered status of moderates and the trend of ideological radicalization is evidenced by the data.The following graphs come from a 2017 Gallup poll:

The graphs show a few clear trends. First, the percentage of the American population that identifies as moderate has steadily declined over the past two decades. Meanwhile, the percentage that identifies as completely liberal has risen over this time period at an even greater rate. The majority of Americans are still conservative, and while the conservative percentage has stayed relatively flat, some conservatives have jumped across the spectrum to the liberal side.

A 2017 Pew Research Poll provides even more insights on this mass exodus to political radicalism. While many Americans have switched their political ideology (moderate to left or right to left), others have moved in the opposite direction and adopted more extreme and ideologically pure views.  

The Pew information shows that back in the mid-2000s (comparable to, but less moderate than the mid-90s), the country was 50% moderate (mix of liberal and conservative views), while the other half of the country moved towards one of the two fringes. In 2017, the ratio of moderates to radicals halved from 1:1, in 2004, to 1:2. Not surprisingly, political ideology walks tandem with partisan affiliation. This means that the Republican and Democrat parties became puritanical, in terms of their philosophical motivation. Both parties have jettisoned moderate positions, arrived at through careful reasoning, and have adopted extreme beliefs that are grounded in emotion and naive idealism. The broad roads are poaching the pilgrims of the narrow. 

The degree of ideological extremism is captured nicely in the second Pew graph. In 1994, only 64% of Republicans were more conservative than the median Democrat and only 70% of democrats were more liberal than the median Republican. In 2017, 95% of Republicans were more conservative than the median Democrat and 97% of Democrats were more conservative than the median Republican.

The graphs’ results show that it’s become more fashionable to ‘choose a side.’ Seemingly timid and vanilla, centrists are perceived as wishy-washy political agnostics. People don’t want to be ‘moderate.’ They want to be extreme. They want a concrete, rousing belief system that provides an easy-to-use framework of the world, but also provides them with a sense of meaning and purpose. This is not good. Sixty-six percent of Americans have chosen to trek down one of the broad paths.

There are many reasons for this, but one component is simple: voters are human, which means that they’re lazy and prefer ideological expediency to the struggle of centrist equilibrium. Part of the political polarity in America is caused by the link between the human sin of mental sloth and a predisposition to fundamentalism and tribalism. This is innate within us, as evidenced by classic literature like William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies.

Unfortunately, America’s political schism isn’t just a product of external forces. It’s also a symptom of the human condition that governs all of us.  The urge to organize ourselves into warring factions is biological. Chimpanzees, humans’ closest genetic relatives, display savage tribalism when they compete with groups of the same species, which is eerily reminiscent of human behavior. For some time, Jane Goodall debated whether or not to release her research findings to the public. Perhaps unsurprisingly, chimpanzees and humans are the only primates that kill for resources and for territory. Let me be clear, this is not the whole picture. But, it’s a significant piece of the pie. Humans like to be part of a team or group by nature, but no one can deny the impact of the Trump phenomenon (and more importantly, the event’s that led to that) on the country’s ideological division. Like everything else, there’s more than one variable at play.

Works Cited:

  1. Saad, Lydia. (2017). “ U.S. Conservatives Outnumber Liberals by Narrowing Margin.” Gallup, Inc.
  2. Kiley, Jocelyn. (2017). “In polarized era, fewer Americans hold a mix of conservative and liberal views.” Pew Research Center.
  3. Neuberg, Steven & Cottrell, Catherine (Arizona State University). (2005). “Evidence that Prejudice is Hardwired in the Human Brain.”  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
  4. Shermer, Michael. (2012). “Evolution Explains Why Politics is so Tribal.” Scientific American.

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