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The difficulty of leftist politics

In preparation for the beginning of my first semester as a Master’s student in Political Science, I’ve been revisiting some old works to refresh my memory. Of particular interest is a paper by Philip E. Converse from the 1960s titled The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics.

The main takeaway from the article is that most people don’t have a logically coherent ideology that guides their political actions. There is a fairly sharp distinction to be drawn between political ideologues and near-ideologues, who make up about 15% of the population and whose political views are largely coherent, and the rest of the population, who have political belief systems that aren’t very far-ranging or logically consistent. In short, as a person’s political information and engagement decreases, so does the consistency among different positions.

Within this discussion, Converse touches on a difference between leftist and rightist politics and political elites which I have often observed but have struggled to state clearly. Converse comes pretty close with the following passages:

“[I]deologically constrained belief systems are necessarily more common in upper than in lower social strata. This fact in turn means that upper social strata across history have much more predictably supported conservative or rightist parties and movements than lower strata have supported leftist parties and movements.”

And in the next paragraph:

“The net result of these circumstances is that the elites of leftist parties enjoy a “natural” numerical superiority, yet they are cursed with a clientele that is less dependable or solid in its support. The rightist elite has a natural clientele that is more limited [smaller] but more dependable.”

So a working class Democrat is more likely to buck his party’s ideology and support conflicting beliefs because she is more likely to be a low-information voter than a typical Republican. Wealth confers an ability to gain education and engage more in public affairs, so wealthy interests are naturally better organized and more consistent.

The study also makes clear that the non-ideological voters tend mostly toward thinking in terms of group interests. This is somewhat of a silver lining, as increased education among poorer voters can help them to discern their class interests and behave in a more advantageous way in the political arena. I think the conclusions also support a general contention that the non-voting part of the electorate probably tends toward working class and leftist issue positions.

Nets and wiggles

The title of the blog comes from an idea put forth by Alan Watts, that the world is wiggly and continuous, and that we humans break it up into chunks with our minds so that we can understand it. At its most basic, this “cutting” up of the world takes a dualistic form. We can’t understand light without darkness, or joy without sorrow. But then there are other ways we break up the world, such as naming different colors along the spectrum of visible light. One can’t very well pin down the exact point at which red becomes orange and then yellow; it happens in a continuous way, and we chop it up into categories that are convenient to us (red, blue, etc.) but which are always fuzzy, inexact.

This fuzziness is to be found literally everywhere. Anywhere there is a supposed boundary between one thing and the next, you will find, at some level of magnification or another, a fuzzy gradient rather than a neat line. The boundary of my skin may seem to be a reasonable thing that marks out what’s me and what’s not me. But if I look up close I’ll see a permeable barrier that exchanges molecules all the time with the world around it. And my body is home to immense numbers of micro-organisms which don’t share my DNA and so aren’t really “me” and yet which are indispensable to my existence.

So the categories that we cut out of the complex and continuous tapestry of the world are always tenuous, relative, and not quite true. They’re like the equator, a convenient fiction that can’t actually be pinned down in practice. The line imagined to be the equator can get infinitely thin and still divide the planet in half. It would be a pure matter of convenience to stop the magnification at some medium level – say, the scale of a grain of sand. But there is always the possibility of blowing the picture up larger and getting down to the quantum level. My understanding is that here one finds a sort of foam, like static as the substrate of matter. Beyond the level of the foam are, perhaps, superstrings vibrating at certain frequencies. But why are we to believe that there’s nothing more beyond that? It seems to me more likely that the limit to our level of magnification will continue to grow as our technology improves. Though it may get more difficult and more questionable on utilitarian grounds whether it’s worth it to pursue such levels of understanding.

In the end we decide as individuals and as a species what levels of understanding are important to explore. A great many people operate exclusively or almost exclusively on the level of social interaction, gossip, etc. There are those few who are enthusiastic about pushing the boundary and exploring reality at extreme levels of magnification. And there are those in between.

There are many varieties of nets of various sizes. A key to harmonious living is knowing which one is most appropriate to use in a given time and place, and staying mindful of the fact that reality is ultimately wiggly.