Social Darwinism and "The Political Brain"

Dick Armey, the former House majority leader has famously (or infamously) remarked that liberals are not very bright (Johnson, 2004). The claim is as arrogant as it is wrong: neither faction has a monopoly on intelligence. The difference is in the gut.

Steven Johnson, in “The Political Brain,” notes that people become Republicans or Democrats before they learn what those parties stand for. He argues that people with like outlooks congregate and that party affiliation initially results from whom you hang around with rather than from dispassionate consideration of the issues.

Johnson notes further that you cannot make a so-called rational decision without emotional involvement, and that is what I want to amplify on here.

In his splendid book Descartes’ Error, the neurologist Antonio Damasio (1994) shows that it is impossible to make a rational decision unless you have some emotional involvement - as Damasio puts it, unless you can feel it in your gut. Briefly, Damasio showed what he calls “disturbing” photographs to patients who had sustained damage to certain parts of their brains, and also to normal controls. The controls showed a “skin response,” or increased electrical conductivity in their skins, when viewing the disturbing photographs, whereas the patients showed none. One patient even told the experimenters that he knew he was supposed to feel something but did not.

In further experiments and in real life, Damasio found that the brain-damaged patients were unable to make what the rest of us would call “rational” decisions. Since the patients were otherwise normal, Damasio attributed this inability to their lack of emotions: If they cannot feel the consequences of an action “in their gut” - be afraid of the consequences - then they cannot behave rationally.

Before relating Damasio’s observations to liberals and conservatives, let me define my terms carefully. By “conservative,” I mean those political and economic ultra-conservatives who oppose taxes of all kinds, promote free-market economics, and generally oppose government intervention in anything. By “liberal,” I mean anyone from, say, a New Deal Democrat to a member of a European social democratic party. People who support such noneconomic issues as freedom of speech, separation of church and state, the right to a decent standard of living, and the right to choose an abortion are often confused with liberals, but these issues alone do not, to my mind, define a liberal.

What, then, is the difference between a liberal and a conservative? My educated guess is that one main difference is sympathy or lack of sympathy for people who are not close to them in some way. Thus, a liberal feels compassion for the poor, the underprivileged, the oppressed, whereas the conservative feels compassion primarily for those people like him or her, or close to him or her in some way. I do not mean to imply that feeling more compassion for those closest to you is pathological, but it should not preclude compassion for others as well.

As I noted in Comment 6572 to my essay on social Darwinism (Young, 2004), a conservative friend of mine always has an economic solution to any social problem: vouchers for education, tax breaks for investors, higher gasoline prices for conservation, and so on. In each case, the main beneficiaries of his proposed policies are upper middle-class people exactly like my friend. School vouchers benefit primarily those who already send their children to private schools or plan to do so, because vouchers typically do not cover the full cost of tuition and because transportation is often a burden for poorer families. Tax breaks for investors benefit primarily investors; they benefit the weaker members of society only secondarily, if at all. Even higher gasoline prices benefit my friend inasmuch as they allow him to continue driving his urban-assault vehicle while forcing other, poorer people into small cars or public transportation.

When I tell my friend that his solutions are invariably self-serving, he responds that I have made a very interesting point, but he never re-evaluates his positions on these issues. Why not? I argue that his self-interest is hypertrophied and forces him to base his rational decisions on that very self-interest. If he would only put himself in the place of others and feel their needs in his gut, then he might moderate some of his views.

As if to drive home my point, E. J. Dionne (2004) of the Washington Post wrote a syndicated article entitled “Heart Trumps Ideology” (at least that was the title in the Boulder Daily Camera). According to Dionne, the Vice-President, Dick Cheney, has adopted a live-and-let-live attitude to homosexuals and homosexual marriage. Cheney’s allies on the far right were outraged, and it is puzzling why Cheney, the quintessential right-wing hard-liner, would adopt such an, um, liberal position.

Why indeed? Because his daughter is a lesbian, and the issue has hit Cheney where it hurts - in his gut. Cheney has sympathy for his daughter, so he adopted a view that is wholly inconsistent with his overall message and with the views of his political allies. Why can Cheney not look beyond his own immediate family?

Kate Larson (2004) in the Boulder Daily Camera tells of a café owner who bitterly opposed a no-smoking ordinance 2 years ago but is no longer fighting the ordinance. Why the change of heart? The café owner has come down with lung cancer. Had she no sympathy before then for the victims of second-hand smoke, many of whom would presumably suffer from some smoking-induced ailment? No, apparently not. Before getting lung cancer, she was concerned only with a loss of business and gave no thought to anyone else.

Finally, let’s talk again about social Darwinism. In a weak moment, I allowed (Comment 6568) that what passes for conservatism today is tantamount to social Darwinism but is not social Darwinism as such. I have given the matter more thought and can think of at least one example where the conservative position is almost precisely social Darwinism: deregulation and the free market.

It is only a slight exaggeration to say that the free market is supposed to solve all problems. Unfortunately, the market is not free and probably never has been. The question, then, is whether the market will be controlled by a handful of giant corporations or by the people through their elected government.

To take but one example, since the airlines were deregulated, there have been countless bankruptcies, workers have lost pensions and benefits, maintenance has reportedly suffered, and customers complain that they are treated like baggage (or sardines). If the capitalists who run the airlines had a grain of sense, they would be screaming for regulation, which would, among other benefits, give them a guaranteed rate of return on investment and a healthy share of the market.

But unregulated competition dictates that some airlines must fail (and others temporarily get a more than healthy share). You would have to be extremely doctrinaire to claim that deregulation has brought about any benefits except possibly lowered fares for customers. The cost of those lowered fares, however, has been paid in part with poor and uncertain service, in part by investors, and in part by the employees of the airlines. Indeed, deregulation and its cousin, privatization, reduce costs mainly because they reduce salary and pension benefits for workers. Not exactly social Darwinism perhaps, but extremely close, with the gap between rich and poor growing as more and more people fight for lower and lower salaries.

In the same way, many on the right decry Federal programs in the name of Federalism, which I take to be a code word for states’ rights (you know, the doctrine that has been used for decades to support slavery and segregation). I’m sorry, but Federalism is a tactic, a mechanism, not a principle. Principles are things like, “Everyone has a right to a decent standard of living.” I argue that people who oppose, say, nationalizing welfare on grounds of Federalism or claim against all odds that it is harmful to welfare recipients are unable or unwilling to place themselves in the position of welfare recipients - so they feel in their guts only what influences their pocketbooks, and they invite single mothers with children to tighten their belts or find a job that cannot pay for day care. Federalism is accepted as a starting point because it yields the “right” result, a form of social Darwinism, just as school vouchers yield the “right” result to my friend.

In a comment to Johnson’s article, James Harrison (Johnson 2004) of Asheville, N. C., argues that Democrats think with all their brains, rather than part of their brains. I do not think that is exactly so. Rather, I think, liberals have a broader horizon than conservatives and can better feel “in their guts” the needs of other people, especially people whose needs are markedly different from theirs. Political or economic conservatives, among whom I include many Democrats, seem to feel their own needs only, at least when it comes to pocketbook issues.

They used to say that a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged. But maybe a liberal is a conservative who has got a glimpse of someone else’s pain. Thus, I claim, liberals are not less “bright” than conservatives, but perhaps they are more able to feel sympathy for unrelated individuals.


Damasio, Antonio R., 1994. Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, Avon, New York.

Dionne, E. J., 2004. “Heart trumps ideology,” Daily Camera (Boulder), 30 August, p. 4B.

Johnson, Steven, 2004. “The political brain: Why do Republicans and Democrats differ so emphatically? Perhaps it’s all in the head,” The New York Times Magazine, 22 August, pp. 16-17. See also letters, 5 September, pp. 6-8.

Larsen, Kate, 2004. “Other county towns facing smoking ban,” Daily Camera (Boulder), 27 September, pp. 1A, 5A.

Young, Matt, 2004. “Social Darwinism is alive and well and living at the Discovery Institute,”, 17 August.