What is progressivism in politics

What sets progressives apart from conservatives is their feelings

Compassion or disgust? Progressive or Conservative? Political attitudes are often intertwined with feelings. That makes communication between left and right so difficult.

Whether Brexit, constitutional referendum in Turkey or Trump's election as US president - a gap is opening up everywhere: The progressive city dwellers want freedom and openness, while the conservative rural population longs for authority and tradition. How can that be explained?

Insights from psychology are still not given enough consideration in political analysis. Countless studies show that progressives (left and liberals) and conservative right often differ widely in their ideologies because they differ fundamentally in their styles of thinking and emotions. This has been shown by a group led by the American moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt with hundreds of experiments on over a hundred thousand test subjects worldwide.

Six principles

In one experiment, for example, one has to answer questions such as: Is incest between infertile siblings morally reprehensible? Can you clean a toilet with the national flag? Even if it is clear in these thought experiments that nobody suffers from the consequences of the actions, many test subjects have the intuition: You shouldn't! But they can seldom explain this with a general moral principle.

There is much to suggest that our normative intuitions are often based on emotional dispositions and unreflected convictions.

Even judgments made with caution such as “A state must protect its borders” or “The school system is unjust” are often only false declarations of emotional discomfort. There is much to suggest that our normative (moral, political) intuitions are often based on emotional dispositions and unreflected convictions. Above all, violations of moral principles trigger emotions that lead us to our judgments. This influence is difficult for us to recognize and all the more difficult to suppress.

The research has identified at least six emotion-based principles. Caring ensures that we care for children and those in need. Freedom manifests itself in the desire to live independently and without coercion. Fairness sensitizes us to the balance in cooperation. These three principles are found in all cultures and religions. We react to their injuries with negative emotions, namely with moral anger: We are outraged when suffering happens to the weak (care), when people are oppressed (freedom) and when they are treated unfairly (fairness).

While these reactions are particularly strong in progressives, they are comparatively weak in conservatives. Instead, they focus on three other principles that are particularly valued in non-Western cultures. First: loyalty. It's about loyalty to one's own tribe: the people, religion or the football team. Associated feelings are club or national pride as well as contempt for strangers and traitors.

Principle of purity

The second principle is that of authority. It is about hierarchy and recognition, about rank and honor, respect and subordination. Authority finds expression in family hierarchies such as the patriarchy, in orders and badges. Those who value authority want to act with "determination" and "severity" against criminals. Finally, the principle of purity suggests a difference between the "pure" and "natural" (for example marriage) on the one hand and the "impure" and "unnatural" (for example incest) on the other.

Although many analyzes of populism and the division of society focus on feelings such as hatred or the ability to empathize, there is usually no reference to emotion research. Above all, all analyzes overlook the central moral emotion of the conservatives and right-wing radicals: disgust. Because, according to the studies, it plays a decisive role for the principles of purity, loyalty and for the value that is attached to tradition.

The fluctuating expression of such disgust tendencies can be understood from the "omnivorous dilemma". Our ancestors had to try new things when there was a shortage of food (neophilia), otherwise they would have starved to death. At the same time, they had to be careful with what appeared to be food (neophobia), because much of it was poisonous or pathogenic. Disgust is the mechanism that protects us from harmful substances: We are disgusted with cadavers, body fluids and spoiled food. They can all transmit dangerous germs.

But neophobia doesn't stop at eating. Test subjects who had to endure bad smells during an interview gave clearly more conservative answers to political questions than the comparison group. In short: disgust makes you conservative. Conservatives get disgusted particularly quickly and permanently. This tendency carries over to their views on sex, death, and life.

The more conservative someone is, the more important the principle of purity is to them and the more "unnatural" they seem to be abortion, prostitution or homosexuality. Loyalty also has a connection to disgust, which is shown in tribal behavior and in the fear of foreign groups. In ancient times, immigrants brought diseases and parasites with them, to which there was often no resistance. In addition, conservatives see group symbols such as the Christian cross or the national flag as objects of sacred purity and react to abuse with contempt, a mixture of anger and disgust.

The digital bohemian

The disposition of disgust also makes people traditionalists. Conservatives generally shy away from anything new; they rarely react positively to surprising stimuli and prefer order and familiarity in life. In the case of progressives, on the other hand, the tendency to disgust is much less pronounced: They accordingly need less structure and order in life, they value individuality, creativity and new impressions. They are also open to non-traditional partnerships and sexual practices, they are more atheistic and have little interest in flags, orders or authorities.

Freedom, diversity and openness now characterize large cities in particular and are the ideal of the young generation who have chosen neophilia as their lifestyle. If you don't know the latest apps and hashtags, you don't belong to the digital bohemian. This shows how digitization contributes to social division. Just a few decades ago it was easy to be a traditionalist. In the times of Snapchat and self-driving cars, on the other hand, there is a need to be progressive.

Therefore, the break in society is not primarily between rich and poor, but above all between town and country and young and old. The elite haters who turn to right-wing populists are only partially economically "left behind". Rather, they feel that they are socially “left behind”. They have the impression that politicians, journalists, hipsters and celebrities are celebrating a party in the big cities - and they are not there.

In many respects, the politically right fringe represents the extreme forms of conservative morality based on feelings of disgust. There, loyalty and tribalism are transformed into loyalty to “blood and soil” and thus to xenophobia. The desire for authority and structure turns into a longing for the autocratic leader who cleans up properly - if necessary at the expense of democracy. The preference for purity is increased to disgust: Homosexuality is considered to be "disgusting", as are unclear gender roles or "left-wing green" ideas. The “angry citizens” are actually “disgusting citizens”.

Selective perception

But why have the fronts hardened so? Here, too, studies provide information. Progressives tend to be more analytical, while conservatives tend to have an intuitive, emotionally-guided style of thinking. Progressives rethink their spontaneous emotional reactions more often and thus censor their first impulses, while with conservatives gut instinct and moral judgment are in harmony. If the "intuitively" thinking conservatives are shown contradictions, they tend to stick to their position rather than revise it.

The desire for the world to conform to one's own norms is stronger than the pursuit of truth. Selective perception helps them avoid cognitive dissonance. This explains the susceptibility to fake news and conspiracy theories, especially in the right-wing camp.

Selective perception and stubbornness are of course not alien to progressives either. However, they can live a little better with contradictions. They tend to accept their own inconsistency and an unmanageable world, instead of looking for simple reasons or personal causes such as the "elites" or the "Zionists" to explain the grievances in the world.

Group dynamics

After all, it is better to transfer emotion-based principles such as care, fairness and freedom into a universal ethic with rational reasons than the principles of loyalty, authority and purity. The former emphasize symmetry and equality, while the latter are asymmetrical by excluding groups.

There are also differences in group dynamics: as a result of the self-reinforcement of opinions, all those who lean to the right and left move away from the center as soon as they assign themselves to one side. But the echo chamber on the right edge is almost soundproof, while the progressives are at least considering deviating positions.

In order to bring people back from the far right, one must therefore rely on good schools and universities in the long term: Citizens with a high level of education tend to think progressively. The appeal to reason seldom helps in the short term. The positive emotionalization of progressive topics is recommended, for example by appealing to compassion towards strangers, which can sometimes trump disgust. This is only an emergency solution, but at least a start.

Philipp Hübl is junior professor for philosophy at the University of Stuttgart. 2015 is his book «The underground of thinking. A Philosophy of the Unconscious »appeared.