The political duality of rep and dem

by: OpenLeft

Sat Jan 02, 2010 at 10:00

We at Open Left are taking the New Year's weekend off.  Golden Oldies will run in their place.  Regularly Scheduled programming will resume on January 4th--Chris Bowers

A Paul Rosenberg Golden Oldie
From Sat Oct 06, 2007.
Original HERE.

There's a rather far-flung concept in mathematics known as "duality."  A few days ago it struck me how this concept can illuminate something very fundamental about the current state of American politics.  It's a powerful, and far-reaching concept, but fortunately you don't have to grasp a great deal about it in order to get my point.

As Wikipedia explains:

Generally speaking, dualities translate concepts, theorems or mathematical structures into other concepts, theorems or structures, in a one-to-one fashion. Duality is characteristically an involution operation: if the dual of A is B, then the dual of B is A. As involutions sometimes have fixed points, the dual of A is sometimes A itself.

Ohhhh-kay.  Let's try bringing that down to Earth a little bit, shall we?

A simple example comes from graph theory:

In mathematics, a dual graph of a given planar graph G has a vertex for each plane region of G, and an edge for each edge joining two neighboring regions. The term "dual" is used because this property is symmetric, meaning that if G is a dual of H, then H is a dual of G; in effect, these graphs come in pairs.

That may still sound like Greek to you, but it's a whole lot simpler when see it pictured like this:

See?  Each blue vertex (dot) is alone within a plane region defined by red edges (lines), and visa versa.  Each red line intersects one blue line, and visa versa.

In effect, the dual graph of G is sort of like turning G inside out.

So what's this got to do with politics?  With Democrats and Republicans?


OpenLeft :: The political duality of rep and dem
The Basic Duality

(A) Democrats are reality-based when it comes to policies, and totally out to lunch when it comes to winning elections, and politicking in general.

(B) But Republicans are totally out to lunch when it comes to policies, and as reality-based as it gets when it comes to winning elections, and politicking in general.

Actually, that's just a first approximation.  It's actually more rigorous than that, which is what makes it interesting.  But that's enough to let you know the ballpark we'll be playing in, if you care to continue this exploration.

The Shape of What's To Come

Now for the bad news.  There's too much to this to do it properly in a single post.  So I'm going to chop it up into parts.  But I'll tell you enough about where we'll be going so I hope that you'll want to make the whole journey with me. 

First, I want to introduce a couple of schemas for understanding cognitive complexity.  The first is a very directly applicable to what we're going to be discussing.  The second is a bit more abstract, but has a couple of big payoffs that make it worthwhile to include.  That's what the rest of this first diary will be about, with a little taste of what's to come at the end.

The second diary will show how this analysis works to illuminate what's going on in politics, with a peak at a few different conservative policy fiascos.

Then, in the third diary, I want to turn things around, and look at how the Democrats have been acting lately, such as the MoveOn fiasco.

Finally, in the fourth and final diary, I'll tie it all together, explain the duality more precisely than I've done at the beginning, and talk abut what sorts of lessons it holds for us, and how we can start being as smart and reality-based in politicking as we are in our real-world analysis and policy-making.

Cognitive Complexity I: Three Styles of Adult Thinking

Jean Piaget began the scientific study of cognitive development in the 1920s, developing his theory of developmental stages over the course of several decades.  A number of other theories have developed similar theories refining or significantly modifying Piaget's work, including theories that include more than just a single adult stage of development.

One such example is Shawn Rosenberg (no relation), who emphasizes a greater role for the social environment, as opposed to seeing development as purely an internally-driven process. In his 1988 book, Reason, Ideology and Politics he lays out a three-fold typology of adult reasoning,

which is discussed along with other developmental approaches in an online papepr, "Structures of Geopolitical Reasoning":

  • Sequential thinkers reason "by tracking the world," recognize regularities in sequences of events, but have no abstract understanding of cause and effect.  The world they perceive is a world of appearances that has very little organization to it beyond the recurrence of sequences.

  • Linear thinkers understand cause and effect, limited to a one-direction, one-cause/one-effect model.  The world they perceive has logical order and structure, but the structure is invariably hierarchical, causality flows top-down, and the world is divided neatly into cause and effect.

  • Systematic thinkers understand multi-faceted, multi-linear cause and effect, with mutual cause-and-effect relationships between different elements.  The world they perceive is primarily a world of systems and relationships, rather than objects.

Because sequential thinking plays such an important role in movement conservatism, I want to elaborate it more fully.  The first two points come from the paper linked to above, the last two from Rosenberg's book:

  • The notion of causality, e.g. that events are caused by necessary and sufficient preconditions, does not play a salient role in the sequential mind. Events transpire, without much interpretation of how they come about. The attention is occupied by one item at a time, and there is little spontaneous effort to relate them to other items or to a general context.

  • The sequential thinker is not really aware that the world may appear differently to other people, and he or she has therefore a limited ability to take the perspective of others.

  • Sequential thinking involves conceptual relations that "are synthetic without being analytic.  They join events together but the union forged is not subject to any conceptual dissection." [Direct quote from Rosenberg's book.] Because such relations are non-rational, there is nothing rational one can say or do to change them. (Sound familiar?)

  • But they can change, Rosenberg explains, based on changing appearances. These relationships "are mutable," they can either be extended, based on "share[d] recognized overlapping events" (connections provided by Limbaugh, O'Lielly, etc.) or changed, when the sequence does not play out as expected.  Because it is a pre-logical mode of thought, "the relations of sequential thought engender expectations, but do not create subjective standards of normal or necessary relations between events."

I will be referring back to these points in diaries to come, as well as below in the current diary.

Cognitive Complexity II: Kegan's Subject/Object Model

A more robust theorectical model was developed by Harvard psychologist Robert Kegan, a student of Lawrence Kohlberg, who wrote two principle books explaining his theory, The Evolving Self: Problem and Process in Human Development and In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life.  While Piaget's primary focus was on reasoning about the physical world, Kohlberg focused on moral development.  Kegan built on this work, extending the analysis to education and therapy, and drawing parallels to the work of other developmental psychologists, such as Erick Erickson and Abraham Maslow.

Kegan developed a five-stage model (along with a primative stage 0) that had a consistent underlying logic to it:  At each stage, the self has a two-fold structure consisting of object (conscious elements that can be acted on) and subject (unconscious background elements that do the acting).  What is subject at one stage becomes object at the next. This logic is applicable to Rosenberg's three styles of adult reasoning, as will be discussed shortly.

The table below summarizes the major characteristics of all five stages.  Explaining all the terms in full would take us considerably afield from the main point of this diary series.  What's important is first, to observe the logic present, second to understand how Rosenberg's three types of thinking make sense as related to Kegan's stages 2, 3 and 4, and third, to understand what added insight this provides.  The discussion below will deal with all three of these points in an inter-related fashion.  Here then, is the table:

Kegan's Subject/Object Schema of Cognitive Development
StageWe Are:
(structure of knowing)
We Have:
(content of knowing)
Underlying Structure





Enduring Dispositions




Inner states


Enduring Dispositions
Needs, Peferences
Abstract Systems

Relationship-Regulating Forms



Inner states


Abstract Systems

Relationship-Regulating Forms


The first thing to observe about the table above--without even knowing what any of the terms mean--is the basic logic indicated above:  What is subject at one level is object at the next (although there may be additional elaboration).  This is reinforced by noting how the underlying structure of each level creates a larger strutural context encompassing the structure of the level before.

The transition between Level One and Level Two is the transition between early and late childhood (also known as "latency).  In early childhood different children will exhibit different sorts of characteristic behavior, but there is a strong tendency for this be highly variable, according to environment at any given time, and according to changes over time, as young children are particularly prone to "go through phases," to develop strong interests and attachments (whether to objects, activities, playmates, tv programs, etc.) which can rather abruptly be broken, replaced or supplemented with something else seemingly quite different.  This reflects the fact that they have yet to develop what becomes so characteristic of late childhood, a set of characteristic dispositions that very much define who a child is at this stage of life.  This stage lasts until the onset of adolescence, which is normally a prolonged transitional period to adulthood, characterized by Level Three.

In traditional societies, cognitive development beyond Level Three is relatively rare, and even then is generally found only in later stages of life, at ages that relatively few adults reach.

At Level Two, point of view is subject, it's part of the unconscious background of awareness.  At Level Three, one has a point of view, one can reflect on it as an object, compare it to a previous point of view, and recognize that one now sees things differently.  It's also possible to compare points of view with others, see where there is agreement or disagreement, etc.

At Level Three, points of view are objects within a larger context, and that context is society itself, the social surround of roles and relationships that define one's place in the universe by defining one's place in society.  And just as it was impossible to reflect on one's point of view at level two, it is impossible to reflect on society as a whole at level three--because it is subject, it is part of the very fabric of what one uses to reflect on other things.

Level Four is the level of conscious autonomy, in which the socially-constructed self, and the society it is constructed by, becomes object, subject to reflection and inspection by the autonomous self, what Kegan calls the "institutional self." The institutional, autonomous self is the self of liberal political theory, dating back at least to the time of the Reformation.

This is not to say that this cognitive level has been commonplace since then.  (Remember his book title?  In Over Our Heads?  Get it?) Rather, the conflicts and pressures that tend to give rise to it have been common.  The gap between those pressures and how many people adapt to them can be measured crudely by the degree of violence involved in the Wars of Reformation, such as the Thirty Years War.

Level Five represents an additional level of complexity, at which the modern self itself comes into question, and becomes object for a higher level of conscious questioning.  Instead of appearing as outside of or beyond the definitions of society--the individual in direct relationship with God, for example, in Luther's formulation--that self is now seen as a construction, and more importantly, it is seen as a construction of opposites.  Dualities such as male/female, sacred/profane, spirite/flesh, mind/matter, etc. are increasely seen as relational terms defined in terms of one another, rather than as absolute opposites.  Paradoxes, which frequently depend on presumptions of absolute opposition, are no longer seen as contradictions that resist all thinking, but as potential sources of insight into how underlying opposites are constructed, and how they mght be constructed otherwise.

In short, what were taken as natural, immutable principles on which the autonomous self could be constructed, beyond the mutable social realm, are now seen to be part of a larger process of becoming.

It's highly significant for us that Level Three is identified with traditionalism, and the self constructucted from social roles and relationships, while Level Four is identified with modernism and the autonomous self.  This is, in a very straightforward sense, a natural dividing line between conservatism and liberalism.

However, it is only one such dividing line.  Traditional societies can vary enormously in terms of how liberal or conservative they may be, befined in terms of authoritarianism, militarism, patriarchy, xenophobia, etc. vs. their opposites.  Many of these differences tend to correlate with material conditions, with similar social structures and ethical systems among large agricultural societies such as Sumeria and ancient Egypt.  Yet, even rather similar material conditions can give rise to strikingly different value systems, as noted by early anthropologists such as Ruth Bennedict in her classic, Patterns of Culture.

Still, the Level 3/Level 4 transition is profound, and often profoundly political.  While conservatives often argue that certain things simply cannot be changed, liberals requently ask, "Why not?"  Liberals asked this about conservative claims that blacks were "natural slaves," for example.  This attitudinal difference certainly makes considerable sense if we think of conservatism as expressing a Level Three consciousness, that of a self that is constructed out of the social roles and relationships of the surrounding society, while liberalism expresses a Level Four consciousness, capable of reflecting on, and critiquing those same roles and relationships.

This also explains some of the asymmetry in attitudes.  If, like the Level Three self, one is embedded in social roles and relationships, then any criticism or critique of them is likely to be experienced as an attack on one's very self.  Thus, ordinary Level Four thinking can readily be interpreted as hostile, even treasonous activity by the Level Three self.

In contrast, even the most vicious attacks of the Level Three self on the Level Four self are likely to be seen as expressing autonomous individual differences, which can always be mediated, either by choices of free association (such as freedom to worship where and how one will), or by market mediations, or by political contest and compromise.  Of course, both cognitive levels are mistaken to judge one another in their own terms--but this is a very common form of confusion, as Kegan points out repeatedly in In Over Our Heads.

With this introduction the logic of Kegan's levels in mind, it's illuminating to consider the following table describing different aspects of Rosenberg's 3-level typology of thought discussed above.  If one looks carefully, one will see that each separate heading exhibits its own sense in which each level stands in a subject/object//context/content relationship to the level before:

Table K-1.1
Rosenberg's 3-Level Typology
Fundamentals & Application to Politics
Derived from Reason, Ideology and Politics, and Thomas Jordan's "Structures of Geopolitical Reasoning: Outline of a Constructive-Developmental Approach"
I. Fundamentals of Reasoning
Nature of Reasoning
1-Tracks objects.  Reasoning is bound to the world as it appears.
2-Analyzes sequences of activity.
3-Juxtaposes relationships among actions and beliefs.
Sense of Causality
1- Largely absent:  Events transpire, without much interpretation of how they come about.
2- Unidirectional: One factor acts upon another.
3- Bidirectional: Many factors act reciprocally on each other.
Conceptual Objects
1-Objects which currently are, or have been observed.
2-Concrete, observable actions, with concrete objects as subunits.
3-Relationships between actions and beliefs.
Conceptual Relations
1-Sequential order of events or a match between similar ones.
2-Subjectively defined unidirectional relationships.
3-Abstract, bidirectional relationships interposed between units.
II. Politics
Nature of Politics
1- Focuses on particular actors and present or very recent events
2- Considers causal relations and organizational structure, in unidirectional fashion.
3- Sees politics as regulated by collective rules, norms and expectations..
View of Political System
1- Concrete interactions. No sense of durable relationships, or a general context in which concrete events are situated.
2- Hierarchical structures where control flows from the top downwards.
3- A complex web of mutual relationships.
Political Players
1-Observed, concrete objects, each with its particular appearance and place in a sequence of events.  No sense of them as subjects.
2-Subjects-individuals and groups-with internal drives and motivations who are the causes of action, and those targets of action whose activities are other-determined.
3-Systems of action and belief.
Nature of Political Actions
1- Specific, concrete, actually-observed speech and action within relatively short sequences of events.
2- Observable, concrete acts-whether or not actually observed-that occur in an ordered world of cause and effect.
3a-Genreal organizing forces that regulate specific interactive relationships and define the rules governing interrelationships between ideas.
3b-Particular interactions and propositions defined with regard to specific acts and general rules involved.
  Key: 1-Sequential reasoning. 2-Linear reasoning. 3-Systemic reasoning.

One final note needs to be made about the subject/object level structure visible above, and that concerns how Rosenberg's levels compare with Kegan's. The short answer is that they correspond generally to Kegan's levels 2-4.

Sequential thinking is generally oblivious to social structure, its norms  and the abstract foundations that constitute it as a whole. 

Recall from above that "The sequential thinker is not really aware that the world may appear differently to other people, and he or she has therefore a limited ability to take the perspective of others."  This is precisely what it means to be a point-of-view, as Level Two does, rather than to have a point-of-view, as Level Three does.

Linear thinking is generally reflective of social structure, implicitly assuming both its existence and its morality.  Systemic thinking is generally critical of the social structure, in the neutral sense of a movie critic, whose "criticiam" might be an enthusiastic review.  It alone is capable of juxtaposing, comparing and evalauting actions and beliefs, and reflecting on mutliple possible causes, including circular causation.  These are possibilities that only come fully into their own to the extent that one is capable of standing outside of the social system and reflecting on it as a whole--which is to say, it is to say, to the extent that one has an autonomous, institutional Level Four self.


In the course of laying out these two schemas I've made some comments about political implications.  In the diaries to come, the political implications will move to the fore.  In the next diary I'm going to elaborate much more fully on the brief discussion above about the crucial distinction between Level Three and Level Four thinking--and even moreso on the vast gap between Level Two and Level Four.  Because one of the key dynamics that characterizes our politics is the degree to which conservative thinking--which normally ought to be characterized by Level Three, has been dragged down into Level Two--(and, if truth be told, even lower than that).

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