Researchers hope insight into political and psychological processes will give democracy a boost.
I’ve just spent a couple of weeks in Scotland and England absorbing history and enjoying the majestic sites both natural and made by humans, and thinking about what they’ve meant and mean for people in the past and present. The history I explored all seemed to have modern echoes.
My wife and I flew to Edinburgh for the annual conference of the International Society of Political Psychology, researchers who explore “the relationships between political and psychological processes.” (I collected an award for incorporating the social sciences in my work.)
We’re experiencing a moment when we could all use a little insight into the ways people’s thinking and behavior interact with politics. Trump over here, Brexit over there. The threat of terrorism and the reality of inequality everywhere. Too much to process in one sitting, but I’d like to share a few impressions.
Many discussions centered on whether liberal democracy as it has existed in the West can be saved from the populist and nationalist forces so active now in many countries.
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Donald Trump came up in more than a few casual conversations. How any leader’s psychology affects their policies is worth studying and Trump is likely to keep researchers busy for a long time.
I read a piece recently about the way his handshakes with other leaders demonstrate a need to assert dominance and claim high status. Leaders are all concerned with dominance, but the president is less subtle than most in laying his claim to being the top dog in any room.
That article was based on a new book, “Fighting for Status: Hierarchy and Conflict in World Politics,” by Jonathan Renshon, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
In Scotland and England, monuments to status-seeking leaders are everywhere — in the castles, palaces and cathedrals they left behind and in the museums recounting the wars they led their people into to increase the leader’s status or wealth.
Throughout Scotland’s long history, there has also been a dramatic division between those at the top and the rest of the population.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, for example, Highland tenant farmers were moved off the land they worked, often for the economic benefit of the lords who owned the property (sheep were more profitable than tenant farmers), sometimes because of famine. The relocations, called the Highland Clearances, moved vast numbers of people out of the Highlands, with many of them either choosing to emigrate or being forced onto ships bound for Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the U.S.
Some of them settled on land from which other people in the Americas had been forcefully removed.
We appreciated the beauty of cathedrals and the romance of castles and palaces, while remembering the human costs they represent.
Even today, more than half the land in Scotland is owned by fewer than 500 people. I was surprised to learn that recently, and it reminded me how widespread inequity is in place and time.
Seattle has more construction cranes than any other city in the U.S., building more housing that’s affordable to a smaller slice of the income spectrum. We’re brimming with wealth, yet situated in a state barely willing to fund basic education.
Seattle’s proliferating towers also come with human costs, including economic inequality and dislocation. Billionaires instead of barons will leave behind some fine structures, I’m sure, but the kind of society we’ll have is up to all of us.
Political psychology holds out the hope that if people understand how the psychology and behavior of leaders — and people in general — interact with policymaking, we might avoid some of the tragedies of the past.
Outgoing ISPP President Katherine Reynolds, a professor of psychology at the Australian National University, opened the conference with a speech full of faith that people will do the smart thing in the end.
I hope she’s right.
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