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A new theory of what drives partisan conflict and hostility

Political rivals battle on amassing vs. distributing resources

Partisan conflict can be largely explained as differing views on two crucial tasks of society, according to a new theory developed by a pair of prominent social scientists.

In a new article published yesterday (May 8, 2023) in the journal Psychological Inquiry, Roy Baumeister and Brad Bushman say societies flourish by both amassing and distributing resources.

Conservatives focus on amassing resources, while liberals concentrate on distributing resources. The problem is both sides increasingly tend to disparage the value of what the other side champions, the authors said.

“Both tasks are absolutely essential for society,” said Bushman, a professor of communication at The Ohio State University.

“But the two tasks have become increasingly at odds in American society, leading to mutual hostility and disrespect between liberals and conservatives.”

Brad BushmanAnd the best solution won’t be easily accepted by either side, said Baumeister, who is a professor of psychology at the University of Queensland.

“We have the unpopular view that a modern society will be best served if political parties share or alternate power,” Baumeister said.

“The sooner we recognize this, the better off we will be.”

The new theory is based on Baumeister’s 2005 book The Cultural Animal: Human Nature, Meaning, and Social Life. Baumeister wrote that human evolution favored traits that allowed people to benefit from cultural society – and these advances enabled societies to amass more resources, such as by group hunting, sharing information and developing tools.

But those resources also need to be shared widely for society as a whole to prosper.

The divide between the political right and left on amassing versus distributing resources can be seen in which voters support which parties.

The Republican Party – the party of the right – draws support from farmers, ranchers, business people and others who produce resources.

On the other hand, the left-leaning Democratic Party is dominated by those most interested in redistributing resources, such as individuals in the labor movement.

“Both sides of the political divide emphasize practices that have been important in the success of humans as a species,” Bushman said. “We wouldn’t be where we are today if we hadn’t found ways to both amass resources and distribute them widely.”

The authors emphasize that their theory doesn’t explain all the complexities and processes of partisan conflict.  Some topics that drive political conflicts, such as the death penalty, abortion rights and same-sex marriage, are not directly linked to resources.

“We propose merely that our formulation is correct far more often than not – and that it offers considerable explanatory power,” the authors write.

The conflict between amassing and distributing resources is not new – so why has partisan hostility grown so much lately?

Roy BaumeisterBaumeister said the reason may be that nearly all modern economies succeed through the use of incentives. People are rewarded for finding ways to amass more resources – but incentives inevitably create inequality.

“Incentives help create more resources, which the right supports. But the left is concerned because it creates inequality,” Baumeister said.

And over time, the people who amass those resources pass them on to their children.

“Each generation passes some of its advantages to their children, and over multiple generations some children are privileged by even wider margins,” Baumeister said.

That’s where we are at in the United States now, the authors said, with a growing portion of resources being concentrated among a select few.

“Privilege is a difficult problem, with successful parents passing their resources onto children who themselves have not earned it,” Baumeister said.

The best solution may be to have the political parties of the right and left alternate or share power.  The fact that long-term one-party rule has led to failure and underachievement in countries such as Zaire, Cuba, North Korea, the Soviet Union, Venezuela and others is a warning, according to the authors.

“If one party has the right answers, it should eventually win all the elections, to the widespread satisfaction of pretty much everyone,” the authors wrote. “But this seems not to happen in successful democracies.”

What this means is that there has to be an end to political hostility and more healthy respect for the importance of both amassing and distributing resources, Baumeister and Bushman said.

“It doesn’t do any good for society to have political opponents who see each other as mortal enemies who don’t have anything good to contribute,” Baumeister said. 

That suggests citizens and media can help by “recognizing and rewarding politicians who do cooperate with opponents and see the value in what they do,” Bushman said.

“We need more mutual respect and less hating and demonizing of the opposite side.”

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