Every person has their balance point politically.
So does every culture and country, Tension Force is that system in groups.
Tension Force is my coined phrase for the relationship between what we often call conservative and progressive forces, culturally and politically. Individuals are born with a predisposition toward the right or left: With personal traits that predictably sort themselves into one camp or the other. Every population naturally seeks a homeostatic point of balance between them. Even though it feels like conflict or even hostility, Tension Force is essential to community health. The death of tension force comes when the opposition is 100% demonized, all talk is done.
In a sense, your political identity is up to you. You are the political person you are through ethical choices and principles. But since those choices are in response to events that are thrust upon us by the moment, we are also largely defined by the character and the challenges of our times.
It’s almost impossible to view your own flavor of politics as extreme because our POV includes filters to reassure us we are sane and make our truth appear self-evident. Concerning our political opinions, we all feel like we “did the math” and embraced the reality of the result (regardless of how little critical thinking took place). There is an inevitable feeling to our stance that makes contrasting beliefs appear willfully stupid. This “it’s obvious” quality reminds me of our sexuality in the way it sees beauty and feels desire in an unassailably confident and individual way. It’s also of a piece with the seamless agreement between a person and their God when it’s obvious that God’s views never come as a surprise or require any extra effort on the part of the believer. Progressive and conservative are no different in this.
Political involvement in times of extreme partisanship feels more essential and impactful than in more moderate political climates. Every moment feels like the last play of the game where all must give their all. Displaying purity and loyalty become an expectation in a way never seen in less partisan times. Language and moral judgments grow harsher. All of this to better bring the battle to the enemy. This is a tragic misconception. This is the state of things that causes loss of control over our own politics. The entire system begins hydroplaning, and the steering and brakes are useless. Continue reading
Tension Force is the name I give to the innate push and pull between progressives and conservatives. Physical tension force is a physics concept and can be pictured as the area of rope between teams playing tug of war. In a well-matched tug-of-war, that area doesn’t shift very much but that stability is reached by both teams trying their hardest to win.
Tension force is homeostasis achieved through intense opposing forces. If one of our teams wins the political tug of war it’s guaranteed to be a bad or even disastrous moment for society. One party systems have ugly results.
There are psychological patterns that are consistently reliable predictors of a progressive or conservative view on politics and culture. The personality test used to measure and correlate this connection is the famous Big 5 Test. Here is a quick visual to explain what is measured and the characteristics that typify scoring high or low.
These are the outcomes that populate our country with Progressives and Conservatives:
- High scores in conscientiousness trended conservative on both economic policy, (favoring hard work and organization) as well as social policy (strict adherence to traditional social norms).
- High scores in openness trended progressive on economic policy (favoring new programs and interventions) as well as social policy (favoring complexity and novelty).
- High in agreeableness leaned progressive on economic policy (wanting to help the disadvantaged) and but conservative on social policy (the desire to maintain harmony and traditional relationships).
- High scores in neuroticism leaned progressive on both (oh, shut up).
- High levels of the extraversion trait had no significant effect on predicting a person’s policy position but correlated strongly to being fun at parties.
Although nurture and socialization are certainly a part of shaping these political tendencies, the people nurturing you are your closest relatives and the culture you are being socialized to is the one they have chosen to live in. The matrix seals neatly around you. There’s bound to be a genetic relationship to these scores, and tests significantly confirm that. So every population produces a balance of people apparently fated to be in one camp or the other. Either group can be principled and logical, but those principles and logic are canalized by personality presets. Whatever play is in the system waxes and wanes with important societal upheavals and movements.
The consistent percentages of people born with these traits and concomitant beliefs is the underlying, invisible homeostasis that creates the Tension Force around us. As we plead with the other side to see reason or curse each other for hopeless blind idiocy we can take some comfort in the idea that humanity absolutely requires this struggle. Tension force is how we weigh the balance between the past and future, between tradition and reform.
However, technological change has dropped us into a new and unfamiliar medium for connection and communication. The new medium so completely separates us from engagement with the other side, that each side has become LIKE a one-party country unto themselves. The area of Tension Force has become the weak spot, attacked by opportunistic infections.
The situation makes us “fish in a barrel” for those aiming to divide and conquer us, then gather riches from the ruins left behind.
(I’m talking about Putin you idiots!)
Some German (obviously) psychological researchers did a really nice job on the country vs city meme “Gemeinschaft vs. Gesellschaft” That is community vs society, adding the interesting insights about present vs future orientation and the amazing detail that the Big 5 personality test works in the city WAY better than the country. It all has the ring of common sense, society needs a wide range of specialized types of people while the country needs people who can pitch in to any task as needed.
There are a number of places in this blog where I take the political left to task for their dark side, their shadow. I am closer to left than right but I know what’s wrong with them and I’ve described it at length elsewhere.
When “moderate” people express a dislike for politics, they show appreciation for people who have no strong opinions. The idea is, if none of us had any strong opinions to push, the world would be a better place. The problem is, you have to have a opinions to have priorities. There was a young man who had brain surgery a few years back and lost his emotions. He didn’t become a cool and competent Mr. Spock, he became a mess who found every single decision difficult, because none of them had any force behind them. Our emotions play a big role in every preference we have for anything in this world.
Here is Merriam Webster’s simple definition of the phrase “Politically Correct”: agreeing with the idea that people should be careful to not use language or behave in a way that could offend a particular group of people.
Both right and left wing have a version of “politically correct”. The left’s version is more famous and it’s where the phrase originated. I imagine it being coined in the soviet system by political officers. But the definition for the phrase includes the right wing to the extent that they practice “How dare you” tactics such as righteous indignation, and holier than thou judgements. If a football player remains seated during the national anthem or the pledge of allegiance for political reasons there is a segment of the right wing that will compete for “Loudest wail of outrage”. This is being politically correct. “Freedom fries” is PC. Anyplace where the right asserts a word that is compulsory and one that is forbidden, they are being the kind of thin skinned whiny babies they think only other people can be. Let me hear you say “Happy Holidays!”
When the right complains about people on the left not being patriotic they are being PC extremists. In fact the whole idea of patriotism needs some serious freshening up. It’s kind of dumb if you think about it that the right thinks they are the ones who get to decide what patriotic IS. How the hell do you dare to impugn the patriotism of people who question and challenge the government? America is practically based on the validity of different points of view.
The right wing have their own issues and the state of the world is showing those issues like anaphylaxis shows an allergy. The world leans at any moment more right than left because the Human Operating System first requires STABILITY. It doesn’t want collapse. If you are building something very tall you will think a lot of bottom heavy thoughts and not quite so many top heavy ones. If you don’t think enough about the foundation you won’t build tall because it will fall down, if you think too much about the foundation you won’t build tall because your sole value becomes retaining and preserving, not reaching higher.
Here are some of the troublesome issues of the right:
- Symbol simpletons. Flags are symbols. Symbols mean something…but symbols aren’t the things they mean. An American flag is not America any more than a Colombian flag is Columbia, or a Dunkin Donuts logo is a donut. Love your treasured symbols but be sophisticated enough to see the this crucial difference. There are birds that will murderously attack a FEATHER of the wrong color. You are sometimes that kind of dumb.
- Unconditionally positive love of country. Imagine if both parents both acted like their child could do no wrong: Healthy?
- You guys are besotted with making rich people happy. I know I’m not going to get anywhere with this. Conservatives include two key groups everywhere and always, the poor and the bastards who keep them poor. The conservative poor sell out their own children generation after generation to show solidarity with power. We get it, you support structure and stability but is it wrong for me to wish you’d notice how pathetic it is? Being a serf is not patriotic.
- Conservatives elect moderates in a healthy and balanced system (with different ideas) but when you get riled up you elect authoritarian fuckos like Trump and Putin and honest to God...even Hitler. He is an example of that phenomena. You have a weakness for tough simple talk that hands everything over to bad guys if there aren’t enough commie-pinkos pulling on the other end of the rope.
- Same point continued: You are too easy to manipulate. Demagogues know exactly what to say to you. 1. Country – 2. Church – 3. Foreign enemies… and you are in bed on the first date.
Our country wouldn’t be healthy with only conservatives OR progressives. There’s a reason a tree farm isn’t as healthy as a forest. A mono-culture creates its own failure. When either side seeks purity they lead all of us straight towards Hell.
Tension force, people. It’s healthy.
It’s hilarious how much cultural “values”, the dos and don’ts, are exactly like the preferences and peccadilloes of a particular person. These Japanese “no-no”s sound like a description of things that one random person might have very strong feelings about… but in fact, a whole country is ready to be very disappointed in you.
You have your likes and dislikes; your quirks and peccadillos. Put enough of them together in a somebody and you have a personality. You and your love have a relationship, with predominating moods and flavors, things you both love and hate, as recognizable to both of you as each others faces. That is the personality of your relationship and you could almost call it a culture of two. You and your family have a kind of extended self, absolutely made of individuals, but having a corporate nature. Again, moods, styles, activities, and traditions: The personality of your family: The culture of us, ourselves.
Your town and state have cliches and classic types, local foods, music, religions, sports, and jokes. Your area may even have unique social faux pas. You have your classic regional moods, so well defined that Hollywood can set a story in your area as shorthand for the tone of the movie. Your country likewise has these same locally famous traits but pulled from many distant points and due to this diversity, the warmth of these traits is much more diffuse. Americans from Maine might enjoy funny Florida cliches but they don’t evoke the tenderness of good old home-cooked cliches. These taste of home because they are the personality of your region: The self that you are actually a piece of even when parted. If you have been away a long time from the place that is unquestionably your home, odds are that the sight of some hideous local billboard or despised local celebrity might well thrill you and soften your heart. This is you, a tiny particle of that place sensing the correct SELF of belonging and yearning toward it.
Culture is personality flowing bottom-up from a community. It’s the basket holding that composite soul together and in place. It is also the background that makes outsiders visible against it. It’s the recognizable border between us and them. Humans produce culture as naturally as spiders weave webs. The tension force within the culture creates the tone of inclusion tempering exclusion and vice versa. Tension force determines the “temperature” of how cold or warm the welcome is to outsiders.
I don’t associate warm with progressives and cold with conservatives as a political bias, but in this context, conservatism means suspicion, standoffishness or even hostility. Conservatives play the role in the cultural ecosystem of tightening the borders while progressives loosen them. And it isn’t always about a literal border, the border can be about how purely insiders display their cultural loyalty. It can be about disapproving of behaviors becoming less hidebound to cultural authority (often acted out by grumpy old people). Either wing, without the other, is dangerously out of balance. Either wing, deprived of this balancing opposing force, becomes a runaway monster seeking enemies within when it can’t find them without. That’s how desperately important opposition really is. When deprived of it the isolated wing has a panic attack and seeks everywhere for enemies to counter itself. The steady opposition between a healthy left and right results in a cooperative outcome: A tension force that protects the community from the weaknesses of each. This is the community organism as a healthy individual with a well-balanced nature.
We have always had the small town and big city split. It’s all about life strategies that use bigger networks vs those that use smaller networks.
Big cities have to figure out how to look after large numbers of people who:
- A: Don’t know each other
- B: Might not be similar culturally
So cities are naturally liberal, figuring out plans that make things work for a LARGE number of people. And they are naturally less judgmental because of anonymity and a necessary cultural relativism.
Small towns are the opposite. You are mostly somewhere between acquainted and related with the folks nearby and it sounds CRAZY to look after a bunch of people that none of you even know. Also, there’s no anonymity – people’s actions are known and judged: Thus they are more careful and constrained. In a smaller community the actions of one person have a proportionally larger impact.
I think the context we live in technologically and culturally causes a kind of speciation. We’re all human but we become VIRTUALLY different species (that is, using different strategies to survive). The world we each live in sets up some strategic ground rules.
A big city run on small town rules is a failed state – a small town run on big city rules feels like totalitarianism. It’s a pity that this simple understanding doesn’t inform discussions and party platforms. Both big parties tend to be advocating for the ruin or unhappiness of the other’s constituency as a matter of course.
In a big city a cultural “Us vs Them” seems very different than it does in a small town because you naturally adapt to the complex and relativistic reality around you. “Healthy normal” has a broader bandwidth in the city. Politics emerges from experience and every technological reality creates a different experience and therefore a different political reality.
City/Country politics have always been a hot and ugly divide in America*. But back in the age of the public speeches we would all stand around together and listen. The full range of opinion generally was there on hand to witness and consider and discuss. Not surprisingly, the dialogue was at least MORE civil because because of being in each other’s company and following social cues. Then from the radio to the TV and to the internet our views retreated back farther and farther into isolated comfort zones; to a zone of homogeneous agreement. Since everyone around you echos the same views, really different views are treated as insanity or evil intent.
* Obviously city and country each contain a range of progressive and conservative types, but each will be somewhat acclimated to and moderated by the dominant reality where they are.
There are some funny little devices I’ve seen out on the internet which when you switch them on, a little hand comes out and turns itself right off again. When democracy fails it’s a bit like this. Any political system is a sort of machine, and when a democracy elects a tyrant or a theocracy it’s the hands of the people coming out and flipping off the machine, possibly forever.
In my theory about population dynamics there will always be a homeostatic balance between conservative and progressive. Not a PERFECT balance, simply the local balance tuned in to the local cultural wavelength. (I give a specific breakdown of what these labels really mean elsewhere.) On both sides there is wide gradient of belief but conservatives are essentially the loyal foot draggers. They ALWAYS feel that things are going out of control and that invaders are coming and that whatever the old school authority is, it doesn’t get enough respect, dammit.
There are absolutely loads of moderate and reasonable people within the conservative group. But rather like deep water, the pressure builds as we dive down into this way of believing. The extreme range of these people are angry and excitable, ferociously loyal to authority and something I might call “clean original beliefs“. Those beliefs could be about the founding fathers or Islam or Serbian nationalism, it isn’t important. Conservative people are the bedrock defense force of whatever culture they inhabit. They suffer with revulsion at everything that isn’t on message. An intriguing fact is that in psychological tests conservatives really do suffer more revulsion at disgusting pictures than the rest of the population. This is true to the point that it is diagnostically accurate. Scientists think the emotion of disgust evolved to make us keep away from things that could poison us or spread disease. Conservatives, in this light are acting as an automatic force of rejection toward all that feels foreign or “Just not right, somehow.” * Continue reading
- The line down the middle only exists in reference to the positions of the parties. It is always defined by their argument. There is no state of perfect conservatism or progressivism. There is no platonic ideal for these. It is always defined by the current cultural and political context. You can’t state a political platform for either lacking that context. But they do have basic predictable roles.
- The Venn overlap is what we pretty much all agree on (except for loonies)
- The white horizontal line is “The middle of the road” the somewhat disputed territory we can talk about with bargains and compromises.
- Between the thick dotted lines and the black lines are areas of pretty fundamental disagreement. Moving outward toward either edge comes a less acceptable AND less accepting range.
- The extreme edges (with the solid black lines) are important because they represent the borders of the field where anything further is “out of bounds”
Tension Force: Cohesion from Opposition
The tension force is the force that is transmitted through a string, rope, cable or wire when it is pulled tight by forces acting from opposite ends. The tension force is directed along the length of the wire and pulls equally on the objects on the opposite ends of the wire. –Physics Classroom
Please imagine the totality of American politics as groups of people. Not just the official representatives, but all the voices contributing viewpoints from right-wing 1% super-PACs down to organic coop vegan hippies. Now assign all those people to one of two categories: Conservative or Progressive. Imagine the sum total of conservative opinion vs the sum total of progressive opinion as a tug of war. As they struggle against each other imagine the area between them vibrating with the force of their resistance.
That area is expressing the Tension Force of their opposition to each other. It describes the range of political reality for this community, in this time and place. The entire spectrum of opinion on the issues of the day are all in this area: Immigration, economic policy, male/female roles, war, etc. Now, imagine some quick snapshots of progressive and conservative forces in other countries contending against each other in the same way. Picture Sweden, Mexico, Russia, and Saudi Arabia. Each has their version of the spectrum of these opposing forces. Open societies have a broader spectrum than closed societies but every country has its own. The area of tension force (TF) contains the questions being struggled over and the possible policies that might result. Economic justice TF in Sweden and Mexico are wildly different. Sexual politics TF in America and Saudi Arabia also starkly contrast. TF = the local reality that is up for discussion. Progressive and Conservative are the internal states of the ones pulling the rope. Across these cultures, the range of viewpoints radically differ but the nature and motivation of those pulling the rope are the same throughout the human world.
No matter the specific issues of the moment, these forces are always present in varying but predictable amounts. Events befalling a community will temporarily affect the numbers of each but this settles after a time. This struggle is always there in every culture because these forces are the critical counterweights of every community. They hold up the tent by their opposition. Both groups are easy to predict and define.
It might look like I’m making a partisan political statement of good and bad here but I am not. This isn’t judging, it is about recognizing patterns. Progressives often wonder about the cognitive dissonance of American conservative Christians because logically Christians would support a peaceful “Love thy neighbor” approach rather than being in favor of any military action we take on. Likewise, that those who believe “what you did for the least of my brothers you did for me” would support a kind and generous attitude toward the poor rather than voting against every compassionate social program aimed at lessening the pain and dead ends of poverty.
Conservatives don’t think of themselves as warlike but as patriotic and happy to show it. They don’t think of themselves as harsh toward the poor, or helpful to the rich (though they are) rather, they say: “Nobody ever gave ME anything.” It just feels wrong inside them to be generous to the poor. For conservatives it isn’t what is written in the theology that matters, it’s being a member of whatever religion is the cultural bedrock. If America mostly worshiped Ba’al or Zoroaster (and if their parents did too,) conservatives would have bumper stickers reading: “Ba’al said it, I believe it, and that’s that.” or a little sticker of the holy fire, maybe with a family warming their hands over it. But in their outward behavior, they would express exactly the conservative attitudes they do now. It isn’t about thinking and deciding, it’s about playing your hardwired role.
Progressives have cognitive dissonances of their own. A progressive bumper sticker says: “If you can’t change your mind, how do you know you still have one?“. But if you ask that progressive to reconsider their viewpoints on pretty much anything, they are fixed and defensive. Flexibility and an open mind are guiding light values of progressives, but operationally they HAVE to have fixed points of view. Another Progressive cognitive dissonance is the near-sacred status granted to other people’s cultures, but not to their own. Progressives act like any show of a protective feeling towards their own culture is regressive and possibly even a hate crime, while protecting the expressions of other cultures as an absolute good. This is because progressives structurally counter xenophobia and anti-immigrant viewpoints. This isn’t about thinking and deciding, it’s about playing your hardwired role.
For conservatives AND progressives, the “Bullet Points of Reality” are not flexible or optional. Nor are these stances truly rational though we all think so in our own case. They can be expressed rationally but they are not chosen rationally. As your phenotype expresses eye and hair color, you also express your end of the political ball field. Your own political stance seems sensible because, OF COURSE IT DOES. The opposition is stupid because OF COURSE THEY ARE. This is why “swaying the opposition with logic” is a fool’s errand. Your logic isn’t logical in that person’s body.
There are nice people sitting under both umbrellas. But if you explore ideas with them you’ll find very little flexibility about any core issues. You will not encounter many people who like a strong, dominant authority figure in charge but also support flexible modern sex roles and generous social programs. When you see someone from either side expressing one of their templated points of view you are seeing a single building block of the local TF, one pixel if you will. They DO come in different “strengths”, there are hard and soft versions for both sides and a Bell Curve distribution for all. Even people in the gentle middle of the road are structural elements of the tension force…just like everyone else. Middle of the road is never an objective location btw, it can only be defined as the center point between the outside edges, whatever they are, of opinion. All of us add our weight to the scale of local and national politics.
A progressive in one age might suggest treating the slaves more gently but not suggest freeing them because it’s a hopelessly optimistic non-starter idea in her society. She might even feel that that much change is rash. A conservative in another time might take freeing them for granted, but not give a hoot if they then live or die. The baseline shifts but the roles don’t. This is worth stopping to consider: Your specific beliefs about how things should be handled right now are not what makes you conservative or progressive, but rather your opposition to whatever the other side says about the issue. Conservative and progressive define each other with the context of the existing tension force. It isn’t the issue, it’s the attitude. In this way, the local reality is defined.
It’s clear that these types are a predictable part of human population dynamics because every human group generates them automatically. In early hunter-gatherer tribes, this tension force already existed as individual personality characteristics; some individuals were curious and open to strangers and some attacked them on sight. The resulting intrafamilial compromise handling the tension between these sides was important, it was like the surface tension of the tribe. It had to be open enough to let some things in and closed enough to keep some stuff out. The tribe is an organism and this behavior is its self-management as it relates to the outside world.
Tension force scales up and down automatically with population size. This coined idea of Political Tension Force isn’t a mystical power controlling us from outside, it is an emergent property of something we do naturally. As individuals, we show a range of open or closed responses to strangers and different cultures and behaviors and political tension force is just the scaled-up expression of masses of people holding a similar range of instinctive opinions as a “hive mind”. These hive minds express the dominant traits constructed from the local tension force. In a simple, colorful way we could compare it to how defensive an insect hive is. Maybe North Korea is like killer bees and Canada is like calm honeybees.
Small towns and big cities naturally lean more conservative and more progressive by type as a logical outcome of caring for few or caring for many. Liberalism is about the problem of caring for many, conservatism is about the problem of caring for few. In every generation, the same basic proportions of opponents are born. Is there some system maintaining the population density of the opposing sides? Whether there are sophisticated species level algorithms controlling any of these functions I don’t know. This isn’t science, it’s mere observation. It’s possible though because our homeostasis includes many diverse human elements also delivered in the same consistent proportions, year after year.
I suspect conservatives will tend to be the slightly larger group because the forces driving human behavior don’t throw caution to the winds. Resistance to change is a braking system preserving the identity of the culture. A modest conservative majority keeps whatever structure has been accomplished here from suddenly destabilizing. Yet over time, successes have piled up on the progressive side in a way that starts to seem inevitable (if extremely gradual). Generally, conservatives are reasonably happy with these outcomes as long as they were born into that outcome, rather than watching a cultural transition to it. As deep as the entirely natural dislike is between progressives and conservatives, we absolutely need each other for our communities to maintain balance and internal integrity. One maintains, and the other reforms. This is a system for preserving our structure but opening it for editing out things that are too cruel or unjust.
To imagine chaos and collapse, picture either side completely and absolutely empowered. The other side is disenfranchised and subverted. Picture one team in the tug of war disappearing and leaving the other in complete control. They don’t stop pulling, instead, they begin to pull against themselves internally because that is all they have left. In the natural course of seeking balance through opposition, they begin to tear into their own “flesh” in search of otherness. Neither can stop opposing because that is the mechanistic yet essential role they play. A lack of opposition is a state dangerously out of balance. It develops a cultural auto-immune disorder attacking its own healthy tissue. This unbalanced state is essentially what political correctness is for both sides: Deprived of healthy push back there is a spike of “purity madness” on the left and “loyalty madness” on the right that begins searching for enemies within. Blacklists, loyalty oaths, and purge trials do a good job of generating some opposition. It’s grimly funny, but in doing so they ACTUALLY begin to create the opposing force and to re-establish a kind of balance.
Social media, purposefully, in order to sell ad space, separates us from each other so completely by our TF role that it generates an unbalanced runaway state like this within both groups. “Safely” sealed in our bubbles, each side scales up the rhetoric because they encounter no opposition to extreme views but will likely be punished for expressing more moderate views. The real problem is that these hard voices and positions are grown in us in this abstract half-real mono-culture of social media but are expressed towards our real neighbors in our real communities where we have to get along and get things done. The other side is as demonized as an enemy in war. Scorn and contempt for differences become automatic. This kills representative Democracy.
If we are such simpletons that we accept these hateful terms as a given that can’t be changed, we are doomed.
Accept the need for opposition and the sanity of the opposition even as you fight them. If their talk is so extreme that it leaves sanity as an unsettled issue, remember that opposition itself is the thing we need. Respecting the people voicing that opposition is the most effective way we have at this moment to cure the political autoimmune disorder induced in us by those who profit from our collapse.
That kind of respectful action will not come naturally to anyone right now unless they recognize the Yin/Yang essence of Tension Force. Consider sharing this mental model of how we work with others as a way to shape a paradigm of healthy conflict. Getting people to merely acknowledge this need for opposing beliefs improves us considerably. It makes people pause before setting fire to the house we all share out of bitterness and spite. We need a healthy political macro-biome and every one of us can play a part in achieving that.
© Hugh Miller Feb. 2016