Jonathan Haidt (professor of psychology at the University of Virginia) is someone I don't always agree with, but in yesterday's New York Times he has a piece that makes what I think is a very important point.
It addresses the fact, which many leftists are always puzzled by, that "the people" don't always (in fact, frequently don't) vote for what appears to be their political and economic welfare, but instead go for candidates and issues which are sponsored by the Right. The Left often tries to explain this by the concept of "false consciousness," that is, the theory that ideas which deceive people about their true interests are made appealing and somehow injected into their minds in such a powerful way that their "true consciousness" is blotted out.
But Haidt points out:
Despite what you might have learned in Economics 101, people aren’t always selfish. In politics, they’re more often groupish. When people feel that a group they value — be it racial, religious, regional or ideological — is under attack, they rally to its defense, even at some cost to themselves. We evolved to be tribal, and politics is a competition among coalitions of tribes.
The key to understanding tribal behavior is not money, it’s sacredness. The great trick that humans developed at some point in the last few hundred thousand years is the ability to circle around a tree, rock, ancestor, flag, book or god, and then treat that thing as sacred. People who worship the same idol can trust one another, work as a team and prevail over less cohesive groups. So if you want to understand politics, and especially our divisive culture wars, you must follow the sacredness.
Of course, this insight can be overworked; it is also true that people can remake their political choices much more easily than they often can give up their religious convictions, so the term "sacredness" may be somewhat of an exaggeration. But it is certainly true that politics is not a matter of purely rational analysis of economic interests. Then again, of course, as economists these days are continually reminding us, economics is not a matter of purely rational analysis either.