May 1, 2021

Is America's "Red"/"Blue" Divide Really Locke Vs. Hobbes?

Hobbes; Locke
Clifford Young of the Ipsos polling organization, recently suggested that Americans' willingness to embrace President Biden's unprecedented spending initiatives may be Thomas Hobbes at work. Hobbes, the 17th century English philosopher, famously saw mankind's natural condition as chaotic and anarchic— or, as he so eloquently put it: "nasty, brutish, and short". Thus, Hobbes saw the need for strong, absolutist government to curb human nature and provide stability to society. Certainly, the past year has been nothing if not chaotic—so (the theory goes) Americans are seeking solace in expansive government action. 

Of course, America is also sharply divided—so while a majority support Biden's proposals, a substantial minority oppose them. Enter John Locke—another 17th century English philosopher who was the counterweight to Hobbesian thought. Locke believed that human nature was essentially good—and characterized by pure freedom in its natural state. People acting freely could form governments to protect life, liberty and property—but very little beyond that. Thus, the need for government came out of a rational desire to mediate potential conflict—not a strong government hand to rein in chaotic human appetites. A subtle difference—but also a profound one.

While no one would ever claim that today's American political divide is characterized by such philosophical nuance, there are some interesting parallels. The general view that government can solve most societal problems is clearly a "blue" narrative. Conversely, mistrust of big government and placing limits on political power is an obvious "red" theme. While not quite Hobbes versus Locke, we can thank our English forebears for—at least partly—setting the terms of our current debate.