Date of this Version
Published in Psychological Inquiry 2023, vol. 34, no. 1, pp. 43–46. doi:10.1080/1047840X.2023.2192652
Baumeister and Bushman (this issue: Psychological Inquiry 2023, vol. 34, no. 1) offer a cultural animal theory of partisan hostility (hereafter CAT) with the specific aim of explaining the root drivers of political conflict. CAT posits that competition for power revolves around oppositional worldviews reflecting preferences attached to the two primary objectives of all successful societies: amassing and distributing resources. Based on this premise CAT seeks not only to help explain the persistence of the themes motivating political conflict, but also to shed light on the underlying causes of growing levels affective polarization widely documented in the United States and other liberal democracies.
CAT takes on a large and complicated slice of the social world; its stated scope is to cover nothing less than the majority of political conflict. That is an ambitious goal for any theoretical project, and the sheer variety and complexity of the analytical target means explanatory gaps and exceptions are inevitable. To their credit, Baumeister and Bushman recognize this, and explicitly acknowledge that CAT makes no claims to be a universal explanatory framework, but is a formulation aimed at being, “correct far more often than not.” Within the limits hinted at, CAT is, in my judgment, quite successful. It is certainly a framework that can be readily employed to generate testable hypotheses, and may point to de-escalation opportunities. While I find much to praise in this framework, in what follows I focus on what I see as two key, and not fully acknowledged, limitations of CAT. I argue that CAT is essentially an economic theory of political conflict which, if correct, has two important implications: (1) A broad swath of the explanatory horsepower CAT is designed to provide is readily available from existing frameworks, and, (2) like other economic theories CAT’s explanatory power decreases considerably when the focus shifts from self-interested resource distribution to the conflicts anchored in social values, and it is the latter that is core to understanding hostile partisan disagreements.