Today we think of left and right as somewhat arbitrary political constructs, but there are reasons for believing they are deeply rooted in biology and psychology, dating back far into our distant past. Surprisingly, we can learn important lessons that are relevant to present day politics by gazing into our pre-history.
By studying tribes across the world, anthropologists have noted that two roles pop up repeatedly across vastly different cultures: the chieftain and the shaman. Roughly speaking, the chieftain is the political leader of the tribe and the shaman is the spiritual leader. In some cases, they are conflated into one person, but they are distinct roles and are typically enacted by different people.
Interestingly, these two roles correspond to two distinct personality traits. Chieftains need to be conscientious – that is, demonstrating grit – and orderly. They need to be able to manage the warriors of the tribe and maintain law and order. By contrast, shamans need to be open-minded so that they can get revelations from the spirit world.
Conservatives and Liberals
We also know, as pointed out by Jordan Peterson, that conservatives often score higher on personality traits related to conscientiousness while liberals are often more open to various possibilities. Therefore, it seems that in broad terms, the chieftain is a conservative role whereas the shaman is a liberal one.
That may come as a surprise to many because few people associate the left with spirituality. However, notice how artists often tend to be left-leaning. It is not a coincidence that Hollywood, one of America’s artistic hotspots, leans heavily towards the left.
Division of Labor
The most interesting lesson to learn from the chieftain and the shaman is that these two distinct roles have survived side by side for millennia, which indicates that together they form a stable configuration of society. It amounts to a division of labor: Conservatives maintain law and order and keep the lights on, while liberals produce art and inspiration, while providing innovation and renewal.
History also provides a warning about what happens if these roles are not respected. If the chieftain tries to oppress the shaman, it results in a totalitarian form of order – a straightjacket for a large segment of society. If the shaman eliminates the chieftain, society quickly degenerates into destructive chaos and implodes.
It seems that chieftains make bad shamans and vice versa.
Lessons for the Future
We are currently living in a society where the creative class has grown severely political. That is the shaman infringing on the domain of the chieftain, and history has shown that this leads down a dark path that cannot end well for anyone.
The religious wars in Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries led to a startling political conclusion: the separation of church and state. We can extrapolate this into the separation of the shaman and the chieftain. We need both, but each needs to stay within the appropriate domain.
Conservatives are best at running the government, but should operate on the principle of minimal necessary force. This leaves space for the shaman’s creative class to operate freely without feeling choked by arbitrary laws.
We used to have that balance in America; it was called “liberty.” We must not forget that the founding fathers belonged to a select group of people who fled religious persecution in Europe – a society where the chieftain had too much power. They envisioned a society based on rule of law, but with room for the individual to flourish. It is time for America to rediscover, embrace and reinvent the original ideals of the United States, where both chieftains and shamans can co-exist.