The Need to Break Republicans Out of their Monkeyspheres

I have long believed that the primary difference between Republicans and Democrats is that Democrats have the ability to place themselves in the shoes of another person and feel empathy—even someone they do not know. For instance, even though I am not gay, I can appreciate that it must feel pretty terrible and unjust not to be able to marry the person you love. Even though I am not a single parent living below the poverty line, I can imagine that such an existence is a pretty difficult one. And even though I am not a disabled veteran, I can understand the outrage of having to wait 262 days for a disability claim to be processed.

Republicans, in contrast, are prisoners of “Dunbar’s Number”, or what popular culture is more recently referring to as the “Monkeysphere” (the article that gave it this name is actually very interesting). Dunbar’s Number essentially refers to the number of people each human being can think of as an individual. A person’s Dunbar Number is thought to fall within the range of 100 to 230 people. This means, at most, a person is only able to really think of 230 different people as individuals. Everyone else is essentially a one-dimensional being playing a bit role in your life.

Some of the nicest and most thoughtful people I know are Republicans. These friends would do anything for me (and I for them). But as I consider this, I also keep in mind that I am in their Monkeyspheres. I am one of their 100-230 people that mean something to them and who they see as an individual. If you ask this friend of mine about what we should do about the 50 million Americans who lack health insurance, he isn’t much concerned. You ask him where the government should save money, and he suggests cuts to HeadStart. You tell him that drone strikes in Afghanistan kill more civilians than enemy combatants and he doesn’t bat an eye.

This is what I mean when I say Republicans are prisoners of their respective Dunbar Numbers. They care deeply about those people in their respective Monkeyspheres, but everyone outside that Monkeysphere is fairly meaningless. As one can imagine, this type of thinking leads to very dangerous legislators. Look at it this way. We are asking people who really only care about 100 to 230 people to make decisions that will affect hundreds of millions of people.

Evidence of Republicans’ legislative confinement to their Monkeyspheres can usually be found when a Republican sides with Democrats. Virtually any time a Republican strays from his party line on an issue, it can be traced back to someone in his Monkeysphere being affected by the issue on which he had previously taken a hard line.

Just this week we saw this with Ohio’s Republican senator, Rob Portman. He announced he supports gay marriage—the only Republican senator (out of 45!) to do so. What caused this conversion? You guessed it, someone in his Monkeysphere came out of the closet. Specifically, his son announced he was gay. Need more evidence?

Do you know which Republican senator in the past 20 years has fought hardest for adequate funding for mental health research and care? Oregon’s former senator, Gordon Smith. While truly a valiant and noble legislative endeavor, Mr. Smith did not take up this interest until his son tragically committed suicide.

Conservative Congressman Dan Burton isn’t known for his compassion towards the afflicted, but he sure spends a lot of time advocating for the autistic and their families. Would you be surprised to learn this advocacy began after his grandson was diagnosed with autism?

Nancy Reagan is conservative and largely apolitical in her advanced age, but she has come out strongly in support of one liberal policy—support for stem cell research. Probably not a coincidence that her husband died from Alzheimer’s.

And perhaps the most obvious example is Dick Cheney’s support for gay rights. This man is to the right of Joseph McCarthy on every political issue, but on gay rights he is not only a liberal, but actually a leader. Way back in 2009 when the majority of Americans still opposed gay marriage, Dick Cheney supported it. Can there be any question this was fueled entirely by a lesbian (his daughter) entering his Monkeysphere?

Democrats are also constrained by their own Monkeyspheres (as is everyone). But even with these limitations, Democrats make efforts to empathize with people they do not know, and will fight for issues they believe are right even when no one in their Monkeyspheres are directly impacted by the issue.

One of my favorite authors, Markos Moulitsas recently summed up this phenomenon by stating, “[Republicans] are assholes until they are personally affected by one of their asshole policies.” Mr. Moulitsas’ article, which was cleverly titled “If Only Republican Children Could Come Out Poor”, did an effective job of explaining why there is little hope for Republican legislators ever bucking their party’s refusal to do anything about poverty (i.e., little to no chance that poor people will enter the Monkeyspheres of rich, white, affluent Republican members of Congress).

The role of the Monkeysphere in affecting legislative outcomes emphasizes the need to have a legislature that either: truly represents a cross-section of America (which it currently does not); or is at least made up legislators who have the capacity to empathize with those outside their Monkeyspheres. Otherwise, we end up with what we have now—a legislature that reliably passes legislation that only helps the few people lucky enough to be inside a Congressperson’s Monkeysphere.

– Dylan


6 Responses to “The Need to Break Republicans Out of their Monkeyspheres”

  1. A couple of related statistical themes about Republicans: They have a much higher fear reaction to ambiguity than do Democrats and significantly lower IQs as a group. As nice as it would be to be able to break them out of their monkeyspheres, I don’t believe it will happen. I think the focus needs to be on lowering their anxiety levels by aggressively discrediting the reactionary fear machine that is preying on them and by just as aggressively portraying for them why a more social future is safer for them and their monkeysphere. I believe that is essentially how the unions and the New Deal Democrats achieved so much for us in the early 20th century.

  2. @ Alan – I had heard of the reaction to ambiguity, but not the lower IQ. I am very skeptical that Republicans have lower IQs. I agree that breaking Republican out of their Monkeyspheres will be nearly impossible, but I don’t think I have much hope for discrediting the “reactionary fear machine.” I mean, what can we do that we are not already doing. Plus, it seems the more we call Glenn Beck insane, the more the right falls in love with him.
    – Dylan


    I have more hope than you in our ability to counteract Roger Ales, et al. I believe we are already succeeding.

    Back to work…

  4. Nice article, Dyl. I too was thinking about this since Cliff turned me onto that monkeysphere article.

  5. Anonymous Says:

    Your awesome Dude! I really liked your writings.

  6. Thiss was great to read

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