Evangelicals Turn Left

It was amusing when someone noted Romeny’s Mormonism and Obama’s blackness as being, in the mind of the average American, comparable to Alien vs Predator. A good point was being made with that humorous framing. Times they are a’changin.

A Mormon as president is in some ways a more shocking possibility than a black man. Christians, especially conservative Christians, haven’t had a positive opinion of Mormons, considering them not Christian or else a cult. The religious right isn’t known for being open-minded and inclusive toward groups seen as foreign or strange.

What emphasizes this sense of shifting alliances is that Ryan the Catholic was chosen as the running mate to Romney the Mormon. This is truly fascinating. For a long time, it was Evangelicals who were the base of the Republican Party. Catholics and Mormons are very different animals for they both come out of strongly hierarchical traditions, the opposite of the more populist tendencies of Evangelicals.

I was thinking about what this might mean. Does this represent a demographic shift in the GOP base? Or does it just represent a demographic shift in the GOP leadership? Who is the new religious right?

As if to answer my question, I came across a telling piece of info in a book review of The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism by David R. Swartz (“Pro-Life, Pro-Left” by Molly Worthen):

“70 percent of evangelicals now tell pollsters they don’t identify with the religious right, and younger evangelicals often have more enthusiasm for social justice than for the culture wars”

That is mind-blowing. Evangelicals have been the force behind the religious right for decades. They helped takeover the conservative movement and the Republican Party. They elected George W. Bush, a fellow Evangelical. But now the religious right has lost the Evangelicals and their loyalty is up for grabs.

Partly, this is just a demographic shift among Evangelicals themselves. Evangelicals have been known to make such shifts. Before the Culture Wars, the Evangelicals had been the force behind many other movements such as the Populists who paved the way for the Progressives… and, of course, evangelicals were major players in the Civil Rights movement.

Conservatives have taken Evangelicals for granted. That is a mistake that might be costly, but it is unclear who might benefit. There are a whole lot of other shifts going on right now. It is hard to see where it is all heading.

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Re: The Moral Stereotypes of Liberals and Conservatives

In this post, I will analyze Jonathan Haidt’s study (in partnership with Brian A. Nosek and Jesse Graham) about liberal and conservative perceptions of and stereotypes about moral foundations:

“The Moral Stereotypes of Liberals and Conservatives”

Haidt did this research on self-identified conservatives and self-identified liberals which invalidates it from the start. Self-report data is notoriously unreliable.

Here is a good summary of the study and in summarizing the author unintentionally pointed out the problem of self-reports:

One of the applications of those pairings is a study that Haidt describes in Reason this way:

“In a study I conducted with colleagues Jesse Graham and Brian Nosek, we tested how well liberals and con­servatives could understand each other. We asked more than 2,000 American visitors to fill out the Moral Foundations Questionnaire. One-third of the time they were asked to fill it out normally, answering as themselves. One-third of the time they were asked to fill it out as they think a ‘typical liberal’ would respond. One-third of the time they were asked to fill it out as a ‘typical conservative’ would respond. This design allowed us to examine the stereotypes that each side held about the other. More important, it allowed us to assess how accurate they were by comparing people’s expectations about ‘typical’ partisans to the actual responses from partisans on the left and the right. Who was best able to pretend to be the other?

“The results were clear and consistent. Moderates and conservatives were most accurate in their predictions, whether they were pretending to be liberals or conservatives. Liberals were the least accurate, especially those who described themselves as ‘very liberal.’ The biggest errors in the whole study came when liberals answered the care and fairness questions while pretending to be conservatives. When faced with statements such as ‘one of the worst things a person could do is hurt a defenseless animal’ or ‘justice is the most important requirement for a society,’ liberals assumed that conservatives would disagree.”

In other words, conservatives understand liberals better than liberals understand conservatives.  More precisely, conservatives’ version of liberals matches liberals’ version of themselves better than liberals’ version of conservatives matches conservatives’ vision of themselves.

That last sentence hits the nail on the head, without the author realizing it.

Haidt was studying perception. He oversimplified his conclusions by stating the liberal perceptions of conservatives were wrong for the reason they didn’t match conservatives’ perceptions of themselves. This is oversimplified because, as Haidt should know, self-perceptions are often inccorect (while apparent stereotypes aren’t always incorrect). Haidt would need to also measure the accuracy of self-perceptions among conservatives and liberals.

Haidt is measuring the symbolic ideology rather than the substance on specific issues. This is a failing not only of this particular study by Haidt but also a failing of his other studies as well. As far as I can tell, he is only using self-report data in developing his Moral Foundations Theory. He is asking people what they identify as and asking people which values they identify with (i.e., symbolic ideology). Neither of these gets at people’s pragmatic ideology or gets at whether people’s stated beliefs conform to the less-conscious values they act according to. It certainly doesn’t get beyond the superficialities and biases of self-perceptions and self-reports.

Maybe the difference Haidt is measuring is being incorrectly analyzed. Maybe liberals are correct in their views of conservatives while conservatives themselves have less accurate self-awareness about their own conservative values. Maybe liberals are looking past the rhetoric and talking points to the actual behavior of conservatives. Actual behavior says a lot more about someone’s actual values than their own claims about what they theoretically or idealistically value.

One of the conclusions that Haidt comes to in the study’s paper is that liberals and conservatives are closer together than either side realizes. This is probably true in one sense and untrue in another sense. This is true when speaking of the average American in terms of the average liberal and the average conservative. However, the problem is that the conservative movement includes a significant number of people who are fairly liberal in their political positions.

If these politically liberal self-identified conservatives were removed from the measure of conservatism, then the average conservative would be much further to the right. There is no similar percentage of politically conservative self-identified liberals and so the average liberal would remain about the same. So, Haidt would come to different conclusions if he did a study that categorized people according to their political positions rather than their political labels.

There is an even further point of possible confusion. Haidt does at least distinguish a third group of  ‘moderates’. Polls show that most Americans will identify as conservatives if ‘moderate’ isn’t given as a choice. But if ‘moderate’ is given as a choice, most Americans identify as ‘moderate’.

So, there is a certain amount of overlap between moderates and conservatives. First, this would exacerbate the other overlap of political liberals self-identifying as conservatives. Second, considering there is a large percentage of Americans who will switch between the labels of ‘moderate’ and ‘conservative’, it makes issues of ideological conflation even more fuzzy. Furthermore, considering most Americans are politically liberal, these self-identified moderates are probably in ideological alignment with the politically liberal self-identified conservatives.

All of this leads one to wonder what ideological labels even mean. What is Haidt measuring? And what does Haidt think he is measuring?

—-

Let me continue my analysis with some other types of questions and criticisms.

Were the subjects of the study a representative sample? If the sample was, for example, all or mostly college students who are more liberal, then it would mean that the conservatives were around more liberals and the liberals were around fewer conservatives. In the paper, this is what they say about the participants:

“The participants were 2,212 visitors (62% female; median age 28; only U.S. residents or citizens) to ProjectImplicit.org”

This basically fits in with my doubts. Like college students, females and the younger tend to be more liberal. In general, more liberals are probably found online than in other environments. So, Haidt’s sample would include more people who are liberal, liberal-minded, or otherwise familiar with liberalism and liberal-mindedness. I’d argue that this doesn’t offer a fair and accurate representation of the general population.

This brings me to other confounding factors.

Most older people are conservatives. Simply being older can potentially give one more perspective and experience. Younger generations are more liberal than the older generations were at the same age. However, when these younger liberal generations grow older, they probably will maintain their higher rates of liberalism (as did the older generation maintain their lower rates of liberalism) and will also gain more perspective and experience. Furthermore, younger conservatives may have no better understanding of liberals than younger liberals have of conservatives.

So, are the results of the study merely pointing to a demographic fluke at this point in history? If the study controlled for age, would different results be found?

Ignoring all of that, maybe there is something going on that Haidt isn’t even considering.

First, authoritarianism and social conservatism have been shown to have strong correlation:

“For several decades Bob Altmeyer, an American scholar at the University of Manitoba, has been a tireless and dedicated researcher. According to the Oxford Handbook of Political Psychology, Altmeyer’s work “powerfully predicts a wide rang of political, social, ideological and intergroup phenomena.” Altmeyer’s work is largely directed at other psychologists and social scientists. He has undertaken hundreds of experiments and his work is reliable and valid according to Paul Nesbitt-Larking reporting in

“Political Psychology in 2004. His work goes the distance in understanding conservatism.

“In an article titled “What Happens When Authoritarians Inherit the Earth? A simulation,” Altmeyer explains that, “When I started out, and ever since, I was not looking for political conservatives. I was looking for people who overtly submit to the established authorities in their lives, who could be of any political/economic/religious stripe.” His work identified “right-wing authoritarians” but he was not using the term “right-wing” in the political sense. Rather he used the designation in a psychological sense.

“But as he continued his work he reports that “it turns out that in North America persons who score highly on my measure of authoritarianism test tend to favor right-wing political parties and have ‘conservative’ economic philosophies and religious sentiments. He goes on to say that this empirical finding has been repeatedly duplicated in his continuing studies and has been replicated in studies by others.

“The extensive research on the behavior and personality characteristics of right-wing authoritarians and conservatives concludes that they are people who do not see themselves as they actually are and have little facility for self-analysis.

“The research demonstrates that conservatives delight in hurling invectives against their enemies and often prove to have the thinnest of skins if the same is done to them. Many conservatives are unaware of their illogical, contradictory and hypocritical thinking. And if they are forced to address it, either rationalize it away, fail to care, or go on the attack against those who reveal their human weaknesses.”

And authoritarianism has been correlated with higher rates of hypocrisy:

“Research reveals that authoritarian followers drive through life under the influence of impaired thinking a lot more than most people do, exhibiting sloppy reasoning, highly compartmentalized beliefs, double standards, hypocrisy, self-blindness, a profound ethnocentrism, and — to top it all off — a ferocious dogmatism that makes it unlikely anyone could ever change their minds with evidence or logic.”

It’s certainly not hard to find inconsistencies among conservatives, especially social conservatives. For example, conservatives have the highest rate of porn consumption and conservative states have the highest rates of teen pregnancy. I could list many more examples, but that isn’t as helpful as research on authoritarianism and hypocrisy. By the way, liberals test high on ‘openness’ which is something authoritarians, of course, test extremely low on (‘openness’ probably disinclines someone towards the worst forms of hypocrisy as found in authoritarian groupthink).

So, it is possible that many individual social conservatives even if only moderately authoritarian, enough to skew the conservative sample in that direction, are less consistent in their beliefs than the average liberal. This might skew the entire study for conservatives are familiar with their own inconsistencies and it is easier to be aware of your own inconsistencies (or the inconsistencies of those in your own group) than to be aware of the inconsistencies of someone who is entirely different from you, although being intuitively aware of inconsistencies doesn’t necessarily imply a broader self-awareness. On the opposite side: If liberals are more consistent in their beliefs, then it probably would be easier for a conservative to understand liberal beliefs. It is harder to have accurate views of an inconsistent group, especially one that hypocritically betrays its own stated values on a regular basis.

I really don’t know how this factor might play out in Haidt’s study. I have no data about ideological self-awareness as it might relate to authoritarianism and hypocrisy. My main point is simply that it is a confounding factor not being controlled for.

Secondly, it seems obvious that self-identified conservatives as a group are less ideologically homogenous than self-identfied liberals as a group. This would contribute to the conclusion that conservatives are collectively more inconsistent which would make it harder for an outsider to assess their beliefs on average. To determine this, testing for the average beliefs of liberals and conservatives wouldn’t be adequate, and so the rate of diversity of beliefs would also need to be tested. This is particularly problematic for Haidt’s entire theory as he is relying on self-defined labels which are notoriously unreliable because people’s defintions of such labels aren’t consistent. I’ve analyzed the complexity of this problem before.

The problem of the study is that self-described liberals are a smaller and more narrowly defined demographic group whereas self-described conservatives are a larger and more broadly defined demographic group, diversity making the conservative movement itself less consistent. As Pew data shows, almost 1 in 10 Americans holding strong liberal beliefs self-identify as conservative, but you don’t find a large number of Americans holding conservative beliefs self-identifying as liberal.

The conservative label, besides including 9% of Pew’s “Solid Liberals” (liberal across the board, both fiscally and socially), includes neocon progressives and war-hawks, free market neoliberals, fundamentalists as well as theocrats, some libertarians and socially liberal fiscal conservatives verging on libertarianism, patriotic statists wanting a militaristic empire, anti-statists wanting a weak government, openly gay Republicans, WASP culture warriors, white supremancists, gun-toting militants and survivalists, constitutionalists, small town rural types, elderly people remembering a conservatism that no longer exists, former Cubans who hate communism, small business owners fighting free trade globalism, big business defenders promoting free trade globalism, corporatists verging on fascism, anarcho-capitalists, Randian Objectivists, traditional Catholics who have high rates of membership in unions, union-bashing think tank employees, ordinary people wanting to conserve progressive reforms such as social security, politicians promoting the ending of the progressive reforms such as privatizing social security, etc.

You don’t find such massive diversity among self-described liberals.

A further problem is that self-described liberals don’t represent all liberals. As I pointed out, many liberals self-identify as conservatives. Other Pew data also has shown almost half of liberals self-identifying as Independents. I would suspect that most moderates hold a majority of liberal beliefs, values and policy positions. The data shows that most Americans in general, despite large numbers self-identifying as conservative, are actually very liberal on many key issues.

One other factor to consider is the mainstream media. Maybe some of the most popular pundits (or, most popular or not, pundits with the most ability to make themselves heard) such as Limbaugh and Beck aren’t representative of the average conservative. So, a liberal might mistakenly base their views of the typical conservative solely or largely on these few far right pundits. However, maybe the opposite isn’t true. As liberals are more narrowly defined as a group and because liberal activists are less radicalized, popular pundits of liberalism might be more representative of the average liberal and so the media ends up, intentionally or not, giving conservatives more accurate information about liberal beliefs.

Even if it is true that liberals are inaccurate in their assessment of the beliefs of the average conservative, liberals may be accurate in their assessment of the beliefs of conservatives in the media and other powerful conservatives who control the political narrative of the conservative movement. This is an important difference since pundits and other powerful people have more influence and control over party politics than does the average citizen. Political movements are defined more by their activists and leaders than by the average person identifying with the movement. It might be possible, though, that liberal activists and leaders are closer to the average liberal than is found with conservatives in the conservative movement.

How is the liberal supposed to know what the average conservative thinks when the spokespersons for the conservative movement don’t represent the average conservative? If this is the case, this would be more of a criticism of the conservative movement that causes such confusion than a criticism of the liberal who is confused by it. Going by this interpretation, I would posit that this possible liberal misperception of conservatives would be based on the mischaracterization of the average conservative by the conservative media itself and based on how the rest of the MSM mostly accepts this right-wing framing of the conservative movement.

All of the mainstream media and all of mainstream politics is similarly confused. You’ll never see acknowledged in the MSM that, although the average American would rather self-identify as a conservative than a liberal, the average American holds liberal views on many if not most major social, economic and political issues. The average liberal is simply repeating what they’ve learned from the MSM which is problematic in itself. It is sad that we must judge liberals for believing what they’ve been told by supposedly trusted news institutions. The MSM has misinformed the American people about the general public being more conservative than it  actually is and misinformed the American people about the average conservative being more right-wing than they actually are.

I admit that it is a sad state of affairs. I wish liberals better understood that the average conservative is closer in opinion to the average liberal than the average conservative is to the radicalized activists, leaders and pundits of the conservative movement. This is hard for most liberals to wrap their minds around for these non-radicalized average conservatives keep being manipulated by the radicals in their movement and hence voting the radicals into power, at least in recent decades.

Still, being manipulated by radical rhetoric isn’t the same thing as being radical oneself. Even liberals can be manipulated by the radical rhetoric of the right-wing which is what happened after 9/11. Fear works, sad but true.

Another factor to keep in mind relates back to hypocrisy. Haidt is testing for self-described labels and self-described values. This might in some cases have little to do with actual behavior. If on average conservatives show more inconsistency between their stated values and their actual behaviors, why would Haidt judge liberals as being inaccurate for basing their assessment on the actual behaviors of conservatives rather than on their stated values? Liberals shouldn’t be blamed for assuming that conservatives are more like liberals in thinking that their actual behaviors match up with their stated values. This speaks maybe to the naivette of liberals in not appreciating conservative hypocrisy, but such naivette certainly isn’t a moral failure. I think that ‘moral consistency’ (i.e., lack of hypocrisy) should be added to Haidt’s moral values.

There is also an irony in Haidt doing this kind of research. As I pointed out in my reviews of his theory, it seems obvious to me that Haidt lacks an accurate and unbiased assessment of liberal moral values. The fact that the theory itself is problematic makes any research based on it problematic. Maybe Haidt merely ends up testing for which group ends up agreeing the most with his own personal bias.

Another irony in a scientist like Haidt promoting conservative values is that research shows that conservatives mistrust science more and that this mistrust has been increasing:

http://404systemerror.com/study-conservatives-trust-in-science-has-fallen-dramatically-since-mid-1970s/

But a similar strong and persistant bias can’t be found among liberals:

http://open.salon.com/blog/ted_frier/2012/03/29/everyone_is_biased_only_liberals_try_not_to_be

http://truth-out.org/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&id=6892:the-republican-brain-why-even-educated-conservatives-deny-science–and-reality

“So now the big question: Are liberals also “smart idiots”?

“There’s no doubt that more knowledge—or more political engagement—can produce more bias on either side of the aisle. That’s because it forges a stronger bond between our emotions and identities on the one hand, and a particular body of facts on the other.

“But there are also reason to think that, with liberals, there is something else going on. Liberals, to quote George Lakoff, subscribe to a view that might be dubbed “Old Enlightenment reason.” They really do seem to like facts; it seems to be part of who they are. And fascinatingly, in Kahan’s study liberals did not act like smart idiots when the question posed was about the safety of nuclear power.

“Nuclear power is a classic test case for liberal biases—kind of the flipside of the global warming issue–for the following reason. It’s well known that liberals tend to start out distrustful of nuclear energy: There’s a long history of this on the left. But this impulse puts them at odds with the views of the scientific community on the matter (scientists tend to think nuclear power risks are overblown, especially in light of the dangers of other energy sources, like coal).

“So are liberals “smart idiots” on nukes? Not in Kahan’s study. As members of the “egalitarian communitarian” group in the study—people with more liberal values–knew more science and math, they did not become more worried, overall, about the risks of nuclear power. Rather, they moved in the opposite direction from where these initial impulses would have taken them. They become less worried—and, I might add, closer to the opinion of the scientific community on the matter.

“You may or may not support nuclear power personally, but let’s face it: This is not the “smart idiot” effect. It looks a lot more like open-mindedness.”

So, the very act of scientifically studying biases, including liberal biases, is typically going to get strong support from liberals and weak support (if not outright antagonism) from conservatives. Even if liberals were more biased about certain issues, that may be less relevant in that liberals also show a stronger desire to correct their own mistaken views.

To me, this relates back to the issue of consistency and hypocrisy. If liberals are more aware of inconsistencies when they occur, they will put more effort into becoming more consistent. I’d love to see Haidt not only study moral values but also how those values relate or don’t relate to moral behavior, especially the specific moral behaviors that the moral values imply.

I should clarify that I’m not arguing that liberals are morally better in all or even most ways. As I see it, there are strengths and weaknesses to both conservative and liberal predispositions. What I am suggesting, though, is that it might be possible that liberals are more self-aware of their own moral failings, at least in terms of being less prone to confirmation bias and the smart idiot effect when it comes to their own cherished beliefs and opinions. The hypothetical part would be whether being more self-aware of moral failings actually leads to lessening those moral failings and hence seeking to morally improve oneself, beyond merely being willing to change one’s mind according to new info.

As a liberal-minded person, what I care about are the facts even when or especially when they contradict or put doubt to my beliefs. However, conservatives don’t equally share my concern and this bothers me, almost causes me to lose hope.

Because of my liberal respect for science, I feel compelled to take Haidt’s theory seriously and to carefully look at his data. What I’ve come to is doubts about how Haidt is going about his research. My doubts are only increased as his conclusion doesn’t seem to fit the broader range of research about biases in terms of conservatives and liberals. I’d like to see Haidt’s response to all this other research and why it seems to point away from his preferred conclusion.

So, I honestly don’t know what to make of it. If someone can fix some of the problems of Haidt’s research model and yet come to similar results, I would be more convinced of his conclusion. Until then, it’s just data, just as likely to turn out to be meaningless as meaningful.

—-

Here are a few of my previous posts about Jonathan Haidt, Moral Foundations theory, and the conservative/liberal distinction:

 Jonathan Haidt’s Liberal-Minded Anti-Liberalism

Haidt’s Moral Reasoning (vs ethnical reasoning)

Haidt & Mooney, Moral Foundations & Spiral Dynamics

Liberalism: Weaknesses & Failures

The Enlightenment Project: A Defense

And here are some relevant commentary on Haidt’s theory and research:

http://skepoet.wordpress.com/2012/06/12/some-incoherent-thoughts-on-jonathan-haidts-moral-compass-and-the-idea-of-the-marxian-left/

http://skepoet.wordpress.com/2012/07/10/marginalia-on-radical-thinking-dialogue-with-keith418-on-the-moral-grounding-of-political-notions/

http://skepoet.wordpress.com/2012/06/10/marginalia-on-skeptical-thinking-interview-with-simon-frankel-pratt-part-2/

http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2012/05/17/the-unbearable-squishiness-of-jonathan-haidt/

http://www.religiondispatches.org/archive/politics/4235/conservatism’s_bulldog_claims_psychology_tilts_liberal

http://accidentalblogger.typepad.com/accidental_blogger/2012/04/a-semi-righteous-book-prasad.html

http://openparachute.wordpress.com/2012/05/17/human-morality-is-evolving/http://www.ethicsdefined.org/the-problem-with-morality/conservatives-vs-liberals/

http://openparachute.wordpress.com/2012/04/16/morality-and-the-worship-of-reason/

http://www.tnr.com/article/books-and-arts/magazine/102760/righteous-mind-haidt-morality-politics-scientism

http://rsafellowship.com/group/human-capability-and-societal-transformation/forum/topics/beyond-the-righteous-mind-helping-jonathan-haidt-understand-his-o

http://readingsubtly.blogspot.com/2012/04/enlightened-hypocrisy-of-jonathan.html

http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp/2012/03/jonathan-hadit-robert-wright-crazy-delicious/

http://isabel.penraeth.com/post/26069975441/tilting-at-a-new-windmill-from-moral-foundation-theory

http://www.desmogblog.com/conservatives-seeking-show-they-are-open-minded-ignore-contrary-evidence-and-no-not-onion-article

Romney’s Class War

I’ve been saying for a while that this election is Obama’s to lose, but I have to admit recently that Romney is doing his best to lose. I’m not even speaking as an Obama supporter.

The media is particularly getting excited about Romney’s comment that 47% of Americans are freeloaders with a victim mentality and that these people will inevitably vote for Obama because they are looking for handouts from government. Two things stand out to me. First, Romney is admitting there is a class war and that he is fighting on the side of the rich. Second, this recording simply proves what many rich Republicans say in private when around other rich Republicans.

Even though I’m not an Obama supporter, I have decided to vote for Obama. My decision came before this recent event. What brought me out of voter apathy was the endless attacks by Republicans to suppress the votes of the poor and disadvantaged. This became most clear recently with the changes to state voting laws, although it had already become clear with the morally depraved attack on and destruction of ACORN, one of the few organizations that helped lower class Americans.

It forms a truly dark picture of cynicism. This class war that isn’t just about economics, isn’t just about unemployment and stagnating wages, isn’t just about ensuring tax cuts for the rich, isn’t just about outsourcing American jobs, isn’t just about redistributing America’s wealth to the already wealthy, isn’t just about eliminating the remains of the safety net. More fundamentally, the voter suppression tactics demonstrate Republicans are trying to disempower and disenfranchise all Americans who aren’t apart of the upper classes. Republicans are flirting with plutocracy and the Republican elite seem to have already fully embraced their role as plutocrats.

I find this disturbing. I know the Democratic Party has its own problems. I realize Democrats haven’t always been the best defenders of democracy. But at least Democrats aren’t actively attacking average Americans who are just trying to get by.

That is why as an Independent I’m voting for Obama. I’m not voting for the lesser of two evils. My vote isn’t about party politics. I’m voting for Obama in order to vote against those who attack democracy. I’m rather fond of democracy and I don’t want to see it any further harmed. Democracy and plutocracy are incompatible. Every generation must choose democracy again and so every generation faces the possibility of losing democracy.

 
Unlike Romney, I don’t see all of this as a simple class war. There are rich people for democracy and lower class people against democracy. The American Dream of an egalitarian society isn’t about attacking the rich and giving to the poor. It’s about making a better life possible for everyone.

Politics & Public Opinion: David W. Moore on Pollsters

I noticed David W. Moore’s book The Opinion Makers. The author worked for Gallup for many years and he has great insight about the bias of pollsters and other problems of polling. This brings light to my own search for understanding public opinion. The media often does the polling and often does a horrible job at reporting on it.

Two things stood out to me in looking at various reviews of the book and other related articles.

First, the public is uninformed about many issues that pollsters ask about. People end up giving opinions about issues that they know little about and so the resulting ‘public opinion’ can be rather arbitrary.

Second, the public doesn’t care that much about many issues. There is rarely a majority of the public that both cares strongly about an issue and has a consensus about it, and so it is usually a minority that is for an issue and a minority that is against it.

These two combined create a sad picture.

The media fails in informing the public or, to be cynical, succeeds in misinforming the public. The MSM is ultimately profit-driven and those working in the MSM are trapped within the reality tunnel of corporate media and corporate government, i.e., the plutocratic status quo. The MSM doesn’t necessarily care about democracy and so it isn’t surprising that the MSM, along with the rest of the plutocratic establishment, undermines democracy. Most Americans aren’t just uninformed and misinformed, but also unengaged, disenfranchised even.

Neither pundits or politicians inspire the average American to feel like their opinion matters and that they have any power to make the world a better place. Instead, pundits and politicians portray a world that doesn’t fit what the average American believes and values. People feel isolated because they don’t realize that their opinion is actually the majority in many cases. The MSM too often offers mostly obfuscation, rather than high quality investigative reporting.

http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/archives/individual/2008_08/014280.php

http://www.cbsnews.com/2100-501763_162-4348000.html

http://www.beaconbroadside.com/broadside/2009/08/david-w-moore-gallups-anti-health-care-bias.html

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-moore/public-opinion-and-health_b_275193.html

http://www.imediaethics.org/News/1716/The_real_public___what_pollsters_don_t_want_to_reveal_.php

http://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2012/01/01/public-opinion-polls-and-the-left/

Moral Vision: A Liberal-Minded View

This post is a continuation of my last post. There I wrote about combining my liberal-mindedness with a Taoist approach to politics. That could be seen as a bit too passive considering the urgent problems that are like an earthquake shaking the edifice of modern society. What is the comfort of being a political Taoist in a society that fantasizes about Christian apocalypse along with secularized versions of social decay and doom?

In light of this, I was thinking of what may be the active role of liberal-mindedness. What can the liberal predisposition offer besides patience and persistence? How can the liberal-minded advocate for something entirely new, something that profoundly challenges the status quo?

What came to my mind was the necessity of moral vision. In my last post, I spoke of the relationship conservative-mindedness has to fear. The moral vision conservative-mindedness creates can be compelling, often portrayed in form of battle, whether waged by a Christian army fighting for God’s Glory in a fallen world or the lone vigilante like the noirish Batman as the Dark Knight fighting evil in a crime-ridden Gotham. The liberal-minded have their work cut out for them in seeking to offer something more compelling than these visions of a fearful world to be overcome.

This is where liberalism as a movement has failed to live up to the potentials of the liberal worldview. I would include left-wingers in this failure. Maybe left-wingers deserve even more responsibility than liberals for it has always been the necessary role for left-wingers to push society toward the liberal-minded moral vision and thus keep liberals accountable. Without left-wingers playing this role, liberalism remains unchallenged in its safe dreams of status quo timidity. If liberal-mindedness is left to ‘liberals’ like Obama, then an alternative compelling moral vision will continue to elude us. What we need right now is someone with the vision and voice of a Martin Luther King jr.

Thinking along these lines, I found myself coming back to the insight about how disconnected we are and how splintered society has become. We are lacking the moral vision not just to inspire but to bring it all together as a coherent narrative. This isn’t about superficial debates about how to metaphorically frame arguments in order to win at the political game. This goes deeper into the meaning of culture itself. The problems we face are a soul sickness. Read Derrick Jensen’s early work to know what I mean by this (specifically: A Language Older Than Words and The Culture of Make Believe).

I’ve often contemplated this disconnect and splintering. I know it in my own experience. The disconnect I feel is between my desire to understand and my ability to act and between my ability to act and the possibility of genuine change. I would be the first one to admit that I’m no moral exemplar. My greatest moral achievement is my sense of humility in the face of my own weaknesses and failures, but that isn’t much of a consolation prize.

So, the reason I often pick on conservatives isn’t based on righteously standing on the moral mountaintop looking down upon others. It’s just that the disconnect in conservatives can seem so blatant at times. More frustrating is that this kind of disconnect often doesn’t seem to bother conservatives as much for, at least when they are in reactionary mode, seeing things this way isn’t part of their worldview.

It is beyond my comprehension to make sense of how, for example, conservatives can claim moral highground of their own through Christianity while simultaneously singing the gospel of patriotic jingoism and military imperialism. I know of a conservative who in many ways is morally good Christian in doing good works (volunteering at soup kitchens, etc), but he sees nothing wrong with the US government having dropped atomic bombs on innocent civilians in Japan. That is such a massive disconnect. There could be no greater symbol of the antithesis of Jesus’ teachings than this morally depraved collective action. It’s not just un-Christian. It is completely and utterly anti-Christian… or else just anti-Jesus.

I don’t know what to make of this. The  power of this kind of disconnect is that it breeds numbness and blindness. The person disconnected to such an extreme extent isn’t even aware of it, can’t be aware of it.

It isn’t about blaming individuals. The soul sickness is greater than any single individual for all of us in this society are implicated, in one way or another, to some degree or another. A few of us have slightly more awareness about particular things, but I haven’t yet discovered a person who has fully come to terms with the society-wide disconnect that plagues us. I couldn’t say what good it does to be aware of a problem to which one has no good solution. Derrick Jensen’s solution is for the collapse of civilization which is an unsatisfying answer from my perspective, especially considering that there is nothing Jensen can do to force civilization’s collapse. We’re all just groping in the dark, even if some of us have become more familiar with the darkness.

As I see it, the more blatant examples such as hypocritical Christians make obvious a truth that is otherwise difficult to see in our everyday lives. I too am a hypocrite… or to the degree I’m not a hypocrite, it is because I’ve lowered my own moral standards. This is why, even if I were a believer, I’d be reluctant to call myself a Christian. I’m not a hypocritical Christian because I realize Jesus’ teachings are more radical than I could ever live up to. Many Christians simply ignore the radical nature at the heart of Christianity, but it makes little difference.

This isn’t about liberals being better than conservatives. A worthy moral vision has to transcend differences by inspiring people to transcend the divisions within themselves. It may take someone with a strong sense of liberal-mindedness to usher in a new vision, but such a person can’t be stuck in a single state of mind. A worthy moral vision would equally touch upon what is true in all aspects of human nature. Conservative-mindedness in and of itself is not capable, almost by definition, of positively envisioning the new. Even so, conservative-mindedness has many other strengths that liberal-mindedness lacks. Without focus (low ‘openness’) and conscientiousness, implementation of any new vision would be impossible.

Liberalism and conservatism as movements may be separate phenomena, but as predispositions they exist as potential within every person. A unifying vision must express what is universal in human nature. This isn’t compromise. It is simply a psychological fact, even if the disconnect within us has made us forget this fundamental truth. Maybe one of the most central disconnects is between liberalism and conservatism, thus causing the former to be impotent and the latter to be reactionary. But the disconnect comes in many forms for all divisions are expressions of the same fundamental divide… or so it seems to me.

Everyone has some specific divide or another that they are attached to and are unwilling to give up no matter the cost: atheism vs faith, civilization’s progress vs civilization’s collapse, capitalism vs communism, reform vs revolution, and on and on and on. Our personally favorite division appears as reality to us. It simply makes sense. Meanwhile, we go on criticizing the blind allegiance others have to their preferred divides.

This relates to how Derrick Jensen, who experienced victimization as a child, would advocate violent activism that would inevitably victimize others. To Jensen, all the world has become a projection of his own victimization and so it plays out everywhere he looks. That is true for all of us, according to our respective projections. We become what we fear and hate. The ultimate disconnect is between self and other. The ‘other’ becomes the enemy, whether that other is some particular group or all of civilization.

I don’t have any solution to offer. I only wish a public discussion could begin. A collective problem requires a collective response. My fear is that only a collective catastrophe will be able to bring forth collective concern, but I’d rather believe there are other ways to achieve change.

Change and Acceptance: A Liberal-Minded View

I wish I could forget about politics and political divisions. But regularly interacting with my conservative parents constantly reminds me of how different my liberal-minded view can be. And this causes me to think about politics in very personal terms. 

I keep coming back to some basic truths about conservatives and liberals along with other related differences. I was at the moment focused on the issue of understanding that is informed by these respective ideological worldviews and how this makes communication challenging. Certainly, communication with my parents can be challenging at times.

I’d like to think that I’m slowly gaining in wisdom or something approximating wisdom. Over time, it has become clear to me how there are positives and negatives to all psychological traits, especially as they manifest in terms of ideological worldviews. This has caused me to become increasingly accepting and forgiving… or at least that is how I’d like to be. I’ve been trying to learn to just feel the frustration and let it ride.

Most importantly, I have no choice but to accept my own limitations in dealing with the limitations of others. No matter what I identify as, no matter how I may shift from time to time, I’ll most likely forever remain centered in liberal-mindedness. At this point, it just feels like who I am and I can’t easily imagine myself otherwise. It would be nearly impossible for me to shift into the full mode of the conservative mindset, although I do have enough experience with and tendencies toward conservatism to make it not an entirely alien reality.

Here  is my frustration. Even with some understanding, the bridge between the two predispositions can seem insurpassable. I sometimes think this bothers the liberal-minded more for we can tend to be over-sensitive bleeding hearts who just want everyone to get along. The conservative-minded seem more inclined to just assume that the liberal-minded are so clueless as to never understand their worldview, thus communication being impossible and cooperation undesirable. This can be hard for the liberal-minded to accept. Polarized partisanship may inspire the conservative-minded and mobilize the conservative movement, but it instead tends to depress the liberal-minded and immobilize the liberal movement.

I’ve noticed how the conservative-minded are more likely to see this difference as a moral difference, specifically those who are moral versus those who are immoral or amoral. It’s the typical dualistic thinking, this or that, right or wrong. This is not unusually portrayed as a battle with the moral imperative to fight and win. For many conservative activists, this is seen as a cosmic war of good versus evil where victory must be sought at any cost. For the fundamentalist, one’s mortal soul and all of humanity is at risk. The enemy, even if not entirely evil, isn’t seen as a worthy equal and so compromise is a moral danger not to be risked. Every step toward liberalism is one step closer to Godless Communism or some such thing.

The liberal-minded, on the other hand, tend to take a more emotionally detached approach, whether psychological or philosophical (more detached, anyway, from such emotions as fear and hatred). This emphasizes differences without judging them in as absolute of terms, seeing both sides as potentially having something positive to contribute. If there is a moral danger to be feared, it is the divisiveness that makes cooperation toward a shared vision beyond all hope.

One side is fighting a battle or else guarding their territory in preparation for war while the other side is simply confused about how to respond. The former mentality, specifically when in this reactionary stance, isn’t very open to sitting down and talking. It is only when the fear response is dampened that liberal-minded can satisfy their own approach because only then are the conservative-minded willing to accept terms of truce.

Fear is the determining factor, for both sides. When the social atmosphere is fear-ridden, two things happen. First, the conservative-minded can become even more conservative-minded which means not just resistant to change but reactionary. And, second, the liberal-minded can become more conservative-minded as well which means leftism as a movement falters and splinters while leftists either become radicalized to the point of being excluded from respectable company and/or become defensive  of that which the conservative-minded are reacting against.

Fear is only good for dealing with narrowly-defined threats such as immediate attacks by known enemies, problems that are short-term situations that require quick response, or situations that are localized so as to allow them to be easily defined and isolated. Fear is the most reactionary of emotions. It focuses the mind and prepares the body for action.

This is what conservative-mindedness is all about. Conservative-mindedness is defined by being low on the trait ‘openness’ and high on the trait ‘conscientiousness’. This adds up to a sense of focus and control. Research shows that conservative-minded traits are useful for clearly defined tasks and situations. The conservative-minded make good surgeons for they can focus intently while ignoring all distractions. They make good lawyers for they find it easy to deal with clearly worded laws and tangible precedents. They make good businessmen because success is so much more straightforward with either one making a profit or not, all other external factors being insignificant if they don’t add to or subtract from the bottom line. And they make good soldiers and generals in their ability to act quickly and decisively.

All of this relates to fear, whether fear of death or loss or failure or whatever. Problems arise for the conservative-minded when the situation is vague or complex, hence when fear and hyper-focus is an inadequate or unhelpful response.

Because of this, the conservative-minded will only feel comfortable and confident in certain situations and so they will constantly seek to create a society that conforms to their predispositions. This is why conservatives would love to create a society that is built around capitalism, the military, and/or fundamentalism. Capitalism is particularly clear in our society for conservatives perceive it in Social Darwinian terms where they seek to eliminate or weaken nearly all safety nets and so where one is driven to succeed out of fear of what would happen otherwise. Loss of status can be worse than death for the conservative-minded (and it is a good way to enforce social order in general). And so it is the fear of loss of status that makes life meaningful to them for that is their measure of morality and self-worth. Confrontation with fear strengthens the conservative mind or else just exaggerates it.

The strengths of the conservative-minded are clear. In those situations where they excel, they can utterly defeat the less aggressive and focused liberal-minded. And the conservative-minded are talented at creating the conditions for their success (also the conditions for the failure of their opponents). But their success doesn’t always translate into the success for the society they come to dominate (for this larger democratic society includes many potential ‘opponents’, including competion amongst the conservative-minded in their attempts to enforce their various and even contradictory preferred social orders).

The conservative-minded, however, don’t see it this way for their focused mindset only allows them to see what they choose to focus upon, all else being unnecessary or unworthy. The complex and diverse world of the liberal-minded simply doesn’t exist for them (heck, even the diversity among the conservative-minded isn’t ever fully acknowledged). They only see an issue or problem when it comes into their focus which means when it is no longer possible to ignore. Issues like global warming and economic inequality are vastly complex and so they seem unreal to them, mere abstract fantasies of the liberal elite.

This is a conundrum for the liberal-minded. Whether or not the conservative-minded see it, the problems of global warming and economic inequality remain as the reality we all face. Not even the most conservative-minded can ignore these problems forever. However, decades or even generations can go by before the point comes when the conservative-minded can no longer ignore them.

Here is the wisdom I’ve come to. All that the liberal-minded can do is repeat the truth and restate the obvious, over and over again, continuously and patiently. There is nothing else to be done. The liberal-minded has to accept that the conservative-minded will eventually come around, hopefully before it is too late. Either they come around or they don’t, but only reality itself can eventually force anyone to shift their focus. This is the Taoist approach to politics. Swimming against the tide is pointless and tiring. It is wiser to save one’s strength in order to use it when it can make the most difference. Timing is everything. If the conditions are not right, no amount of effort can make a difference.

This conflict of predispositions and worldviews isn’t essentially a moral issue, as the conservative-minded tend to think. Nor is it necessarily an issue of educating the public or reframing public debates, as the liberal-minded tend to think. It might involve all of those factors, but social change happens for reasons we don’t always understand.

This is where the understanding of a trait spectrum is helpful. It is best to remember that no one is entirely conservative-minded or entirely liberal-minded. The present responses we see from either end of the spectrum are situation-dependent. As the world changes, people shift, predispositions shift, ideologies shift, whole paradigms shift, etc. It doesn’t matter if the conservative-minded react against it or the liberal-minded try to force the issue. Reality always wins out in the end and one can only hope that one is on the side of reality.