Polarizing Effect of Perceived Polarization

“You probably have the sense that polarization is getting worse in our country, that the divide between the left and the right is as bad as it’s ever been in any or our lifetimes. But you might also reasonably wonder if research backs up your intuition. And in a nutshell, the answer is sadly yes.”

That is how Robb Willer began his TED Talk, How to have better political conversations. A commenter said, “He never answered why the polarization has gotten so much worse though.” In my opinion, it hasn’t gotten worse.

The US presently isn’t more divided than it was during the 1960s, isn’t more divided than it was during the violent early 1900s, isn’t more divided than it was in the decades leading up to the Civil War, and isn’t more divided than among the founding generation of Federalists vs Anti-Federalists. This is another one of those simplistic, superficial, and misleading mainstream narratives. And yet it is an extremely compelling story to tell.

People aren’t disagreeing more than ever. It’s just that they are being heard more and hearing others more, because of the growth of mass media and social media. People are being faced with knowing what others think and believe, not being allowed to remain in blissful ignorance as in the past. People feel polarized because they see it in activist groups, mainstream politics, and corporate media. That experience shouldn’t be dismissed, as it feels all too real and does have real consequences. Still, this sense of conflict is misleading. In reality, most Americans agree more about most issues than they disagree. But it depends on how you frame it.

If you make Americans choose between the labels of liberal and conservative, most people of course will pick one of them and the public will be divided. You can use that to frame questions and so prime people to give polarized answers. But the fact of the matter is that if you give people another option such as independent, most won’t choose either liberal or conservative.

If you only give Americans two viable political party choices, many will consistently choose candidates of the same party from election to election. But most Americans identify as independents and would prefer having other choices. Consider the fact that some of the voters that helped Republican Trump win were supporters of Democratic Sanders. Few people are ideological partisans. That is because few people think in ideological terms.

Consider specific issues.

If you give people a forced choice question about whether they are for or against tough-on-crime policies, polarization in public opinion is the inevitable result. But if you ask people about crime prevention and rehabilitation, most would prefer that. The thing is few polls ever give people the full, accurate info about the available choices. The framing of the questions leads people to answer in a particular way.

That is because those asking the questions are typically more polarized and so they have an self-interest in finding polarized answers (in order to confirm their own biases and worldview), even if their motivations are unconscious. The corporate media also likes to frame everything in polarized terms, even when it isn’t the best framing, because it offers a simplistic narrative (i.e., entertainment news) that sells advertising.

If you give people a forced choice question about whether they support pro-choice or pro-life, you will get a polarized response from the public. But if you ask people if they are for both women’s rights and abortion bans, you’ll find most Americans support both simultaneously. And if you ask people if they want to decrease abortions, you’ll find almost everyone wants to decrease abortions. It’s just people see different ways of decreasing abortions.

Most pro-choicers aren’t for increasing abortions (i.e., killing babies). And most pro-lifers aren’t for taking women’s rights away (i.e., theocratic authoritarianism). It’s just they see different policies as being more effective in achieving what pro-lifers claim to support. The two sides at worst disagree about methods, not goals or necessarily even fundamental values. Isn’t it interesting that so many pro-lifers support a women’s right to choose, depending on how the question is framed?

If you give people a forced choice question about whether or not they support same sex marriage, you get an almost evenly divided polarization of public opinion, with an ever so sleight majority toward support. But if polling is done differently, it is shown that the vast majority is tolerant of or indifferent toward this issue. People simply don’t care who marries whom, unless you intentionally frame it as a liberal agenda to use the government to promote gay marriage and force it onto the public. Framed as an issue of personal right of choice, most Americans are perfectly fine with individuals being allowed to make their own decisions. Even the average conservative doesn’t want to force their political views onto others, no matter what is asserted by the polarized GOP establishment and partisans who are reactionaries, authoritarians and social dominance orientation types.

If you give people a forced choice question about whether they support gun rights or gun regulations, you will get what appears to be polarization. But if you give them a third choice of supporting both stronger gun rights and more effective gun regulations, most will take that third option. That is even true with NRA members who disagree with ideologically polarized NRA leadership. And it is also true of liberals, a demographic shown to have surprisingly high rates of guns in the household.

Here is the takeaway. The general public is not polarized, as research again and again has proven. It is the mainstream media and political elites, the political parties and think tanks, the lifelong partisans and ideological activists who are polarized. In economic terms, it the middle-to-upper class and not the lower classes that are polarized.

The apparent hyper-partisanship comes from not increasing number of partisans, but from increasing number of moderates identifying as independents and increasing number of non-partisans entirely giving up on the political system. I’d also add that it isn’t that this has happened equally across the board. Studies show Democrats aren’t any more liberal than they were decades ago (more conservative, if anything; or at least more neocon and neoliberal), even as Republicans have moved ever further to the right. This has caused public debate to become disconnected from the public opinion, disconnected from the beliefs, values and concerns of most Americans. On many major issues, the general public has moved to the political left which exacerbates this disconnection, creating a situation where the two choices are a conservative Democratic Party and a right-wing Republican Party.

The problem is that the polarized (or rather polarizing) minority entirely controls public debate and the political system. Watching this meaningless spectacle of polarized conflict and dysfunction, the non-polarized majority is some combination of not registered, not voting, voting third party, voting semi-randomly, identifying as independent, politically apathetic, demoralized, hopeless, resigned, confused, overwhelmed, frustrated, etc. Some of the general public can be temporarily manipulated by polarization, such as when given forced choices and when threatened with fear-mongering, but in the end their basic values and concerns don’t support polarization.

Meanwhile the party insiders of both main parties, when the issue is important enough to the interests of themselves, their cronies and the donor class, always seem to find a way to agree and cooperate about passing bills and enacting laws that further push public policy toward neoconservatism and neoliberalism. The culture war framing makes for good stories to tell on the corporate media for mass consumption, but they aren’t what drive actual politics.

At the very highest level of wealth and power, there is very little polarization and a whole lot of collusion and cronyism. Some would argue that even the political elite aren’t actually more polarized. They may be arguing more about more issues, even as the substance of conflict might not indicate any greater disagreement overall than in the past. Others, such as myself, would see most of the partisan bickering as yet more political theater to keep the public distracted.

Certainly, there is no polarization in the deep state, the double government, or whatever you wish to call it. Major public policies aren’t left to chance. Research has shown that the general public has little influence on what politicians do. Some take this argument further, pointing that often even elected officials have little power to change things. That is because elected officials represent a miniscule part of the entrenched bureaucracy. Besides, many political elites don’t necessarily operate within the government itself, such as think tanks shaping policy and lobbyists writing bills. For those who aren’t part of the ruling elite, this discourages them from getting involved in politics or running for office.

How would we know if our society is more polarized, in what ways, what it means, and to whose benefit? Polls don’t just tell us what public opinion is. They shape public opinion and polling during elections can influence voting behavior. And what data the corporate media decides to report and how they frame it shapes the public mind. Some might call it public perception management. Is the public really polarized or made to feel polarized or that everyone around them is polarized? What is the agenda in making the public feel divided and individuals isolated?

One thing is so clear as to be beyond all argument. We don’t have a functioning democracy: gerrymandering, establishment-controlled nomination process, third parties excluded from debates, partisan corporate media, perception management, think tank propaganda, astroturf organizations, paid trolls, voter disenfranchisement and suppression, campaigns and political access determined by big money, revolving door politics, regulatory capture, legalized bribery, pervasive secrecy and unaccountability, etc. So, we don’t have elections that offer real choices and actual influence. And because of this, we don’t have political elites that represent the citizenry.

I’m not sure what polarization means within a political system that is oligarchic, plutocratic, corporatist, and inverted totalitarian. Is it really polarized or is it working according to design? And for the all too real divisions that exist, are they ideological or demographic? Are the majority of poor, white and non-white, politically polarized in any meaningful sense when most of them are so politically apathetic as to not vote? As inequality grows along with poverty and desperation, will our greatest concern be how polarized are the tiny minority of the remaining middle-to-upper class?

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Inequality Divides, Privilege Disconnects
Political Elites Disconnected From General Public
Wirthlin Effect & Symbolic Conservatism
Warmongering Politicians & Progressive Public
Racial Polarization of Partisans
Most Americans Know What is True
Liberalism: Label vs Reality (analysis of data)
Non-Identifying Environmentalists And Liberals
US Demographics & Increasing Progressivism
Public Opinion On Government & Tea Party
Claims of US Becoming Pro-Life
Public Opinion on Tax Cuts for the Rich
Most Oppose Cutting Social Security (data)
The Court of Public Opinion: Part 1 & Part 2
Vietnam War Myths: Memory, Narrative, Rhetoric & Lies

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7 in 10 Americans ‘Not Upset’ with Gay Marriage, New iMediaEthics Poll Finds
by Andy Sternberg and David W. Moore

Liberal Policy Preferences are Everywhere
by Yeggmen

America Is Much Less Conservative than the Mainstream Media Believe
by Eric Alterman

America Not as Politically Conservative as You Think
by Lee Drutman

Why most conservatives are secretly liberals
by John Sides

You’re Probably Not as Conservative as You Think
by Tom Jacobs

You May Think You’re Right … Young Adults Are More Liberal Than They Realize
by Ethan Zell and Michael J. Bernstein

The End of the Conservative Movement (Still)…
by George Hawley

Ideological Labels in America
by Claassen, Tucker, and Smith

Political Ideology
by Jost, Federico, and Napier

Operational and Symbolic Ideology in the American Electorate
by Christopher Ellis and James Stimson

The Ideological Right vs. The Group Benefits Left
by Matt Grossmann

In Search of the Big Sort
by Samuel J Abrams

Who Fits the Left-Right Divide?
by Carmines, Ensley, and Wagner

Despite Headline, Pew Poll Does Not Show a Polarized America
by Todd Eberly

Most experts think America is more polarized than ever. This Stanford professor disagrees. And he thinks the 2016 election has only buttressed his interpretation.
by Jeff Stein

Polarized or Sorted? Just What’s Wrong With Our Politics, Anyway?
by Alan I. Abramowitz and Morris P. Fiorina

Disconnected: The Political Class versus the People
by Morris P. Fiorina

Has the American Public Polarized?
by Morris P. Fiorina

America’s Missing Moderates: Hiding in Plain Sight
by Morris P. Fiorina

Moderates: Who Are They, and What Do They Want?
by Molly Ball

Politics aren’t more partisan today–we’re just fighting about more issues
by Heather Hurlburt

Preference Change through Choice
by Petter Johansson, Lars Hall, and Nick Chater

(Mis)perceptions of Partisan Polarization in the American Public
by Matthew S. Levendusky and Neil Malhotra

(Mis)perceiving Political Polarization
by Nathan Collins

Americans overestimate political polarization, according to new CU-Boulder research
by Greg Swenson

The Effect of “False” Polarization
by Matthew S. Levendusky and Neil A. Malhotra

Your opinion on climate change might not be as common as you think
by Leviston, Walker, and Morwinski

Constructing Public Opinion
by Justin Lewis

Does Media Coverage of Partisan Polarization Affect Political Attitudes?
by Matthew Levendusky and Neil Malhorta

Do Partisan Media Add to Political Polarization?
by Anne Kim

The Limits of Partisan Prejudice
by Yphtach Lelkes and Sean J. Westwood

Elite Polarization and Public Opinion
Joshua Robison and Kevin J. Mullinix

How polarisation in Washington affects a growing feeling of partisanship
by Harry J Enten

Elite Polarization, Partisan Ambivalence, and a Preference for Divided Government
by Lavine, Johnston, Steenbergen, and Perkins

Ideological Moderates Won’t Run: How Party Fit Matters for Partisan Polarization in Congress
by Danielle M. Thomsen

How party activists, not voters in general, drive political polarization
by Gillian Kiley

Polls of Persuasion: Beware of the Horse Race
by Alicia Wanless

Vote all you want. The secret government won’t change.
by Jordan Michael Smith

Racial Polarization of Partisans

Racial polarization in the general population has remained at the same level for decades. But it has increased in the two-party system, at the very time fewer Americans are registering in either party. So, the very people least polarized are those who have left the polarized parties. This means there is an ever greater concentration of polarization among the most loyal partisans, Republicans and Democrats, and hence the further polarization of the parties.

Even non-racial issues (e.g., same sex marriage) have become racially polarized within the two-party system, specifically in reaction to Obama’s presidency. Most Americans agree about most issues. What has changed in recent history is that the majority no longer identifies with either main party and so the two-party system doesn’t represent them. The ideological fight between Republicans and Democrats has nothing to do with the larger population. As such, polarization of the minority goes hand in hand with disenfranchisement of the majority.

Yet, as the two main parties have greater power and get more media attention, it gives the impression of polarization increasing in American society. The polarized partisans are getting more free publicity from the mainstream media than they did in the past. There is no political spectacle to push and no social drama to sell advertising in the news media reporting on the boring consensus of the majority, even if we ignore the fact that the media corporations are themselves major funding sources for the very political parties they have helped to polarize.

The one thing the media is even less likely to report on is how their reporting influences public perception and supports political spin, not to mention how it locks in the dominant two-party paradigm. The polarization becomes entrenched and self-perpetuating, until the majority of Americans realize how disconnected the entire system is from their lives and values. It would require a large outside force such as nation-wide social unrest to shake loose the polarization that rules the mainstream mind.

I’ve often pointed out the political elite are disconnected from the public. That is still true. But it goes far beyond merely the supposed representatives not necessarily representing even the people who vote for them, especially Democratic politicians who falsely assume their constituents are more conservative than they actually are—both of the main parties are ideologically to the right of the majority. More interesting, the mainstream partisans have also become disconnected from the rest of the population.

The problematic and even dangerous aspect of this is how it creates detachment and dissociation. It’s a divide in the mind, in experience and perception. This disconnection, through the power of party politics and corporate media, is forced upon social reality.

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It All Comes Down to Race
by Sasha Issenberg

The Great Trump Reshuffle
Thomas B. Edsall

A newly released poll shows the populist power of Donald Trump
by Michael Tesler

Donald Sterling shows the separate realities of Democrats and Republicans about race
by Michael Tesler

Most Americans Know What is True

There is one topic I return to more often than most, a topic that has been on my mind for about a decade now. This topic has to do with the confluence of ideology, labels, and social science. I’ve written about this topic more than I care to remember.

I’m about equally interested in conservatism and liberalism (along with other ideological labels). But liberalism in some ways has intrigued me more because of all the massive confusion surrounding the label. Most Americans hold fairly strong left-leaning views on many of the most important major issues.

There are a number of facts that have become permanently caught in my craw. I considered two of these in a post from not too long ago, Wirthlin Effect & Symbolic Conservatism. In that post, I pointed out that most Americans are more in agreement with one another than they are with the more right-leaning political elites who claim to speak for and represent them. But there is a complicating factor involving the odd mixture of liberalism and conservatism in the American Mind (I never get tired of quoting this fascinating explanation):

Since the time of the pioneering work of Free & Cantril (1967), scholars of public opinion have distinguished between symbolic and operational aspects of political ideology (Page & Shapiro 1992, Stimson 2004). According to this terminology, “symbolic” refers to general, abstract ideological labels, images, and categories, including acts of self-identification with the left or right. “Operational” ideology, by contrast, refers to more specific, concrete, issue-based opinions that may also be classified by observers as either left or right. Although this distinction may seem purely academic, evidence suggests that symbolic and operational forms of ideology do not coincide for many citizens of mass democracies. For example, Free & Cantril (1967) observed that many Americans were simultaneously “philosophical conservatives” and “operational liberals,” opposing “big government” in the abstract but supporting the individual programs comprising the New Deal welfare and regulatory state. More recent studies have obtained impressively similar results; Stimson (2004) found that more than two-thirds of American respondents who identify as symbolic conservatives are operational liberals with respect to the issues (see also Page & Shapiro 1992, Zaller 1992). However, rather than demonstrating that ideological belief systems are multidimensional in the sense of being irreducible to a single left-right continuum, these results indicate that, in the United States at least, leftist/liberal ideas are more popular when they are manifested in specific, concrete policy solutions than when they are offered as ideological abstractions. The notion that most people like to think of themselves as conservative despite the fact that they hold a number of liberal opinions on specific issues is broadly consistent with system-justification theory, which suggests that most people are motivated to look favorably upon the status quo in general and to reject major challenges to it (Jost et al. 2004a).

What the heck is a symbolic conservatism? I’m not quite sure. I don’t know if anyone has that one figured out yet.

I also pointed out that even most Southerners are on the left side of the spectrum. It’s just that most Southerners are disenfranchized. If most Southerners voted, Republicans would never be able to win another election in the South without completely altering what they campaign on.

The claim of a polarized population is overstated. This brings me to a new angle. I came across another piece of data that now can be permanently caught in my craw with the rest. It is from a book by Cass R. Sunstein, not an author I normally read, but the book looked intriguing. He wrote (How to Humble a Wingnut and Other Lessons from Behavioral Economics, Kindle Locations 249-253):

Recent studies by Yale University’s John Bullock and his co-authors suggest that with respect to facts, Democrats and Republicans disagree a lot less than we might think.

True, surveys reveal big differences. But if people are given economic rewards for giving the right answer, the partisan divisions start to become a lot smaller. Here’s the kicker: With respect to facts , there is a real difference between what people say they believe and what they actually believe.

This was from a fairly short essay that ends with this conclusion (Kindle Locations 271-282):

What’s going on here? Bullock and his colleagues think that when people answer factual questions about politics, they engage in a degree of cheerleading, even at the expense of the truth. In a survey setting, there is no cost to doing that.

With economic incentives, of course, the calculus is altered. If you stand to earn some money with an accurate answer, cheerleading becomes much less attractive . And if you will lose real money with an inaccurate answer, you will put a higher premium on accuracy.

What is especially striking is that Bullock and his colleagues were able to slash polarization with very modest monetary rewards. If the incentives were greater (say, $ 100 for a correct answer and $ 25 for “I don’t know”), there is every reason to expect that partisan differences would diminish still more.

It might seem disturbing to find such a divergence between what people say and what they actually believe, but in a way, these findings are immensely encouraging. They suggest that with respect to facts, partisan differences are much less sharp than they seem—and that political polarization is often an artifact of the survey setting.

When Democrats and Republicans claim to disagree, they might be reporting which side they are on, not what they really think. Whatever they say in response to survey questions, they know, in their heart of hearts, that while they are entitled to their own opinions, they are not entitled to their own facts.

Incentives can make people honest. And when honest, people agree a lot more. This reminds me of research showing that, by doing word jumble puzzles and such, people can be primed for rational thought and indeed they do think more rationally under those conditions. Between incentives and priming, we could have a much higher quality public debate and political action.

This also reminds me of implicit knowledge (see here and here). Many writers have observed the strange phenomenon of people simultaneously knowing and not knowing. Maybe this directly relates to incentives and similar factors. It might not just be an issue of incentives to be honest, but also incentives to be self-aware, to admit to themselves what they already know, even when such truths might be uncomfortable and inconvenient.

A further confounding factor, as research also shows, the political elites and the political activists are very much polarized. Those with the most power and influence are the stumbling blocks for democracy or any other moral and effective political process. This plays straight into the cheerleading of the masses. Too many people will simply go along with what the pundits and politicians tell them, unless some other motivation causes them to think more carefully and become more self-aware.

One wonders what the public debate would be like about issues from global warming to economic inequality, if the incentives were different. A single honest public debate could transform our society. It would be a shock to the entire social, political, and economic system.

Communication Failure, Again

I was in another debate with a feminist about rape. My last such discussion was a few months ago. It was equally frustrating this time. I really don’t like ideologues and I really don’t like political correctness, either from the left or the right.

It isn’t even about whether I agree with someone or not. In this case, I think I may have been more in agreement. But it is pointless because such a person wants to hide behind their beliefs and opinions, hide behind their righteousness indignation, and I suppose hide behind their sense of suffering and victimization.

Life sucks and there plenty of reasons to be angry. I understand that. It is easy to get defensive and polarized into a position. I also understand that. But all my attempts at understanding came to nothing, so it seemed.

It sure can be frustrating trying to talk to someone who is stuck in that mentality. The person I was dealing with never came around to understanding that we were probably completely in agreement, at least about the central issues at hand. She so much wanted to make me into an enemy that divisiveness and heated argument was the near inevitable endpoint.

I wish I was better at communicating in such situations.

Unprincipled Righteousness, Inconsistent Thought, & Double Standards

I’m really liking these comparisons.

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Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

The one thing that always irks me is inconsistency. So many people don’t think how they set up double standards in their own thinking, thus causing dissociation between different parts of their experience. The only way to avoid self-serving and self-deluding rationalizations is with self-awareness.

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Our politics shouldn’t be about defending our small group interest, whether views of pro-gun-rights or prochoice (or whatever else), by attacking everyone else who disagrees or who is a member of a different political party, race, ethnicity, etc.

In a large nation like this, we all share the responsibility of governance, to ensure it is both good and just. Our government is supposed to be of the people, that is to say all the people, not just some of the people. What we apply to other Americans we need to apply to ourselves. And what we apply to ourselves we need to apply to other Americans.

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This last one is about anti-government types, the radical right-libertarians and their allies. It points to the problem of any ideology (left or right) being brought to its radical extreme, as can often be seen in political rhetoric.

It is one thing to be critical of government as one criticizes anything (corporations, churches, etc) when they deserve criticism. But it is a whole other matter to dismiss government or dismiss any other social institution. There are real world consequences to nice sounding rhetoric. It isn’t or shouldn’t be just about winning elections. What matters is making a better society where easily avoidable catastrophes don’t happen, catastrophes such as the poisoned water in West Virginia.

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Combined together, the messages above make a greater point.

Maybe we should base our opinions on principles, not partisanship (or any other form of groupthink). Maybe we should feel the same moral outrage when a principle is ignored or betrayed in one situation as we feel in another. Moral outrage without principle is blind. Principle without moral outrage is impotent. Both can be dangerous.

These are directed at the right, but the same applies to us all. Certainly, Democrats have no lack of inconsistency as well.

It is human to occasionally fall into inconsistency, but it is also in our nature to care about bettering ourselves and also bettering our communities. Each of us eventually comes to a point where we are forced to chose between maintaining our self-serving rationalizations or taking our principles seriously.

Economic Inequality: A Book List

I was discussing economic inequality with a conservative… which, as always, is a masochistic activity.

I’m amazed how easily a conservatives dismiss such things. It isn’t just about the data, about whether correlation is causation. It’s hard enough to even get conservatives to look at the data, and so most debates never even get beyond blind dismissal of what conservatives don’t know and don’t want to know.

I truly do think the data is secondary, although the mountains of correlations do make a damning case. The reason I say the data is secondary is because the data isn’t necessary. The idea that vast economic inequality is bad should be commonsense. Just a brief perusal of countries with similar economic inequalities should make any American a bit on the uncomfortable side.

I know conservatives mistrust science and academia, even though that mistrust is rather selective in application. But when did common sense become the enemy of conservatives?

Maybe that is why the data is so important, after all. The data makes clear what is already obvious enough. Sometimes stating and restating the obvious is the best one can offer in defense of truth and morality.

In that light, I offer a list of books I’ve been perusing recently and also some that I was considering as possible reads. I hope many more people will begin reading books like these and that it will force the discussion into the mainstream, whether or not conservatives like it.

The Politics of Inequality: A Political History of the Idea of Economic Inequality in America
By Michael J. Thompson

Why Some Politicians Are More Dangerous Than Others
By James Gilligan

It’s the Middle Class, Stupid!
By James Carville and Stan Greenberg

Falling Behind: How Rising Inequality Harms the Middle Class
By Robert Frank

Class Matters
By The New York Times

Status Syndrome: How Social Standing Affects Our Health and Longevity
By Michael Marmot

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America
By Barbara Ehrenreich

Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream
By Barbara Ehrenreich

The Measure of America: American Human Development Report, 2008-2009
By Sarah Burd-Sharps, Kristen Lewis, Eduardo Borges Martins, Amartya Sen, and William H. Draper III

The Measure of America, 2010-2011
By Burd-Sharps Lewis and Sarah Kristen

Inequality Matters: The Growing Economic Divide In America And Its Poisonous Consequences
By James Lardner (Author, Editor), David Smith (Editor), Bill Moyers (Foreword), and Jim Lardner (Author)

The Great Divergence: America’s Growing Inequality and What We Can Do about It
By Timothy Noah

The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future
By Joseph E. Stiglitz

Mismeasuring Our Lives: Why GDP Doesn’t Add Up
By Joseph E. Stiglitz, Amartya Sen, and Jean-Paul Fitoussi

So Rich, So Poor: Why It’s So Hard to End Poverty in America
By Peter Edelman

The Price of Inequality: Facts, Trends, and International Perspectives
By Kemal Dervis, Uri Dadush, Sarah P. P. Milsom, and Bennett Stancil

Winner-Take-All Politics
By Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson

Polarized America: The Dance of Ideology and Unequal Riches
By Nolan McCarty, Keith T. Poole, and Howard  Rosenthal

Disconnect: The Breakdown of Representation in American Politics
By Morris P. Fiorina and Samuel J. Abrams

99 to 1: How Wealth Inequality Is Wrecking the World and What We Can Do about It
By Chuck Collins

Economic Apartheid In America: A Primer On Economic Inequality & Insecurity
By Chuck Collins and Felice Yeskel

The Unheavenly Chorus: Unequal Political Voice and the Broken Promise of American Democracy
By Key Lehman Schlozman, Sidney Verba, and Henry E. Brady

The Private Roots of Public Action: Gender, Equality, and Political Participation
By Nancy Burns, Key Lehman Schlozman, and Sidney Verba

Inequality and American Democracy: What We Know and What We Need to Learn
By Lawrence R. Jacobs

Faces of Inequality: Social Diversity in American Politics
By Rodney E. Hero

Latinos and the U.S. Political System: Two-Tiered Pluralism
By Rodney E. Hero

Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life
By Annette Lareau

The Color of Wealth: The Story Behind the U.S. Racial Wealth Divide
By Barbara J. Robles, Betsy Leondar-Wright, Rose M. Brewer, Rebecca Adamson, and Meizhu Lui

With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful
By Glenn Greenwald

The New Jim Crow
By Michelle Alexander

Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II
By Douglas A. Blackman

Wealth and Democracy: How Great Fortunes and Government Created America’s Aristocracy
By Kevin Phillips

Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age
By Larry M. Bartels

Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America
By Martin Gilens

Inequality and Instability: A Study of the World Economy Just Before the Great Crisis
By James K. Galbraith

Inequality, Power, and Development: Issues in Political Sociology
By Jerry Kloby

Inequality Reexamined
By Amartya Kumar Sen

Public Health, Ethics, and Equity
By Sudhir Anand, Fabienne Peter, and Amartya Sen

Infections and Inequalities: The Modern Plagues
ByPaul Farmer

Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights, and the New War on the Poor
By Paul Farmer

The Health of Nations: Why Inequality Is Harmful to Your Health
By Ichiro Kawachi and Bruce P. Kennedy

The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better
By Richard G. Wilkinson and Kate Pickett

The Impact of Inequality: How to Make Sick Societies Healthier
By Richard G. Wilkinson

Worlds Apart: Measuring International and Global Inequality
By Branko Milanovic

The Haves and the Have-Nots: A Brief and Idiosyncratic History of Global Inequality
By Branko Milanovic

The New Economics of Inequality and Redistribution (Federico Caffè Lectures)
By Samuel Bowles
 
Unequal Chances: Family Background and Economic Success
By Samuel Bowles
 
Poverty Traps
By Samuel Bowles

The Oxford Handbook of Economic Inequality (Oxford Handbooks)
By Wiemer Salverda

 

Criticizing Mooney’s Praise of Haidt

In response to a post by Chris Mooney about Jonathan Haidt, I’ll compare and contrast The Righteous Mind and The Republican Brain. But I’ll begin with a more broad comparison.

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I’ve read both Haidt’s book and Mooney’s book. I’ve also read some of George Lakoff’s books (most specifically relevant is Moral Politics). I’ve read as well a fine book by Marc J. Hetherington and Jonathan D. Weiler (Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics), of which I highly recommend. There are other authors and books I could mention, but I won’t for simplicity’s sake. 

Of these four, the book by Hetherington and Weiler was the most satisfying as an overview of what scientists presently know about ideology and polarization. The other books, in comparison, only sample this vast field. However, Lakoff’s book was most satisfying in offering the most generally useful framework (useful in explanatory power and useful in fairly describing both sides).

Going by a different standard, the books of Haidt and Mooney probably would be the most satisfying to the general reader. Both of them are good at clearly communicating what is otherwise complex and sprawling. It can’t be doubted that Haidt and Mooney have in combination brought this debate to the public in a way that hasn’t been done previously, although Lakoff must be given credit for paving the way.

For the rest of this post, I will solely focus on Haidt and Mooney.

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Personally, I prefer Mooney more than Haidt.

It’s not that Haidt fails in formulating an interesting hypothesis but it certainly requires more research and, I would add, better research. Mooney presented himself as being more intellectually humble in two ways. First, he remained closer to the research itself whereas Haidt constantly speculated and philosophized. Second, he was more upfront in acknowledging the complexities and uncertainties which probably is the reason he wasn’t prone to speculate and philosophize.

Mooney doesn’t attempt an overarching theory like Haidt’s moral foundations theory, instead just following the evidence. Mooney put forth some possible explanations, but he never formalized them into a singular inclusive theory. Mooney’s approach opens up discussion by not claiming to have it figured out. Haidt, on the other hand, can come off as too certain of his own research and arguments.

It’s surprising that Mooney doesn’t perceive the difference between his work and that of Haidt. It was Mooney’s book, among others, that helped me understand the deficiencies of Haidt’s approach.

The best example of this is the issue of research methods (the debate about which unfortunately doesn’t get enough attention in books directed at a more general readership). Haidt has relied on self-reports which are notoriously unreliable whereas Mooney presented reasearch that went way beyond self-reports. Haidt’s self-report research is useful as a preliminary step or else when corroborated by more reliable methods, but such research by itself isn’t adequate for the type of overarching theory he wants to prove.

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Related to this, I kept noticing how selectively Haidt used evidence.

It looked like he was often seeking evidence to fit his pet theory instead of a theory to fit all of the evidence, not that he was necessarily doing this intentionally and consciously. Such cherrypicking would even be expected from one part of his theory. Maybe he doubts the human capacity for objective reasoning based partly on self-observations. Or maybe based on the assumption of human unreason he felt it would be ineffective to appeal to the reasoning of his audience.

Considering the data intentionally or unintentionally excluded from the book, it wasn’t hard for me to find holes in Haidt’s arguments. He needed to do a more wide-ranging survey of data before presenting a theory. This, of course, assumes he wanted to present a rational defense in the first place (i.e., a logical argument that is fair and balanced). I suspect he was intentionally emphasizing persuasion more than reason which would make sense considering that is what he should do according to his own theory.

This does make his arguments challenging to analyze. The standard he was using to make his arguments probably aren’t the same standards I hold to in my own valuing of reason. It seems somewhat pointless to rationally analyze a theory that doubts the validity of rational analysis.

Let me make one thing particularly clear.

I don’t doubt his motives per se. I’m sure he has good intentions. In fact, it is because of his good intentions that, as a moderate or centrist or even right-leaning liberal, he wants to understand conservatives and wants to communicate in a way conservatives will understand. This is praiseworthy as a motivation but not praiseworthy in how Haidt acts on it, at least in the case of his book. Persuasion used to doubt reason is a very dangerous thing.

Haidt ends up bending over backwards to reach out to conservatives. He tries too hard to bring conservatives to his side and so as a consequence he is willing to sacrifice treating liberals fairly in his analysis of moral foundations, going so far as to dismiss large aspects of liberal morality and thus defining his entire theory according to conservative beliefs and values. In doing so, he cherrypicks the evidence which distorts his presentation and biases his argument.

Ironically, this causes his book to fail according to Haidt’s own standards. Instead of acting as a bridge over the divide, he simply switches from a former liberal bias to a conservative bias. This switching of biases doesn’t in any way achieve balance or promote mutual respect and understanding.

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Haidt falls into the typical liberal trap of “The Cult of Centrism”. The most famous example of this can be found in the mainstream media’s love of false equivalence.

It’s odd that Mooney doesn’t see this problem in Haidt as he is otherwise fully aware of this problem among liberals. Haidt wants to be reasonable or at least appear reasonable, but it is this very namby-pamby liberal impulse that ends up making him blithely unreasonable.

Mooney interestingly gives a slight nod to this fact at the end of the post in which he praises Haidt. Even so, he somehow concludes that Haidt essentially agrees with his book. This perception of agreement is shown even more clearly in another post by Mooney. I get the sense that there is more disagreement than either wants to let on… probably for reasons of presenting a strong defense against the naysayers both have faced. I also get the sense that Mooney just wants to stay on good terms with Haidt and so feels compelled to defend him against the criticisms Mooney would more objectively apply to a stranger.

Here is from the post linked above at the beginning of this post:

“I have differences with Haidt myself. Most importantly, I think the research he’s surveying–and the research he himself has done–adds up to a much tougher conclusion about political conservatism than he is willing to lead with (if you read between the lines, though…).”

So, the trick is that you have to read between the lines in order to discover what Haidt really meant. Methinks this is being overly generous.

I would argue that this problematic for any number of reasons.

Readers shoudn’t have to guess what an author actually meant, especially not in a book describing scientific research. Mooney didn’t write in such a convoluted or opaque manner. If Mooney is correct that Haidt wasn’t communicating as clearly and directly as he could have, then this is a major failing of his writing style if not a failing of his entire line of reasoning.

Furthermore, why does Mooney assume he knows Haidt’s secret thoughts and subtly implied meanings? One could read all kinds of potential meanings between the lines. Maybe Mooney is simply wanting to believe Haidt agrees with him more than he does and so is reading into Haidt’s bok something that isn’t there. Maybe Haidt wrote precisely what he meant to communicate without any hidden messages to be deciphered.

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This leaves me a bit confused. I’m not sure what Mooney ultimately thinks about Haidt’s book.

If we take the conservative bias away from Haidt’s argument, then we would have a very different theory than what Haidt presents. It seems Mooney would like to reinterpret Haidt’s book according to his own image. I’d be fine with rehabilitating Haidt’s theory by removing the problematic parts, but I doubt Haidt would like this as he doesn’t see those parts as problematic.

Where Did ‘We’ Go?

New York Times

Where Did ‘We’ Go?
By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN

The American political system was, as the saying goes, “designed by geniuses so it could be run by idiots.” But a cocktail of political and technological trends have converged in the last decade that are making it possible for the idiots of all political stripes to overwhelm and paralyze the genius of our system.

Those factors are: the wild excess of money in politics; the gerrymandering of political districts, making them permanently Republican or Democratic and erasing the political middle; a 24/7 cable news cycle that makes all politics a daily battle of tactics that overwhelm strategic thinking; and a blogosphere that at its best enriches our debates, adding new checks on the establishment, and at its worst coarsens our debates to a whole new level, giving a new power to anonymous slanderers to send lies around the world. Finally, on top of it all, we now have a permanent presidential campaign that encourages all partisanship, all the time among our leading politicians.

I would argue that together these changes add up to a difference of degree that is a difference in kind — a different kind of American political scene that makes me wonder whether we can seriously discuss serious issues any longer and make decisions on the basis of the national interest.

Comments:

3. Kate Madison

We cannot MAKE people think critically about what they are seeing and hearing. All we can do is teach our children critical thinking ability! America would be a very different and more mature place if we actually had a majority of people who could discuss their beliefs and feelings rationally!!!!

It was startling and moving to see the Democrats in attendance at the service at National Cathedral in the wake of 11 September 2001, appearing as if feudal lords to pledge fealty to their king. No one cried out “you lie”–and they might well have!

5. BC

I find it convenient for Mr. Friedman to say that W lost his legitimacy because of the Florida voting “mess” (what was his approval rating after 9-11?) when it was clear that he really lost his legitimacy when he waged war in Iraq. Of course he couldn’t put that without delegitimizing himself for his support of Bush on that front – which it seems continues today.

This is hardly a case of bi-partisan tit-for-tat. There is no equal blame here for the Neaderthal politics that would bring down America to bring down Obama. People who didn’t think G.W. Bush was legitimately elected, nonetheless worked to keep the Republic afloat, even to give the President what he deemed essential to the national good: war in Iraq, tax breaks for the top earners, no-bid contracts, privatization of governmental functions, no child left behind–you name it, he got it.

10. Geronimo4

Representative Trent Franks called Obama “an enemy of humanity” this week – with no remorse. As you say, this is getting out of control. Every person who sees where this language is going – from part-time census workers hanged naked to the murder of the head of the state Democratic party in Arkansas and random shooting in a Unitarian Church – needs to speak up now.

Their problem, however, is America’s problem. They have made it so. And it’s not just in Congress, either. The crumbling of the financial system and the markets was fueled by the same kind of thinking. Greed, short-term profit-driven carpe diem ethic, and a total disregard for societal well-being nearly bought down the machine that was generating the wealth the greedy couldn’t get enough of. The same can be said of the politics of today’s nay-sayers. They drove the economic and governmental machine without mercy, pedal to the metal, until it threw its valves and burnt its bearings. If they could savage their nation when in power–think Alaric in Rome–it seems only natural to continue now that they’re out of power.

14. Cdr. John Newlin

I had forgotten the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Mr. Friedman and in some selfish way I wish you hadn’t reminded me of it. But you had to write of it and in a far more important way, I’m glad you did. The analogy that you elucidate is so terribly chilling that one who confronts it wants to shake it off, to turn away in disgust and horror.
 
[…]We now have American men and women TV talkers who are doing the equivalent of shouting fire in a crowded theater and yet their poisonous slings and arrows are protected by the constitutional guarantee of free speech.

If, Mr. Friedman, the analogy you have so bleakly portrayed plays out to its horrific conclusion, who will hold the merchants of hate accountable for their very real role in its bloody end?

That there has been a massive, coordinated attempt to delegitimize President Obama from day one speaks volumes about today’s Republican Party. Having the responsibility to serve as a loyal opposition, they show themselves unworthy of the voter’s trust. They have become the anti-government governors, the anti-American Americans, justifying their treasonous behaviour with the fig leaf of representing some supposed Real America against the tyranny of democracy. Dixie of the mind rises again.

22. LAS

The campaign against President Obama from the right wing is paralleled by an increasingly escalating bullying directed towards targets on the left. First it was Jeremiah Wright, who made some stupid remarks but who was understandably angry given the poverty of the community in which he ministers. Next is was Van Jones, who also put his foot in his mouth but who committed no wrongful acts warranting departure. Then the Democrats not only stood by, but participated in the condemnation of ACORN, condoning the bullying directed against that organization for more than a year. It is rare that the Senate would usurp the responsibility of grant application reviewers in the executive branch and exclude a specific organization from eligibility for funding. We learn now that the next target is the SEIU, which will not allow itself to be such an easy target. It is time for the left to defend the targets of this bullying because every time the right wing gets away with it, they up the ante.
 
The facts are, convenient or not, that George W. Bush failed to be legitimately elected to office in 2000. Whoever won was left undetermined, but Al Gore massively won the popular vote. A clear plurality brought a Bill Clinton to Washington who triangulated his way to success. Neither 42 or 43, however, had the decisive victory of Barack Obama. John McCain didn’t come close to victory.
 
37. 10K walker
Mr. Friedman, the American middle finally got a clue about this and elected Barak Obama precisely because he appeared to have the best chance of re-uniting us as a nation. His election was a repudiation of the politics of fear and division.

But we aren’t so smart as we seem. All the Repubs have to do is change the words around a little, and we fall right back into line. When fear of terrorist attack stops working, just make it fear of socialism or fear of death panels and the gullible morons line right back up to do your work for you. All they have to do is tell people we have to spend endless sums of money on war and Halliburton or they’ll die, but that we can’t afford health care (without which they really will die), and people run with it like lemmings right off the cliff.

Once they cowed the “liberal’ media and “liberal” academia, it was all over. And the NY Times was pretty cowed. When CNN can base their reporting on what percent of people believe a politician while completely ignoring that all the facts point to that politician lying through his/her teeth, its all over. When Democrats in Congress show no political courage to stand up and make things right, we are doomed.

Without an education system that will teach us to think critically, without a media willing to call a spade a spade, we might as well give up.

115. 1248mm

The facts are, convenient or not, that George W. Bush failed to be legitimately elected to office in 2000. Whoever won was left undetermined, but Al Gore massively won the popular vote. A clear plurality brought a Bill Clinton to Washington who triangulated his way to success. Neither 42 or 43, however, had the decisive victory of Barack Obama. John McCain didn’t come close to victory.

That there has been a massive, coordinated attempt to delegitimize President Obama from day one speaks volumes about today’s Republican Party. Having the responsibility to serve as a loyal opposition, they show themselves unworthy of the voter’s trust. They have become the anti-government governors, the anti-American Americans, justifying their treasonous behaviour with the fig leaf of representing some supposed Real America against the tyranny of democracy. Dixie of the mind rises again.

Their problem, however, is America’s problem. They have made it so. And it’s not just in Congress, either. The crumbling of the financial system and the markets was fueled by the same kind of thinking. Greed, short-term profit-driven carpe diem ethic, and a total disregard for societal well-being nearly bought down the machine that was generating the wealth the greedy couldn’t get enough of. The same can be said of the politics of today’s nay-sayers. They drove the economic and governmental machine without mercy, pedal to the metal, until it threw its valves and burnt its bearings. If they could savage their nation when in power–think Alaric in Rome–it seems only natural to continue now that they’re out of power.

This is hardly a case of bi-partisan tit-for-tat. There is no equal blame here for the Neaderthal politics that would bring down America to bring down Obama. People who didn’t think G.W. Bush was legitimately elected, nonetheless worked to keep the Republic afloat, even to give the President what he deemed essential to the national good: war in Iraq, tax breaks for the top earners, no-bid contracts, privatization of governmental functions, no child left behind–you name it, he got it.

It was startling and moving to see the Democrats in attendance at the service at National Cathedral in the wake of 11 September 2001, appearing as if feudal lords to pledge fealty to their king. No one cried out “you lie”–and they might well have!

49. Darrell Hampton

MR. FRIEDMAN: You ask ”where did the we go”? It’s because of journalist like yourself that we have no “WE”. you guys legitimize any argument, always looking for the middle and writing about each side as if each side has a leg to stand on.