One way to understand the limitations of our own political attitudes is to recognize that other people think differently. Not just oppositely, but differently. To put it algebraically, suppose you believe A, B, C, D, E. OK, you won’t be surprised to hear that some people believe not-A, not-B, not-C, not-D, not-E. These are the enemy. But there are also lots of people out there who hold strongly to A, B, not-C, not-D, E. What do you think about them? Are they part-evil? What about those misguided souls who hold forth with not-A, not-B, not-C, D, E? And so forth. A recognition of the diversity of opinions—not just left/right and not just on a two-dimensional scale either—might be a useful step in putting your own views into perspective.
To put it another way, if your views are contradictory, you’d like to know this and either adjust your attitudes or at least understand your contradictions in a larger framework. You might be a public-schools-supporting liberal who sends your kids to a private school, or a war hawk who has never served in the military, or whatever. The point is not that your views must all be coherent but that it’s gotta be a good thing to think about the implications of your different stances.
The other side of this, though, is to recognize that any inherent logic you see in your position might not be as clear as you might think. And that’s where it can be helpful to recall the diversity of issue attitudes.
Political pundit Michael Lind wrote a column awhile ago that unintentionally (I believe) reveals this problem: whatever positions you happen to hold seem to go together so well, that it’s easy to forget that other people have completely different combinations of attitudes.
America needs to have a neomodernist party to oppose the reigning primitivists of the right, left and center. Let everyone who opposes abortion, wants to ban GM foods and nuclear energy, hates cars and trucks and planes and loves trains and trolleys, seeks to ban suburbia, despises consumerism, and/or thinks Darwin was a fraud join the Regressive Party. Those of us who believe that the real, if exaggerated, dangers of technology, big government, big business and big labor are outweighed by their benefits can join the Modernist Party.
The trouble is that the number of “modernists” who hold Lind’s particular combination of views of abortion, genetically modified foods, cars, trucks, etc etc., is a very small fraction of the population. As is the number of “primitivists” on the other side. The modern/primitive division which seems so clear to Lind—one might call it the agree-with-Lind/disagree-with-Lind division—falls apart when you try to put it in anybody else’s head!
To get a sense of where Lind is coming from, I tried to look his attitudes carefully and see what they might imply for policy.
Let’s try a few major issues:
– The economy, jobs, trade, etc. Lind supports “technology, big government, big business, and big labor.” I think that implies he supports the bank and auto bailouts, but where does it take him next? I’m guessing he’d like a big stimulus plan of the spending, not tax-cut, variety.
– Health care: privatize (the conservative view) or Medicare-for-all (the liberal view). What’s the Lind position? Hmm. The health-related items on his agenda are that he supports abortion and genetically modified foods and he opposes farmer’s markets. He also supports “technology, big government, big business, and big labor.” I don’t know where that puts his Modernist party on health care.
– Government spending. It seems clear that Lind would increase government spending. In addition to his support of big government noted above, he’s dismissive of the idea of a balanced budget. Based on other items in his manifesto, it looks like he’d like to spend this unbalanced budget on subsidies for highways, air travel, and nuclear power.
– Energy and environment: On one hand, Lind’s commitment to science suggests an active energy policy and aggressive action on climate change; on the other, with his support for “cars, trucks and planes,” and his opposition to energy conservation, I don’t see where he’s going.
– Afghanistan and Iraq: Lind supports “a secular, technological, prosperous, and relatively egalitarian civilization, after a half-century detour into a Dark Age,” which makes him sound like a neoconservative. That’s ok, I guess it fits into his don’t-worry-about-the-budget mentality.
Put this all together, and what do you get? It looks to me like the platform of the big-government “Scoop Jackson Democrats” of the 1970s, with an extra pro-pollution twist to bring it to the 21st century. And I can see why Lind is so downbeat about American politics, given what happened to the Scoop Jackson Democrats, the last of whom not long ago announced his forthcoming retirement from the Senate.
Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong about being a Scoop Jackson Democrat, but what interests me about Lind’s piece is that it seems so natural to him. And of course it does. Our own positions feel like the expressions of a nicely coherent worldview, which naturally leads to the silly assumption that our opponents have oppositely coherent worldviews.
P.J. said it best
At a surface level, Lind’s article is full of the sorts of unjustified assertions that we expect in modern punditry, the sorts of arguments that work fine in a five-paragraph high school essay but don’t look so good when they are out on the web for thousands to view.
In the 1970s, Green guru Amory Lovins promulgated the gospel that “hard” sources of energy like nuclear power are bad and that called for a “soft path” based on hydropower, wind and solar energy.
I think this means that Lind supports subsidies for nuclear power but not for hydropower, wind and solar energy? Why? Lind gives no reasons, but I think P. J. O’Rourke put it best in his Republican Party Reptile credo:
I think our agenda is clear. We are opposed to: government spending, Kennedy kids, seat-belt laws, being a pussy about nuclear power [italics added], busing our children anywhere other than Yale, trailer courts near our vacation homes, Gary Hart, all tiny Third World countries that don’t have banking secrecy laws, aerobics, the U.N., taxation without tax loopholes, and jewelry on men. We are in favor of: guns, drugs, fast cars, free love (if our wives don’t find out), a sound dollar, cleaner environment (poor people should cut it out with the graffiti), a strong military with spiffy uniforms, Nastassia Kinski, Star Wars (and anything else that scares the Russkis), and a firm stand on the Middle East (raze buildings, burn crops, plow the earth with salt, and sell the population into bondage).
P. J. is funnier and, I believe, more honest, in that he presents the emotional content of his argument right out front rather than trying to subtly denigrate his opponents using words like “guru” and “gospel.”
And, speaking of “gospel,” Lind then writes:
First a Democratic president, Jimmy Carter, then a Republican, George W. Bush, sought votes by claiming he had been “born again” with the help of Jesus, something that no president before the 1970s would have claimed.
Wait a second! Close to 100 million Americans are evangelicals. Is Lind saying that born-again Christians should not have a chance to be president, or maybe that it’s ok for them to be president, as long as they don’t talk about their religion? Life was simpler in the old days when those Bible-thumpers stayed quietly in their place, huh?
Why do I bother?
The reason I’m commenting on Lind’s remarks (which get read by people on the left and the right, perhaps evidence that Lind indeed goes beyond the usual bounds of partisanship) is that, as noted above, I think he is revealing a fundamental aspect of political polarization, and that is the assumption that many people seem to have that their particular constellation of issue attitudes represents a coherent ideology. Or, as an anti-ideologues might say, that their particular constellation of attitudes represents an utterly reasonable pragmatism.
In any case, there is a stunning lack of recognition that, actually, political attitudes are mix and match. The correlation between just about any attitude and any other attitude will be much closer to 0 than to 1; see my article with Baldassarri.
Recall this example:
On page 16 [in The Black Swan], Taleb asks “why those who favor allowing the elimination of a fetus in the mother’s womb also oppose capital punishment” and “why those who accept abortion are supposed to be favorable to high taxation but against a strong military,” etc. First off, let me chide Taleb for deterministic thinking. From the General Social Survey cumulative file, here’s the crosstab of the responses to “Abortion if woman wants for any reason” and “Favor or oppose death penalty for murder”:
40% supported abortion for any reason. Of these, 76% supported the death penalty.
60% did not support abortion under all conditions. Of these, 74% supported the death penalty.
This was the cumulative file, and I’m sure things have changed in recent years, and maybe I even made some mistake in the tabulation, but, in any case, the relation between views on these two issues is far from deterministic!
For Lind to lump together his favorite attitudes and call them “modern”—ignoring, for example, his support for science and his unconcern about the environment, or his opposition to “nostalgia” and his nostalgic view of an American national politics without born-again Christians—that’s just silly. But it’s understandable. I think we all do this to some extent, but maybe repeatedly hitting people over the head with survey data will make them realize (a) the extreme flexibility of political ideology, and (b) the foolishness of thinking that issues are all tied together in this way. That is, I’m making a public opinion argument (people don’t actually divide into two clean groups the way Lind seems to think) and a policy argument (no, Lind’s issue clusters aren’t particularly coherent). And it’s not just about Lind, it’s the more general attitude people seem to have, that their oddball collections of preferences go together in some special way.