Tag Archive for 'Ideology'

The origins of ideology

With the US Federal Government looking like it might go into a shutdown over budget negotiations (as I type, Intrade puts the chance at 40%), you can expect to see more articles around like this one from the Economist’s Democracy in America.  Here’s the gist of what they’re saying:

As Steve Benen points out, it definitely isn’t (or isn’t just) a function of Democratic legislators’ lack of determination. It’s partly a function of the fact that, as recentNBC/Wall Street JournalPew, and Gallup polls show, Democratic voters want their leaders to compromise, while Republican voters don’t. Jonathan Chait argues that what we have here is a structural issue that forces Democratic politicians to be wimpy:

Most people have the default assumption that the two parties are essentially mirror images of each other. But there are a lot of asymmetries between the Democratic and Republican parties that result in non-parallel behavior. The Republicans have a fairly unified economic base consisting of business and high-income individuals, whereas Democrats balance between business, labor, and environmental groups. The Republican Party reflects the ideology of movement conservatism, while the Democratic Party is a balance between progressives and moderates.

The upshot is that the Democratic Party is far more dependent upon the votes of moderates, who think of themselves in non-ideological terms and want their leaders to compromise and act pragmatically. The reason you see greater levels of partisan discipline and simple will to power in the GOP is that it has a coherent voting base willing to supportaggressive, partisan behavior and Democrats don’t. This isn’t to say Democrats are always wimps, but wimpiness is much more of a default setting for Democrats.

The article then goes on to discuss the psychological origins of ideological allegiance.  The upshot is that certain people have certain preferences and the political parties are representations of those groups of people.  There’s an implied assumption that all of this is exogenous to the system at large; that there’s nothing you can do about it, you just need to take it as given in your deliberations.

For anybody interested in this stuff, I strongly encourage you read Steve Waldman’s opposing view:  “Endogenize Ideology“. Here is his basic point, from quotes arranged in a different order to that in which he provides them:

Many [people] treat ideology or “political constraints” as given, and perform the exercise that economists perform reflexively, starting with their first grad school exam: constrained optimization. Constrained optimization is a mechanical procedure. The outcome is fully determined by the objective function and the constraints.

However …

That’s the wrong approach, I think. Rather than treating ideology as fixed and given, we should treat it as dynamic, as a consequence rather than a constraint of policy choices.

Ultimately, he argues, in a world of hard-nosed ideologues versus constraint-respecting policy wonks …

Rather than two optimizers, one of which has strictly less information than the other, in the real world we’ve seen two satisficers, one of which has adopted the strategy of optimizing subject to fixed constraints and the other of which has neglected pursuit of optimal present policy in favor of action intended to reshape the constraint set. A priori, we would not be able state with certainty which of the satisficers would outperform the other. If the constraint set were, in fact, strongly resistant to change Team Obama’s strategy would dominate. But if the constraint set is malleable (and constraints frequently bind), then Team Bush outperforms.

Just to really kick it home, he pulls out this quote from Karl Rove:

[Probably Karl Rove, talking to Ron Suskind] said that guys like me were ”in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who ”believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ”That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. ”We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

Media bias and people who are WAAAY out on the political spectrum

Andrew Sullivan points to this research by Pew on how American’s view the bias of the major television networks.  It’s nicely summarised in this diagram (from Pew):

Public perceptions of news network ideology

Andrew makes the obvious and easy comment bashing on Fox:

Clearly the public understands that the network MSM is skewed to the left. But there’s a difference of magnitude between that assessment and that of Fox. Quite simply, most Americans see Fox for what it is: an appendage of a political operation, not a journalistic one. Its absurd distortions, its relentless attacks on Obama from the very start, its hideously shrill hosts, and its tawdry, inflammatory chat all put it in a class by itself.

Personally, I don’t necessarily agree that the MSM is, on average, biased to the left (although maybe that’s just my internal biases talking).  I’ll get to that in a moment, but first …

14% of respondents consider Fox News to be mostly liberal in it’s bias!  That’s almost one in seven.  Just how far out in the political spectrum are those people? What would Fox need to do to convince them that they were neutral?  Actively promote the KKK?

Back to perceptions of bias.  Here is another graphical illustration of the Pew Research data:

US Perceptions of MSM Bias (Pew)

It seems safe to assume that anybody who thinks Fox News is liberal will consider the rest liberal as well, so that explains a large fraction of the “liberal” responses for the rest.  So, excluding the people who are personally so conservative as to consider Fox News to have a pro-liberal bias, this is what it looks like:

US Perceptions of MSM Bias (excl. people who think Fox is liberal)

In other words, when we restrict our attention to people who are not insane [1], the American public agrees with me: by and large, the non-Fox networks are pretty evenly balanced, although MSNBC  is pro-liberal.

[1] Okay, they may not be insane.  I have no evidence than any larger fraction of them are insane than in the rest of the population.  But they do strike me as having some pretty whacky personal beliefs.

Characterising the conservative/progressive divide

I’ve been thinking a little about the underlying differences between progressives/liberals and conservatives in the American (US) setting.  I’m not really thinking of opinions on economics or the ideal size of government, but views on economics and government would clearly be affected by what I describe.  Instead, I’m trying to imagine underlying bases for the competing social and political ideologies.

I’m not claiming any great insight, but it’s helped me clarify my thinking to imagine three overlapping areas of contention.  Each area helps inform the topic that follows in a manner that ought to be fairly clear:

  1. On epistemology and metaphysics.  Conservatives contend that there exist absolute truths which we can sometimes know, or even – at least in principle – always know.  In contrast, progressives embrace the postmodern view that there may not be any absolute truths and that, even if absolute truths do exist, our understanding of them is always relative and fallible.
  2. On the comparison of cultures[by “cultures”, I here include all traditions, ways of life, interactional mannerisms and social institutions in the broadest possible sense].  Conservatives contend that it is both possible and reasonable to compare and judge the relative worthiness of two cultures.  At an extreme, they suggest that this is plausible in an objective, universal sense.  A little more towards the centre, they alternately suggest that individuals may legitimately perform such a comparison to form private opinions.  Centrist progressives instead argue that while it might be possible to declare one culture superior to another, it is not reasonable to do so (e.g. because of the relative nature of truth).  At their own extreme, progressives argue that it is not possible to make a coherent comparison between two cultures.
  3. On changing one’s culture.  Conservatives suggest that change, in and of itself, is a (slightly) bad thing that must be justified with materially better conditions as a result of the change.  Progressives argue that change itself is neutral (or even a slightly good thing).  This leads to conflict when the material results of the change are in doubt and the agents are risk averse.  To the conservative mind, certain loss (from the act of changing) is being weighed against uncertain gain.  To the progressive mind, the act of change is a positive act of exploration which partially offsets the risks of an uncertain outcome.