Liberals, Conservatives and Independents

A blogger called Scott Alexander laments the forming of political opinions on a tribal basis, citing the ebola quarantine and other issues.

But he provides no solution. Using his rubric, any argument or position can be considered “politicized” or tribally motivated.

He notes that the Rotherham rape scandal, where Pakistani gangs in Rotherham, England took thousands of girls as sex slaves, and authorities actively did nothing for fear of being considered racist, and those who wanted to publicize the issue were sent to diversity training, fit perfectly into conservative narratives. Consequently, “the Left then proceeded to totally ignore it, and the Right proceeded to never shut up about it for like an entire month, and every article about it had to include the “diversity training” aspect, so that if you type “rotherham d…” into Google, your two first options are “Rotherham Daily Mail” and “Rotherham diversity training”.

Alexander then notes a blogger who writes on race and genetics and weighed in on Rotherham, for what Alexander suspects are tribal reasons: “I have no doubt that her outrage is genuine. But I do have to wonder why she is outraged about this and not all of the other outrageous things in the world. And I do have to wonder whether the perfect fit between her own problems – trying to blog about race and genetics but getting flak from politically correct people – and the problems that made Rotherham so disastrous – which include police getting flak from politically correct people – are part of her sudden conversion to political activism.”

But who cares what people’s motives are for being right? Anything people say can have suspicious motives, so there is no way to avoid these accusations of tribalism. By making motives central (you’re only saying that because you’re conservative!), Alexander reinforces tribalism. The only real solution is to evaluate arguments themselves rather than motives behind them.

Alexander does genuinely bash the left for ignoring Rotherham. In doing so, he no doubt thinks he’s proving his independence, and thus his freedom from tribalism. But independent posturing is a motive no more noble than tribalism- it’s about taking positions to reinforce a narrative.

And of course the world is full of people who are actually on one side or the other, but triangulate against “the tribes.” Usually Alexander’s own stance is substantively identical to the progressive side, and only stylistically independent. Stylistic elements include an anti-ideological, data-driven, pragmatic outlook (or pose), but that’s exactly the outlook movement progressives maintain; so even stylistically, there’s no real difference between Alexander and “the left,” in its current form.

For instance, he discusses conservatives’ uniting in favor of quarantines to solve ebola, and liberals’ uniting against it, in an above-the-fray way, exuding superiority to both tribes. But then he says “it would be really hard to switch these two positions around. If the Republicans were to oppose a quarantine, it might raise the general question of whether closing the borders and being scared of foreign threats is always a good idea, and whether maybe sometimes accusations of racism are making a good point.” And here he does not prove his balance by treating the liberal position in a similar way. Because he agrees with the liberal position. Once you take a stand, what makes you any different from the “tribalists” taking that same stance?

If, as is often the case, there is something about the form or rhetoric of the argument itself that is tribal, then we can legitimately make a critique. If not, then not.*

In the case of Rotherham, moreover, it is not only true that what happened is terrible in an isolated sense. The desire to reduce the power of political correctness, far from being a corrupting motive sullying the purity of moral outrage, is actually the solution to the problem. Insofar as outrage at Rotherham leads to a reduction in the social status of political correctness, future Rotherhams will be less likely.

It is, contrary to Alexander, very easy to see why someone might get outraged about Rotherham and not one of the many other outrages in the world. Americans identify with England in a way they don’t with South Sudan and Syria the Congo; that’s tribal, but not in a way that’s really relevant to Alexander’s analysis. And most of us don’t understand South Sudan or Syria or the Congo, the politics and motives of these places, or what can be done to solve their problems, but we understand political correctness very, very well.w

Nor is tribalism necessarily all that important. In most cases, the Parties structure themselves so that the median voter prevails, so that no actual policy issues are at stake in elections and the people nevertheless get what they want, but the only thing left to fight on is trivial matters. On the rare occasion that an actual major policy change was clearly at stake in an election, and the public didn’t want it, the people of Massachusetts went against tribe voted very solidly for Scott Brown to try to block Obamacare.

Like everyone else in the progressive tribe, Alexander assumes that conservative tribalism is the barrier to action on global climate change. But there’s no analysis that I know of showing that this is the case.

If we can show that majorities of voters believe in human-caused global warming, that would indicate that the barrier to persuading the median voter is something other than a widespread rejection of “scientific consensus.” The polling seems ambiguous. Pew finds that 67% of adults believe in global warming, but only 44% believe it is primarily human caused; but some of these people may have been hedging. When Gallup didn’t give people the option of global warming “denial,” instead presupposing that temperatures have increased and asking what the cause was, they got a solid 57% saying human activities are the cause. This divergence obviously indicates tribalism (in Pew, the way to prove conservative tribal loyalty was to say global warming doesn’t exist, while the way to prove you’re moderate was to say it exists but has “mostly” natural causes, while in Gallup saying global warming is caused by nature is the only option to prove conservative tribal loyalty, and the centrists apparently went with anthropogenic), but overall I’d take it as indication that the median voter agrees with liberals that humans are causing global warming. At least, the opposite isn’t clearly the case.

But that doesn’t guarantee they support cap and trade. The median voter may not cite Bjorn Lomborg and make the cost-benefit arguments associated with the conservative tribe, but he may also just not care much about global warming, not think much can be done about it, and not be willing to sacrifice anything economically. (Note how Barack Obama mostly appeases the blue tribe on global warming as a hot button issue, while letting the U.S. oil boom happen and bragging about it, thereby appealing to the median voter.)

Of course you could argue that conservatives are better organized and are thereby blocking action, but remember that they needed coal state Democrats to help them block cap-and-trade, which proves the power of organization, but not of conservative tribalist organization by itself.

As for ebola quarantines, Alexander treats it as utterly irrational that liberals and conservatives lined up in different positions. “Weird that so many people suddenly develop strong feelings about a complicated epidemiological issue, which can be exactly predicted by their feelings about everything else.” But maybe some general principles explain why people line up on issues. And after all, they don’t do so perfectly by any means, but only to such an extent that we at least have a concept of “a conservative” and “a progressive.” Are these labels merely descriptive of a random combination of issue positions, or is there something at all deeper behind them? Alexander himself suggests the latter in noting progressive and conservative narratives and the way different events and ideas do or do not fit with each. But these narratives (or some narratives- Alexander may or may not be emphasizing the most important ones) are things people believe! That being the case, their political positions may be rational. Liberals may care more about civil liberties for foreigners than the “complicated epidemiological issue,” at least at the relevant margins.

And even to the extent this is an epidemiological issue, people may not see it as a complicated one- they may see it as a matter of “common sense,” something they don’t need specialized knowledge to figure out. How and when we should rely on common sense and when we need specialized knowledge to make decisions is itself a complicated social and epistemological issue.

But probably tribalists have acquired specialized knowledge. Everybody knows that strong tribalists are the best-informed people, exhibit strong confirmation bias, and become more confident in their initial opinions as they become better informed.

* Indeed, I actually despise tribal arguments. My mood affiliation, as Tyler Cowen would say, is entirely on the side of rejecting them. So by tribal affiliation, I should be on the side of Alexander, and other members of the “independent” tribe like Tyler Cowen and Megan McArdle who have been linking to him. By taking a stance against my tribe in this post, I am of course proving my independence from even the independents, which of course proves I must be even more right than they are, which is doubtless my real motive in taking these positions, which then calls them into question, which…


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s