Monthly Archives: November 2012

a plea for subtler work on the psychology of political ideologies

I don’t study this topic closely, but I gather there’s a lot of research that asks survey subjects their ideology (on a scale from very liberal to very conservative) and sometimes whether they identify as Democrats or Republicans. They are also asked about their attitudes and opinions, and they may be exposed to stimuli, such as watching a treatment video versus a control video. The researchers investigate whether the liberals and conservatives in the sample seem to differ psychologically. So one reads results like this:

Research participants who held more culturally conservative attitudes were more likely to score higher on measures of the belief that knowledge is certain, dogmatism, need to evaluate, and fear of death. They also scored lower on need for cognition than did their less conservative counterparts. Moreover, participants who scored higher on cultural conservatism were more likely to exhibit dogmatic aggression.

I am concerned about the effects of this kind of research: predominantly liberal academics design studies (with control over all the subtleties) and announce unflattering generalizations about conservatives. If these generalizations are true and valid, so be it. But I also have my suspicions about validity. “Liberal” and “conservative,” after all, name very loose configurations of political ideologies that overlap and that vary profoundly over time. I’m told that today, self-identified liberals score higher on tolerance for ambiguity and take more pleasure in irony. I can imagine that the ironists of 1930 were the conservatives, whereas New Dealers were straight-arrows who wanted clear, linear, and explicit arguments and had no tolerance for the reactionary forces arrayed against them. It’s well known that many neoconservatives converted from Marxism, and those two character types seems consistent. As Emerson might say:

Life is a train of moods like a string of beads, and, as we pass through them, they prove to be many–colored lenses which paint the world their own hue, and each shows only what lies in its focus. …  Temperament is the iron wire on which the beads are strung.

One temperament may unite neoconservatives and Marxists, but Burkeans of right and left seem to be be strung on their own wire. Ayn Rand wasn’t exactly an ironist, but Evelyn Waugh was, and he was arguably the true conservative. I’d propose that if we disaggregated the big blocs of conservatives and liberals for the purpose of psychological research, we’d get much more valid and interesting results.

professors and practitioners pontificate on political parody and persuasion

I am at a University of Pennsylvania conference entitled “P6: Professors And Practitioners Pontificate on Political Parody And Persuasion.” The focus is really on parody. An example is Steven Colbert’s real creation of a PAC and a Super PAC during the 2012 election. (We heard that story very engagingly recounted by Trevor Potter, who was Colbert’s real–and also on-air–election lawyer). Survey data suggest that people who watched The Colbert Report really did learn about campaign finance issues.

Colbert behaved badly. For instance, he created a nonprofit 501(c)4 corporation that could accept donations without disclosing the donors’ names, and then he donated all that corporation’s money to his Super PAC to pay for ludicrous attack ads that really aired. The Super PAC was legally allowed to say that it had only one donor, the 501(c)4. Trevor Potter advised him to do this on air, and his legal advice was real. The advice may even have been creative, developing a new loophole that other PACs could exploit. Colbert was trying to satirize Karl Rove, who had both a Super PAC and a 501(c)4. But it seems that Rove did not actually transfer money in the way that Colbert did, perhaps because Potter had invented this loophole for Colbert. Rove’s lawyer contacted the show to complain that Colbert had implied Rove was using this loophole. In another context, such a complaint would have had the feel of a “cease and desist” letter. In the context of a comedy show, the complaint became fodder for further humor at Rove’s expense. So Colbert’s sins include: raising and laundering private money to pay for attack ads that he didn’t sincerely agree with, commissioning aggressive legal advice to create new loopholes, and turning a fact-check of his own show into an opportunity for satire.

To be clear: I think everything he did was great. It was educational and effective. Even if Potter invented a loophole or two for Colbert, they would have developed anyway, and it was excellent to demonstrate how fragile the system is. But Colbert’s work is interesting from a theoretical perspective because it promotes good deliberation by blatantly violating most of the traditional principles of deliberation. For instance, in Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson’s Democracy and Deliberation (p. 81), we’re told that good deliberators demonstrate “civic integrity,” which means “consistency in speech” (saying the same thing regardless of audience and context) and “political sincerity.” Good deliberators also display “consistency between speech and action” and “integrity of principle,” which means “the acceptance of the broader implications of the principles presupposed in one’s moral positions.” Colbert, in contrast, speaks and acts precisely contrary to his actual principles.

Perhaps deliberation should be viewed broadly. It has always included forms of discourse like satire and guerilla theater that violate the narrow norms of David Lewis’ “serious speech situations.” Or perhaps it is problematic that only Brechtian satire and gonzo journalism now cut through the clutter of mass communications–telling the truth no longer works.

CIRCLE Commission on Youth Voting & Civic Knowledge

CIRCLE today announced the formation of a new Commission on Youth Voting & Civic Knowledge. We have organized it in response to controversies about recent voting legislation (for instance, the new state photo ID laws) as well as debates about civic education in schools and colleges. The commission will, however, take a broader view, considering a wide range of potential influences on political knowledge and engagement. It begins with no position on the existing or proposed policies; its deliberations will be heavily influenced by new data that we will collect and analyze.

The commission is funded by the Spencer Foundation, the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, the Youth Engagement Fund, the W.T. Grant Foundation, and the Chicago Community Trust. CIRCLE will staff it.

Youth turnout was comparatively strong in 2012, and enough young people voted that they effectively chose the president. Also, our preliminary analysis shows that the new voting laws had modest impact, or else efforts to combat them paid off–either way, their net effect was very small.

But these findings do not diminish the significance of the youth voting problem. In seven of the 10 elections since 1976, youth turnout has settled in a very narrow range of 48%-52% of eligible people under 30. (The only exceptional years have been worse.) Most of the young adults who vote have college experience; working-class and poor young people tend not to vote. This year’s turnout rate–50%–is really no cause for celebration, and we need to find ways to break through that ceiling and include everyone.

as Florida threatens to charge more for the humanities, those disciplines require a defense

A gubernatorial task force in Florida proposes making state university tuition cheaper for students in “high-skill, high-wage, high-demand (market determined strategic demand) degree programs.” The task force suggests that those programs may include 111 different majors in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM)–but no humanities programs. A petition organized by history professors “take[s] issue with the task force’s recommendations.” The petition turns quickly from an invocation of the “liberal arts” (undefined and undefended) to an economic argument:

The punitive differential tuition model will lead not only to a decimation of the liberal arts in Florida. It will also have a destructive impact on the essential and transferrable skills that these disciplines teach. Indeed, the Florida Council of 100 (a non-partisan organization of business leaders) submitted a lengthy memo to the task force in which the Council noted the pressing need for “liberal arts grads with superior analytical, critical thinking, and communication skills who can quickly learn and apply industry/company specific skills.”

The humanities and other liberal arts require a defense. We who teach or study them do not have an automatic right to the voters’ money. (I wrote the “voters’ money,” not the “taxpayers’ money,” because the public purse belongs to everyone on an equal basis, not just to the people who pay income or other direct taxes.) As representatives of the public, the Florida legislature is entitled to ask what it achieves by modestly subsidizing tuition in state universities and, specifically, in liberal arts departments. I don’t think that calling the task force’s proposal for differential rates uncultured would be helpful or adequate. For one thing, many cultures have produced and prized both arts and scholarship without having institutions like state universities.

Also, I am not completely against subsidizing education that has “market-determined strategic demand.” If there is demand for a skill, someone will teach it, but the reason to offer it in a public university is to give disadvantaged students a chance to learn it affordably. That is an equity-oriented argument for investing in subjects like STEM.

The argument for the humanities and other liberal arts could also be “consequentialist,” pointing to concrete benefits from studying these subjects. I am hoping to do some ambitious empirical research on the community-level benefits of participating in the humanities. I’d hypothesize that the benefits will be seen in areas like mental health.

But consequentialist arguments are a double-edged sword. Maybe the humanities do not pay off as expected–or maybe they have benefits, but something else is more cost-effective. That alternative could even be something that we also admire, such as making music. Once one begins looking for ratios of cost to benefits, it’s not a safe bet that history, literature, or philosophy will come out ahead.

In any case, one hopes for a good cost/benefit ratio because there is something about history, literature, and philosophy that seems intrinsically valuable. Imagine a society in which everyone had a secure and well-paying job (zero unemployment), but no one knew anything about the past. Presumably, that would be worse than our current society. Now, it doesn’t necessarily take subsidized tuition at state universities to produce and disseminate knowledge of the past–the History Channel also does that. But if we add considerations of excellence and equity to the mix, we start to make a case for the liberal arts in public universities.

We might also think in terms of moral and civic outcomes. Presumably, studying history, literature, and philosophy is important for a voter, a juror, and a community-member. But that also requires some investigation. Is there an empirical link between the humanities and good citizenship? Or is the link intrinsic?

The philosopher Anthony Laden argues that civic engagement is essentially about “engagement,” i.e., genuine dialogue among peers that involves listening and responding as well as mere communication or action. Thus voting does not count as civic engagement unless the voter acts on the results of authentic engagement with other people. The humanities could be defined, in turn, as genuine engagement with other people’s ideas as mediated by words and images. Then the connection between civic engagement and the humanities is definitional, not empirical. The interesting empirical questions might be qualitative, e.g., how many citizens who have studied the humanities actually listen to other people before they vote?

Protagoras argued that the humanities were particularistic and evaluative. They dealt with particular cases, richly described and morally judged, whereas Socrates’ form of philosophy offered broad generalizations. So then the question becomes: should a good citizen generalize, or be primarily attentive to particulars? The social sciences offer methods of generalizing, and they tend to avoid value-judgments. Recently, the Danish theorist Bent Flyvbjerg has taken a very hard line against the social sciences: “No predictive theories have been arrived at in social science, despite centuries of trying. This approach is a wasteful dead-end.” He advocates phronesis, practical wisdom, which is about particulars and is judgmental. Phronesis looks like the political application of the humanities disciplines. On this theory, employing the humanities as phronesis is civic engagement, but the value of civic engagement depends on whether it improves policies and institutions. (Note that this is also an argument for some humanities disciplines and not for others–for history and literary criticism but not for philosophy or literary theory.)

Some see the humanities as sources of moral uplift and challenge. Then they should influence communities by calling citizens to act according to higher values rather than interests and prejudices.

Of course, it is controversial whether communities should aim for higher values. But everything about social outcomes is–and ought to be–controversial. Who says that we should expand the economy? Such topics need deliberation, and the humanities may have a crucial role in teaching people to deliberate.

Note, finally, that merely teaching and studying the humanities shouldn’t count; the point is for students and the public to learn. Unless actual learning goes on, the case is weak.

Wyoming has moved right, the country has not moved left

One divisive debate is how big government should be. That’s a matter of contested values, not resolvable by information alone. But a different divisive argument is about the trends. Is government getting more or less expansive and intrusive? Most on the left think we live in an era of neoliberalism and a retreating state. Not so on the right. Jack Healy reports in the New York Times:

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — By now, voters here are over the initial shock. The ranchers, businessmen and farmers across this deep-red state who knew, just knew that Americans would never re-elect a liberal tax-and-spender president have grudgingly accepted the reality that voters did just that.
But since the election, a blanket of baffled worry has descended on conservatives here like early snow across the plains. … “It’s a fundamental shift,” said Khale Lenhart, 27, a lawyer here. “It’s a mind-set change — that government is here to take care of me.”

I’d say the shift–in Wyoming as in the nation–has been in the opposite direction. Consider, first, the shift in public rhetoric. In 1948, Harry S. Truman won Wyoming by about 4,000 votes. This is what he said in his inaugural address the following January:

We have rejected the discredited theory that the fortunes of the Nation should be in the hands of a privileged few. We have abandoned the “trickledown” concept of national prosperity. Instead, we believe that our economic system should rest on a democratic foundation and that wealth should be created for the benefit of all. The recent election shows that the people of the United States are in favor of this kind of society and want to go on improving it. The American people have decided that poverty is just as wasteful and just as unnecessary as preventable disease.

Truman then offered a whole series of diagnoses and prescriptions that he believed followed from his opening statement of principles. For example: “In a nation as rich as ours, it is a shocking fact that tens of millions lack adequate medical care. We are short of doctors, hospitals, nurses. We must remedy these shortages. Moreover, we need—and we must have without further delay—a system of prepaid medical insurance which will enable every American to afford good medical care.”

In those days (or soon thereafter), the national government was involved directly in welfare, urban planning, and school integration; it drafted most young men; and it regulated the financial markets. It has retreated in all those important—and potentially invasive—areas. Whether that retreat is good or bad is debatable, but the trend is unmistakable.