Elections, Partisanship, and the Call for Moderation in Civic Life

One of things I like least about elections is partisanship. This is a strange thing to say, since of course if an election is to occur, it should be about differences in the candidates’ policy preferences and at the national level most voters must use political parties to get a clear sense of how the candidates would act in concert with other elected politicians.

In that sense, we seem to be getting much better at distinguishing our choices. Only a few generations ago, political scientists protested the lack of significant differences between the parties. They could hardly do so today: the last two decades have been a time of serious and growing polarization and enmity. Yet it seems we are rancorous on almost every question, from health care and same sex marriage to climate change policy and gun ownership. No gag rule can prevent the partisan spin that takes new issues and renders them fodder for our passionate disagreements. In that context, the most successful political activism will be sub-national or international: it will ignore the national institutions designated for politics but riven by paralysis.

But one of the things that I think I know is that no matter how much we might disagree about one law or policy, that disagreement should not be allowed to destroy the possibility of a future alliance on a different problem. Citizens tempted by partisanship have to find a way to hold their ideas and convictions loosely. They have to preserve civic friendship and reject permanent divisions. In a society where a few issues become the signal issues of note, our enmity grows until it encompasses every other issue where we might share interests. Thus, deep partisanship is paralyzing not just because it comes from real intractable disagreements, but because those intractable disagreements radiate out into the rest of our civic lives.

Thus a good society will tend to suppress those areas of passionate disagreement in favor of the alliances and collaboration that less contentious matters make possible. The trick is that areas of passionate disagreement tend to be pretty important. Consider Stephen Holmes’ Passions and Constraint: On the Theory of a Liberal Democracywhere Holmes points out how often the liberal order has survived in the US by creating a political system that deliberately ignores the most pressing and passionate politics of the day. After all, the republic was founded to preserve slavery and ignore the very pressing arguments against it. Holmes even recounts the brutal beating of Senator Charles Sumner by the coward Albert Brooks in a discussion of the Senate’s tacit gag rule on discussions of slavery. For this reason, Holmes praises the liberal and undemocratic institutions like the Supreme Court that can dissolve passionate disagreements without invoking the brutal passions of citizens who must find a way to work together the next day.

This is moderation: a position every bit as as compromised at the example of anetebellum Senators standing by the beating of an abolitionist by a slave owner, along with ignoring the enslavement of their fellow human beings. The things we feel most deeply, including the evils in which we reject complicity, are not things we should ignore. Indeed, we should see opponents who support such acts and policies as irredeemable, evil, monstrous; not fellow citizens and sometimes allies but perpetual enemies. We should reject compromise with such people until the battle is won.

But here’s the problem: they think the same thing. And there are systemic facts about our political constitution that will always work to create partisan identities of roughly equal size in our national political life. Most arguments in Congress are tied to changes in spending and taxation that amount to a few points of GDP either way. Most radical conservatives and radical liberals actually hold a group of varied and contradictory beliefs, very few of which fit into this frame of enmity and hatred. So terms like Republican and Democrat and conservative and liberal are free-floating signifiers that don’t really track particular policy preferences or ideologies over time, even as they mark a long-term division among those who ought properly to concern themselves with the co-creation of our shared world.

Almost all of the things we think about politics, especially about the other party, just aren’t true.

Here’s what’s true, to the best of my knowledge:

There are real differences between the parties. But they’re not nearly as big as the parties and their adherents like to pretend, even as the parties have grown a lot more polarized (which is to say, the differences used to be even smaller!) One of these parties is not communist, and the other party is not libertarian. At most, Democrats want to raise federal spending by a few points of GDP. At most, Republicans want to cut federal spending by a few points of GDP.

African-Americans are still killed and incarcerated in large numbers by cops in Democratic cities. Women are still raped and abused in Democratic strongholds. The things that matter most to these groups are very rarely even on the ballot or in front of the relevant politician: the one exception is abortion, and in the states where it’s on the ballot, women (50% of whom think abortion is morally wrong) are voting against it too.

Political radicalism among our representatives is mostly drive by: (1) the way that we have sorted ourselves into partisan enclaves, (2) the way the primary system has changed, (3) and the strong restrictions on “pork” which used to grease the skids of bipartisanship. (4: Campaign Finance issues matter, too.)

There are many questions about whether the electorate has changed as well, but the best evidence suggests that we’re just as mixed up ideologically as we always were: as an empirical matter, ordinary Americans do not use these abstract terms in the same way partisan intellectuals do. Self-classified liberals tend to have liberal views on specific policy issues, but self-classified conservatives are much more heterogeneous; many, even majorities, express liberal views on specific issues, such as abortion rights, gun control and drug law reform.

That is, the supposed polarization of the electorate is just as much a myth as any supposed moderation. It’s probably more sensible to say that we’re all over the place, radically liberal and conservative and sometimes moderate too: citizens often support policies on both sides of the ideological spectrum, but these policies are often not moderate.

What’s more, President Obama has largely left Bush-era foreign policy in place.

The one place where the parties’ policies and practices really diverge is LGBT rights. And that’s only recently: remember that it was Clinton who signed the Defense of Marriage Act, and the divergence is not going to last for long.

2012 is NOT the Most Expensive Election in History, in GDP-adjusted Terms

Last year, I suggested that liberal objections to Citizens United were partly justified by predictions about its effects that I didn’t see as probable. As the election draws to a close, we can begin to say whether the consensus view or my own views were accurate.

Here goes: as a percentage of GDP, this is simply a cheaper election than 2008.

When I looked at this question a year ago, I used estimates by this firm that showed that the 2012 elections would cost $7 billion dollars. Now the Center for Responsive Politics says the election will actually cost about $6 billion. (Note that this includes down-ticket races, not just the Presidential eleciton.) Combined with the revised and increased GDP numbers, the “massive increase in spending” hypothesis doesn’t look to have been supported this year, and 2010 looks like more like a blip than the start of a trend. Here’s what the cost-curve looks like:

There’s still plenty of room to discuss the ways that Super PACs affect the elections. Surely the increased attention to primaries (as rent-seeking money has been crowded out of general elections) might account for the ideological stripe and quality of candidates currently running for office. That said: never attribute to corporate malfeasance that which is adequately explained by citizen apathy.

The Fallacy Fallacy [sic] of Mood Affiliation (Workplace Domination Part Two)

In his initial response to the the Crooked Timber bloggers, Cowen also suggests that he doesn’t like the “mood affiliation” of the CT bloggers:

I am not comfortable with the mood affiliation of the piece.  How about a simple mention of the massive magnitude of employee theft in the United States, perhaps in the context of a boss wishing to search an employee?

Cowens’ “fallacy of mood affiliation” is an interesting and useful attempt to describe a kind of sophisticated motivated skepticism that occurs when we evaluate evidence that counters our basically optimistic or pessimistic views of the world. When he first introduced it, Cowen described mood affiliations that caused people to misrecognize particular evidence regarding innovations or environmental effects because the particular evidence fails to confirm their preferences for optimistic accounts of future growth and environmental improvements.

But to those clear examples of the optimism bias, he added two other examples that are only indirectly related:

3. People who see a political war against the interests of the poor and thus who are reluctant to present or digest analyses which blame some of the problems of the poor on…the poor themselves. (Try bringing up “predatory borrowing” in any discussion of “predatory lending” and see what happens.) There’s simply an urgent feeling that any negative or pessimistic or undeserving view of the poor needs to be countered.

4. People who see raising or lowering the relative status of Republicans (or some other group) as the main purpose of analysis, and thus who judge the dispassionate analysis of others, or for that matter the partisan analysis of others, by this standard. There’s simply an urgent feeling that any positive or optimistic or deserving view of the Republicans needs to be countered.

#4 is also clearly a bias where in-group solidarity blinds us to evidence, and Cowen has written about this well in the past. It is not, however, an obvious “mood affiliation” except by analogy, and it serves a pragmatic purpose: you can only call your friends our for being biased so often before they stop being your friends.

#3, though, is neither a mood affiliation nor an optimism bias. We might call it an “unjust-world fallacy,” if we really need a name for it. However, I’d suggest we might want to avoid prejudicing discussions of what makes people poor with attributions of fallacies and congitive biases until we’ve evaluated the evidence.

Since “what makes people poor” is a hotly debated academic question, there’s a lot of evidence, and it pushes in multiple directions. (My own money is on some version of Buddy Karelis’s book, The Persistence of Poverty (pdf) though there’s plenty of room for poverty traps and marginal tax rate arguments.) People affiliate around these positions in many of the same ways that they affiliate around political parties. But there’s a serious dispute in the literature and the question really, really matters, so let’s not glibly reduce our opponents to fallacy-mongers here.

This is relevant to blogging about the workplace only because, by analogy, we’re supposed to believe that employees might be partly to blame for their domination in the same way that poor people are partly to blame for their poverty. But note, there are particular actions the poor engage in that make them poor: failing to finish high school, committing crimes, and getting pregnant out of wedlock are individual actions that primarily harm the individual who enacts them by reducing lifetime wages. In the workplace example, there just aren’t particular actions that workers engage in that justify their being searched or filmed while going to the bathroom (except maybe being unwilling to quit, fight, or unionize). Invading my privacy because somebody else has been stealing doesn’t really fit the kind of personal responsibility motif that Cowen was pushing in the original discussion of poverty. Plus, employee theft costs our economy about $15 billion, which is 0.1% of GDP, and that’s including serious embezzlement in addition to retail “shrink,” so it’s not really so big a deal as Cowen makes it out to be.

Mood affiliation concerns don’t appear to be relevant to workplace domination issues, they threaten to resolve into ad hominem and fallacy fallacy [sic] issues, so let’s drop them and look at the data and the arguments.

Did the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act “Bend the Cost Curve” on Campaign Spending?

Apparently, it did!

On Thursday, I produced a graph and some older papers in economics that made the case that there is a pretty clear trend in campaign spending that was completely unaffected by the 2002 BCRA. However, I’m a philosopher, not an econometrician, so I left off the most important part: comparing growth in campaign spending to growth in inflation and GDP. The numbers I used were absolute totals, and there didn’t seem to have been any effect from the BCRA or Citizens United. Today I sat down to expand on the earlier point, and produced the following chart:

This graph tells a different story than the last one: we can see a clear “bend” after 2002, and another after 2008. Thus, it’s plausible to suppose that BCRA did bend the cost curve: we spent less of our GDP on elections while its important provisions were in effect.

My point yesterday was to offer some predictions and beliefs about the effects of BCRA that militated in favor of overturning it. I maintain that norms are engaged in a reflective equilibrium with our beliefs about the facts of the matter, and that sometimes inaccurate predictions can masquerade as principles. I still think this is true, and I’d only expand that claim: visual representations of facts can and do make arguments. Thursday I made a bad graph, and thus a bad argument. Today I retract it.

These new facts must still be interpreted in light of principles: perhaps the effect size is too small to justify the criminalization of partisan political speech. Perhaps the Rent Seeking Model still applies, and politicians were able to extract fewer rents from businesses during the reign of BCRA. (Perhaps, too, we owe it to shareholders to protect them from the unwanted expenditures of the companies they own.) For now I just want to point out that this does give us evidence against the “no effect” hypothesis.

Arendtian Natality, Caplan’s Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, and Antinatalism

Because of my work on Hannah Arendt, I often struggle with the apparent incongruity between her account of natality and my own tendency towards antinatalism.

Natality is at the heart of Arendt’s project, a rejection of the Heideggerian obsession with mortality and being-towards-death:

“It is in the nature of beginning that something new is started which cannot be expected from whatever may have happened before. This character of startling unexpectedness is inherent in all beginnings … The fact that man is capable of action means that the unexpected can be expected from him, that he is able to perform what is infinitely improbable. And this again is possible only because each man is unique, so that with each birth something uniquely new comes into the world.”

While it’s true that Arendt didn’t simply mean the biological act of giving birth when she described natality, this biological fact is at the heart of her insight into the novelty and unforeseen circumstances of political action, since it introduces new selves into a world that would otherwise become increasingly familiar.

“Objectively, that is, seen from the outside and without taking into account that man is a beginning and a beginner, the chances that tomorrow will be like yesterday are always overwhelming. Not quite so overwhelming, to be sure, but very nearly so as the chances were that NO earth would ever rise out of cosmic occurrences, that NO life would develop out of inorganic processes, that NO man would emerge out of the evolution of animal life. The decisive difference between the “infinite improbabilities” on which the reality of our earthly life rests and the miraculous character inherent in those events which establish historical reality is that, in the realm of human affairs, we know the author of the “miracles.” It is men who perform them— men who because they have received the twofold gift of freedom and action can establish a reality of their own.”

One cannot help hearing Arendt’s Jewishness in the attribution of a miraculous power of renewal and unprecendentedness to natality. This is partly a reflection of certain Jewish tropes like Tikkun Olam, which is used in an ordinary sense to indicate the “public interest” but carries a theological connotation, since it literally means to “repair of the world,” in the Manichean sense described by Isaac Luria: that the world was formed through the shattering or rupture of the divine, and it is our job to restore the divine’s unity. One gloss on this restoration is that “be fruitful and multiply” is the first command given by God, and there is a sense in Arendt that the “new ones” may include our political messiah, the actor whose words or deeds may salvage our shared world. (Luria, however, taught that this entailed a Zionist return from the Diaspora, which Arendt recognized as impossible.)

Yet part of the fundamental antinatalist objection is that giving birth is a existentially weighty act that we do on another’s behalf: we bring a new person into the world who must receive the gift of existence without a right to refuse it. Better Never to Have Been tries to captures some of the ways that this may be a harm, but I primarily worry that bringing more children into an already crowded world is a kind of trespass that Arendt noted would always be a risk in acting.

Continue reading Arendtian Natality, Caplan’s Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, and Antinatalism