Monday, April 07, 2014

"How politics makes us stupid": Ezra Klein's hypothesis, Chait's case study

Serendipity. On one sunny Sunday, Jonathan Chair purported to explain the controlling dynamic in U.S. politics. And Ezra Klein purported to explain the controlling dynamic in politics, period. Their hypotheses are congruent.

Klein deployed social science research from a team led by Yale law professor Dan Kahan demonstrating that all of us actively resist evidence that challenges our assumptions. In matters of passion and identity, we almost literally can't see contrary evidence. Exhibit A is an experiment in which people who had already demonstrated their ability to use math to arrive at a counterintuitive conclusion disabled that capacity when it threatened to undermine a political conviction.

In Kahan's experiment, people who had previously parsed data about the effectiveness of a skin cream were shown similarly presented data about the effectiveness of gun control. And, lo:

The 2x2 box now compared crime data in the cities that banned handguns against crime data in the cities that didn’t. In some cases, the numbers, properly calculated, showed that the ban had worked to cut crime. In others, the numbers showed it had failed.

Presented with this problem a funny thing happened: how good subjects were at math stopped predicting how well they did on the test. Now it was ideology that drove the answers. Liberals were extremely good at solving the problem when doing so proved that gun-control legislation reduced crime. But when presented with the version of the problem that suggested gun control had failed, their math skills stopped mattering. They tended to get the problem wrong no matter how good they were at math. Conservatives exhibited the same pattern — just in reverse.
What can we do about such endemic prejudice, which Klein presents as ultimately tribal -- or becoming tribal, as we cluster with like-minded people? Not much, he suggests. He holds out hope that eventually, in a democracy, reality intrudes--events discredit bad ideas. It's a version of two Churchill dicta: 1) Americans always do the right thing, after they've exhausted all the alternatives, and 2) democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the alternatives.  Klein concludes with a warning that America's "political structures" may not react swiftly enough to reality's head-smacks: "If American politics is going to improve, it will be better structures, not better arguments, that win the day."

Chait's hypothesis perhaps cuts across a universal confirmation bias -- a preference for simple answers. First, he cites evidence he regards as conclusive that racism has shaped U.S. conservatism -- a fact that conservatives are loath to accept. Then he turns around and accuses progressives of universally and reflexively assuming that all politically conservative U.S. thinking reflects racism, an assumption he regards as manifestly untrue.

Chait sneaks up on liberals before accusing them of prejudice against conservatives.  First, he presses our buttons by citing Lee Atwater confessing that treasured conservative policies are coded attacks on what Paul Krugman, when paraphrasing purported conservative thought, loves to call "those people." Then he cites research pretty clearly demonstrating that the paucity of U.S. government support for the poor (compared to wealthy-country peers) is rooted in racial animosity. Here's his money shot:
A few months ago, three University of Rochester political scientists—Avidit Acharya, Matthew Blackwell, and Maya Sen—published an astonishing study. They discovered that a strong link exists between the proportion of slaves residing in a southern county in 1860 and the racial conservatism (and voting habits) of its white residents today. The more slave-intensive a southern county was 150 years ago, the more conservative and Republican its contemporary white residents. The authors tested their findings against every plausible control factor—for instance, whether the results could be explained simply by population density—but the correlation held. Higher levels of slave ownership in 1860 made white Southerners more opposed to affirmative action, score higher on the anti-black-affect scale, and more hostile to Democrats.

The authors suggest that the economic shock of emancipation, which suddenly raised wages among the black labor pool, caused whites in the most slave-intensive counties to “promote local anti-black sentiment by encouraging violence towards blacks, racist norms and cultural beliefs,” which “produced racially hostile attitudes that have been passed down from parents to children.” The scale of the effect they found is staggering. Whites from southern areas with very low rates of slave ownership exhibit attitudes similar to whites in the North—an enormous difference, given that Obama won only 27 percent of the white vote in the South in 2012, as opposed to 46 percent of the white vote outside the South.

The Rochester study should, among other things, settle a very old and deep argument about the roots of America’s unique hostility to the welfare state. Few industrialized economies provide as stingy aid to the poor as the United States; in none of them is the principle of universal health insurance even contested by a major conservative party. Conservatives have long celebrated America’s unique strand of anti-statism as the product of our religiosity, or the tradition of English liberty, or the searing experience of the tea tax. But the factor that stands above all the rest is slavery.
But then comes the turn:
And yet—as vital as this revelation may be for understanding conservatism, it still should not be used to dismiss the beliefs of individual conservatives. Individual arguments need and deserve to be assessed on their own terms, not as the visible tip of a submerged agenda; ideas can’t be defined solely by their past associations and uses.
This may at first strike progressive readers as thin gruel, especially as Chait proceeds to pile on with accounts of desperate conservative attempts to deny and project back the accusations of racism. Thin, even when Chait ups the rhetorical ante:
Yet here [in reading a Romney commercial pitting Medicare beneficiaries against ACA beneficiaries] is the point where, for all its breadth and analytic power, the liberal racial analysis collapses onto itself. It may be true that, at the level of electoral campaign messaging, conservatism and white racial resentment are functionally identical. It would follow that any conservative argument is an appeal to white racism. That is, indeed, the all-but-explicit conclusion of the ubiquitous Atwater Rosetta-stone confession: Republican politics is fundamentally racist, and even its use of the most abstract economic appeal is a sinister, coded missive.

Impressive though the historical, sociological, and psychological evidence undergirding this analysis may be, it also happens to be completely insane. Whatever Lee Atwater said, or meant to say, advocating tax cuts is not in any meaningful sense racist.
That last point is perhaps self-evident, and Chait does not pause to explain. But tax cuts recall the other central driver of U.S. conservatism: plutocracy.  Cynical shorthand might suggest that plutocrats use racist dog whistles to win support for policies that advance their economic interests. But that shorthand, as Chait suggests, can be very unfair to individuals, and oversimplifies the movement as a whole.

Chait goes on to present conservative defensiveness about racism as reaction to a charge that has perhaps unrecognized potency:
Few liberals acknowledge that the ability to label a person racist represents, in 21st-century America, real and frequently terrifying power. Conservatives feel that dread viscerally. Though the liberal analytic method begins with a sound grasp of the broad connection between conservatism and white racial resentment, it almost always devolves into an open-ended license to target opponents on the basis of their ideological profile. The power is rife with abuse. 
In fact Chait's charge against progressives is not so thin. He goes on to call the broad license liberals allow themselves to equate conservatism and racism a kind of McCarthyism.

Despite Chait's best efforts, it's hard to absorb an injunction that a given ideological opponent may not be motivated by racism when you've just absorbed 6,000 words devoted in large part to demonstrating that racism  is the proximate cause of the unique shape of American conservatism.

Indeed, it would be an interesting experiment, along the lines of Kahan's research, to poll Chait's readers and gauge the extent to which liberals on the one hand and conservatives on the other even notice the injunction not to pre-judge the motives and underlying assumptions of the conservative across the dinner table or twitter feed.


  1. "The authors suggest that the economic shock of emancipation, which suddenly raised wages among the black labor pool, caused whites in the most slave-intensive counties to “promote local anti-black sentiment by encouraging violence towards blacks, racist norms and cultural beliefs,” which “produced racially hostile attitudes that have been passed down from parents to children.” "

    Gawd, but they are stupid. Econ 101 is for sophomores, not for Ph.D.'s :)

    Just think of the differences in a local white society, when 5% of the population are black slaves, vs. a local white society where 50% of the population are black slaves. The second locality has both an elevated fear of revolt, and a far higher proportion of whites engaged in direct, daily oppression of slaves.

  2. Antebellum racism in the US traditionally came in two varieties: that associated with slavery, and that associated with opposition to slavery. Basically, areas committed to slavery wanted to oppress blacks; those areas not so committed wanted to -exclude- blacks.

    The Republicans (the antislavery party in the 1850's) contained a huge element who hated slavery because it brought in black people; several Northern states actually excluded all blacks whatsoever, and before 1860 the number was growing. That was the essence of "Free Soil" opinion, which cared mostly about restricting the geographical -expansion- of slavery. It was based partly on simple racial animus, and partly on the related desire to keep up the wages, status and prospects for social mobility of the white working class.

    The number of white people in the antebellum US who -weren't- in some sense anti-black racists was miniscule; you could probably have gotten them all into Faneuil Hall, and a grossly disproportionate number would have been religious radicals, mostly Quakers. This conviction of black inferiority included most Abolitionists except a fringe group on the left wing of the movement, who even other opponents of slavery generally regarded as kooks who probably wore strange underwear and ate the 1850's equivalent of tofu.

    Abraham Lincoln repeatedly, and honestly, said that he didn't regard black people as equal; he just hated the institution of slavery: "if slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong", to quote him. He thought that black people should be owners of their own bodies and labor, and he thought slavery was a threat to the things he valued about northern society. This position was just about precisely at the center of the emerging Republican coalition.

    He may have changed his attitudes somewhat during the war, which (at least temporarily) radicalized Northern opinion on racial matters.