Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Ideology, Groups, and Impulses

I have to warn you -- this might be a bit rambling.  And it's not exactly definitive, either (especially towards the bottom of this very long post; among other things, I'm not as up on some relevant literatures are I should be).  Take this, perhaps, as a different way of thinking about some ideas, ideology, and other such things, rather than something I'm going to assert is the correct way of looking at those things.  That said...

There's been a bunch of interesting comments recently around the blogs concerning the general topic of ideology.  Matt Yglesias did an item in which he noted that he's for deregulation of various things, but that it doesn't make him feel as if he's a conservative on those issues.  For a two paragraph post, he really started something, with Conor Friedersdorf using it to take a(nother, and completely justified) swipe at Mark Levin (with a follow-up), and then Adam Serwer got in on it, first making the Chait-esque point (but see Kevin Drum) that American liberals don't believe in big government the way that American movement conservatives believe in small government, and then making what I think is the better point that American movement conservatives don't really believe in small government in that way, either -- they believe in small government rhetoric, but in reality are happy to support government intervention in support of other important goals.  Yglesias also posted recently about what he sees as a possible decrease in ideological politics around the world (except, in his view, the US).

There's a lot in here.  For one thing, Yglesias says that his "impression is that politics wasn’t especially “ideologically” before the late 18-th century,"  and also talks about (in the post linked first above) how "The “left-wing” position is to be against this stuff—to be on the side of the people and against the forces of privilege."  But those things are connected, and in my view, mostly irrelevant to 21st century politics, or at least 21st century American politics.  "Left" and "right" (as Yglesias I'm sure knows) come from a specific place and time: from the French Revolution.  Indeed, to vastly oversimplify something on which I'm not an expert anyway, it's not wrong to say that "left" and "right" began as simply attitudes towards the French Revolution, for or against.  This did, indeed, put the "left" on the side of the people -- against the Crown, against nobility, and at least in France, against the Church.  This translated reasonably well to the rest of Europe during the 19th century, when politics was really involved in whether "the people" would or would not rule.

However, and this gets back a bit to what I was talking about recently, once you have a democratic republic, it's not clear that "left" and "right" mean anything -- because as the constitution-makers of revolutionary and post-revolutionary Americans discovered after 1776 and through the 1780s, in a democratic republic there's only people.  One of the problems they had to deal with was that Montesquieu said that you're supposed to have different branches of government representing different estates within the nation -- but in America, there was only one estate, so what powers were there to balance?  Of course, Madison's brilliant solution (as he describes in Federalist 51) is to balance the people against each other, thus creating more, not less, power.

OK, but...we do in the US have people who call themselves liberals and conservatives, and we have "left" and "right" in other democracies even though it's not about support for or opposition to the French Revolution, so what is it about?  The answer is not at all easy, at least in my view.  One way to talk about ideology, the way that public opinion researchers tend to think about it, is just about knowing which issues are supposed to go together -- so that if you support, oh, gun control and abortion rights, you might know you're also supposed to support more government spending on education and oppose the war in Iraq.  By that measure, Americans tend not to be ideological in general, although people who know a lot and care a lot about politics, people like Yglesias and Friedersdorf and Serwer and me and you (since you're not reading on into such a long post on this blog unless you're way high on the scale of political awareness), do tend to be far more ideological by that measure.  Then there's what Friedersdorf refers to a couple of times in his discussion, first principles.  It could be the case that there are deep principles at stake between American liberals and movement conservatives, and that positions on specific issues of public policy flow logically from those principles.  Friedersdorf seems to think that's the case, and I'd guess that most people do.  I don't, for the most part.  Unfortunately, while it is I think an empirical question, it's also (in my view) an impossible one to get at.  At any rate, that might be going on.

Let me propose a third way to look at it, either in addition to or instead of either just grouping issue positions together because you know they sort that way in our politics, or issue positions deriving from first principles: groups, and impulses.

Groups: we belong to groups, and in those groups we form alliances with other groups, often through political parties -- which are, in addition, one of the types of groups to which we might join.  These groups, as groups, hold positions on issues of public policy, sometimes out of self-interest, sometimes out of custom or habit.  We tend to adopt the positions of the groups with which we identify, or with which our groups are allied, or which leaders of those groups profess publicly.  Then we go back and find justifications for why that basket of issue positions go together.  That's not a bad thing -- even those of us who think self-interest in politics is perfectly fine also believe that it's both natural and healthy for political actors to (at least sometimes) express their self-interest in the context of principles that everyone else can recognize as public spirited.  

So to some extent, looked at this way, ideologies are the residue of the connections we make between policies we already support, although then its also true that those connections might also influence us and others as we make other choices about who to ally ourselves with, and what new positions to adopt.

But I think that's only part of it; I do think that there's something authentically different between liberals and conservatives, at least some of the time, and at least in some cases.  If not first principles, though, perhaps we can call them impulses.  To me, the liberal impulse is basically: We Can Do Better.   And the conservative impulse?  Don't Make It Worse.  Liberals, or perhaps all of us when we're inspired by the liberal impulse, look around and see a variety of problems and available resources and want to alleviate pain and suffering; they want to solve problems.  Conservatives, or perhaps all us us when we're inspired by the conservative impulse, remember all the cases of noble intentions gone awry, the cases of unintended consequences, the cases in which problems seemed terribly severe but then they seemingly melted away without anyone, and certainly not everyone collectively, trying to address them.  Liberals appreciate the promise of the future; conservatives appreciate how rickety the accomplishments of the present are, and how easily what we think is safe can be destroyed. 

I don't know; reading back, that seems a bit on the trite side to me.  My real point is that to dress these things up as ideologies, and in that in most cases "first principles" have little to do with our approach to public policy preferences, even among the most politically sophisticated who are most likely to conform to our political parties' platforms and to therefore poll as ideological, is to miss something important.  So I'm not saying that either the "sorting issues" or the "first principles" way of looking at ideology is wrong; I'm just saying that the groups-plus-impulses approach may (also) help us understand what's going on.


  1. "We Can Do Better" and "Don't Make It Worse" sound polite, and map to individual psychologies nicely, but I still prefer Daniel Davies's model:

    either you think that it is more important to provide a decent life for everyone in the world, or you think it is more important to preserve the rights of people who own property. You can hum and haw as much as you like about whether the two are necessarily incompatible, or whether the one is instrumental to the other, or what constitutes a "decent life" anyway, but when you've finished humming and hawing, I'm still gonna be asking you the question, and your answer to it will determine whether or not we're gonna have an argument.

  2. To echo chris somewhat, my mother used to say, "If you're for the employers, you're a Republican, and if you're for the employees, you're a Democrat." Since there are way more employees than employers in this world, that was a bit of a loaded formulation, but by the same token, the Democrats are also right, so it works out.

    I tend to think that the "we can do better"/"don't make it worse" paradigm is also captured by an attitude towards the commons. Democrats are interested in the benefits of the commons and Republicans aren't, for the most part. Republicans prefer to minimize the commons and maximize the role of private capital.

    In my view, what starts as a healthy skepticism towards statism quickly devolves into a decidedly unhealthy willingness to tear at the threads connecting us as a people. Gated communities? An underfunded police force and postal service and transportation system? Private schools? Conservatives are positively enthusiastic about all of these things. To me they are synecdochic with the unraveling of society. In my view, the lie comes when conservatives insist that their proposals would benefit society as a whole -- in our culture, you can't simply argue that the interests of those with means are favored by privatization (true enough), you have to also argue that the whole country benefits. This, I think, is a falsehood, and often a knowing one.

  3. Also, see the recent bloggingheads video between Conor Friedersdorf and Conn Carroll, in which they talk at length about why Conn doesn't consider Conor a conservative, and so forth. They talk a lot about the different labels and what they mean.

  4. I guess what I'd say is that what I see as impulses are not necessarily aligned with the people who call themselves conservative and liberal in contemporary America -- and that for what goes into those labels, see groups, above. I do think that what I called the liberal impulse does seem to go with the people who call themselves liberals, but I don't think that what I called the conservative impulse necessarily goes with most movement conservatives.

  5. @Martin

    When I was little, my mother said that the difference between the Democrats and Republicans was that Democrats wanted to help poor people, and Republicans didn't.

    Talk about a loaded formulation! (Nobody wants to help poor people)

  6. While I'm far from an expert on this, my understanding is that the left-right axis wasn't adopted in American politics until the New Deal, which also happened to be when the modern senses of "liberal" and "conservative" emerged. So even though it's hard to find much resemblance between today's categories and those of the 18th century, the dichotomy today is actually quite similar to the one in the 1930s, give or take the shifts on particular issues (civil rights, abortion, tariffs, isolationism, etc.). It's still basically a debate about government vs. the market as a means of addressing the major economic problems of the day.

  7. I was raised in a Republican family, my ancestors were part of Lincoln's first administration, and my family was extremely proud of this.

    I was taught personal responsibility, tolerance, civic involvement, resource conservation, entrepreneurialism, and education were conservative values. (Church? that was your business; there was separation between church and state, for good reason.)

    I find those values most embodied in the Democratic Party, today. And I'd say most self-labeled conservatives today are confused, angry, conservative in name, only," CASINOS, and they're gambling with our future instead of stewarding our resources and potential.

  8. My previous comment ended with ill-meant humor, and I apologize for that.

    But I adore Connor here:
    . . . [C]onservatives and liberals tend to value liberty differently, and that even in the most extreme cases, were their preferred policy to end in tyranny, it wouldn't be by design, but because they overvalued security or tradition or equality or justice. That suggests a more appropriate frame for a whole host of issues. Universal health care is more a matter of both "liberty vs. security" and "liberty vs. equality" than "liberty vs. tyranny," and in saying so, one needn't abandon the claim that tyranny is implicated in the outcome.

  9. Ideology is the result of language, not the other way around. (That is, your thoughts are an outcome of what you read/hear, rather than a driver of what you read or hear). If you search for too much coherence in ideology, you may miss the primacy of the spoken or written word in creating ideology.

    Everyone reading this surely knows folks that consider themselves independent thinkers yet consume their news exclusively via partisan channels like NRO or DailyKos, and they end up sounding suspiciously like a Michael Ledeen or Markos Moulitsas.

    To me, the primary driver of partisan communication is...whatever leads the audience to the appropriate ideological conclusion. As a minor aside, I believe this may go a long way toward explaining what Andrew Sullivan - and others - label as 'depravity' on the modern right.

    As Jonathan pointed out recently, America has evolved more or less the way the left would like; we know this when Tea Party rallies are populated by folks who almost exclusively favor the dole, in the form of Social Security, Medicare, etc.

    People believe the 21st century right is full of haters because those Tea Partiers are frothed up via irrational hostilities. Haters? Nonsense.

    There's just no market for right-wing ideological fervor based on the cold hard facts of political life in America in 2010.

  10. Steve Benen highlighted a quote from Rep. John Fleming (R) of Louisiana a short while ago. I have trouble placing this kind of thinking into Dr. Bernstein's thoughtful categories, because the current republican party has an eliminationalist philosophy based on falsehoods toward anyone who disagrees with them. Bernstein's categories seem to assume that actual thinking about positions is taking place. Here's Fleming:

    "We have two competing world views here and there is no way that we can reach across the aisle -- one is going to have to win," said Rep. John Fleming, R-La. [...]

    "We are either going to go down the socialist road and become like Western Europe and create, I guess really a godless society, an atheist society. Or we're going to continue down the other pathway where we believe in freedom of speech, individual liberties and that we remain a Christian nation.

    "So we're going to have to solve that argument before we can once again reach across and work together on things."

  11. wvng,

    Isn't that pretty much just "groups"? Certain Christian groups are a core constituency of the GOP, and so they evolve policy positions (or, in this case, rhetoric that's probably not really attached to specific positions) that advance the perceived interests of those groups.

  12. "In a democratic republic there's only people" and "to balance the people against each other, thus creating more, not less power."

    No, there aren't only people in this country at this time; there are people, and then there are the corporations that tend to own legislators and win most of the fights over the laws that actually get passed (the health care reform case is an excellent example). "We have the finest Congress that money can buy," as old Mark Twain sagely remarked. And how do you get more power by pitting segments of the people against each other? It's called splitting the workers, an age-old owners' strategy.

    "Ideology, the way that public opinion researchers tend to think about it, is just about knowing which issues are supposed to go together."

    If a progressive (and I use that term unapologetically) political force is to get anywhere against the moneyed opposition, it can only happen by amassing as large a coalition as possible, and that means stitching together a large number of small single-issue organizations. To do that, you have to explain to each of them why they would benefit by supporting the others, and that is what progressive ideology aims at doing. The reason progressivism is so weak these days (watch how much it will be harmed by the upcoming elections) is that it currently lacks such a conceptual glue which could draw people together into a strong movement.

  13. Jonathan,

    Great post. You've inspired me to ramble on some about ideology from a slightly different perspective at

  14. I read an article in the New York Times a few years ago about the work of the Psychologist Jonathan Haidt on differences in moral reasoning between liberals and conservatives. Here is the link:

    Here is the central core of the argument:

    "They found that people who identified themselves as liberals attached great weight to the two moral systems protective of individuals — those of not harming others and of doing as you would be done by. But liberals assigned much less importance to the three moral systems that protect the group, those of loyalty, respect for authority and purity.

    Conservatives placed value on all five moral systems but they assigned less weight than liberals to the moralities protective of individuals."

    In that discussion, purity is usually measured by feelings of disgust.

    Here is an online test where you can measure your own morality and how it registers as liberal or conservative (I think there are other tests there as well):

    This way of looking at conservative and liberal moral judgements has had a pretty big impact on my thinking about the issue. I am a liberal, and arguments from authority seem specious to me. On the other hand, my sister is very conservative and does not believe morality can exist without arguments from authority.

    So that's my evenhanded treatment. From a more partisan viewpoint I think there must be animating differences between liberals and conservatives. Otherwise it would not be the case that conservatives so consistently come down on the wrong side of novel situations.

    Before the war on terror torture was not a partisan issue. I think that in fact before 2000 anyone who had suggested it might become a partisan issue would have been regarded as offensive idiot.

    Other novel situations come up periodically. I find that I am consistently on the other side of the issue from conservatives, even on things that confound me that there even two sides. I can't imagine that this happens randomly rather than flowing from some fundamental difference. Differences in moral reasoning is one way to explain why this happens so frequently and consistently.

  15. Not sure how much this adds...but the other day the wife and I were recalling growing up (in different countries) in the late 70s/early 80s, and how each of us were taught that looming increases in technological efficiency would reduce the average workweek.

    Not sure if that meme predated Woody Allen observing that 90% of life is showing up, but in hindsight it's ridiculous to think that aspirational employees, in any field, would just work less due to efficiency improvements. It should have been obvious that those increases in efficiency would instead translate into lower labor overhead, which has been a creeping problem in the US for the last 30 years or so (and now a full-blown crisis).

    Heaven forbid that it turns out that the current jobs dilemma is ultimately caused by workplace efficiencies resulting in too few workers needed to produce our GDP. Suppose we were chatting in 1980, and we knew that the meme about people working less was absurd, and we therefore recognized that there was a terrible jobs problem ahead in the US. What would Republicans have advised us to do?

    They would have recommended we do nothing, preferring instead to let Smith's invisible hand sort things out for the best (not unlike the extension of Bush's tax cut, come to think of it).

    So...Republicans are animated by a nihilistic view that everything is doomed while simultaneously believing in invisible forces to naturally solve problems. Yes. That's about how you might expect the hypothetical workplace efficiency conversation to have been treated in 1980.

    But does it make any damn sense?

    (From a lamenting conservative).

  16. I published a comment (and actually saw it appear) a couple of hours ago, and now it's vanished. Some kind of technical glitch, I think. Don't have the energy to recreate it all now, but it was mostly a reply to what Jim said about conservatives consistently coming down on the wrong side of "novel situations." The short version is: This happens not just because of the impulses they're following, but because there's a "moral arc of the universe" that tends to point novel developments in a certain direction. If that weren't so, the conservative impulse would make cons right as often as wrong; instead, the authority / purity crowd is almost always opposing things that 50 years later no one can remember were even controversial. (And then the conservatives of that time are using the same arguments to oppose something else, about which they'll be wrong again.)

    Even Wm F. Buckley kind of acknowledged this when he said that conservatives' job was to stand athwart history and shout "Stop!" In other words, history doesn't randomly go just anywhere; it tends over time (with many fits and starts) toward progressive, liberal, democratic, and inclusive outcomes, which is why Buckley saw it as needing to be stopped (or slowed).

  17. Also, to CSH: That meme about reduced workweeks and how the problem in the future would be too much (well-paid) leisure goes back to at least the '60s, when it was as common as talk about "picturephones" and Mars colonies. I'm surprised you were still hearing it as late as the early '80s; thought we'd pretty much lost the illusion by then.


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