Thursday, April 4, 2013

Ideology Isn't the Natural Basis of Politics

I hope everyone has read the latest Ta-Nehisi Coates NYT item, this one about Benjamin Carson and other Obama-era black conservatives. It's as good as you would expect it to be. 

It sparked a series of tweets from Jamelle Bouie about a distinction between the people Coates is talking about, "black conservatives," and what Jamelle calls "conservative blacks."
Conservative blacks are simply black people with conservative views. They’re folks like my parents: Church-going military veterans.

They care deeply about black people, and hold views that are recognizably conservative. In a less racist world, they’d be Republicans.
I disagree with this.

Basically, I think we should fight the assumption that there's something more real or proper politically about ideology than about other forms of primary political identity, and that the correct way for people to sort themselves into parties is by ideology.

Oh, it happens, and can happen. But I don't believe that it has to, and I definitely don't see why it should.

There's simply no reason that all people who have "recognizably conservative" views should sort to one party, with all the liberals going to the other one.

Nor is there any reason for us to believe that one's primary political identity should be ideology. There's nothing at all wrong with primary (and secondary, and etc.) political identity being oriented to ethnic group, profession/occupation, class, or anything else. My general feeling is that there's no "should" here, and that there is reason to believe that a party system that delegitimizes political identity other than ideology is going to  work poorly and produce less democracy, for a variety of reasons.

That's also going to be a large part, I think, of my reaction to Rick Hasen's new and interesting paper on political dysfunction. But I'm still putting that together, so I won't go into it now other than to tell you to read the paper).

At any I guess I'm saying in the first instance that there's no reason to think that it's more natural or proper for Jamelle's parents to be Republicans because of ideology than it is to think that they "should" be Democrats because (most) African Americans (and presumably virtually all black people whose primary political identity is based on ethnicity) are Democrats.

Basically, I think that pushing people to be ideological and pushing the idea that politics should primarily be about ideology gets it completely and totally wrong. And I think that unfortunately the ideology people have won, and that's one of the Big Things Wrong with US politics right now. Not the biggest thing (that's the broken GOP, which is related but not really the same thing). But one of the big things.


  1. This is a tough one. I probably lean toward Jamelle's side. Also, how incredible is Ta-Nehisi that he based his article on a reference to The Dark Knight Rises? That alone makes him the best.

  2. I made the point a while ago that, to his great credit, Rand Paul went on record as a supporter of a $2.5 T federal government. Every politician should do the same (and especially every Republican, but that's another conservation). Suppose we all followed the example: presumably the liberals would, on average, settle on (statistically) significantly larger numbers.

    Now imagine an effete professional from the Acela Corridor whose number is $2.5 T, like Rand Paul's. Is he a liberal? He claims to be by cultural identification, but does that make it so? Or a woman from Nebraska who works in a tractor supply store and whose number is $4.0 T, is she still a conservative, as she claims?

    In a nation as sprawling, diverse and complicated as the USA, it strikes me that its better if the effete professional identifies as conservative and the tractor supply woman is a liberal. The alternative - regional identity categorization substituting for ideological identification - seems unsustainable to me.

    For a more concrete example, look no further than the northeast, I mean north of the St. Lawrence Seaway, where the Bloc Quebecois is a sorta maybe leftist organization that really only serves french nationalism in Quebec. And not very competently, at least as measured by effective governance.

    1. I hate to quibble, but you mean the Parti Quebecois, which has run the provincial government but, because of its separatist proclivities, refuses to participate in federal elections. The Bloc Quebecois was formed by a group of people already in the House of Commons, most of them defecting from the Conservative Party (known at the time as the Progressive Conservative Party).

  3. I've often wondered how belief sets are organized into a partisan ideology. Many people simply accept that a hatred of abortion, belief in a loving and forgiving god, support of the death penalty, and support of gun ownership naturally go together as a group.


    1. This is a rough sketch:

      Republican Party = big money + white christian ethnocentrism
      Democratic Party = people worried about big money and white christian ethnocentrism

    2. The way I'd put it (re Anon's question) is that it isn't "ideology" in the sense of a coherent theory that links and constrains beliefs, and in most cases it doesn't seem to even be any kind of constraint on beliefs.

      In other words, it's not ideology; it's partisanship.

      But we're constructing a politics that pushes everything to be as ideology-like as possible.

    3. True, and Neil is probably right that it's a tribal thing. I'm just always mystified by why a certain set of questions are deemed important, and then why certain positions on those questions are emotionally connected. You could argue that being anti-abortion means you're pro-child, and most anti-abortion people would agree with that. But they don't fight to make sure all the kids are fed, or can see the doctor. Those issues aren't as important as whether or not the kid is born.

      Similarly, anti-abortion people are often pro-death penalty, and pro-gun ownership. It jars painfully with the whole "Choose Life" jingoism.

      But the most important question is why certain issues rise to dog-whistle level, and others are just ignored.

      I think it's simplistic to just claim that they're being hypocritical, or tribal. I think that there is an underlying emotional logic that most people ignore.

  4. I think Jamelle is saying: There are a lot of political issues over which you see a lot of division within the black community: things like charter schools, the correct level of generosity of income and housing supports, and the full range of "social" issues like abortion and religiosity in public life. The fact that one of the major political parties is highly committed to white ethnocentrism and to cultural disapproval of the more diverse sections of the country means that these divisions among African Americans have to be expressed through infra-party politics within the Democratic party, which is problematic for a number of reasons. That's the policy problem. There's also a cultural issue, which I think is what Ta-Nehisi's earlier Bill Cosby essay was about. Because we live in not just a racist country but one in which racialist rhetoric is fairly central to political identity, the kind of intergenerational cultural conflicts that Cosby's "pound cake" speech was about are easily subverted by partisan politics.

  5. Uh, the point is that ideology is *not* the natural basis for politics...but that our institutions and political culture increasingly act as if it is.

    Most people identify with the party that most people in their primary political identity group identify with -- and that's quite sensible. There's no "right" or "wrong" primary political identity group -- but obviously it will be one that's politically relevant to the person involved. And what I'm saying is that for most people, that's not ideology, and that we shouldn't act or structure institutions as if it should be.

  6. Most people identify with the party that most people in their primary political identity group identify with

    Do you really not see that this is a tautology?

    And what I'm saying is that for most people, that's not ideology, and that we shouldn't act or structure institutions as if it should be.

    It's interesting that you think it's good that people vote and identify on ethnic and racial lines instead of on ideological grounds. If white gentiles did, Republicans would win every election ever. Hmmm ...

    Where is this net movement toward political institutions structered around ideology?

    1. Lee Kwan Yew has claimed that the biggest problem with ethnically and racially diverse societies is that voters focus on getting spoils for their people instead of on figuring out what ideas work best. Many smart conservatives see this the same; racial identification and voting is a big problem. Why do you think that it's a good thing?

  7. I pretty much agree with backyard just above. Up the thread I argued that the best sustainable path for the country was to have the "big government" white, semi-rural Nebraska person caucus with liberals, while the small government Acela Corridor professional should go with the conservatives. The alternative, as backyard's quote points out, is really unsustainable.

    I was also interested that Neil characterized Republicanism as "white, Christian ethnocentrism". That's the Nebraska lady, surely. Things have been tough there in the generation or two since globalization (as they have been in many places), but does anyone care? I mean outside of the Nebraska lady and those situated close to her, of course.

    The other side of Neil's comment is that, while there are several demographic groups that have systematically suffered in the past 30 years or so, there's a big difference in the cultural/political/financial largesse afforded those groups, with that difference undoubtedly highly correlated with the voting patterns of the affected groups.

    Which is cool, I guess, if you vote with the groups on the smiling side of Beltway beneficence.

    Hard to believe, though, that the Nebraska lady will just keep quiet forever.

    1. Hard to believe, though, that the Nebraska lady will just keep quiet forever.

      It probably doesn't matter what NLs do. The racialized political dynamic that Prof. Bernstein lauds seems like it'll be in a positive feedback loop for a while because of demographic change. The other Hitchens wrote a helpful article on the UK version of this.

    2. My problem with your division, CSH, is that a lot of us well-educated professional types work in fields that are are necessary for society but not supported by capitalism. Consequently, we vote for the "big government" party.

    3. @Anonymous: indeed! There are any number of legitimate reasons for someone to be a supporter of bigger government; you raise one just above. I think it is perfectly sustainable for a polity to have those that support bigger government (such as, presumably, yourself) supporting exactly that. That works!

      What doesn't work is when your ten neighbors who are not aligned with your ideology vote with you anyway because you comprise a demographic bloc.

  8. Well,I posted this at the Washington Monthly,but all the action seems to be over here, so...

    "I must say as a Canadian of British descent I find this to be very strange. What else is a party about? To me, joining a party due to ethnic/national/racial background is an example of a failure of democracy- the ability to agree we are all part of one polity; Scots Nationalists and the Bloc Quebecois being prime examples."


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