Monday, October 7, 2013

It's Not Ideology

Matthew Dickinson was dragged back to blogging (good to have him back! Although I'd like to read his WH staff book when it's done) to discuss polarization, and how there's not as much of it out there as some people think. I tend to be on his side of the discussion; I'd note that it's a real debate, however, and I'm glad that he's going to talk more about it in a subsequent post.

All I can add is that what's going on doesn't fit any notion of ideology that I can understand. I saw a couple of people note this on twitter, but you shouldn't miss this from yesterday's NYT look at polarization in one Georgia House district. It's a good article, but the kicker is the must-read:
Mr. Tripcony, the surveyor, said he underwent heart surgery not long ago without health insurance, “a bad blow.” He has been making payments against the cost. He had heard of the online marketplace for insurance that opened on Oct. 1 under the Affordable Care Act.

“I just don’t trust it,” said Mr. Tripcony, who has an equal distrust of President Obama. “I don’t like him, and I don’t feel comfortable with anything he’s got to do with.”

Mr. Tripcony said he had a better idea for a system to provide health care at a fair price. “I think it should be the same for everybody,” he said. “One big company, whether owned by the government or private.”

Informed that he had described the single-payer system that Mr. Obama abandoned when Republican critics called it socialized medicine, he said, “Yeah, I know, it’s crazy.”

He said he might eventually seek health insurance under the new system. “In a couple of months, when they get the Web sites working, I may do it.”
This is partisanship, not ideology, right? He's against the ACA because it's "Obamacare," which means it's Barack Obama, and that's got to be a bad thing. It's certainly not because he disapproves of government involvement in health care, right?

The thing is, and this really is a challenge both for survey research and for larger interpretations of what's going on, is that under the conditions that most elites express their partisanship in ideological, rather than partisan, language, then mass publics are going to learn to give "ideological" answers to political questions. But this is a perfect example of how this is all just on the surface. Not that Tripcony or most Republicans are really liberals underneath -- that's not at all what I'm saying. The point is that if you look at it as a matter of coherent ideas driving issue positions, you're going to be lost.  Most of us are neither liberals or conservatives, or anything else. Or, rather, we're a mishmash; some liberal ideas resonate with us, some conservative ideas resonate, but none of it particularly constrains our positions on specific questions of public policy.

And what makes it even more confusing is that the political culture generally is anti-party, and pro-ideology. So to begin with some of the most extreme partisans think of themselves as outside of the party they obviously belong to in any objective sense. On top of that, it's considered appropriate to oppose, say, Obamacare because one is conservative, but illegitimate to oppose it because one is a Republican.

Good luck figuring all that out in a  relatively brief set of survey questions.


  1. Communications scholar Frank Gilliam (and probably others, but he's the one who described it to me) describes strategic framing theory roughly thus, paraphrasing: When confronted with facts that contradict the "frame" through which they view the world, people will tend to reject the facts before rejecting the frame.

    So, Mr. Tripcony probably sees the ACA through a frame something like "KenyanMuslimSocialistShariaCare" rather than "Insurance regulation combined with means-tested federal assistance."

    It all makes much more sense if you assume facts are secondary to framing.

  2. This is off topic.

    I'd like to hear a reply from JB to Jash Marshal's comments about Boehner being a weak Speaker.

  3. When it comes to polarization, it may be that the truly important question is not belief, but behavior. If you look at "polarizing" events in American history -- oh, let's go ahead and take the big enchilada, the Civil War -- it's very true that there was a spectrum of belief expressed with all sorts of shades and combinations of opinion. Yet in the end what actually mattered as far as the political and constituional crisis went was 1) how people voted in the election of 1860, and 2) how they sorted out between North and South as the situation unravelled.

    So, Dickinson may be right when he says that the public is not polarized, but available choices are. The problem is that the correct answer to that observation may be, "So what? Polarized choices are precisely where the problem lies."

    I guess that gets us back to the issue that Ezra Klein has been highlighting in Wonkblog the last couple of days -- i.e. can a presidential democracy survive in an environment of polarized choices? It would seem that, if we put the discussion on Plain Blog together with the discussion on Wonkblog, we come down to this: something is broken and has to be fixed. If we admit that the GOP is broken and can't be repaired, then the system can't survive and we have to pack it in for a more European-style setup that simply admits to the existance of irreconcilable differences between or among parties, whatever the source of those differences. Or if we admit that the system can't be changed, then we have to find some way of restoring parties that meet and overlap in the middle, at least in function if not in ideology, as that is the only way for the Madisonian framework to operate in the longrun. If we can change neither the system nor the GOP -- well, I guess at that point, we are looking at a catastrophe, unless something is wrong with the premises of the discussion.

    1. Excellent comment from Anastasios. I've just been reading another book about the crisis leading to the Civil War (seemed timely, somehow), and yes, there were all kinds of shades and combinations of opinion then. But political systems are, among other things, systems for sorting and and dividing and pigeonholing all those subtle differences. I think that may be one of the things that Madison and company didn't fully understand, operating as they were in a political culture of "deference" (see Schudson, Ackerman, Keller, etc.) in which elites got together in Parliaments and Senates that were kind of like gentlemen's clubs -- well, in the older sense! -- and there could carry on at least somewhat more nuanced discussions. And even so, civil war threatened from almost the very beginning.

      I am normally the most optimistic member of my own political circle, especially when we're talking about the longer term. But even my optimism is being sorely tested at the moment.

  4. Add to the ideological/practical complications that ordinary people navigate, that when stories actually break down the opposition to ACA, about half of it is from people who think it doesn't go far enough towards single-payer.

    I grew up at a time--the late 50s, early 60s--when people ran for office to become elected officials of the government, and once in that job took it seriously--they compromised to make government work, which also meant if the other side passed something, they tried to help make it work, while representing their ideas of how to mitigate the harm for their constitutencies as they saw it.

    I literally learned a lot about government by watching (not very attentively but with some interest) a weekly TV discussion of current bills and laws by the two PA Senators, a Democrat (Joe Clark) and a Republican (Hugh Scott.) My point is that there's nothing structural preventing this from working.

    What split people the most then into rigid and emotionally fraught ideological groups was race, and so I tend to believe that's still behind much of this "polarization." (The thing is, it's not polarization--like the Dems at the North Pole of leftist ideology--they aren't even close--while the Rs are at the South Pole (which they are, and they keep moving it further south until it's practically off the planet.)

  5. Part of this story is simple self-interest, it seems to me. We don't like to talk about self-interest, at any level, because its so - gauche - but it is nevertheless important here.

    Simple illustration: bring three prototypical academics from an elite-ish coastal liberal arts university and three associates-degree holders from flyover country together to discuss the appropriate size of government. Topic: how big should the NSF be, beyond, say, whatever's obviously utilitarian?

    You know how that conversation is going to go. Next, those six will discuss the virtue of limited government beyond seeding small business opportunities in underserved regions. Exactly the opposite conversation. Finally, the six will discuss the value of a marginal dollar directed to the NSF vs. directed to heartland, downhome family businesses. That could end in fisticuffs!

    When that dust settles, the rest is pretty much noise, it seems to me. Coastal elite liberals insist that the ACA is good for the interests of those flyover country rubes who are on the opposite side of every other conversation between the two. This is certainly the case! And its also certainly the case that the rubes won't get fooled again...

    Perhaps this is one of the scarier aspects of the democratization of information these past 20 years. Back in the day, elites would represent the interest of the silent masses, well 'represent', cutting deals that kept things running, and if either/any side was dissatisfied, there was nowhere to vent.

    Today - vent away. Not particularly stable, if otherwise cathartic, I guess.

  6. I would put the matter as follows: today's GOP is very ideologically cohesive in theory but not in practice, and there's probably a larger divide between those two levels now than there's ever been.

    Of course ideological incoherence in political parties is nothing new, and if anything, both Democrats and Republicans are more cohesive parties than they were 50 years ago. What's striking about the GOP is how strongly they retain an image of themselves as being driven by a single ideology, while in reality holding together a set of factions with wildly conflicting agendas.

    This touches upon Yglesias' theory from a few days ago that current Republican dysfunction stems (at least in part) from the end of the Cold War. During the Cold War, ardent anticommunism was the main thread holding together neocons, libertarians, and social conservatives. Once it ended, the reason for these groups to remain allies of each other became increasingly muddy. One early sign of this conflict was the dissent of Pat Buchanan (a hawk during the Vietnam Era) from the Gulf War in 1991.

    Another factor exposing this incoherence is the decline of cultural "wedge" issues like gay rights and flag burning as an attempt to attract certain voters who might otherwise find little appealing about the GOP's economic positions.

    I do, also, think that white racial resentment plays a role, particularly in the "keep government off my Medicare" phenomenon. For a lot of older, white voters, "big government" is simply a code word for the "gifts" that are being "handed out" to those undeserving "others."

    Nowadays, Republican apologists have to resort to cute metaphors like "the three legs of the conservative stool" to paper over the fact that there's no intrinsic logical reason why the different factions must be unified. One way or another, it is essential to Republican myth-making--perpetuated daily on Fox News, talk radio, and the right-wing blogs--that today's right constitutes a single ideology stretching from Goldwater to Reagan to Limbaugh, and which all "true" Republicans follow. No conservative Will Rogers is going to appear and declare proudly that "I belong to no organized party, I'm a Republican." Ideological unity is absolutely critical to the self-image of today's GOP, at the same time as actual ideological rifts within the party grow more visible than they've been in a long time.

    1. This also explains why the war on terror, 2001-2006 or 2008 or so, helped to make the Republican cross-factional contraption work well for a period: mapping anti-communism fervor onto Islamism and onto the Democrats as weak on defense (not sufficiently militarist and apocalyptic).

    2. And it also explains the amazingly content-free video ads that the Romney campaign put out last year: lots of people quoting the Pledge of Allegiance, misting up over the flag and listening to Romney extol "the greatness of America," but basically nothing about any policy goal whatsoever. They were like arguments with a Cold War counterparty that's no longer there arguing back.

  7. This is also priceless from the NYT piece:

    Peggy Newsome, 73, who was picking up bags of groceries at the Paulding County Helping Hands food bank, said, “Everything he’s (Obama's) put his hands on, he’s screwed up.”

    Given the two facts we know about Ms. Newsome (her age, and where she was interviewed), its fascinating to speculate where exactly Obama went wrong. Or maybe it isn't. Maybe all you need to know is that she's a pretty typical resident of a congressional district that is 85% white and 17% college educated.

    Which, in the final analysis, may be the ultimate flaw in Obamacare. You libs (whatever that means) have struggled mightily to identify the massive irritant in that legislation, what makes Joe and Jane Sixpack so upset? Now you know.

    It was neither born in, nor drafted for, Paulding County Georgia. Any other explanation from those Acela corridor limousine liberals, they surely must be a-fibbin'.


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