Republican conservatism (rewritten)

In the light of comments, mostly at Crooked Timber, I’ve rewritten this completely, trying to be as clear as possible about how I read Mooney and what I think myself.

Chris Mooney has a great talent for knowing just when to push the envelope. Back in 2005, when CT held a book event on The Republican War on Science, the idea that Republicans as a group were hostile to science and scientists was somewhere between controversial and unthinkable, as far as mainstream Sensible opinion was concerned. Now, it’s a truth universally recognised – even the professional Repub defense team doesn’t deny it, preferring the (demonstrably false) line that Dems are just as bad.

Now, with The Republican Brain Chris pushes the argument a step further with the question: why are Republicans  the way they are, and what, if anything, can be done about if? 

Before we start, I’ll observe that the set of “conservative Republicans” has changed over time, as have the specific set of policies associated with these terms and the general temperament that goes with this. On the first point, we’ve seen the disappearance of Eisenhower Republicans, the Southern realignment and the rise of the religious right, all of which have increased the concentration of dogmatic authoritarians in the Repub party. On the second, the emergence of environmentalism as a major political line of division is probably the most important development. The fact that Republicans/conservative are increasingly anti-science reflects both of these trends.

It’s also important to observe that Republican/conservative alignment can’t be explained simply in terms of class, geography and education though all these factors play a role. With a few exceptions (notably including blacks and scientists) a substantial portion of nearly every demographic group votes Republican and self-describes as conservative. So, explanations solely based on (for example) class interests, can’t explain voting behavior without a lot of (self?)deception, and that raises the question of why some people are more easily deceived.

Some people may regard themselves as Republican/conservative simply because they have adopted, without thinking too much about it, the political positions that are regarded as normal by their family, social circle and so on. Lots of people simply aren’t interested enough in either politics or science to devote a lot of thought to these issues. Typically, such people will hold a range of views that aren’t particularly consistent either internally or with any standard ideological line.

An obvious inference is that, if people could be given better information they would change their views. But, as Mooney shows, and has become steadily more evident thanks to the Internet, better educated and informed Republicans are more likely to hold crazy views consistently and less likely to change them in response to new information.

That leads to Mooney’s primary conclusion, that Republicans/conservatives don’t simply have different beliefs from liberals/Democrats (or, for that matter, leftists), or even different values. They have (bear in mind that this a statement about population averages) different psychological characteristics, summarised as high authoritarianism and low openness to ideas different from their own.

I find this pretty convincing. It seems to me that there is an authoritarian type of personality which, in the specific circumstances of the US right now, and for non-poor whites, produces a predisposition to Republican voting and “conservative” political attitudes. In particular this type of personality is (more) strongly associated with confirmation bias. That is, not only do they ignore evidence contrary to their initial position, they tend to reinforce their commitment as a result. The creation of an alternate universe in which this bias can be repeatedly amplified (Fox News, rightwing think tanks and so on) both reinforces this kind of thinking and encourages self-selection.

I don’t think there is the symmetry here that some of the commenters are suggesting. Looking at the standard examples of nuclear power and GM foods, it seems to me that, on the whole people on the left have been more open to evidence than in the corresponding cases on the right. In the case of nuclear power, it seemed for a while (say, from the mid-90s until a few years ago) as if the safety problems might be soluble at a reasonable cost in which case an expansion of nuclear power would be preferable to more coal-fired power stations. While the evidence pointed that way, opposition to nuclear power was muted. As it turned out, the problems couldn’t be solved, at least not at a reasonable cost, and Fukushima was the last straw.

In the case of GM foods, the evidence has mostly supported the position that the use of GM technology per se doesn’t create significant health risks, and AFAICT that has been fairly widely accepted on the left (Greenpeace is a notable exception, but I don’t think their position is representative of the left as a whole). That doesn’t rule out opposition to GM on ethical or aesthetic grounds, or opposition to the whole structure of the food industry – the whole point is that you can have preferences and beliefs without assuming that the facts will always be those most convenient to you.

Similar points may be made about “alternative” medicine, particularly opposition to vaccination. It’s primarily, though not exclusively (consider Michelle Bachmann), associated with liberals and leftists in the same way as creationism is primarily, though not exclusively, associated with evangelical conservatives. But, faced with scientific criticism, there hasn’t been anything like the political pushback and doubling down we’ve seen with creationism. The Huffington Post, which was a big outlet for anti-vaxers has started publishing one of their most vigorous critics, Seth Mnookin.

This brings us finally to the question that set off all the fireworks in the original post. To what extent are authoritarian personalities the product of environment, genes or some combination of the two. Again, it’s worth pointing out that, even if there is a genetic role in personality, there’s no such thing as a genetic predisposition to be a conservative/Republican. The content of these terms isn’t fixed, and the implications are very different depending on social circumstances. To take the most obvious case from comments: Republican policies and rhetoric appeal strongly to (US) white tribal/ethnic loyalty. So, US whites who respond well to in-group appeals are likely to vote Republican and call themselves conservatives. US blacks with similar predispositions obviously won’t vote Republican and are unlikely to call themselves conservatives.

To take another example from Mooney’s book, authoritarian attitudes in the US are typically associated with support for free-market/pro-business economic policies and virulent hostility to “socialism”. By contrast, in the former Soviet Bloc, the same attitudes are associated with support for the old order and positive feelings about “socialism” (I’m using the scare quotes to indicate that, in both cases, the term is something of a blank canvas, onto which all sorts of things can be projected). And indeed, in this context, the term “conservative” is commonly applied to hardline members of the surviving Communist parties.

Following up on a comment, this way of looking at things has a lot of similarities with Corey Robin, and The Reactionary Mind. The difference between Robin’s choice of Mind and Mooney’s choice of Brain is significant. As I argued when I looked at his book, I think Robin doesn’t take enough account of personality/temperament. While most soi-disant “conservatives” are authoritarian reactionaries, there is a genuinely conservative temperament which will tend to align with political conservatism in periods when the general tendency of politics is towards the left.

So, does the genetic part of the story matter. As (I think) Andrew Gelman has observed, in this context and many others, it’s just code for things we can’t change. As long as authoritarian personalities are stable over the adult lifetime of those concerned, it doesn’t matter much whether they are determined by genes, by toilet training (as in the caricature version of Freudian psychology I learned in my youth) or by some much more complex process. That said, I think the evidence that heredity (and therefore genes) plays at least some role in the determination of personality is pretty convincing.

The political implication, which has drawn some flak in the comments, but which I think is correct is that there is no point in political engagement with authoritarian conservatives. In a political environment where they are concentrated in one party,politics is going to be a matter the only strategy open to liberals is to outnumber and outvote them by peeling off as many peripheral groups (for example, those who deviate from the approved cultural identity in some way) as possible. Obviously, that’s an unpalatable conclusion in all sorts of ways, but I think it’s a valid one.

Austerity and academia

Austerity is hitting lots of people, across pretty much all social classes, except for the top 1 per cent, who are rapidly recouping their losses in the GFC and will soon be pulling even further away from the 99. Just at the moment, academics seem to be in the crosshairs, from Washington to Sydney and beyond. Here’s a post on the subject from my friend and former colleague Rohan Pitchford. To forestall a possible line of criticism, let me observe now that, while academics have it better than plenty of others under attack from austerity policies, anyone who plays on this kind of division is a tool of the 1 per cent, and will be treated as such by me.

Sackings Hit Economics School Hard (Guest post from Rohan Pitchford)

I was surprised and dismayed to hear that that several of my former colleagues at the School of Economics at the University of Sydney have been told to leave their jobs by July. A remarkable aspect is that the sackings happened by edict, several layers of administration above the School level. How is it possible for such a removed group to know the details of people’s work life, their roles and the reasons behind their roles without any form of consultation? (ANU also faces budget cuts, but is taking the enlightened bottom-up approach.)

I know all of those concerned personally, and the group includes both talented researchers, teachers and administrators. They were apparently selected using retrospective publication criteria. We all know that most people experience a ‘bare patch’ in their publications during the life course, whether it be because of a new child, a death in the family, illness (admin duties!) etc. Knowing the people involved, the criteria seem to me unfair and random.

Perhaps the most astounding fact in all of this is that Sydney Economics has been perennially understaffed– as a Professor there, I estimated that they were some 10 academics short of what is required to deliver requisite courses: The average class size is 110, I conjecture larger than any other department. There are not enough staff to cover all the classes taught, let alone to reduce class sizes to educationally appropriate levels. Sydney typically has had to hire part-timers to fill the gap. The department generates some 20 million dollars per year in revenue from its teaching program. I cannot imagine that this will do anything but hurt this important revenue base.

A big question is this: Are the sackings due to productivity, or are they in response to an administration that has grossly over-spent on buildings? I have heard rumours of expenditure of 100m on a new medical centre, and 360m on a new obesity centre preceded these sackings.

Solutions? I discuss a possible way forward for Australia here:

Perils of prediction

The observation “Prediction is risky, especially about the future”, attributed to US baseball legend Yogi Berra, is true for more reasons than one. The obvious risk is that events may prove you wrong. But there’s a also the risk that your prediction may be misrepresented, a risk that’s particularly severe when you have enemies like the Murdoch Press. I courted this risk by being too cute with my prediction after the 2007 election, which began

The Liberal Party will never again win a federal election.

I followed up immediately with

This isn’t a prediction of unending Labor rule, rather an observation that the Liberal and National parties are in such dire straits that they can’t continue as they are. They haven’t got enough support, parliamentary representation or ideas for one party, let alone two.

The obvious option is a merger

but the damage was done.

The first sentence has been quoted by various rightwing bloggers, and most recently in the Daily Telegraph[1], as a suggestion that the conservatives would never get back in.

So, contrary to the claims of the Tele, the fact that the merged Liberal Nationals won in Queensland is a confirmation the prediction in the post. The post also predicted the defeat of the NSW Labor government in 2011, but I thought it unlikely, unless “things go badly wrong for Rudd or for one of the state governments” that the conservatives would win before then.

In fact, of course things have gone very badly for Rudd, and Labor has made catastrophic mistakes at every level. Nevertheless the prediction wasn’t far off the mark with Labor winning five state and territory elections and (by the narrowest of margins) one federal election, and losing two over the relevant period.

At the federal level, the idea of a merger seems to have died, though the current situation is absurd . The National Party leaders in both the House and Senate are members of the merged LNP in Queensland. Still, it seems likely that this misshapen coalition will win the next Federal election. If that happens, I will gracefully admit that my prediction was wrong. But until then, to use another US sporting catchphrase, “It ain’t over till the fat lady sings”.

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In touch with the Zeitgeist?

At around 35k into the cycle leg of today’s Mooloolaba triathlon, with a strong headwind[1] and the seat feeling very hard, I was wondering “why am I doing this”. At the time, the question was more like “why did I get out of bed this morning”, but there’s also a question as to why a middle-aged academic like myself is doing something like this at all.

My own causal account is pretty simple. I gave up my old sport, karate, for a variety of reasons, then started “boot camp” style training (minus silly uniforms and other pseudo-military stuff). to keep fit. As a consequence, I found that, whereas the distance I could comfortably run had been measured in 100s of metres, it was now measured in kilometers. But I still wasn’t particularly fast and my reasoning (captured by a T-shirt I saw today) was, “why suck at one sport when you can suck at three”. And indeed, so it has turned out, but I still enjoy it and keep trying.

So, that’s the purposive agent account. But (while I was not consciously aware of this at the time) triathlons are booming and not just in Australia. So, it seems, there is some general zeitgeist which I (and thousands of others) have somehow been driven by. This is not a unique occurrence

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Labor in denial

So, I just went and voted (Green) in Indooropilly, a seat held by Labor until the last Parliament[1]. In the entire campaign, I’ve seen no sign of activity on the part of the Labor candidate (a commenter tells me he’s a law student). This continued at the polling booth, where there was no-one handing out Labor how-to-votes, the first time I’ve ever experienced this. I’ve heard from other sources that the party machine has been desperately trying, and failing, to round up volunteers.

This is a disaster worse in many ways than the wipe-outs of the 1970s when at least the party faithful were, well, faithful. The Bligh government’s sellout on asset sales wiped about 10 percent of its support overnight and, except in the immediate aftermath of the floods, that hasn’t changed.

And yet, the ALP is still in denial about the whole thing. Wayne Swan is expressing his hope that Andrew Fraser, the main driver of the asset sales can be saved. And Bligh’s defenders are pushing the line that electors are finally responding to their desire to punish the government for the sins of the Beattie era. The idea that you lose votes by doing something that’s directly opposed to your platform, that you’ve promised not to do, and that voters hate, seems not to compute

I said in my last post that I wasn’t looking forward to two terms of Newman. But unless Labor wakes up to itself, they could be out for a lot longer than that.

fn1. The Labor member, Ronan Lee, defected to the Greens before the 2009 election, which was won by the Liberals.

Shedding no tears

Barring a miracle, the Queensland Labor government will suffer a defeat tomorrow, comparable in its severity to the Joh-era election of the 1970s, when the caucus was reduced to the size of a cricket team. The great majority of Labor MPs are likely to lose their seats. While I regret the fact that matters have come to this, and like and respect quite a few of those MPs (including, for that matter, Anna Bligh[1]), I will be shedding no tears over this outcome.

Minor update I found a report listing Paul Hoolihan, Jo-Ann Millar, Amanda Johnstone Dean Wells and Lindy Nelson-Carr as members of caucus who opposed the sales. I have met and been impressed by the last two, and I’m sorry that most of this group seem likely to be swept away along with the rest.
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No Ordinary Deal

Max Weber once described politics as the slow boring of hard boards, and this is an apt description of the continuing efforts of the advocates of a globalised capitalism to grind down all the obstacles that might be posed by democratic government.

The dominance of global capital has been greatly enhanced by trade agreements such as those establishing the World Trade Organization. But, over time, the WTO has been less and less able to avoid public scrutiny and popular resistance. Moreover, it has an unfortunate tendency to stick to the rules even when US business doesn’t like the outcome. So, we’ve seen a steady shift to bilateral deals, in which the US can dictate the terms.

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Behind the Seams Fundraiser

Behind the Seams has been an innovative project blogging the issues around Coal Seam Gas and the Queensland election. I’ve contributed some text, but the real work has been done by Mark Bahnisch, Pandora Karavan and a few others. They’ve incurred some pretty substantial expenses travelling to areas where farmers are dealing with CSG and spending unpaid time. There’s a final chance to contribute to the costs of the project here.