Evidence and conventional wisdom

I’ve been looking over some posts from the bright dawn days of blogging in the early 2000s. One thing that struck me is that some ideas I put forward as unconventional but evidence based, are now fairly widely accepted. In view of the widespread, and justified, concern about a post-truth era, this seems encouraging, and worth investigating. A few examples

  • In this post on equality of opportunity from 2003, I noted that “contrary to popular belief, there is less mobility between income classes in the United States than in European social democracies.” I was drawing on a 1999 book, The Real Worlds of Welfare Capitalism by Goodin, Headey Muffels and Dirven, which I’d reviewed a couple of years previously. In 2009, when I started work on Zombie Economics, I wrote about this again. However, I soon realised I was pushing at an open door. The decline of social mobility in the US had become part of the conventional wisdom.
  • In 2004, some of the first studies of charter schools were coming out, showing that, contrary to the widely-shared expectations of education reformers, they weren’t showing any clear gains in student performance. I wrote about this fairly cautiously, noting that studies of this kind often fail to find any effect. As it turned out, however, the findings were replicated, particularly in the case of for-profit schools. This piece in the Washington Post (which used to be associated in some way with the for-profit testing industry, IIRC) shows how much the tide has turned against charters, and even more against for-profits.
  • Here’s a post on minimum wages, drawing on the work of David Card and Alan Krueger (whose tragic death recently was a big loss to the economics profession). from the early 1990s. By then, the formerly orthodox view that minimum wages had big negative effects on employment was sufficiently out of favour to be revived in Slate (then famous, or notorious, for “contrarian” views that generally tended to support the establishment).
  • Finally, I wrote a couple of mildly snarky pieces about the “Reading Wars” between phonics and whole language. This was one of the relatively rare cases in which the emerging evidence supported the cultural right. It’s pretty hard nowadays to find unequivocal supporters of whole language.

Looking at these examples, there’s a gap of about 10 years between the time the evidence emerged (or at least, emerged prominently enough for me to take notice) and the time the conventional wisdom adjusted. That doesn’t seem too bad. As the great replication crisis has shown, it’s unwise to take too much notice of an individual study on any social science topic.

Unsurprisingly, most of the examples above are cases where the emerging evidence was consistent with my broad political principles (I was never engaged in the Reading Wars, though I mostly lined up against the phonics advocates on other issues). I’d say that’s because most of the evidence we’ve had in the past twenty-five years or so has gone against the beliefs of the political right, who have had to retreat from the triumphalism of the early 1990s. But it’s obviously possible that there is confirmation bias at work. I’d be interested to see suggested examples of evidence shifting the conventional wisdom to the right in this period.

Prematurely right about the global right

I pitched this article about the emergence of a global rightwing movement to the NY Times back in 2015, but the argument wasn’t obvious, and I let it slide. Now I wish I’d tried a little harder to place it.

The proposed nuclear agreement with Iran has seen the Republican party line up with Israeli prime minister Netanhayu to denounce the deal negotiated by the Obama Administration. In itself, this is unsurprising. Bipartisanship in foreign policy, epitomized by the phrase ‘politics stops at the water’s edge’ has been on the wane for years, and is now virtually dead. The GOP celebrated Netanyahu’s recent election victory as a win over the Obama Administration, while the Administration made it clear they would have welcomed the opposite outcome just as warmly.

The alignment between the Republican Party in the US and Netanhayu’s Likud in Israel is an instance of something more significant: a globalization of partisan politics in which political alliances transcend national boundaries. Throughout the English-speaking world, and increasingly beyond it, politics is realigning along the fault line of the US partisan divide.
Until recently, in most Western countries, attitudes to the United States reflected political positions inherited from the Cold War. Conservative parties were strongly supportive of the US government and the US alliance, regardless of whether Republicans or Democrats held office. Those on the radical left were equally strongly opposed to the United States and all its actions, and were indifferent to the nuances of US domestic politics. Centre-left parties contained a wide range of views, and sought to thread a middle path: pro-American but seeking a greater degree of independence.

This position had changed radically by 2007, when conservative Australian Prime Minister John Howard stated that Al Qaeda would welcome an election victory for the Democrats, and for Barack Obama in particular, a remark exploited by the Bush White House. Howard’s conservative successor Tony Abbott followed suit, describing the Obama Administration as ‘the most left-of-center government in at least half a century’ in an interview with the Wall Street Journal.

A similar alignment has emerged between the GOP Conservative Harper government in Canada. The most notable example is the fight over the Keystone XL pipeline, which has become a signature issue both for Harper and for Congressional Republicans.

In the UK, Prime Minister Cameron has maintained the traditional position of a ‘special relationship’ with the US, regardless of partisan alignments. However, the Eurosceptic right, represented by the rapidly growing UK Independence Party and by dissident Tories like former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Nigel Lawson, has formed an alliance with the conservative wing of the GOP. Farage’s attacks on Obama earned him an invitation to the 2015 CPAC conference; the invitation of a foreign politician to such a domestic event is notable in itself.

These attacks on Obama by conservative political leaders are mild compared to those to be found in the conservative media in almost all English-speaking countries. A typical example is a 2010 article by the political editor of the UK Daily Telegraph, Alex Singleton, announcing the end of the ‘special relationship’ between Britain and the US. Singleton announced that since the American people ‘chose to elect an idiot who seems hell bent on insulting their allies’, he would henceforth boycott the United States. His remarks were widely circulated in US conservative circles.

On the left, the same pattern is found in reverse, most notably on the Internet and particularly on social media such as Twitter and YouTube. Reflecting their relatively young and educated audience, these media have a pronounced liberal lean.

In the 20th century era of mass media, the world paid attention to political developments in the United States, but the reverse was not true, except where the issues could be framed in terms of pro-US and anti-US forces. By contrast, the flow of political information in social media goes both ways, and is framed in terms of partisan alignments, with a left-liberal view predominating. For example, video clips of Australian politicians have regularly gone viral in the United States, in recent years. Centre-left politicians, such as former Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard are nearly always presented favorably, while conservatives like Tony Abbott are targets of derision.

Like other forms of globalization, the rise of global political partisanship is driven in part by technological developments such as the Internet and by the growth of international travel. Equally important, however, is the fact that debates about key political issues such as climate change and equal marriage largely transcend national boundaries. Even on issues of war and peace, traditionally the core business of international politics, the picture is similar. Alliances are now so fluid and temporary that the big divide is not between one side and another, as in the Cold War, but between believers and doubters regarding the use of military power.

For the moment, this globalised partisanship is confined to a politically active minority. Voters in general still think in local or national terms, and are unsympathetic or actively hostile to the idea that foreigners might influence their political choices. But just as with the emergence of polarisation on party lines over recent decades it is quite possible to imagine that this will change.

Voting is largely about choosing candidates who represent “people like me”. Increasingly, this is coming to mean people with similar views and lifestyles, wherever they may live, rather than fellow-citizens on the opposite side of the political and cultural divide. This may be seen from opinion polling showing a sharply rising proportion of political partisans who would be upset if a child married someone of the opposite persuasion. By contrast, only a small proportion of Americans would be upset if a family member married a foreigner.

It remains to be seen how the new era of globalized politics will develop. The partisan divide emerging over Netanyahu clearest instance so far, but it is unlikely to be the last.