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Let’s try to understand our own contradictions (what P. J. O’Rourke gets but Michael Lind doesn’t)

One way to understand the limitations of our own political attitudes is to recognize that other people think differently. Not just oppositely, but differently. To put it algebraically, suppose you believe A, B, C, D, E. OK, you won’t be surprised to hear that some people believe not-A, not-B, not-C, not-D, not-E. These are the enemy. But there are also lots of people out there who hold strongly to A, B, not-C, not-D, E. What do you think about them? Are they part-evil? What about those misguided souls who hold forth with not-A, not-B, not-C, D, E? And so forth. A recognition of the diversity of opinions—not just left/right and not just on a two-dimensional scale either—might be a useful step in putting your own views into perspective.

To put it another way, if your views are contradictory, you’d like to know this and either adjust your attitudes or at least understand your contradictions in a larger framework. You might be a public-schools-supporting liberal who sends your kids to a private school, or a war hawk who has never served in the military, or whatever. The point is not that your views must all be coherent but that it’s gotta be a good thing to think about the implications of your different stances.

The other side of this, though, is to recognize that any inherent logic you see in your position might not be as clear as you might think. And that’s where it can be helpful to recall the diversity of issue attitudes.

Political pundit Michael Lind wrote a column awhile ago that unintentionally (I believe) reveals this problem: whatever positions you happen to hold seem to go together so well, that it’s easy to forget that other people have completely different combinations of attitudes.

Lind writes:

America needs to have a neomodernist party to oppose the reigning primitivists of the right, left and center. Let everyone who opposes abortion, wants to ban GM foods and nuclear energy, hates cars and trucks and planes and loves trains and trolleys, seeks to ban suburbia, despises consumerism, and/or thinks Darwin was a fraud join the Regressive Party. Those of us who believe that the real, if exaggerated, dangers of technology, big government, big business and big labor are outweighed by their benefits can join the Modernist Party.

The trouble is that the number of “modernists” who hold Lind’s particular combination of views of abortion, genetically modified foods, cars, trucks, etc etc., is a very small fraction of the population. As is the number of “primitivists” on the other side. The modern/primitive division which seems so clear to Lind—one might call it the agree-with-Lind/disagree-with-Lind division—falls apart when you try to put it in anybody else’s head!

To get a sense of where Lind is coming from, I tried to look his attitudes carefully and see what they might imply for policy.

Let’s try a few major issues:

– The economy, jobs, trade, etc. Lind supports “technology, big government, big business, and big labor.” I think that implies he supports the bank and auto bailouts, but where does it take him next? I’m guessing he’d like a big stimulus plan of the spending, not tax-cut, variety.

– Health care: privatize (the conservative view) or Medicare-for-all (the liberal view). What’s the Lind position? Hmm. The health-related items on his agenda are that he supports abortion and genetically modified foods and he opposes farmer’s markets. He also supports “technology, big government, big business, and big labor.” I don’t know where that puts his Modernist party on health care.

– Government spending. It seems clear that Lind would increase government spending. In addition to his support of big government noted above, he’s dismissive of the idea of a balanced budget. Based on other items in his manifesto, it looks like he’d like to spend this unbalanced budget on subsidies for highways, air travel, and nuclear power.

– Energy and environment: On one hand, Lind’s commitment to science suggests an active energy policy and aggressive action on climate change; on the other, with his support for “cars, trucks and planes,” and his opposition to energy conservation, I don’t see where he’s going.

– Afghanistan and Iraq: Lind supports “a secular, technological, prosperous, and relatively egalitarian civilization, after a half-century detour into a Dark Age,” which makes him sound like a neoconservative. That’s ok, I guess it fits into his don’t-worry-about-the-budget mentality.

Put this all together, and what do you get? It looks to me like the platform of the big-government “Scoop Jackson Democrats” of the 1970s, with an extra pro-pollution twist to bring it to the 21st century. And I can see why Lind is so downbeat about American politics, given what happened to the Scoop Jackson Democrats, the last of whom not long ago announced his forthcoming retirement from the Senate.

Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong about being a Scoop Jackson Democrat, but what interests me about Lind’s piece is that it seems so natural to him. And of course it does. Our own positions feel like the expressions of a nicely coherent worldview, which naturally leads to the silly assumption that our opponents have oppositely coherent worldviews.

P.J. said it best

At a surface level, Lind’s article is full of the sorts of unjustified assertions that we expect in modern punditry, the sorts of arguments that work fine in a five-paragraph high school essay but don’t look so good when they are out on the web for thousands to view.

For example:

In the 1970s, Green guru Amory Lovins promulgated the gospel that “hard” sources of energy like nuclear power are bad and that called for a “soft path” based on hydropower, wind and solar energy.

I think this means that Lind supports subsidies for nuclear power but not for hydropower, wind and solar energy? Why? Lind gives no reasons, but I think P. J. O’Rourke put it best in his Republican Party Reptile credo:

I think our agenda is clear. We are opposed to: government spending, Kennedy kids, seat-belt laws, being a pussy about nuclear power [italics added], busing our children anywhere other than Yale, trailer courts near our vacation homes, Gary Hart, all tiny Third World countries that don’t have banking secrecy laws, aerobics, the U.N., taxation without tax loopholes, and jewelry on men. We are in favor of: guns, drugs, fast cars, free love (if our wives don’t find out), a sound dollar, cleaner environment (poor people should cut it out with the graffiti), a strong military with spiffy uniforms, Nastassia Kinski, Star Wars (and anything else that scares the Russkis), and a firm stand on the Middle East (raze buildings, burn crops, plow the earth with salt, and sell the population into bondage).

P. J. is funnier and, I believe, more honest, in that he presents the emotional content of his argument right out front rather than trying to subtly denigrate his opponents using words like “guru” and “gospel.”

And, speaking of “gospel,” Lind then writes:

First a Democratic president, Jimmy Carter, then a Republican, George W. Bush, sought votes by claiming he had been “born again” with the help of Jesus, something that no president before the 1970s would have claimed.

Wait a second! Close to 100 million Americans are evangelicals. Is Lind saying that born-again Christians should not have a chance to be president, or maybe that it’s ok for them to be president, as long as they don’t talk about their religion? Life was simpler in the old days when those Bible-thumpers stayed quietly in their place, huh?

Why do I bother?

The reason I’m commenting on Lind’s remarks (which get read by people on the left and the right, perhaps evidence that Lind indeed goes beyond the usual bounds of partisanship) is that, as noted above, I think he is revealing a fundamental aspect of political polarization, and that is the assumption that many people seem to have that their particular constellation of issue attitudes represents a coherent ideology. Or, as an anti-ideologues might say, that their particular constellation of attitudes represents an utterly reasonable pragmatism.

In any case, there is a stunning lack of recognition that, actually, political attitudes are mix and match. The correlation between just about any attitude and any other attitude will be much closer to 0 than to 1; see my article with Baldassarri.

Recall this example:

On page 16 [in The Black Swan], Taleb asks “why those who favor allowing the elimination of a fetus in the mother’s womb also oppose capital punishment” and “why those who accept abortion are supposed to be favorable to high taxation but against a strong military,” etc. First off, let me chide Taleb for deterministic thinking. From the General Social Survey cumulative file, here’s the crosstab of the responses to “Abortion if woman wants for any reason” and “Favor or oppose death penalty for murder”:

40% supported abortion for any reason. Of these, 76% supported the death penalty.

60% did not support abortion under all conditions. Of these, 74% supported the death penalty.

This was the cumulative file, and I’m sure things have changed in recent years, and maybe I even made some mistake in the tabulation, but, in any case, the relation between views on these two issues is far from deterministic!

For Lind to lump together his favorite attitudes and call them “modern”—ignoring, for example, his support for science and his unconcern about the environment, or his opposition to “nostalgia” and his nostalgic view of an American national politics without born-again Christians—that’s just silly. But it’s understandable. I think we all do this to some extent, but maybe repeatedly hitting people over the head with survey data will make them realize (a) the extreme flexibility of political ideology, and (b) the foolishness of thinking that issues are all tied together in this way. That is, I’m making a public opinion argument (people don’t actually divide into two clean groups the way Lind seems to think) and a policy argument (no, Lind’s issue clusters aren’t particularly coherent). And it’s not just about Lind, it’s the more general attitude people seem to have, that their oddball collections of preferences go together in some special way.


  1. I think that the correlations are stronger as political involvement increases. GSS respondents don’t have to develop an ideology. Senators do.

  2. Bob says:

    You wrote: Political pundit Michael Lind recently wrote a column that unintentionally (I believe) reveals this problem (emphasis added)

    The link takes me to a January, 2011 column. I know there’s a lag between when you prepare your blog items and when they appear. But, six years?


  3. Thomas B says:

    George Lakoff’s book, Don’t Think of an Elephant, contains the single best explanation out there of how cognitive frameworks, assumptions and anchoring influence beliefs and define attitudes. He uses the assumptions underlying the Republican and Democratic party frameworks as a template for the discussion.

  4. Yes, these are important points. In his Introduction to the Philosophy of Education (New York: American Book Company, 1935), the education philosopher Michael John Demiashkevich wrote:

    “First, the school should put the student on guard against the old sophistic logic which more often than not is applied, whether consciously or not, by propagandists, especially when they are promoting their own interests by the method of the witchery of words. This sophistic logic is at the basis of wholesale assertions which would omit all gradations, distinctions, and nuances found in the reality of life. The sophistic logic consists in reasoning to the effect that A is either B or non-B. In reality things are not so simple, and A can be both B and non-B at one and the same time; in some of its aspects A can be B and in some other aspects non-B.”

  5. Padang Itik says:

    Great post. Jonah Goldberg’s book The Tyranny of Cliches covers this idea in great detail from the perspective of the political right. We all have some assumptions or “ideology,” the book says, whether or not we acknowledge them or are even aware of them. The best thing to do is to know what these assumptions are, acknowledge them, and think deeply about them, and of course understand that some people won’t share them. Lots of people enter political discussions thinking that they are on the side of right against wrong, while really they are only on the side of one set of unfalsifiable assumptions about the world against another. Maybe there would be less rancor and naked contempt in politics if we all understood this.

    • I more or less agree with the sentiment here but the idea that I am to learn this from Jonah Goldberg is a little hard to wrap my mind around. If Liberal Fascism was supposed to display this kind of awareness and to contribute to lessening the rancor of politics then I’m afraid it missed the mark.

  6. anon says:

    This reminds me of how journalists (and even researchers) usually describe the typical member of some group by chaining together mean/median/mode of a list of characteristics.

    Eg what a Trump voter looks like:
    white, male, age X, no college degree, blue collar, authoritarian, etc.

  7. chrisare says:

    A missed opportunity for Whitman!

    Do I contradict myself?
    Very well then I contradict myself,
    (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

  8. Ben Prytherch says:

    This reminds somewhat of Arnold Kling’s “The three languages of politics” short book / long essay – the basic premise is that there are coherent ways that people who ascribe to reasonably well defined ideologies come to consistent positions on policy issues, it’s just that different sorts of people use different spectra, and these spectra often appear orthogonal. So Lind has his regressive / modernist spectrum. Progressives like oppressor / oppressed. Conservatives like civilzation / barbarism. Libertarians like freedom / coercion. The spectra themselves are pretty straightforward, but you get to different baskets of conclusions based on which one you think is most important (e.g. libertarians and progressives both oppose the drug war, but on different grounds, and these different grounds lead them to opposite conclusions regarding social welfare programs).

    This does make things sound too deterministic if you interpret it strictly, but if you figure that different people place different weights on each spectrum (e.g. my primary concern is protecting civilization from barbarism, but after that I’m also concerned about the plight of the oppressed), then it makes pretty good sense.

  9. Here’s a good quote from How We Reason by Philip Johnson-Laird (Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 329:

    “Reasoning [over a dilemma described earlier in the paragraph–DS] has led us to two incompatible conclusions. We all experience these conflicts, and authors from Plato to the creators of Tom and Jerry cartoons have depicted our struggles with them. If a valid system of reasoning starts from consistent premises, conflicts are impossible. To suppose that we are incapable of valid reasoning would be to posit chaos in our minds. Conflicts about what we ought to do therefore occur because our starting point is not a single consistent set of deontic beliefs, but rather, as in the case of causation, various incoherent intuitions and beliefs.”

  10. Jonathan says:

    I also divide into rough categories of symbolic and different paths and that which may not be reconciled. Symbolic includes examples of like the pipeline to connect to Canadian oil sands: people admit on both sides that it makes little difference, either to the environment or to employment, etc. so it’s purpose is to fight over symbolic meanings in a way each side hopes motivates and mobilizes support for them in a more general sense. Different approaches would include the concept of a “wall” with Mexico – which every GOP candidate promised: it’s difficult for people on one side to accept the other side cares about more than the superficial layer unless you listen to each side carefully and then you realize both want what’s best for people but they disagree about how to do that. You can focus on what’s best for this particular group – as in Dreamers or some other subset – or you can focus on the best way to improve the conditions that create these groups. To follow that through, these other countries pursue policies that drive their own people out so you can either worry about the displaced or worry about how to end the displacement, which would mean improving their lot in their own countries. Since your leverage over other countries is limited, maybe your lever is to prevent them from essentially exporting their people. Mexico for example has pursued policies which drove people out of agricultural areas, with the porous US border as an enticement to leave – and with their earnings sent back becoming so important to Mexico that they had a disincentive to change policy. I’m not stating agreement with either position, btw, just making the point that you can view things along very different paths that both extend to trying to improve lives over time. Is that only a right wing thing? Of course not. I yesterday read a liberal economist – Brad DeLong, btw – defend Nafta by calculating how few job losses there were and yet today I read a different analysis which noted that the benefits were equally small using the same methodology but the pain of displacement – by DeLong’s calculation, somewhere around 110,000 jobs – was concentrated in specific communities and industries. So we have two issues and on one the right takes a larger scale approach in which the individuals matter less than forcing change to overall trends and on the other the left a larger scale approach in which … And they can’t see it at all.

    • Jonathan says:

      I forgot the irreconcilable: religious issues like abortion (and now, for some reason, contraception again) are clashes of versions of fundamental rights that can’t fit together. Even if one proves that fetuses have no souls and don’t go to “limbo” being unbaptized but frolic in heaven as angels, then others will fundamentally object that they would become individuals with souls, which is like contraception again, which gets at the intersection of potential and God’s will. This occurs in many circumstances: the right against self-incrimination can be defined more and more exactly but it can’t go away. As in, you can compel fingerprints and maybe now DNA but you can’t make a person take the stand because you just can’t if that is the Constitution, meaning if that is the set of rights we treat similar to religious rights.

  11. Terry says:

    The article with Baldassarri is a bit of a revelation. I had been told that a single dimension, i.e., liberal v. conservative, was sufficient to describe most people’s political opinions.

    This raises a further question. Does this low correlation across opinions extend to voting? If people are a mish-mosh of opinions, does that imply people should regularly flip their votes between the parties depending on which issues are salient at the moment? But a lot of people identify with one party all their lives. Why?

  12. Harald Korneliussen says:

    > I had been told that a single dimension, i.e., liberal v. conservative, was sufficient to describe most people’s political opinions.

    As I recall, more dimensions don’t help in explaining variation – but that doesn’t mean the first dimension does a particularly good job either.

    But that’s just from memory, reading about people who handed out surveys and did PCA on the results, like Chris Lightfoot did. (Chris Lightfoot’s goal was just to create a less arbitrary version of the Political Compass, but some “real” political science academics have done similar things.)

  13. J Mann says:

    I’ll go a step further on unbundling ideas. I think the difference between Gelman and Lind in this case is epistemological humility vs confidence.

    The “modernist” view Lind describes in the except seems to be essentially the pro-science, pro-empiricism viewpoint that gives rise to everything from 20th century eugenic progressivism to “human biodiversity” to Scott Alexander’s “grey tribe” cluster of views – the idea that if we’re just smart enough and collect enough observations, we can identify correct policies.

    There’s nothing wrong with that viewpoint. Where Lind differs from Alexander is that he seems highly confident that if someone applied intelligence and observation correctly, they would come to basically the same result.

    As a proponent of epistemological humility myself, I have to concede the possibility that Lind is right and I’m wrong, but it seems unlikely.

  14. Dave C. says:

    There is the concept of the “seamless garment” for consistently taking moral/political [pro-life] positions. But, of course, this is still not easy to do in practice.

  15. Matt Skaggs says:

    There is a construct that elucidates the liberal vs. conservative divide. Political views embody a strategy of self interest. When von Neumann came up with Game Theory, he could only conceive of two basic strategies, cooperation and defection. Cooperators inherently believe that the best solutions are those that create a rising tide that lifts all boats. Defectors believe in the sovereignty of the individual, along the lines of “I deserve what I can get.” This pretty much aligns to the party platforms of the Democrats and the Republicans in the US.

    Most, but not all, of the issues break down this way. If you see a person in a Chevy Volt, that person most likely votes as a Democrat. If you see an oversize pick-up, that person probably votes Republican, and will tell you that they like a big vehicle because they are safer. How are they safer? Because they will crush the Volt in a collision due to the difference in mass. That is a classic “defector” approach.

    Now if you really want to confuse yourself, try to tease out abortion and the death penalty this way. Good luck. The problem here is that people’s views on these issues are not in any way related to self interest. No one thinks about the death penalty in terms of their own life unless they are on death row. The abortion divide is not really about babies (do you really believe that people can be compassionate for fetuses but if the baby is born sick to a poor mother with no health insurance, should just die?). Nope, the abortion divide is about promiscuity and social status, full stop.

    There are few people who never cooperate, or never defect. So the world looks a lot messier than it really is.

  16. […] this center different (in my perception) from the larger trend. I remembered Andrew Gelman’s recent post on the importance of understanding our own contradictions and […]

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