Friday, August 31, 2012

Playing the Race Card

I have spoke at tedious length about identity, here. For those of you who don't want to slog through my prose again, let me review for you. 

  1. Humans reflexively identify themselves as members of groups. 
  2. Any collection of individuals can be the basis of an identity group, no matter how arbitrary or trivial the basis of membership in the group. This is known as The Minimal Group Paradigm.
  3. For every group with which an individual identifies, there is also an implied "out-group", of individuals who are not seen as members.
  4. Members of the group are always "preferred" to non-members by the individual. They are seen more positively than non-members in any given dimension. This is known as In-Group Bias.
  5. We all have multiple groups with which we identify. But generally, only one of these identities is salient at a time. The salient identity is determined by the social context we're in at any given moment.
And now, for something completely different...

The practice of democracy has as its ethical basis Utilitarianism. Democracy's advocates claim that it is the political arrangement that results in the greatest "good" for the greatest number of people. The assertion groans under the weight of all its unspoken assumptions but we will treat it as true for now. And in fact, I believe it to be true.

Democracy is supposed to let everyone protect and promote their personal interests. Everybody gets to say what they want the group to do. The group then does what most of its members wanted. And there you have it, the greatest good for the greatest number of members.

Now, about those assumptions...

let's start with "personal interests". What is in your interest? Shall I sit and tell you what YOUR interests are? How do I know? Wouldn't it be a bit authoritarian for me to tell you what those interests are? What if I get it wrong?

Roger Zelazny said it well. "When people start doing things for my own good, I reach for my gun." (Also, he had a black belt in judo.)

(Image from Wikipedia)

In a Democracy, people get to make their own call about what their interests are. They get to decide what public policies are going to advance those interests. People perceive those interests on the basis of the salient identity. People define their interests on the basis of the group with which they identify at the moment.

Another assumption...

democracy assumes rationality. It assumes that individuals are capable of discerning what their interests are. But humans AREN'T rational. We take cognitive shortcuts. We don't sit down and make a list of every public policy alternative, and calculate it's cost-benefit profile to us in the short, medium and long term. Unless we're professional actuaries.

Instead, we look to elites from the salient group to tell us what our interests are, and which public policies will advance them. There's more to it than that; in-group bias guarantees that you will think fellow members of the salient group are nicer, more honest people than non-members.

(Images from wikimedia commons)

This has profound (and somewhat subversive) implications for Democratic Theory, particularly Pluralism. Much more importantly, it has profound implications for the PRACTICE of democracy, in the United States, in 2012.

Elections are not won on the basis of good policy. They're not won on the basis of past policy performance or anticipated policy innovations. Elections, God help us, are not decided on the basis of policy outcomes.

That last point deserves some elaboration. It is more accurate to say that elections are not TYPICALLY decided on the basis of policy outcomes. The actual outcome of most public policies is usually obscure. It changes from year to year. And remember, people's identity is contextual; their own perception of their self-interest fluctuates with whatever identity they're wearing at the moment. Their belief about the effect of a public policy is equally unstable. (Incidentally, this is the basis of public opinion volatility)

The outcome/effectiveness/desirability of a particular public policy is usually defined by salient group elites. If we're discussing gun policy, a salient identity group is "gun-owners" and a salient group elite is the NRA. Which is why gun-fetishists think concealed-carry is a better public policy response to mass shootings than gun control.

(image from Wikipedia)

There are numerous bases for an identity group. Gender, race, religion, nationality, ethnicity, region, sports fandom, sexual preference, fashion, musical preference... any noun that can be applied to a person is a potential basis for identity, thanks to the Minimal Group Paradigm. In the context of a presidential election, typically salient identities are partisan and ideological.

Consequently, elections ARE won on the basis of identity politics. Most voters don't know what happened. Most voters have no idea what might happen if either party, or any particular candidate gets their way. What voters do know is which side they're on. Because their side is right, and good and serves the national interest, and the other side is wrong, and evil, and is only interested in gaining power for its own selfish ends.

And all of this is made manifest in the tactical decisions of both campaigns in the 2012 presidential election.

Partisanship is an increasingly salient identity for many voters. It's important for candidates to stoke that identity in those who hold it. This is why the in-boxes of so many of us are stuffed full right now, packed with dire warnings about the nefarious designs of the other party. (In the interests of full disclosure, let me acknowledge that I believe with all my heart that the Republicans harbor nefarious designs).

(image from

But there aren't enough partisans out there to get you to 51% of the electorate. You can expand your coalition a little bit more by activating ideological identity; there's lots of overlap with partisanship, but they're not congruent. But that still doesn't get you to 51%.

Religious identity is another marginal expansion of your vote count, at least in 2012. Appealing to the religious identity of conservative Christians has realigned American politics from '78 to the present day. But that very success has created sufficient overlap with political and ideological identity to have reached a point of diminishing returns. There just aren't that many extra votes to be had there, particularly for a Mormon candidate.

And remember, for every in-group, there's an out-group. The  incestuous little three-way between the GOP, Conservatives and the Religious Right has begun to make Women uncomfortable as their reproductive rights, legal protections and maternity benefits have all come under attack.

Hispanics are looking at the blatant appeals to ethnic identity disguised as conservative immigration policy and becoming Democratic voters. Homosexuals have had their sexual identity made salient to their politics around the issue of gay marriage.

There are fewer and fewer identities to be activated by the Republicans. This is indicative of a party in decline; the Republican Party just doesn't LOOK like America in the early 21st century. 

But, at least this year, there remains an identity which can be activated which might wring enough votes out to push them across that magical 51% threshold.

I'm talking about race, obviously.

And so we've seen the Romney campaign activate the race issue with a shamelessness that has taken the tame Beltway media by surprise. Willard Romney has intentionally trolled the NAACP, hoping for (and getting) footage of himself being booed. He has deliberately and with calculation made a Birther joke. He has refused to acknowledge the complete falsity of his claims regarding the welfare to work requirement, despite having been universally condemned even by the tame Beltway press.

If Romney can get you to think of yourself as "white", instead of as "middle-class", he knows that in-group bias will take over and you'll assume his sincerity and good intentions, while simultaneously becoming more suspicious of Barack Obama.

It is a despicable ploy, and manipulative, and one which undermines the public policy debate which would be at the center of a RATIONAL political process.

And, it might work.

Monday, August 27, 2012

"They're all the same": A Pathology of Citizenship

Politics is important to me. I think about it a lot. I follow it closely. And I'm absolutely tiresome on the subject; most of my friends are political junkies as well, and those that aren't are fortunately a tolerant bunch. But I'll talk politics with total strangers. It's all data, and even if the people I'm speaking with aren't well informed or very interested it sharpens my understanding of the current political climate.

(This and unlabeled images from Wikimedia Commons)

The opinion I hear most frequently is some variation of "All politicians are alike", or "There's no difference between the two parties". It's not intended as a compliment. Politicians as a class are regarded with cynicism and contempt by the people they represent. They're regarded as corrupt, as lazy, as completely self-interested and utterly removed from the concerns and needs of their constituencies. The polling data on this is unambiguous.

But this nearly ubiquitous insistence that both parties are equally contemptible is held by different people for different reasons. People may fail to differentiate between the parties because they're simply disinterested in politics generally, and can't be bothered to look for nuance. People may be Libertarians and regard any manifestation of government as undesirable. And people I think of as "the Hard Left" are convinced that our politicians are nothing more than sock puppets for an ultra-wealthy elite, regardless of the party to which the politician belongs.

(Corrupt Democrat and sock-puppet Chris Dodd)

If we treat the entire American electorate as a single unit (admittedly committing some analytical violence in the process), then its defining characteristic is its political inattentiveness. This is a more controversial point than it ought to be. There's a great deal of political science literature devoted to attributing some sort of meta-rationality to citizens who don't vote, don't watch the news and who can't tell you the name of their elected representatives.

Apologists for the electorate have blamed a sensational, celebrity obsessed media for people's lack of awareness. This fails to account for what the media is in this country: a profit maximizing business. And while a simplistic supply-demand curve understates the extent to which sellers create demand, it is absolutely the case that sensational, celebrity driven coverage is simply a more popular product than political information. The media doesn't "cause" apathy. The nature of the media is the "effect" of apathy. There's no money in making people think too hard about their politics.

This is one of the origins of that bane of political news, "Beltway false equivalence". If a Republican claimed the Earth was flat, (and is it really a stretch to imagine that they might?) lazy, insider journalists more concerned with their membership in the clubby, get along community in D.C. would report that "Democrats say the Earth is round, Republicans disagree". Any more detailed analysis would challenge the electorate's own laziness, and cause them to flee to the safety of some mindless, idiotic sitcom.

(image from CBS. The Republic is doomed.)

The truth is, America is a democracy. Any such political system makes the citizens ultimately responsible for forming their own political views. If there were a popular demand for insightful political analysis, some entrepreneur would attempt to make a buck providing it.

(Rupert Murdoch, aka The anti-Christ)

Furthermore, the view that "they're all alike" is ACCURATE, in some highly limited contexts. And to the extent the view is accurate, it reinforces the INACCURATE belief that there's no meaningful difference in the two parties.

All politicians, from both parties, are single minded seekers of reelection. The system selects for that kind of monomania; politicians who take their eye off the electoral ball lose, and go into another business. Voters see the extent to which politicians will sell their soul to hold office, and it confirms their inaccurate view that politicians are indistinguishable by any standard.

Political parties also share an important similarity; the defining characteristic of the two major political parties is that they seek to win elections. Consequently their electoral behaviors will appear to be similar, at least superficially.

But to focus on the similarities between the two parties, and their candidates is to lose sight of their only relevant aspect: policy.

Politicians, and the two parties which sponsor them advocate very different public policy alternatives. The Republican Party is wedded to policies which in every case protect and advance the interests of those with power. Their economic policies are grounded not in the science of Economics, but in the financial interests of the wealthy. Their social policies are grounded not in the findings of social science, but rather in the preservation of the privileged place of the white patriarchy. In every single area of public policy debate, Republicans advocate policies which protect and enhance the power of wealthy white men.

(image from The Atlantic)

By the same token, the policies advocated and advanced by the Democrats aim at distributing wealth and power across the society more broadly.

These are non-trivial differences. They have affected, and will affect the daily life of every single resident of the United States. If you are a woman, or if you are a member of a racial minority, or if you are not wealthy, you absolutely have a stake in which party's candidates are put into positions of power. Your vote will exert a near-term impact on your life. This stuff matters.

And an intellectually lazy dismissal of this fact can be likened to the thoughtless shuffling of livestock to the killing floor.