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You can be neutral on a moving train

There's a popular idea that one can't avoid taking some political position because having no position is to support the status quo. In the words of Howard Zinn, "You can't be neutral on a moving train." For a while, I agreed with this, but I don't think I believe it anymore. The lack of a position on some political question only defaults to the status quo if you presume there's a meaningful choice between the status quo and some preferable alternative. This presumption of a choice, and some agency over effectuating one's choice, now appears to me wrong, with respect to many of the supposedly most important political questions.

The compulsion to take positions is arguably one of the more malignant aspects of the status quo, perhaps even a basis for its worst injustices. If you think choice and agency in political affairs is negligible, then deliberating and expressing one's choice has the same political valence as declining to do so — but declining saves a lot of time, energy, and mental health, all of which can be spent on the immanent politics of one's shared life with others. If most people stopped paying attention to politics, and had no opinions, overall social welfare would be improved relative to the status quo. A popular lament is that voters are not sufficiently informed, but as far as I can tell, huge masses of people are now irreconcilably passionate about too many problems, precisely because they have too much information and education relative to their processing power. Once upon a time, ignoring macro-politics was seen as immature, uneducated ignorance and passivity, but perhaps it will increasingly become a mark of educated sagacity and radical honesty.

Educated Errors? On Perceptions of Trump's Ideology

More educated individuals generally know more than less educated individuals. If you test what they know about any random political issue, for instance, uneducated individuals are more likely to give an incorrect answer, or say "I don't know," relative to more educated individuals. At first this sounds obvious, but what if the correct answer to a question is that we don't know?

If you think that the purpose and main effect of education is to increase a person's store of true information, then an educated person should be more likely to say "I don't know" when asked what they think about an objectively unknown or uncertain matter.

But what if education does not increase one's store of objectively true information so much as it increases one's familiarity with respectable or high-status opinions? That is, education may primarily educate one about what educated people feel and believe. In this model, education is mostly about gaining familiarity with the ideas and gestures that are valued by the already educated classes, and having some dedicated time to practice mimicking them. Getting educated is not really about developing a fuller or more accurate model of the world, it's about learning to pass as a member of the education club, to get hired by employers who obtained their employment power through their own educated credentials.

If this is the case, then it's possible that more educated people would be less likely to admit "I don't know" in the face of really-existing uncertainty, and would be more likely to say whatever they think other educated people would be most likely to say.

It recently occurred to me that perceptions about Trump provide a nice opportunity for exploring this question empirically. For someone who is so ideologically polarizing, Trump is ideologically ambiguous. Yet, educated opinion seems to be that he is a major reactionary — even fascist perhaps. Either I'm incorrect in my sense of what educated opinion is, or this is perhaps a case where the educated tend to be in agreement — incorrectly.

What is Trump's Ideology?

First, we should establish what is objectively known about Trump's ideology (especially what was objectively known around November 2016, because the survey data we'll explore were gathered at that time). For the bulk of his adult life as a public figure, he was a moderate Democrat. As discussed in Bob Woodward's recent book Fear, this was taken very seriously in the early days of his campaign strategy discussions.

“You’ve got some problems on issues,” Bossie said.
“I don’t have any problems on issues,” Trump said. “What are you talking about?”
“First off, there’s never been a guy win a Republican primary that’s not pro-life,” Bossie said.
“And unfortunately, you’re very pro-choice.”
“What does that mean?”
“You have a record of giving to the abortion guys, the pro-choice candidates. You’ve made
statements. You’ve got to be pro-life, against abortion.”
“I’m against abortion,” Trump said. “I’m pro-life.”
“Well, you’ve got a track record.”
“That can be fixed,” Trump said. “You just tell me how to fix that. I’m—what do you call it? Pro-life. I’m pro-life, I’m telling you.”

It was also mentioned in this conversation that Trump only ever voted in one primary, suggesting that his ideological preferences are probably just not strongly formed. Here's another choice selection from the Woodward book, revealing Trump's profound ideological ambiguity going into his campaign:

An hour into the meeting, Bossie said, “We have another big issue.”
“What’s that?” Trump asked, seeming a little more wary.
“Well,” he said, “80 percent of the donations that you’ve given have been to Democrats.” To Bossie that was Trump’s biggest political liability, though he didn’t say so.
“That’s bullshit!”
“There’s public records,” Bossie said.

Even when you look at the positions that define his Presidential agenda, he's ideologically ambiguous. As Nate Silver has put it, “extremely conservative stances on issues such as immigration with surprisingly moderate (or even leftist) ones on other issues such as trade — with a lot of improvisation (and inconsistency) along the way.”

In a November 2016 article entitled, "We’ve Never Known Less About An Incoming President’s Ideology," Harry Enten of FiveThirtyEight presents the table below. Donald Trump is the second-least conservative Republican President in the last 40 years (only GHW Bush was more moderate than Trump).

FiveThirtyEight

I went and wrangled the 2016 Cooperative Congressional Election Study dataset, which has been one of the most common sources of data for many of the buzzy analyses you might have read about in the past year or so. As the figure below shows, the most common perception of Trump's ideology is "I dunno." That's pretty interesting. The second most common is "Very conservative."

So given that "we’ve never known less about an incoming president’s ideology," and that one could make a decent data-driven case that he is a moderate Democrat or a moderate conservative, it seems to me that "Not sure," was arguably the most objectively correct answer. "Somewhat conservative" and "Middle of the Road" also seem like arguably correct answers. But the fashionable perception of Trump as "very conservative" is, as far as I can see, basically incorrect. If this was a quiz and I had to grade it, I would be inclined to mark the answer "conservative" as wrong, too, given Trump's significantly left-leaning policy positions and his history as a pro-choice Democratic Party supporter.

When you look at perceptions of Trump's ideology by education level, as shown in the figure below, you can see that education is negatively correlated with uncertainty ("Not sure," the pink bar all the way to the left). This would be unremarkable for most survey questions, but given Trump's unique ideological ambiguity in November 2016, this pattern may reflect how education has more to do with demonstrating knowledge of respectable beliefs than with analytical or empirical sophistication. 

In the above graph, it's difficult to eyeball the other proportions. So let's zoom-in on the arguably most correct, uncertain answer and what I take to be the respectable/fashionable but incorrect answer (that Trump is either plainly "conservative" or "very conservative.") In the figure below, it's easier to see that education is not only associated with a clear decrease in reasonable uncertainty but a modest increase in the fashionable view that Trump is clearly conservative. Post-grads are not much different than those who have minimal contact with college life, but finishing high school and having some college experience are both associated with clear bumps toward the view that Trump is clearly conservative.

Educated overconfidence Trump's ideology

Overall, these data are not very strong evidence of anything, but they do give a little indication that I may be onto something with my hypothesis — that education may, in some cases, be associated with less correct beliefs. A larger hypothesis might be that, in any context of increasing uncertainty, there will be more and more margins at which the less educated are accidentally more sophisticated than the educated.

Why Do Muslim Immigrants and Western Leftists Like Each Other?

It's fairly well known that Muslim immigrants in Europe tend to support left-wing political parties, but it's not obvious why, given that Muslims tend to oppose key planks of Western social liberalism. It's even more puzzling why Western leftists so actively support the in-migration of Muslims, given that Western leftists just as actively excommunicate from their own ranks anyone who opposes key planks of social liberalism — nay, anyone who does not sufficiently profess their love for key planks of social liberalism. So then why do Muslim immigrant populations like left-wing parties, and why do Western leftists want Muslim immigrant populations, when each group hates the defining features of the other group's worldview?

Perhaps one might question the premises of this puzzle, so before I attempt a solution to the puzzle, let's go over the premise that Muslims tend to oppose key planks of social liberalism and the premise that Muslims in the West support left-wing parties.

If you think I'm exaggerating the deep ideological conflict between Islam and social-justice leftism, consider the following. One Gallup poll in 2009 found that zero of the 500 British Muslims in the sample found homosexuality "morally acceptable" — and only about half thought it should be legal (a rather low bar for social liberalism). If you look for the most generous estimates of Islamic sexual liberalism in the West, you can find about 52% of American muslims in 2017 saying that homosexuality should be accepted by society. You can find other estimates in between these two, for different countries and years in the recent past. Presumably, assimilation has some effect, so you have to imagine that new immigrants and asylum-seekers are, on average, on the lower end of these estimates.

One might also wonder if Islam really makes immigrants more likely to support left-wing parties (controlling for other factors correlated with leftism, such as youth). Maybe Muslim immigrants in Europe tend to be socially illiberal only because they are disproportionately young, uneducated, and poor. Nope. The graph below is from Piketty's recent paper on political cleavages, specifically from his discussion of the case of France, where support for left parties is 42% higher among Muslims than non-Muslims.

Thomas Piketty, Brahmin Left vs Merchant Right, 2018

Those other factors do have effects, but being Muslim still has a unique positive correlation with support for left-wing parties:

More precisely, socio-economic control variables reduce the Muslim left-wing preference from +42 points to +38 points in 2012, and adding foreign origins (including separate dummies for each region of origin) further reduces the effect to +26 points (see Figure 2.6k). In other words, for given gender, age, education, income, wealth and region of origin (for instance North Africa), there is still a sizable effect associating self-reported Muslim identity and left-wing vote. One natural interpretation is that Muslim voters perceive an additional, specific hostility from right-wing parties (and/or an additional, specific sympathy from left-wing parties), as compared for instance to voters with North African origins but who do not describe themselves as Muslim. [Emphasis added. -JM]

Thomas Piketty, Brahmin Left vs Merchant Right, 2018

Piketty finds the same pattern for Britain. Piketty's explanation is probably not wrong but it's rather unsatisfying. It's not the focus of his paper so don't write him rude emails expressing dissatisfaction with this explanation. It's just that... to say that Muslims like left-wing parties because right-wing parties hate Muslims, is only to rewrite the algebra. We can just as well pose our puzzle as: Why does antipathy to Muslim immigrants come in a right-wing package, when the offending Muslim viewpoints are primarily offensive to left-wing social liberalism? Right-wingers in the West might very well think, "Good! These incoming Muslim men know a thing or two about enforcing traditional gender norms and keeping out the gays! Maybe they'll rub off on us and forestall our downward spiral of degeneracy!" This sounds impossible to imagine, but that's the puzzle; why is this impossible to imagine when it's at least as plausible, and arguably more plausible, than what we are observing empirically. It sounds very implausible that someone who likes to wave a placard expressing love for brown-skinned folks who hate most queers also likes to denounce white people for only loving nine out of ten queers. And yet this occurs today. If Piketty's solution is unsatisfying, then what's a better explanation?

Wait no longer, because I have the answer. Well, a hypothesis. Which means I personally believe it is the answer (at the time of this writing).

We are accustomed to seeing today's leftist activists as extreme ideologues. The reason contemporary leftist culture is so baffling to so many people is that — it's presumed — they are overly possessed by an ideology; they are extremists on some set of principles; they are crazy because they are too radical, with respect to some set of ideas that is assumed to be underlying their speech and behavior.

Recall my article from a few months ago, analyzing the General Social Survey. I found that the anti-free-speech leftists, the most visible of left-wing activists today, are not technically more extreme leftists; rather, these 'authoritarian leftists' seem to be drawn from those who identify as only somewhat leftist. In other words, they are extreme on some dimension, but it's not leftism per se.

This dovetails with the hypothesis I would like to make here. Contemporary left-wing activists do not suffer from ideological possession or overly extreme devotion to any ideology. In fact, they lack ideology. That's the answer. The contemporary left is simply a grievance processing machine. Ideology has nothing to do with it. Ideology has as much to do with left-wing activism as Mozart has to do with the garbage disposal beneath your kitchen sink: You might hear it on their commercials, but that's about it. The inventors were not listening to it when the idea first presented itself. It plays zero role in the machine's function, which is why the machine runs perfectly fine no matter what the user happens to be listening to. This is why many left-wing activists today can hate one person for being a queer-hater and then profess love for some other queer-haters, all in the same day.

Many people will not believe my hypothesis, because it seems obvious that left-wing activists are constantly referring back to certain shared mental structures. That's true, but that's not all that ideology involves. Political scientists have long observed that vague 'worldviews' don't necessary qualify as ideologies. One of the key marks of ideology, properly understood, is constraint (Converse 1964):

"constraint" or "interdependence" refers to the probability that a change in the perceived status (truth, desirability, and so forth) of one idea-element would psychologically require, from the point of view of the actor, some compensating change(s) in the status of idea-elements elsewhere in the configuration. 

Philip E. Converse, The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics, 1964

When I say that left-wing activists are relatively non-ideological, I am not saying that they are not possessed by certain consistent social-psychological processes; I am only saying that the main process is not primarily ideological in this technical sense, because a hypothetical change in one node of the belief-web does not require any change in any other node of the belief-web. Ideology implies a kind of automatic, mechanical updating of the belief-web, given some exogenous shock. It's this functional automaticity, taken to extremes, that makes us think of ideologues as robot people.

And there is good empirical evidence that, in fact, it's conservatives who are motivated by ideology, while leftists mostly care about group interests. See Grossmann and Hopkins (2016). In a nutshell, they look at the language used by lefties and righties when they articulate their likes and dislikes. Do they relate their likes and dislikes to certain ideas or principles, or do they refer to how different groups are affected? They find a pretty huge difference, as revealed in this graph from their 2015 paper (which pretty much speaks for itself):

This finding deserves to be better known. If there is an ideology of left-wing activists, it is that there are no principles other than getting stuff for groups who don't have as much stuff as other groups. If you fervently believe that, it can look and sound a lot like an ideology. And you can call it an ideology if you'd like — if it looks like a duck, and walks and quacks like one, then ain't it a duck?—the only problem is that this will make you baffled by all the patent logical inconsistencies. One of the reasons why leftism today is so baffling to so many people is because people expect these "ideologues" to be possessed by some set of principles, and then people burn a lot of glucose trying to infer what these principles are. To no avail.

This non-ideological ideology of left-wing activists also helps to explain why leftists love Muslim immigrants, and why Muslim immigrants vote for left-wing parties. Leftists love Muslims because Muslims have grievances that left-wing parties can profitably process for them. Why Muslims love left-wing parties should now be obvious: it's because they have grievances in need of processing, and the left-wing parties are structurally incapable of opposing, let alone stopping, anything Muslim immigrants think or do — on account of their non-ideological, i.e., unconstrained operating philosophy.

The interaction of education and race on Trump approval

The correlation between education and support for Trump is very different across the black-white divide. The graphs below I have taken from Civiqs.

For white people with no college degree, a small majority approves of Trump:

white Trump support education

For white postgraduates, a small majority disapproves of Trump. Interestingly, this is more Trump support from white postgrads than I would have thought:

white postgraduates Trump approval

For black people with no college degree, a huge majority disapprove of Trump:

Approval of Trump for black people with no college degree

And for black postgraduates, the distribution of Trump approval is… about the same as it is for black people with no college degree.

Approval of Trump for postgraduate black people

This surprised me. At first I thought there was a glitch in the browser, I had to refresh it for the different subsets to make sure this wasn’t a mistake.

So what’s going on here? It’s genuinely unclear to me, but there are only a few plausible possibilities. One possibility is that this variation is just an artifact of other variables. But if education does have some effect on attitudes toward Trump, is there a reason why would it would be different for white and black folks? Who knows, but it’s interesting enough to hypothesize about. Scholarly literatures on the relationship between education and political attitudes sometimes debate whether education has an income effect (grads think differently because their market position is different), a learning effect (grads think differently because they have more information or knowledge), or a socialization effect (grads think differently because they enter into cosmopolitan social circles). Which one of these mechanisms could account for an educational effect on Trump support, conditional on race, where education shifts white people toward disapproval while shifting black people nowhere?

An income effect is conceivable, in which the better jobs and salaries won by white postgrads makes some of them change their mind toward disapproval of Trump. But other research suggests that income, apart from education, was not really an independent driver of Trump support.

A learning effect seems to me unlikely, in part because university education is probably not about learning, but also because I see no reason why black students would be less likely than white students to learn new reasons for disliking Trump. It’s possible that black people are so opposed to Trump that education doesn’t really have much room to exert a unique, additional effect; or that whatever university teaches, black people already know it from childhood, e.g. that White Supremacy is real. So education perhaps only affirms what black people already know; whereas many white children do not know that White Supremacy is real, but university teaches them the error of their youthful ways. But if this were the case, it would be unclear why black people bother to attend university; also, you’d have to believe that university teaching is, at least for white students, a hard change of course from 5th grade civics class, to have such an effect; but it seems to me that 5th grade and 15th grade teachers have a pretty unified message that racism is bad and that one should not grab women by their pussies, and that anyone who does or says such things should not be President. I don’t see what exactly university would teach white people that departs from what the education system already taught them. So I don’t see how an education effect could be a learning effect.

Personally, my priors are more in favor of the socialization mechanism. What university lecturers teach is not radically different from what 5th grade civics teachers teach, but the club is very different. If you got a 5th grade civics class, everyone you knew got a 5th grade civics class. There is no club. If you go to university, you leave behind the townies who do not go to university. It’s basic sociological knowledge that all clubs use symbols and rituals to distinguish members from outsiders, and members receive a premium of resources, care, and attention from other members. The culture of the university club is best defined by cosmopolitanism. Why cosmopolitanism is the culture of the university, and how the features of cosmopolitanism serve its members, are topics for a separate post. For now, suffice it to say that cosmopolitanism is the opposite of chauvinism, nationalism, aggression, etc. Cosmopolitanism is the sublimation of these drives into polite speech, which conquers inferiors through competitive subtlety rather than competitive… competition, which is brutish and too obvious. Anyway, it seems plausible that entry into the cosmopolitan social club would have a significant effect, in the direction consistent with the data: away from Trump. But why would the socialization effect be conditional on race, when above I argued there’s no reason a learning effect would be conditional on race? Well, I think there’s a good reason that university would socialize white students into Trump disapproval, while having no such socialization effect on black students. Cosmopolitanism includes compassion for the weaker ‘other.’ As black people in the United States suffer disproportionately from poverty and other ills, white students who enter the university club must become more compassionate toward America’s oppressed black population — as a ritual requirement of membership, mind you, not for any reason that has to do with information, knowledge, or learning. Black students who traverse the university system might become more compassionate for female garment workers in the Global South, but membership in the university club does not require them to increase their expressed compassion to black people in the United States. On the contrary, cosmopolitanism gives them an increased sense of their deserved seat at the table. In short, the cosmopolitan or extra-civilized gain symbolic power over the less civilized, by forfeiting their right to brute force, investing in the social club of advanced symbolic manipulators, and cultivating their symbolic facilities in lieu of their brute force facilities. The more ridiculous social justice fashions today — sometimes led by students of color and supported secondarily by white 'allies’ — are no better or worse than than social justice fashions popular among the educated white elite of any previous generation: cosmopolitanism always means telling refined fibs to secure resources away from the grabbing hands of those who are unable to tell refined fibs.

In summary, I hypothesize that education exerts a socialization effect on students, and that such an effect should alter Trump support only in the case of white students.

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