Arguments Over Definitions

The lack of common understandings and shared assumptions makes political conversations challenging.

Deep into the discussion of my post “The Rise of Negative Partisanship,” OTB regular MarkedMan observed, “90% of our arguments are over definitions.” He’s almost certainly right. Indeed, I suspect that’s true of many discussions about politics and morality, here and elsewhere. In fact, part of the reason moral persuasion is so hard is we don’t agree as to what falls within the ambit of morality.

With respect to the issue at hand, my co-blogger Steven Taylor, a comparativist political scientist who has studied and written about elections for more than a quarter-century now, is far more expert on the issue of political parties and partisanship than I am. While I had some relevant coursework in graduate school, I specialized in international relations and ultimately became more of a defense policy wonk than a pure political scientist. So, he’s operating on a more nuanced set of definitions than I am in these discussions.

Still, I don’t think he would object too strongly to a reference to the classic 1960 study The American Voter. BYU’s Adam Brown provides a useful summary of its core arguments:

The Funnel Model

Campbell et al. argue that the best predictor (X) of whether an individual will vote Republican or Democratic is the funnel model. The funnel works like this: First, you learn your party ID from parents and socialization. You form a psychological attachment to this party. As such, your partisanship shapes the development of your attitudes; because you like your party, you adopt its positions. Your (underlying) attitudes are then reflected in your positions on the six attitudinal dimensions: the personal attributes of the Democratic candidate (Stevenson), the personal attributes of the Republican (Eisenhower), the groups involved in politics and the questions of group interest affecting them, the issues of domestic policy, the issues of foreign policy, and the comparative record of the two parties in managing the affairs of government. Finally, these issue positions are the proximal cause of your voting decision. In fact, these six issue positions predict voting decisions with 87% accuracy–which is even better than asking voters who they intend to vote for.

Partisan Perception

Not surprisingly, feelings across these six dimensions tend to be highly correlated. For Campbell and his coauthors, this correlation occurs because partisan feelings are strongly shaped by party identification. (Party ID leads to partisan feelings, not the reverse.) In this book, party ID is treated as a psychological force or tie through which voters interpret political issues (each of the aforementioned dimensions). The authors write that “Identification with a party raises a perceptual screen [i.e. selective perception] through which the individual tends to see what is favorable to his partisan orientation.” In this sense, the party acts as a supplier of cues by which the individual may evaluate the elements of politics.

Origins of Partisanship

They claim that individuals “inherit” a party ID from their parents and the social milieu in which they are raised and that this party ID is characterized by stability and resistance to contrary influence. (They do recognize that objective events and conditions can lead a voter to modify her party ID or vote against it if her evaluation of the current elements of politics does not agree with her initial allegiances.)

Issues Don’t Matter

In their interviews, Campbell et al. find that policies and issues play a small part in most voters’ decisions, that only a small fraction of the electorate (12%) displays anything resembling an ideology (i.e., most people when asked about their positions on specific policy issues do not have a consistent pattern of responses in terms of a liberal-conservative dimension), and that voters frequently do not know which party stands for what. These findings cast doubt on the efficacy of voting as a mechanism of democratic control of government.

Changes in Partisanship

Changes in party ID are possible. These changes result from either personal forces (usually changes in an individual’s social milieu) or social forces (usually the result of experiences related to great national crises or those experiences related to progress through the life cycle older voters tend to be more conservative).

Not surprisingly, the literature has come a long way in the six decades since Campbell and colleagues’ seminal work. It was based on studies of the 1952 and 1956 elections and, quite obviously, our party system has ebbed and flowed considerably since. But the central findings—party identification is an enormously predictive variable of voting behavior and political attitudes tend to follow party rather than vice-versa—have held up to scrutiny.

Steven and I both spent a long time studying politics in our youth and yet, somehow, emerged from graduate school in our late 20s with voting preferences and political attitudes that were remarkably similar to those of our non-political scientist fathers. For a variety of reasons, we both started moving away from those attitudes in our 30s and 40s and ultimately stopped voting for the party of our youth—he a couple of cycles ahead of me. So, yes, people can and do change party. But most people spend far, far less time thinking about politics than we and our readers do and inertia is really hard to overcome.

Regardless, I see at least two definitional issues arising here.

First, many readers argue that some of the things that contribute to forming party identification (religiosity, social class, racial attitudes, etc.) are what really motivates people, not their party. Nobody, least of all us, is arguing that these issues are meaningless at the individual level. We just argue that party ID is a more useful way to gauge aggregate behavior. While the degree to which it’s true has fluctuated over time, depending on the degree our two dominant parties have been aligned with social cleavages, it remains simply the best predictive variable.

Second, many readers are operating on the implicit assumption that voters are operating with something like the same information base they themselves possess and are making rational, informed decisions. So, people who voted to elect Donald Trump in 2016—and, certainly, those who voted to re-elect him in 2020—all liked his policies. But, while many of them surely did, we’re simply noting that the overwhelming number (say, 95 percent) of them would have voted for any candidate who emerged from the 2016 Republican primaries as the winner over Hillary Clinton and voted to re-elect any sitting Republican President over Joe Biden. Just as sports fans continue to support their team even though the players change continually—and remain loyal even if their favorite player transfers to a rival team or a hated player from the rival team transfers to theirs—almost all voters find a way to justify voting for their party’s candidates.

To the extent most people have opinions on the various policy debates of the day, they’re shaped enormously by party framing. So, while the program that became labeled “ObamaCare” was broadly popular in the particulars, Republicans were naturally going to resist it simply because it was associated with a Democratic President. Did racial animus reinforce that tendency among some subset of Republicans? Sure. But the vast majority of them would have opposed “HillaryCare” had the 2008 primaries gone the other way and she had prevailed over John McCain. Conversely, if there were no ObamaCare and Mitt Romney had introduced a version of the remarkably similar program he had implemented as governor of Massachusetts, it would have commanded widespread Republican support and lost the support of a lot of Democrats.*

Third, the conversations often conflate the three “parts” of political parties identified by V.O. Key way back in 1942: the “party in the electorate” (voters), the “party in government” (officeholders), and the party organization. It is far easier to generalize about the organization and officeholders than voters.

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*It’s quite probably true that a significant number of Democrats would have voted for it, though, compared to not a single Republican ultimately voting for PPCA. But that’s mostly a function of strategy and intraparty incentives.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Democracy, Democratic Theory, Voting
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. MarkedMan says:

    Nowadays I vote a straight party line ticket for the Dems, so I’m hyper partisan. But I don’t feel like I have much emotional investment in the Party. My first vote in a Presidential campaign was for John Anderson, a Republican who ran as an independent. And although I despised Reagan and still do, I recognized that he had won by assembling a coalition of Repubs and Dems, especially blue collar Dems, which was my families background. (I have no idea if my parents voted for Reagan or Carter – we didn’t discuss politics.) And in my early local elections I have no recollection of the party affiliation of the candidates I supported, but since I lived in Rochester, NY, I have to assume that some of them were Republicans. And although the first and only campaign I ever volunteered for was for the Democratic gubernatorial candidacy of Mario Cuomo, it was very clearly because he won the primary by campaigning on a very specific and very large investment in State wide infrastructure, while I felt all the other candidates of any Party were talking about nonsense or things that a Governor had little to no control over.

    I think part of this might have been where I grew up, Chicago, where all viable politicians were Democrats but that label was plastered on an extremely wide range of political and moral beliefs. By the time I was old enough to register, the Dems had become the party of civil rights and the “new” Republicans (not really new) were actively courting and siding with even the most vile racists in the South. But I still knew many, many racist Democrats, both voters and officials alike.

    In the end I developed a mentality that choosing a candidate was more like choosing a dentist than a sports team. First and foremost, can they do the work? It’s nice if they have something else in common with you, but that is completely secondary. Hmm, not even secondary. Far down the list. So why do I vote entirely Democratic? I began to turn that way more and more with the Gingrich era, when I saw that as a Party they were promoting and rewarding candidates that cared nothing about actual governance. When in power their philosophy consisted in gutting the things I cared about, things that had previously had fairly wide spread Republican support. But there were still Republicans I admired. At some point I looked around and thought, “The best of these is John McCain, and he’s definitely got a lot of issues.” When George W. used 9/11 as little more than a chance to promote a hyper partisan agenda, I was done. I haven’t pulled the lever for a Republican since.

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  2. I would say that this largely fits what I have been describing:

    (Party ID leads to partisan feelings, not the reverse.) In this book, party ID is treated as a psychological force or tie through which voters interpret political issues (each of the aforementioned dimensions). The authors write that “Identification with a party raises a perceptual screen [i.e. selective perception] through which the individual tends to see what is favorable to his partisan orientation.” In this sense, the party acts as a supplier of cues by which the individual may evaluate the elements of politics.

    And, of course, the way that the parties have sorted and become more polarized since the 1960s likely create even deep loyalties and the commensurate deepened motivating thinking.

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  3. Northerner says:

    In their interviews, Campbell et al. find that policies and issues play a small part in most voters’ decisions, that only a small fraction of the electorate (12%) displays anything resembling an ideology (i.e., most people when asked about their positions on specific policy issues do not have a consistent pattern of responses in terms of a liberal-conservative dimension), and that voters frequently do not know which party stands for what. These findings cast doubt on the efficacy of voting as a mechanism of democratic control of government.

    I’m surprised that issues and policies matter to even 12% of voters. In Canada they probably matter to only 5%. People vote for whoever they’re used to voting for. The procedure seems to be:

    1) Figure out which party you like.
    2) When asked about issues and policies, say you like the ones your party likes (even if you can’t actually list, let alone explain) them.

    The evidence for that is how seldom people change parties. What does change is whether people supporting a party are motivated to vote or not in a given election (Canada averages only about 65 percent, giving a lot of room for motivating or unmotivating voters).

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  4. Stormy Dragon says:

    A study from the 1960s would not have benefited from subsequent work in choice theory and behavioral economics. How have these fields changed the views of political science, or is this something that hasn’t really been integrated into political science yet?

    The short version is that people are actually horrible at understanding their own motivations and that any study based on asking people why they do things is going to end up more about capturing people’s post hoc justifications for their behavior rather than what actually causes the behavior.

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  5. Michael Reynolds says:

    Q: What is the smallest political unit?
    A: The individual.
    Q: Does the individual have agency?
    A: Yes.
    Q: Is the individual capable of change?
    A: Yes.
    Q: Does the individual bear responsibility for its choices?
    A: Yes.
    Q: What’s the lowest common denominator of partisanship?
    A: The individual.

    We have here at least three individuals – James, Steven, me – who have changed parties and political philosophies. Are we three unique geniuses? Well, of course, but no, not really. However, we clearly demonstrate that in reality, not just in theory, the individual can change. We have agency, as mentioned (somewhat redundantly) above.

    And what are we three individuals? Meat computers. We are programmed by DNA and by our environment (upbringing, experience, education). Are we capable of self-programming? Yes. Are we capable of self-deprogramming? Yes, see above. Who is therefore responsible for the opinions held by James, Steven and me? Well, James, Steven and me.

    DNA may pre-dispose us to prefer one or another political party, just as DNA may pre-dispose us to alcoholism. Does that DNA influence deprive us of agency? No. It has an effect, but we can still choose not to drink. Or be a Republican.

    Experience, education, etc… may also pre-dispose us to prefer one or another political party, just as experience etc… may predispose us to be racists. Does that deprive us of agency? No. It has an effect, but we can still choose not to be racists. Or Republicans.

    So, individuals, with agency, with the ability to defy their DNA, with the ability to reframe their experience, make choices. They choose a party, the party does not choose them. To the extent an individual is defined or led by a party, that is a choice made by the individual. Can the party force its will on the individual? No.

    So, what’s the fundamental problem? The individual. The individual mind. Individual choices. Individual error. Individual laziness or pre-occupation. It is always down to the individual, the irreducible element. The fault lies not in our systems, or our parties, (or our stars) but in ourselves.

    We choose to be D or R. Tomorrow morning a hundred million Americans could choose to change and all talk of partisanship would go poof. Unlikely, yes, obviously, but possible? Yes. Could the Democratic or Republican Party wake up tomorrow morning and snap its fingers and move a hundred million minds? Nope.

    Partisans are partisans not because they are forced to be partisans but because they choose to be. They join a team. A Republican is a Republican because he/she has chosen to be a Republican, which is why partisanship as a rough description of real world political effects is useful, but as an explanation of causation – how a Republican came to be – is a tautology, and therefore of very little use when it comes to addressing root causes or effecting change.

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  6. @Stormy Dragon: There is no doubt that the study of this topic has evolved rather considerably since the 1960s. I think that James is simply trying to find some definitional material to add to the conversation.

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  7. Moosebreath says:

    “It’s quite probably true that a significant number of Democrats would have voted for it [a hypothetical attempt by President Romney to pass a health care plan generally similar to Obamacare], though, compared to not a single Republican ultimately voting for PPCA. But that’s mostly a function of strategy and intraparty incentives.”

    Right here is why I am finding this discussion so frustrating. This is at least in the same direction as the point that DrDaveT and drj and I were making, and having dismissed as “cherry-picking” and making normative judgments, in the prior discussion. One does not need to guess at this, one can look at the parties’ records, with Democrats overwhelmingly supporting such legislation as No Child Left Behind or the First Step Act or the 2020 COVID relief bill when it met their goals, regardless of which party proposed or would get credit for the legislation. Examples of Republicans doing the same since the rise of Gingrich are simply not there.

    A discussion of the causes for this disparity could be interesting and useful. But suggesting that it is only showing our partisanship by believing it exists is not.

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  8. @Michael Reynolds:

    They join a team.

    But they don’t do so in the rational way you are describing and they don’t constantly reassess why they joined.

    Your model ignores a host of influences and treats everyone like perfect consumers who make rational, evidence-based choices.

    I fully understand the microeconomic model you are adhering to here. It is very appealing and it assigns moral blame quite cleanly.

    But there is no evidence that people behave that way in the clean way that you are ascribing to them.

    My kids root for the Dallas Cowboys because they were raised in a house that roots for that team. It is likely irrational to do so given the amount of heartache that team has provided for all of their lives. They don’t have memories of Staubach and Aikman to fuel their loyalty. And yet, they persist with their team.

    We want politics to be more complicated than sports. But if you listen to sports talk radio and then listen to political talk radio (or read blogs along the same lines) you will find that the quality of reasoning is not all that different in the two groups.

    And, of course, as I constantly note, when there are only two viable choices, all of this gets even more rigid.

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  9. Northerner says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    You are three individuals who are interested and follow politics. Most people aren’t. What’s your position regarding say whether artificial intelligence research should be allowed or stopped before AI takes over and ends humanity (a concern of some very well educated people including Gates, Musk and the late Stephen Hawking, but also a concern that many in the AI community think is overblown). Have you been interested enough in it to follow it, and alter your position on it based on what your agency and research has shown you? Or is your position that the people in charge can take care of it one way or another? How about GM foods? Genetic engineering of humans? Or any of a host of important issues that might require spending time researching something you’re not particularly interested in. You have agency (in the sense you speak of) in all of these. Do you have enough interest to apply that agency?

    Most people find politics mind-numbingly boring. They will vote because they’ve been convinced that’s their duty, but they will trust the leaders of whatever party they belong to without examination, for the same reason most of us trust say the climate scientists who warn about the upcoming catastrophe without actually going through the key journals to examine the science ourselves.

    There’s simply too much we’d need to know to apply agency to all the things that are of vital importance to us as individuals or a society — no one human could hope to learn even one percent of it. That means the trick is in getting people to trust the right experts.

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  10. @Michael Reynolds: @Steven L. Taylor: BTW, you are describing, as I noted, a basic microeconomic or perhaps simplified rational choice model to politics. Ironically, it what many conservative economists use to justify market-based solutions and it tends to be the basis for a good bit of meritocratic thinking.

    While I am not saying the basic logic doesn’t have a lot of power, it is a lot more complicated than you are making it out to be. For one thing, neither reason nor information in perfect. And social context and groups one belongs to all matter as well.

    Ironically, when I adhered more in my own thinking to this model, I thought it better justified a more conservative (in American terms) approach to politics.

    But, I will also note again: when you are sorting into two categories and you have a set of rank-ordered preferences, you may decide that your top level preferences are better served by Rs than Ds, and vice versa. Once you have decided that lower taxes are a moral preference (for whatever reason) that motivates you to double-down on R politicians over Ds, since you only have two choices.

    It also makes you rationalize in favor of dumb things a given R might do.

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  11. @Moosebreath:

    This is at least in the same direction as the point that DrDaveT and drj and I were making, and having dismissed as “cherry-picking”

    Let’s be clear, though: I was very specifically referring to evidence for “Cleek’s Law” when I made the accusation of “cherry-picking.”

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  12. @Moosebreath:

    One does not need to guess at this, one can look at the parties’ records, with Democrats overwhelmingly supporting such legislation as No Child Left Behind or the First Step Act or the 2020 COVID relief bill when it met their goals, regardless of which party proposed or would get credit for the legislation

    Of course, NCLB was actually something some Dems wanted as was COVID relief.

    If you put a tax cut on the floor tomorrow, Rs would vote for it, and Cleek’s Law be damned.

    If we are going to take a trip down memory lane, Reps voted for NAFTA because they wanted it, even though Dems were in charge when it hit the floor and it was a victory for Clinton (but I will state that by my own standards, citing that is cherry-picking and it is an old example–but my point about cherry-picking is that any discussion that simply conjures big legislative examples that we can all remember off the top of the dome is just not systematic enough to be evidence for anything).

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  13. MarkedMan says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    We have here at least three individuals – James, Steven, me – who have changed parties and political philosophies.

    Three individuals who also spend hours a day on political topics, every day. Not exactly a good basis for generalizations…

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  14. MarkedMan says:

    I think one of the things that is getting confused here is one group of people is talking about the effect and the intensity of partisanship on individual voters, while the other is talking about Party officials and leaders. I don’t think you can get anywhere if those two viewpoints aren’t reconciled.

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  15. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    We have here at least three individuals – James, Steven, me – who have changed parties and political philosophies.

    Did we change, or were we cast out and then rewrote our mental story in a “you can’t fire me, I quit” narrative? 😉

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  16. @MarkedMan: I would say this: people come to the table almost always with some level of partisan ID. This dictates who they will listen to (which party leaders) and therefore what they are willing to rationalize.

    And, of course, there is a feedback loop wherein certain ideas become affiliated with certain partisan IDs which the leaders often use to motivate the public.

    Is this what you are talking about?

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  17. Moosebreath says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    “Let’s be clear, though: I was very specifically referring to evidence for “Cleek’s Law” when I made the accusation of “cherry-picking.””

    True enough since you only used those words once, though not when you spoke of making normative judgments.

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    “Of course, NCLB was actually something some Dems wanted as was COVID relief.

    If you put a tax cut on the floor tomorrow, Rs would vote for it, and Cleek’s Law be damned.”

    I think you are overselling how much Democrats wanted No Child Left Behind, which was a case of Democrats negotiating for their priorities to be added to a bill which started out only embracing Republican priorities.

    I also suspect that Republican support for a Democratic proposal for tax cuts would only be even possibly true if it started out highly skewed towards the wealthy. If it were a plan skewed towards the middle and lower classes, likely Republicans would refuse to negotiate at all, and denounce it as a giveaway and harming job creation.

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  18. @Stormy Dragon: I don’t know about you, but absolutely everything I do is 100% rational, logical, and evidence-based ! 😉

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  19. @Moosebreath: NCLB was co-sponsored in the Senate by Ted Kennedy.

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  20. Wikipedia tells me: “The United States House of Representatives passed the bill on December 13, 2001 (voting 381–41),[8] and the United States Senate passed it on December 18, 2001 (voting 87–10).”

    What other metric of “wanting” is there save a vote?

    But, really, I am not sure how NCLB tells us all that much one way or the other, ultimately.

    It is a side trip.

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  21. CSK says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:
    I think some of us sometimes make the mistake of thinking that everyone is that way.

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  22. Jon says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    My kids root for the Dallas Cowboys because they were raised in a house that roots for that team

    I think that, by almost any rational definition, that qualifies as child abuse 😉

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  23. @Moosebreath: BTWs. This is little doubt that increased polarization has made negotiations difficult.

    Look, I know that part of the problem with all these discussions is that they are fragmented both within the comment section and across time. So it does makes it difficult to always adequately respond to threads of argument.

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  24. Michael Reynolds says:

    Yes, yes, yes, most people find politics boring. I find math boring. Who is responsible for the fact that I can’t do algebra? Right: me. Not you, not teachers, not the man, man, just me.

    Why? Because only the individual can make a choice and therefore only the individual can be responsible. All of our western notions of morality are based on the responsibility of the individual for the choices they make. A woman, beaten, mistreated, but not in fear of her life, kills her husband. Are there extenuating circumstances? Yes. Will she nevertheless be held legally responsible? Yep. Why? Because there is no other way to assign responsibility.

    A party does not have agency. A party cannot be responsible. The leadership of that party – individuals all – can be held responsible.

    Now, if someone has another model of moral responsibility, I’d love to hear it. But Judaism, Christianity and Islam all rest their moralities on the individual sinner. So does the law. And so does simple reason, not because we should ignore extenuation, but because there is simply no other practical choice.

    Is Amazon responsible for opposing unions? The legal convention we call a corporation? Or are the officers of that corporation – individuals all – responsible? And if we decide no, it’s not the individuals, it’s the corporation, or the system, that bears responsibility, then who, pray tell, has actually made a decision? No one? A choice simply appeared in the Amazon boardroom?

    If we cannot assign responsibility for an action then we live in a world without causation. We’re in a world of movement without a mover. Responsibility falls to the individual human because there is literally no practical alternative.

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  25. Gustopher says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    They join a team.

    But they don’t do so in the rational way you are describing and they don’t constantly reassess why they joined.

    Your model ignores a host of influences and treats everyone like perfect consumers who make rational, evidence-based choices.

    Oh, god, it’s high school libertarianism applied to political identity.

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  26. Lounsbury says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Indeed. Humans are simply over-clocked chimpanzees, with some mitigating bonobo tendencies.

    The pretension even readers here have to abstractly rational positions is pretension almost as much as for that of ‘low-information.’ Team = Chimp Band in the end.

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  27. Northerner says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Then we’re all inevitably guilty of ignoring or trusting experts with regard to the hundreds of issues that could injure or even end human life (up to extinction), because even the greatest geniuses could only understand a tiny fraction of all the issues in question. We have agency but as individuals lack the resources (in time and brain power) to understand anything but a tiny portion of what we would ideally know. As Kurt Vonnegut’s character says, “So it goes.”

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  28. DrDaveT says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Your model ignores a host of influences and treats everyone like perfect consumers who make rational, evidence-based choices.

    Actually, Michael is making a very different error — he’s shifting the discussion from causes of behavior to moral responsibility without mentioning that fact. He knows he can’t claim that Roger Ailes and Rush Limbaugh have no causal influence on people’s choices, so instead he shifts the argument to absolving Roger and Rush of moral responsibility for the behavior of the people they’ve influenced. After all, nobody was compelled to listen or agree with them; we’re all free agents, right?

    Whether Michael is right in his ethical beliefs or not is irrelevant to questions of causal modeling of political behavior, and thus to this discussion. On election night, we don’t count how many people exercised free will in defiance of their socialization and sources of information; we count how many voted for whom. Even Michael is not claiming that people ACT as free agents; only that they could if they so chose. To which we offer the timeless reply, “So what?”.

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  29. MarkedMan says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: I agree with those two statements but it’s not what I meant. Heading out for a long hike but hope to explain more clearly late this afternoon

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  30. DrDaveT says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    What other metric of “wanting” is there save a vote?

    No, sorry, that’s totally circular. It’s the legislative version of the “theory” that people are always completely selfish, because whatever they do must be what they thought would make them happiest, else they would have done something different. We left that one behind in sophomore philosophy.

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  31. Gustopher says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Who is responsible for the fact that I can’t do algebra? Right: me. Not you, not teachers, not the man, man, just me.

    This is a good philosophy for the individual — it maximizes your own agency, and gives you control over whether to change anything.

    It’s absolutely terrible when applied to others. When we discover that Blacks can’t do trigonometry, this makes it impossible to look at the systemic causes.

    ——
    Also, pretty much everyone can do algebra, and does algebra. Can you figure out a tip, or make change? You just did algebra. Sure, it’s just a bit of arithmetic, but the algebra comes from knowing which arithmetic. And people are better at that, in non-contrived scenarios, than they are the arithmetic.

    Consider this: Bob is on a train going from Detroit to Buffalo, traveling at 30 mph starting at 1:15, and Sally is on a train going from Rochester to Detroit on a train traveling at 45 mph starting at 2:45, when and where will they collide?

    The hard part is giving a fuck about Bob, Sally and their trains. But if you and a friend in another state were going to meet up somewhere, you could pick a time and place that was doable somewhere between the two of you.

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  32. DrDaveT says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Who is responsible for the fact that I can’t do algebra?

    Why do you think that who is responsible is somehow relevant to this conversation?

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  33. Gustopher says:

    @DrDaveT: as you point out above, there’s a mix of concepts — causality and moral agency.

    “Who is responsible for the fact that I can’t do algebra?” is a question that can be asking either or both at the same time, depending on the definition of “responsible” that we choose.

    There’s a claim that art isn’t the finished piece, but the interaction between the finished piece and the viewer (was that Duchamp?), and that the viewer brings along their own perspectives and definitions and all that.

    In forming a coherent argument (or trying to) you are both the artist and the viewer, with the accidental word choices, and their secondary meanings, at the beginning influencing the train of thought by the end. Plus it then gets handed off to someone else to read and the whole process begins again.

    Who is responsible for the conflation of causal-responsibility, agency-responsibility and moral-responsibility in this thread?

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  34. Moosebreath says:

    @DrDaveT:

    “No, sorry, that’s totally circular. It’s the legislative version of the “theory” that people are always completely selfish, because whatever they do must be what they thought would make them happiest, else they would have done something different.”

    No, it’s worse than that. It’s like Steven saw the word “wanted”, and responded to it as if that was all I said. Here is the comment again, with what wasn’t responded to bolded for emphasis:

    I think you are overselling how much Democrats wanted No Child Left Behind, which was a case of Democrats negotiating for their priorities to be added to a bill which started out only embracing Republican priorities.

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  35. Moosebreath says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    “This is little doubt that increased polarization has made negotiations difficult.”

    And yet somehow Democrats have managed it when both Trump (First Step Act/2020 COVID relief bill) and Bush the Younger (NCLB) were President. Which goes back to the prior discussions on whether partisanship is uniform, or whether a statement on whether one party is more likely than the other to reflexively oppose something the other party proposes is actually borne out in the real world.

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  36. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Again, there’s a lot of research showing that people tend to overestimate how much control they have over their environment, and one of the reasons this happens is they tend to write a post-hoc narrative that casts things that happened to them that they didn’t actually have any control over as something they actively chose to do.

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  37. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Gustopher: The trains won’t collide; they’re on different tracks. (And now you know why I didn’t do as well in math as my teachers always hoped I would and the aptitude tests predicted.)

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  38. gVOR08 says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    But if you listen to sports talk radio and then listen to political talk radio (or read blogs along the same lines) you will find that the quality of reasoning is not all that different in the two groups.

    IIRC Limbaugh tried some sportscasting and was a failure. Somebody explained that in politics you can bullshit all you want. In sports, come Sunday they play the game, and everyone can see if you were right or wrong.

    I’ve said that most people, men at least, follow politics like they follow sports, but less avidly. It’s all looking for conflict and rooting for your team. But in politics who wins actually matters. Politics would be much different if the average middle class guy took a quarter of the time he spends on sports to read current events and history.

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  39. Andy says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    We want politics to be more complicated than sports. But if you listen to sports talk radio and then listen to political talk radio (or read blogs along the same lines) you will find that the quality of reasoning is not all that different in the two groups.

    And, of course, as I constantly note, when there are only two viable choices, all of this gets even more rigid.

    So true. And sorting has only increased the rigidity increasing the importance of salience and relative priority of issues that people care about. It used to be, for example, that you could comfortably be in the Democratic party if your two most salient issues were abortion rights and gun rights. Now you really have to choose one or the other. It’s like that with a lot of things now thanks to sorting.

    I do agree with Michael to the limited extent that people are responsible for the choices they make in life, including the consequences of their votes. But given the current defects of our binary system, I tend to cut people a lot of slack, particularly since it seems that more and more people vote for a party or candidate not as a show of affirmative support, but as a vote to oppose the party or candidate they don’t like. And that voting strategy causes a whole other set of problems.

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  40. Jon says:

    @gVOR08:

    IIRC Limbaugh tried some sportscasting and was a failure.

    The big thing that sank him was going all racist about Donovan McNabb on ESPN:

    “I think what we’ve had here is a little social concern in the NFL. The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well. There is a little hope invested in McNabb, and he got a lot of credit for the performance of this team that he didn’t deserve. The defense carried this team.”

    To thine own self be true, I reckon.

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  41. CSK says:

    @Jon:
    I remember that vividly. Limbaugh being Limbaugh.

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  42. MarkedMan says:

    @MarkedMan: Okay, I’m back. So, what did I mean above about confusing the partisanship of party leaders with that of the rank and file. And I should add that it seems to me that there are two vectors of partisanship: for your own party and against the other. And finally, I’m only really interested in causal partisanship, not the type that is merely correlated, I.e. partisanship that compels someone to change their actions.

    If we take party leaders, they are very strongly correlated with other party leaders, but I think all here probably agree that is not a primary motivation. A politicians overwhelming motivation is to get elected and everything else pales in comparison. Correlated but not Causal. But what about the vector that is “anti”? (At this level I would define it as elevating doing harm to the other party over actually accomplishing policy goals. It seems obvious to me that in this respect Republican leadership is significantly more partisan than Dems, but YMMV.

    When it comes to the general party member things get trickier. But I can think of two historical examples, one demonstrating highly partisan actions and the other demonstrating the limits of partisanship. First, in the Middle Ages people willing marched off to war because their “party leaders” told them the other side were heretics who believed/denied Transubstantiation. The odds that more than a handful of these could even explain what that was are astronomical. So it must be that they went off to die because their leaders asked them to.

    The other example is a bit more recent. In the late fifties and sixties the Democratic leadership was becoming more pro-civil rights. Southern White Democrats wanted no part of it. When Republicans came to them with an offer to not bring civil rights up in exchange for their vote, they took it. Partisanship couldn’t hold sway.

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  43. Kurtz says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    If we cannot assign responsibility for an action then we live in a world without We’re in a world of movement without a mover. Responsibility falls to the individual human because there is literally no practical alternative.

    No. Causation and normative judgements of responsibility are separate questions.

    “We’re in a world of movement without a mover.”

    Pretty sure that’s the foundation for belief in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. That the world mus have a first mover advantage. But I’m sure you agree that’s an infinite regression.

    You could learn algebra, but that carries an opportunity cost, no? Every minute you spend learning algebra is a moment you aren’t pursuing some other action.

    Let’s use another example, @Northerner’s discussion of understanding the potential dangers of AI. Having a basic technical understanding of AI requires a lot of work, much less figuring out the state of current research, whether its development is inevitable, and possible safety valves to prevent the worst case scenarios.

    It’s a lot more involved than memorizing the quadratic equation and learning how to solve for x. Every moment you spend trying to learn how abstract processing in silicon relates to neurobiology is a moment you didn’t spend understanding AGW, tax policy (without algebra skills!), the impact of wage floors on employment rates, crime statistics, etc.

    Even if you make the commitment to learn about as many issues as you can, your understanding is likely to be superficial and it can be difficult to distinguish between trustworthy sources. In those conditions, confirmation bias plays a major role in rationalization.

    Everyone is stuck with heuristics. Party ID is a necessity for those who wish to vote, but don’t have the inclination to learn how to solve for x.

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  44. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    Specific example: there’s an experiment where the test subject is presented with a board with a button and a lightbulb on it. There is also a hidden dial that goes from 10 (the lightbulb goes on when the button is pressed and turns off when it is released) to 0 (the button does nothing and the light just randomly turns on and off). Intermediate position make the lightbulb progressively less random and more determined by the button.

    The subject is explained the set up, and then allowed to interact with the board for a set number of minutes and then has to estimate how where the dial is set.

    The estimates end up showing a significant bias toward the button having more control over the lightbulb than it actually does.

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  45. Gavin says:

    All of my friends who can stomach a conversation about nuance vote 99% Democratic. All my buddies who don’t enjoy introspective conversations and haven’t changed their mind since puberty vote Republican.

    If the only people who care about definitions vote Democratic, do definitions actually matter? I have not yet met in person a Republican who is willing to change their mind about anything.

    Like an albino hippo, I’m sure an intellectually honest Republican exists, but I have yet to see one in the wild.

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