Economics, Politics, Science

Mapping Politics: Corey Robin and Mary Douglas

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In earlier posts, some of them a few years old now, before our current president’s rise demonstrated the continuing power of partisan tribalism and white grievance politics in the United States, I tried to explore the idea that tribalistic political thinking and the struggle for group recognition might be, under some circumstances, more politically powerful than economic self-interest.

Starting from this perspective, I enjoyed finally reading Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind (2011), a popular collection of revised magazine-pieces on the history of right-wing thought from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, as the subtitle puts it. (A new 2017 edition brings the story, and the title, up to Trump. Let’s hope this is the last edition.) The central thesis of Robin’s history of ideas is that there is an essence to conservatism: “the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back” (4). Conservatism is identified with the Right, and both are defined as reactions against the Left’s “politics of emancipation” (9).

Against the modern American conservative’s sense of himself as a principled defender of liberty and limited government, and as free from the blood-and-soil chauvinism of the European Right, Robin argues that the political thought of the Right in Europe and America, in the eighteenth century and today, is in fact usefully approached as “a unity” (34). The unity is defined by “backlash politics” (34):

Conservatism … is not a commitment to limited government and liberty — or a wariness of change, a belief in evolutionary reform, or a politics of virtue. These may be the byproducts of conservatism, one or more of its historically specific and everchanging modes of expression. But they are not its animating purpose. Neither is conservatism a makeshift fusion of capitalists, Christians, and warriors, for that fusion is impelled by a more elemental force — the opposition to the liberation of men and women from the fetters of their superiors, particularly in the private sphere. (16)

In other words, rather than defining the Left and the Right in terms of economic policy positions, as has been the norm in discussions of American politics, Robin defines his two political poles in terms of us-versus-them group power dynamics. Based on my earlier thinking about the potential importance of political tribalism in explaining the contemporary American political landscape, Robin’s approach is appealing.

At the same time, I found myself wondering how to relate Robin’s claims about the essence of the Right to other scholarship I’ve encountered that attempts to provide a map of political space — especially the social science scholarship descended from the anthropologist Mary Douglas‘s “group-grid” typology of political orientations (sometimes labelled “Cultural Theory“), and the mainstream political science scholarship surrounding Poole and Rosenthal’s spatial model of congressional ideology (such as the DW-NOMINATE method for locating legislators in issue space).

Of course, Robin doesn’t present his project as an exercise in mapping or categorizing political ideologies. He makes no reference to either Douglas or Poole and Rosenthal. Robin’s book presents itself primarily as a contribution to the history of ideas, with a focus on the underlying, sometimes largely unstated or even obscured impulses motivating the history of conservative ideas.

Still, it seems to me that Robin’s history implicitly rests on something like a model of political space. It is a one-dimensional model that sorts political ideas and political actors by their proximity to two ideal types: the Left or the Right, where the former is defined by its commitment to emancipating the subordinated from their superiors, and the latter is defined by its reaction against the former.

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Politics, Science

Tribal cognition: a few additional notes

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In response to my recent post on tribal cognition as a barrier to reason-based political deliberation, a reader draws my attention to a 2012 New York Times Op-Ed. in which Cass Sunstein proposes a theory very close to what I called “tribal cognition”:

In the face of entrenched social divisions, there’s a risk that presentations that carefully explore both sides will be counterproductive. And when a group, responding to false information, becomes more strident, efforts to correct the record may make things worse.

Can anything be done? There is no simple term for the answer, so let’s make one up: surprising validators.

People tend to dismiss information that would falsify their convictions. But they may reconsider if the information comes from a source they cannot dismiss. People are most likely to find a source credible if they closely identify with it or begin in essential agreement with it. In such cases, their reaction is not, “how predictable and uninformative that someone like that would think something so evil and foolish,” but instead, “if someone like that disagrees with me, maybe I had better rethink.”

It follows that turncoats, real or apparent, can be immensely persuasive. If civil rights leaders oppose affirmative action, or if well-known climate change skeptics say that they were wrong, people are more likely to change their views.

In fact, a recent interview at Vox with Stephan Lewandowsky, author of The Debunking Handbook, suggests that many psychologists have already embraced Sunstein’s proposal. That is, they recognize that the perceived political identity of both messenger and message can influence whether someone is receptive to an evidence-based argument. In other words, it appears that psychologists studying political communication already view “cultural cognition” and (what I called) “tribal cognition” as distinct, and recognize that both can play important roles in thwarting reason-based deliberation. (In fact, the idea that people will be more open to persuasion by experts they perceive as sharing their values already appears in the Kahan et al. “HPV Vaccine” article from 2008 — before the Sunstein Op-Ed.!)

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Politics, Science

Sources of political disagreement: “tribal cognition” versus “cultural cognition”

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Why does the presentation of persuasive evidence — even evidence of a scientific consensus — so often fail to resolve political debates? How is it, for example, that so much of the American public on the right refuses to accept the scientific consensus regarding the causes and risks of climate change?

For a while now, I’ve thought that Dan Kahan’s theory of “cultural cognition” offered the most persuasive answer to these questions. Kahan rejects the idea that the problem lies in Republicans’ lack of information about climate science. Offering more evidence isn’t going to resolve the issue at this point. It might even aggravate the problem.

Rather, Kahan offers empirical evidence that the Republican resistance to climate science is an example of a more general phenomenon: the human tendency to arrive at conclusions that are congenial to our cultural values, and to resist, dismiss, or attack conclusions that threaten our values and identities.

But the more I’ve learned about the specifics of the cultural cognition theory, the more I’ve felt like it leaves something out.

In this post, I’d like to propose a hypothesis that complements cultural cognition’s explanation for the frequent failures of evidence-based discussion to lead to increased agreement on politically charged issues. When I first heard about Kahan’s work, I thought that the theory I’m about to present was what he meant by “cultural cognition.” But as I’ve read more about his work, it’s become clear to me that the idea I have in mind is a distinct one.

I’ll call the hypothesis “tribal cognition.”

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