Ezra Klein recognizes, in Why We’re Polarized, that the literature on political polarization and bias is deeply and personally disturbing. “To spend much time with this research is to stare into a kind of intellectual abyss,” he says. The research seems to show that people trick themselves into confirming their own biases, and that people with higher levels of political engagement and knowledge are more, rather than less, prone to doing so.
The implications should not be lost on the reader. Chances are, if you’re reading a book by Ezra Klein, you’re a highly educated and engaged consumer of political news, exactly the kind of person this research says is most vulnerable to motivated reasoning about politics. Everyone recognizes that other peoples’ political reasoning is motivated; in particular, they recognize that the other side’s political reasoning is motivated. However, it’s incredibly difficult to admit that your own reasoning is political motivated, and even if you were to admit that, what would you do about it?
I can tell a straightforward, partisan story about inequality in the United States:
- The colonial United States was a remarkably egalitarian place — for white people, at least. But as the United States industrialized, from the Civil War through the Gilded Age and all the way until the Great Depression, the government made few efforts to redistribute wealth, and inequality grew and grew.
- Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal policies reduced inequality dramatically and established a bipartisan consensus in favor of egalitarian redistribution that lasted for decades. Democrats controlled the White House and Congress for most of these years, and even the two Republican presidents elected during this time — Eisenhower and Nixon — basically accepted the New Deal consensus. During this time, inequality remained low and even declined slightly.
- But backlash against the Civil Rights Act ultimately shattered public confidence in Big Government, eventually leading to the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. After this point inequality began to rise again, such that today we once again see levels of inequality we haven’t seen since the Gilded Age.
This is a common story — for example, it’s pretty much exactly the one Paul Krugman tells in The Conscience of a Liberal.
(note: this review kinda sorta assumes you’re familiar with Steven Pinker’s theories on the decline of violence. If you need a brief synopsis, watch this.)
Bear F. Braumoeller’s Only the Dead: The Persistence of War in the Modern Age is one of the most sophisticated rebuttals to Steven Pinker’s claims about the decline of violence, as presented in Better Angels and elsewhere. At its core, though, its argument is a variation on the same strategy every rebuttal to Pinker uses: Count something other than war deaths as the numerator or something other than world population as the denominator.
To his credit, the author reveals himself to be unusually self-aware of this issue:
The 2019 college admissions scandal (sentencing underway) brought a wave of thinkpieces and cheeky tweets on the meritocracy, with the consistent message that America isn’t one. Two critics of meritocracy got a lot of name-checks: Michael Young, who invented the term in Rise of the Meritocracy, and Chris Hayes, whose more recent Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy now seems shockingly prescient. Both warn that meritocratic ideology is dangerous, but the dangers they each point to are quite different.
Louis C.K. shows up several times in Phoebe Maltz Bovy’s The Perils of Privilege — not as villain exactly, but as an undeserving beneficiary: A white man who, through, through self-awareness and linguistic finesse, reaps admiration from a culture that values performative “privilege checking.” Her choice of example aged almost unbelievably well; six months after the book was published, Louis C.K.’s wokeness was revealed to be not just a profitable performance, but a facade for a serial dick-whipper-outter.
Bovy’s critique of privilege comes from the political left; she has no doubt that the kinds of inequalities described as “privilege” exist; rather, she believes the concept of “privilege” is a counterproductive way to describe and analyze those inequalities. And while I imagine Bovy takes no joy in what Louis C.K. turned out to be, it does put her in a great position to say “I told you so.”
(Because Bovy writes from the left, her book probably won’t be of much interest to conservatives, except for the schadenfreude of dozens of examples of liberals own-goaling themselves and treating each other horribly. If you don’t believe there is much unfair, group-based inequality in the United States today, but you still want to follow along with my reasoning, feel free to imagine you’re reading this in 1964 or 1862.)
The political theory of pluralism holds that power in liberal democracies is distributed among many different groups, whose interests conflict or align in ways that shift over time. It’s partially a descriptive theory, meant to explain how liberal democracies actually work, but also a prescriptive theory, in that most people who believe that pluralism is how things work also believe that pluralism is a good way for things to work.
Pluralists are often accused of ignoring the fact that some groups are consistently more powerful than others – in particular, Marxists believe that Capital is significantly more powerful than all other groups, and that Labor is the only other group powerful enough to challenge it. While not all Leftists are Marxists, most nevertheless believe in some similar “bipolar” model of power (in some specific cases called a “Power Elite” model): Corporations versus the People, the Kyriarchy versus the Oppressed, and so on. Far-right theorists don’t participate much in mainstream political science, but if they did, they would probably criticize pluralism using similar models – Secular Humanism versus Christianity, Jews versus Aryans, the Cathedral versus whoever neoreactionaries think the good guys are, the West versus the Caliphate, the Caliphate versus the West, and so on.
There’s a fundamental absurdity lurking behind all affirmative action debates in the United States: The official justification for affirmative action is “diversity”, but the more reasonable moral justification is giving a leg up to disadvantaged groups. These two goals kind of mean the same thing for blacks and Hispanics, but not necessarily for any other groups.
Hence the Harvard admissions case.
The “text” of the case is that a court is trying to figure out whether Harvard discriminates against Asian Americans. Harvard says it doesn’t; the plaintiff says it does. The subtext is that everyone knows Harvard discriminates like hell against Asian Americans, but political coalitions make it inconvenient to address the issue.
One way I can fool people in the real world into thinking I’m cool is by spinning fire.
The man in the above video – who is not me – is spinning props called poi, which is the Maori term for a traditional performance art that involves balls on strings. Every once in a while, you’ll get someone who’ll tell you that white people shouldn’t spin poi, because it’s “cultural appropriation.” This is not a big deal, and it never goes anywhere because there is no substantial movement among the Maori themselves to stop white people from spinning poi.
A post last month on /r/slatestarcodex asked whether professors who believe in conspiracy theories should get to keep their jobs. That question seems pretty easy to me – if their beliefs interfere with their teaching, then firing or some other kind of discipline is appropriate, otherwise not. What’s more interesting to me is one of the follow-up comments:
“MKUltra, the Gulf of Tonkin, Bohemian Grove, CIA involvement with the Dalai Lama, Cigarettes causing cancer, the testomony of ‘Nayirah’ before the Gulf War, Operation Mockingbird, CIA involvement in the importation of Cocaine, The Iran-Contra affair, even the Chernobyl nuclear disaster all started as conspiracy theories.”
How many contradictory headlines can we generate from exactly the same set of General Social Survey data on attitudes toward free speech?