Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Partyism like it's 1999

Buster Keaton in, I think, Spite Marriage (1929).
Verbatim David Brooks, "Why Partyism is Wrong", New York Times, October 28 2014:
There are several reasons politics has become hyper-moralized in this way. First, straight moral discussion has atrophied. There used to be public theologians and philosophers who discussed moral issues directly. That kind of public intellectual is no longer prominent, so moral discussion is now done under the guise of policy disagreement, often by political talk-show hosts.

Second, highly educated people are more likely to define themselves by what they believe than by their family religion, ethnic identity or region.

Third, political campaigns and media provocateurs build loyalty by spreading the message that electoral disputes are not about whether the top tax rate will be 36 percent or 39 percent, but are about the existential fabric of life itself.
Like what kind of world is that where your religion has to take a back seat to the stuff you believe, for heaven's sake?

Or where public intellectuals directly discussing moral issues are not prominent, for that matter? I mean, pontificating about morals from the upper right corner of the Times op-ed page used to be regarded as a pretty big deal, and now? You can get more attention with a well-made kitten meme.
Or Shorter David Brooks:
I have a nightmare that one day my children will be judged by their political beliefs instead of the color of their skin. 
It seems Brooks was giving some free career advice to a lad interning at Heritage or the Manhattan Institute or somewhere, I imagine the nepotistically deployed child of a friend, who was applying to grad schools and job opportunities where "most people," he says, "were liberal." Should he scrub the internship from his résumé? No, Brooks thought, that shouldn't be necessary; in his experience it might well be a plus, since liberals tend to value that kind of breadth of experience.

But then he unexpectedly learned that he might be wrong. "I'm shocked, shocked to find that partisanship is going on in here!" "And how would you like those 30 pieces of silver for representing the mild, whimsical face of conservatism in the most famous newspaper in the world, sir, cash or check?"

He got this from an article at BloombergView by Cass Sunstein (cited, as usual, five paragraphs after Brooks started pretending to have learned about it on his own and thus breaking those Yale plagiarism rules yet again), reporting in turn on some research by Shanto Iyengar and Sean Westwood (which Brooks doesn't link and clearly hasn't read), which found that political affiliation has now in a sense become as polarizing as race, and in some cases (when evaluating résumés!) still more polarizing.

I'd personally be very happy to see people judging each other more on the basis of their beliefs than their skin color. (A little startled to find that religion is included among the superficial aspects, but not sorry.) Reminds me of the conservatives' favorite quote from Dr. King, in fact, since I think of one's beliefs as part of the content of one's character. It's very odd that Brooks should prefer us to discriminate on the basis of inherited traits.

If I were a cynical man, I'd suspect Brooks of deliberately trying to discourage voter turnout here by minimizing the importance of the electoral issues. The contest is not about life itself but a three-point difference in top marginal income tax rates? Really? Why vote, indeed?

Because as we all know conservatives don't read Brooks; his audience consists entirely of those weak-tea partisanship-hating liberals like Cass Sunstein, and the fans of the Simpson-Bowles team. In persuading them to stay home, he'd be beefing up the Republican side.

But of course it's more likely that he really feels politics is that trivial as, in Brooks-and-Sunstein-land, it really is. (They know very well that abortion is not murder and that the federal government has no intention of seizing everybody's guns or taking over the health industry but see no serious harm in fanatics imagining that these things are the case, and by the same token they don't think the right of black people to vote or gay people to marry or employees to be paid a living wage or humans everywhere to clean air and clean water is very important, compared to Mr. Koch's tax bill, but again Brooks doesn't think that's terribly important either.) That's why he's so sick of writing about it.

What's interesting to me is the assumption, built into his argument, that liberals are supposed to have large views, and look at your résumé with a sense that that stint at AEI makes you interesting. If a kid wanted to go to Regent Law School or get a gig at the Weekly Standard Brooks wouldn't be advising him to make a point of telling them about his internship at the Open Society Institute, because it would obviously be fatal.

So what's disappointing him isn't that people seem to have become partyists, but that liberals have. With conservatives, it goes with the territory; liberalism is supposed to be open and accepting, by definition. He thinks it's very unpleasant of them to be judgmental and prejudiced the way his own team is.

In this connection, there's a fascinating little detail in one of the Iyengar and Westwood experiments that Brooks doesn't know about, because Sunstein didn't mention it: In the Brief Implicit Association Test pairing affiliations with affective terms like "good" and "bad", they found that Strong Republicans were more biased against Democrats than Weak Republicans, but Strong Democrats were somewhat less biased against Republicans than Weak Democrats were. Similarly, in the ideological questions, Very Conservatives had a stronger preference for Republicans than Conservatives without an adverb, but plain-vanilla Liberals were a bit more biased than the Very Liberals in favor of Democrats.

In other words, you might expect, and I'm sure Brooks would, that the stronger your political affiliation the more biased in its favor you would be, but it doesn't turn out symmetrical like that. But that's not how it is. Rather, the more liberal you are within your group, the less biased you are. In spite of Cass Sunstein (it's an extremely modest correlation, to be truthful). The young friend with the wingnut-welfare background might need to be more cautious applying to The New Republic than to The Nation. The liberality Brooksy misses from the good old days still exists, but more among the real liberals. Which is how it should be, after all.

If that's what Brooks is trying to say, he's quite right. It's only natural for conservatives to be insular, closed-minded, and hostile; that's what they're all about. But it isn't right for us. We should be able to find some good even in the desolate and rubbish-strewn landscape of his prose.

Much more chez Driftglass, who reminds us that some might say Brooksy used to be a bit of a partyist himself  (oh, really? do tel!). Also it's Drifty's birthday this week.

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