February 20, 2013
The Racialization of Morality and Politics
Since 2008, the media have repeatedly flogged the notion that conservative opposition to Obama's policies has nothing to do with the fact that progressive policies like the so-called living wage, the war on income inequality, and the expansion of government are ones conservatives have opposed for decades. What's really causing conservatives to oppose the same policies they have always opposed is "racial attitudes".
But a new study suggests that these disturbing racial attitudes are powerful enough to cause progressives to ignore their decades-long opposition to the aggressive and pre-emptive use of lethal military force and the targeted killings of American citizens with no judicial or legislative oversight:
In a YouGov poll of 1,000 voters last August, Tesler found significantly more support for targeted killing of suspected terrorists among white “racial liberals” (i.e., those liberal on issues of race) and African-Americans when they were told that Obama supported such a policy than when they were not told it was the president’s policy. Only 27 percent of white racial liberals in a control group supported the targeted killing policy, but that jumped to 48 percent among such voters who were told Obama had conducted such targeted killings (which Tesler refers to as the “Obama cue”). He found a similar difference among African-Americans, but cautions that the sample size, of 60 in a control group and another 60 who were given the “Obama cue,” is small. “We can be pretty confident that blacks are more supportive when given the Obama cue, but not at all confident about how precisely large that difference is,” he told me via email.
But is it really race at work here? Or is it something else?
The study provides more evidence for the thesis of another political scientist, Lilliana Mason, which we described last fall. Mason argues that the electorate is becoming increasingly tribal. Our party affiliation is increasingly intertwined with our personal identity, making us more prone than ever to support the policies of “our side,” regardless of their actual content.
Logically speaking, whether one has moral qualms about targeted killings should have nothing to do with who, specifically, is giving the go-ahead on such actions. But this report provides more evidence that when it comes to a wide range of policy issues, our views seem driven more by loyalty than by logic.
The comparison between conservative support of health care reform (hardly a moral bright line in the way targeted assassinations ought to be) and Obama's re-invention of the unitary executive doctrine, which reliably sent progressives into fits of mouth-frothing fury during the Bu$Hitler years seems strained at best.
But I can't find much wrong with the tribalization thesis. In fact, a little digging revealed an article in which our old friend Ta-Nehisi Coates' misrepresentation of the racialization study's results is corrected by the study's author (Tesler):
Coates calls the findings “bracing”—empirical evidence for contemporary, subtle forms of racial animus operating like “quaking ground beneath Obama’s feet”. He cites a host of similar research into the white public’s views on race, as well as instances of undeniable race-baiting rhetoric from Republican leadership in recent years. He concludes:“What we are now witnessing is not some new and complicated expression of white racism—rather, it’s the dying embers of the same old racism that once rendered the best pickings of America the exclusive province of unblackness.”
But do Tesler’s findings entirely support this thesis? As he states in the paper: “There is simply no way of knowing whether the growing polarization of public opinion by racial attitudes…was caused by the president’s race or another factor like his party affiliation”. Tesler does show that race increased in importance as Obama became the face of health care reform, but only “relative to nonracial considerations”. That is, race was not the most important consideration for respondents, just likely a more important factor than if absent a black president. Also, the level of ‘importance’ of race for respondents didn’t necessarily correspond with diminished support for Obama’s policies, except among a small fraction of respondents who reported the highest levels of resentment.
Overall, Coates’ brief presentation of Tesler’s research implies that race plays a more central, negative role in white Americans’ lack of support for Obama’s policies than what the research supports. More striking in Tesler’s data, white Americans seemed to override their own morally indefensible resentment in gauging the merit of Obama’s policies.
It all sounds so familiar.
February 16, 2013
Some Good News
Elise is blogging again. Her latest post puts forth an interesting theory:
Perhaps what look like media malpractice and media bias to people on the Right; what look like deliberate decisions to deceptively edit and knowingly omit; what look like actions in service of an ideology and a goal; perhaps all that is simply a result of a mindset that defines certain people as existing outside the realm of decent, serious society and that believes no reason is sufficient to explain their utterly unacceptable ideas and policies.
Elise is onto something here, but I don't think it's the whole story. All writers are selective, but to paraphrase Tolstoy I suspect we are selective for different reasons.
I reject some issues because I'm conflicted about them. If I have a lot going on at work, I may simply lack the mental bandwidth for the discussions that will ensue. Sometimes - rarely - I reject a topic because it is emotionally freighted and I suspect my own position won't stand up well to scrutiny (mine, or that of others). That last one sometimes results in my writing about it anyway, but this doesn't happen as often as it should.
Sometimes I avoid topics because I know my friends disagree vehemently with me. I know I won't change any minds and don't want to distress them for no reason. This is why I don't write about pornography or prostitution. That's not something I'm proud of.
Elise's post reminded me of one of the most thought provoking posts I've ever read on bias. It took me a while to find it:
Suppose we look at writing on issues where people tend to hold strong opinions that fit with their ideology. Such writing can
(a) attempt to open the minds of people on the opposite side as the author
(b) attempt to open minds of people on the same side as the author
(c) attempt to close minds of people on the same side as the author
So, think about it. Wouldn't you classify most op-eds and blog posts as (c)? Isn't that sort of pathetic? Here are some more thoughts:
1. The default is (c). If you are not consciously trying to do (a) or (b), then you will almost surely do (c).
2. Most of us, most of the time, do (c).
3. Doing (c) 100 % of the time can earn you fame and fortune. Yes, you get criticized for it by people on the other side, but the positive reinforcement you get probably more than makes up for it.
4. Try to think of folks who try to have a high proportion of (a) and (b). The first ones that I think of are David Brooks and Tyler Cowen.
This part, in particular, fascinated me:
Tyler is good at paying attention to the strongest arguments of those with whom he disagrees. Focusing on weaker arguments instead is a classic (c) move. I only get annoyed when he gets to be so cagey with his own point of view that people can take him for holding an opinion that in fact he definitely rejects.
I spent a long time thinking about this one.