Sunday, September 6, 2009

What's up with the Right?

I'm just on my way back from the annual APSA conference in Toronto. I had a few talks with people on the general topic of why conservative activists in America right now seem particularly crazy. Now, this is not to say that there haven't been some nutty folks on the left of late. But on the right, we've seen not just a few people carrying loaded weapons to town hall meetings, screaming that they want their country back, and literally accusing the president of being both a communist and a Nazi. Some Republican officeholders have actually embraced these protester's claims, and commentators like Rush Limbaugh and Glen Beck have repeated them endlessly. This, of course, is occurring at a time when liberals are largely complaining about how tepid President Obama's policy's have been. The presidential health care proposals are relatively modest compared to what just about every other advanced democracy has enacted or even what the U.S. enacted through Medicare and Social Security. The Obama policies that are most invasive into the free market (e.g.: the financial sector bailout) actually began under President Bush. So why is the Right acting the way it's acting?

One answer to this can be found in some experimental research that my old advisor, John Zaller, described at a panel at the APSA conference. As he noted, recent research shows that there are notable psychological differences between liberals and conservatives. To wit:
  • Conservatives have a heightened startle response relative to liberals. Conservatives react more sharply to loud noises.
  • Conservatives are more likely to register physical disgust at socially questionable behavior (such as sharing a spoon) than liberals are.
  • Conservatives are less comfortable in a crowd of people than liberals are. Conservatives are more comfortable where there's a clear social order.
  • When subjects are shown a video of a dog morphing into a cat, liberals are quicker than conservatives to call it a cat. Conservatives are slower to acknowledge that a change is occurring.
Conservative behavior in these examples should not be thought of as inherently better or worse than liberal behavior. Sometimes a heightened startle response is unnecessary; sometimes it can save your life. And in the last example, liberals were quicker to call the animal a cat, but it wasn't necessarily going to end up as one. Had it changed appearance but ended up back as a dog, the conservatives would have been right.

Meanwhile, look at what's happened in the country just in the last year.
  • A very sharp economic downturn has put many out of work and created uncertainty for many more.
  • The financial industry basically collapsed, undermining a great deal of the perceived structure of the American economy.
  • The country is under unified Democratic rule for the first time in more than a decade.
  • Gay marriage, which seemed like a joke a decade ago, is now legal in a handful of states and is becoming more widespread by the year.
  • The president's name is Barack Hussein Obama.
If you're a conservative and, like many conservatives, feel physically uncomfortable when rapid change occurs or when social structures collapse, this has got to be an incredibly difficult time for you. Now, I haven't even mentioned the president's race. Yes, it's possible there's some racial animus folded into all this, but you can explain much of it without reference to race. This is a time that seems almost designed to make conservatives feel threatened.


ari said...

Yes, it's possible there's some racial animus folded into all this, but you can explain much of it without reference to race.

Not really, no.

ari said...

Which is to say, how do you explain the voting maps? The ones where Southerners voted Republican in higher numbers than people in other parts of the country? The ones that overlaid so well with old maps of concentrations of slave ownership? I think cultural explanations, rather than socio-biological ones, are your friend here.

Seth said...

Ever heard of the ecological inference fallacy? In this case, multiply it by 160 years. Just because there is a correlation between the county-level 2008 presidential vote and the ownership of slaves in 1850 does not mean that they are motivated by the same thing.

And even to the extent they are, it's one thing to say that racists don't like Obama. It's a total jump to say that those who don't like Obama are racists.

Besides, while the anti-Obama folks are pretty crazed, they're really not much more crazed than the anti-Clinton folks were in the 90s. Remember them? They called him a murderer, they called his wife a lesbian, and then they impeached him. A lot of things motivated that, but I don't think race was one of them.

ari said...

I didn't say that people who don't like Obama are racists. I said that this statement

Yes, it's possible there's some racial animus folded into all this, but you can explain much of it without reference to race.

seems dubious to me.

So, a couple of things. First, there's no reason to put words in my mouth. Second, the anti-Clinton rhetoric was poisonous, to be sure, but the voting patterns were very different. You know that.

So, what about this?

Just because there is a correlation between the county-level 2008 presidential vote and the ownership of slaves in 1850 does not mean that they are motivated by the same thing.

Do you have another explanation beyond race? If so, I'm incredibly eager to hear it. If not, socio-biology continues not to sound very compelling to me, as compared, again, to culture.

ari said...

Seriously, Seth, your contention is that race doesn't matter in this case? Or that it doesn't matter much? I'm asking because I just want to make sure I've got this clear. Which is to say, I'm truly not trying to be a jerk.

And by the way, I don't think the maps I cited above are dispositive. But I do think they're suggestive. And more than that, I want to know how people explain the voting patterns in the most recent election without talking about race. That, in sum, is my question.

ari said...

Because I feel like we're arguing, and I don't much like arguing with friends, I just want to say that I think your former advisor's research is interesting. And I'm happy to grant that what he's found may help explain why conservatives are having such visceral reactions to President Obama. But your statement re. race, which I quoted above, strikes me as both an overblown and insufficient explanation for what we're seeing from the right wing. And by taking race out of the equation, you're exculpating a lot of people who really are racists.

Now I'll stfu. Sorry for serial commenting.

Seth said...

Sorry, Ari, for putting words in your mouth. That seemed to me to be the gist of what you were saying, but I apologize for inferring too much.

To answer your earlier question ("How do you explain the voting maps?"), I can explain the 2008 vote with the 2004 vote. You can explain about 95% of the 2008 vote distribution just by looking at how the vote went down in 2004, an election that featured two (very) white candidates.

Now, of course, race is folded into that equation somewhat. For the past 40 years or so, the Democrats have staked out a pro-civil rights position and the Republicans have often opposed that. And the South has become a safe place for Republicans while the Northeast has become safe for Democrats. So all this is intertwined somewhat. If you're a Southern racist, you're probably voting Republican these days. No shock there.

The evidence suggesting a race effect in last year's election has actually been pretty modest. Some polls show that Obama's race actually helped him on balance. Another calculation I've seen is that Obama suffered about one percentage point because of his race. Now, that's obviously not nothing, and it could flip a really close election, but most of what I've seen suggests that an overwhelming percentage of Americans would have voted the exact same way last year if the Democratic nominee had been a white guy named Barry Dunham.

My point in this post was not that there was no racial component to last year's vote or this year's animus. It's just that you can largely explain these phenomena without reference to race.

Here's another way to phrase it: Do you think the right would be behaving better if Hillary Clinton were president right now?

ari said...

Do you think the right would be behaving better if Hillary Clinton were president right now?

Better, no. Differently, yes. They'd be calling her a feminazi and lesbian. They'd be carrying huge puppet Vince Fosters to town halls. But most of all, they'd be calling her an emasculating bitch. Which is to say, sure, the right is both sexist and racist. I'm happy to be expansive in my critique.

And again, my point is that there were many counties in the South where McCain did demonstrably better than Bush and Obama demonstrably worse than Kerry. Race matters, is all, which isn't to say that the research you point to isn't interesting or potentially important. I've actually passed your post on to a few people, as I quite like the stuff contained therein.

Seth said...

They'd be calling her a feminazi and lesbian. They'd be carrying huge puppet Vince Fosters to town halls. But most of all, they'd be calling her an emasculating bitch.

I think this is right. I also think that if a pre-scandal John Edwards had gotten elected and were pushing for health reform today, the right would be calling him an effeminate socialist class traitor whose judgment was compromised by his love for his dying wife. And then once the scandal broke... well, we've seen that one before.

Now, we can take all this as evidence that the right is not only racist and sexist, but also homophobic and classist and a few other things. Or we could say that deep-seated anxieties are causing them to lash out and grab any reed they can find. Or, probably more accurately, we could say that opinion-making elites recognize these anxieties and are using whatever arguments they can come up with to get the anxious people motivated.

Again, I'm not saying that there's no racism on the right. I just think it's incidental to what's actually going on right now.

ari said...

I guess, now that you're talking about elites manipulating the message and the messenger, I'd want to hear more about what you mean when you say "the right". If we're talking about elites, that's one thing. If we're talking about movement conservatives, that's another. And if we're talking about the most reactionary elements of the electorate, that's still a third thing. I think each of these things grow in size, from first to third. And I think the role that racism, sexism, and homophobia play as a motive force grows similarly, though I have precisely no good evidence to prove that.

In other words, I think that many elites on the right are happy to leverage social issues and/or the culture wars for political gain. These same people are most likely perfectly comfortable with gays and lesbians, Jews, African-Americans, etc. Dick Cheney is only one example, but he'll serve us in a pinch. From there, we move to members of the movement, people who give money to hard-core conservative causes. These people, I imagine, are often more tolerant of overt racism, sexism, and homophobia. And, whether because they don't know any racial or ethnic minorities -- or homosexuals for that matter -- or because their politics are fueled by hate, they're also more likely than the elites to occupy the most reactionary social or cultural ground. Finally, we have the rank-and-file Southern winger. These people, I think, have given us ample evidence that they despise brown people, teh gayz, and everyone else who doesn't fit their cartoon version of what constitutes a good American.

Is that fair, do you think? Even though we could obviously keep splitting the categories into even narrower sub-sections of "the right"?

Anonymous said...

Ok, a couple quick additions to this conversation:

1) Racism, sexism, homophobia and classism aren't easily separable, like different colored threats. They fundamentally intersect in U.S. historical and political development: homophobia is part of hierarchically gendered worldview; racism is ultra-intertwined with classism (and vice versa), and they all are effectively produced through the dominant categories (white, male, heterosexual--oh, and Christian) that define the related "others" anyway. So we can't just say the right is both racist and sexist, etc. as if they could reasonably be just one or the other. If you hold tight to American tradition, you're mostly going to see diversions from the entire package as threatening. Racism is ALWAYS going to be at least a subtly operative subtext within the right's critique of a black president, as would sexism if it were H. Clinton. You can't fully isolate it out. It will rear it's head subtextually in the more threatening moments.

2. Michael Oakeshott on the conservative disposition: [It] is “averse to change, which appears always, in the first place, as deprivation...For change is a threat to identity, and every change is an emblem of extinction.” The conservative disposition is, in essence, a fear-mongering OCD disposition. Unless you're talking about war, which is oddly comforting.


Anonymous said...

Oops--I meant different colored "threads," not threats. But a pretty nice Freudian slip.