Monday, September 1, 2014

What’s the liberal equivalent of climate denial?

Fibonacci Blue/Flickr

In laboratory settings, politics makes smart people dumb. But in the real world, does it make Republicans dumber than Democrats?

Paul Krugman thinks so. "Can anyone point to a liberal equivalent of conservative denial of climate change, or the ‘unskewing' mania late in the 2012 campaign, or the frantic efforts to deny that Obamacare is in fact covering a lot of previously uninsured Americans?" He asks.

Jonathan Chait mostly agrees. "In American politics," he writes, "reliance on empiricism is an ideology" — and, to be more specific, that ideology is liberalism.

Here's the catch: studies show self-identified liberals and conservatives have roughly the same tendency to twist the data to fit their biases. Dan Kahan — whose work kicked off this conversation — has studied this six ways from Sunday. His conclusion is that liberals and conservatives are fundamentally alike: they reason backwards from their conclusion, and woe unto any evidence caught in their way.

In one experiment, Kahan showed you could get liberals to start doubting global warming (and conservatives to begin accepting it) by making clear that any solution would require geoengineering. In another, he showed that both liberals and conservatives were more likely to rate someone an expert on climate change if they agreed with their conclusions. In a third, he showed liberals were about as resistant to evidence showing concealed carry laws are safe as conservatives were to evidence showing climate change is dangerous.

(A quick note here: some of Kahan's studies sort people into personality types that roughly track "liberal" and "conservative," but the overlay isn't exact. I'm being a bit imprecise here, but the alternative is a very lengthy dive into how hierarchical individualists differ from egalitarian communitarians, and the upshot is it mostly tracks the ideologies we shorthand as liberalism and conservatism.)


Chip Somodevilla/Getty

It's fair to say that Krugman's post utterly delighted Kahan. "Sometimes something so amazingly funny happens you have to pinch yourself to make sure you aren't really just a celluar automaton in a computer-simulated comedy world," he wrote. To Kahan, Krugman's response showed a liberal twisting the facts to believe exactly what he wanted to believe even as he accused conservatives of being the ones who twist facts to believe exactly what they want to believe. He called it "exquisitely self-refuting."

But Krugman isn't looking at the lab. Nor is he looking at individuals. He's looking at political coalitions. And that's trickier for Kahan's data to refute. His experiments don't say anything about how political coalitions reason. It's possible that liberals and conservatives have the same individual tendencies towards self deception but something in the composition of the liberal coalition provides a check that the conservative coalition currently lacks.

Of course, possible isn't the same thing as proven. And if Kahan's research proves anything, it's that liberals who judge liberalism as honest and rigorous and conservatism as fraudulent and mendacious should be intensely suspicious of their conclusion. Nothing is more natural for people than to amass the evidence proving that they're awesome and their opponents are fools.

The same, however, can be said for Kahan. He too has a dog in this fight. He wants to believe his research showing parallel reasoning processes among liberals and conservatives actually explains something about the world. But since he believes in climate change and survey data and Obamacare enrollment pretty much everything else Krugman lists he's in a bit of a tough spot. Are his beliefs right or is his research right?

Kahan solves the problem by arguing that being right is irrelevant. "It's not whether one gets the answer right or wrong but how one reasons that counts," he argues. A liberal who works backwards from conclusions but happens to believe in climate change is "to be congratulated for being lucky that a position they unreasoningly subscribe to happens to be true," but nothing more.

Here, Kahan makes a serious mistake. Political reasoning doesn't take place inside our heads. It takes place inside our parties.

No one can personally investigate the vast array of issues facing the country. In terms of getting the right answers, the most important decision people make is choosing whom to trust. In politics, that typically means choosing a party, or at least a political coalition. If one party is systematically better at assessing the evidence than the other that's a huge deal.

A point Kahan makes in his research is that being wrong about policy is costless for most people. "Nothing any ordinary member of the public personally believes about the existence, causes, or likely consequences of global warming will affect the risk that climate changes poses to her, or to anyone or anything she cares about," he writes.

But that's not true for political parties — particularly political parties that have to govern. Majority parties bear the heavy responsibility of actually getting policy right. Self delusion leads to bad policies, bad policies lead to bad outcomes, and bad outcomes leads to the loss of power. The debt ceiling is a perfect example. Raising the debt ceiling always polls terribly. But the governing party always does it anyway because they know the alternative is worse. Their incentives to get reelected trumps their incentives to pander to their base.

That's less true for minority parties. They have the luxury of being irresponsible. They can posture against the debt ceiling and complain about the deficit and swear they have a better way to reform health care that they're just not ready to reveal. For them, bad evidence can often lead to good electoral outcomes. That's how you get, say, Senator Obama voting against an increase in the debt ceiling in 2006.

"That was just an example of a new senator making what is a political vote as opposed to doing what was important for the country," Obama said in 2013. "And I'm the first one to acknowledge it."

So all else being equal, minority parties will be less tethered to good evidence. And right now, Republicans are the minority party. The last time they were a majority party, they had a leader who, for all his flaws, believed in climate change, knew that the debt ceiling had to be raised, signed a stimulus bill into law, and bailed out the banks when it proved necessary.

But even minority parties have reason to calm the tribal impulses of their members. Winning elections requires winning the support of many voters who aren't hardcore conservatives or liberals. A party that mirrors its most committed members is a party that's going to lose.

Of late, the Democratic Party has had a much easier time crossing its base. When President George W. Bush was in office, Democrats worked with him on No Child Left Behind, on Medicare Part D, on the tax cuts, on immigration reform, on TARP, on the 2008 stimulus, and more. They didn't take the lockstep approach to opposition that the Republican Party has in the age of President Obama.

It's not a particularly original observation to note that Republicans these days are barely a party at all. The GOP's machinery is being repeatedly overwhelmed by the grassroots. This was evident in the Bush years, when congressional Republicans almost killed Medicare Part D, actually killed immigration reform, and defeated TARP on the first vote.

Since Bush, the Republican Party has gotten weaker and its grassroots has gotten stronger. Tea party conservatives have largely cowed the GOP's establishment. Senator Ted Cruz forced the Republican Party to sign onto a government shutdown that it knew full well would be a disaster. Tea party congressmen almost forced a default in 2011, in many cases because they didn't believe the establishment's warnings that disaster would result. Key members of the Republican Party have lost primaries to more conservative challengers.

So here's one way to potentially unite Krugman, Chait and Kahan: Republicans and Democrats are similarly prone to partisan self-deception on the individual level, but the weakness of the Republican Party establishment has left the Democratic Party more capable of checking its worst impulses on the national level.

Another argument here is that the Democratic Party has to face up to the fact that there are fewer liberals in America than conservatives. Surveys consistently show that there are about twice as many self-identified conservatives as self-identified liberals. That might mean that the Republican Party is pulled more towards the groupthink of conservatives than the Democratic Party is towards the groupthink of liberals:


Of course, this presupposes that the Democratic Party, controlling for majority status, has more evidence-based positions. That brings us back to Krugman's original question: "Can anyone point to a liberal equivalent of conservative denial of climate change, or the ‘unskewing' mania late in the 2012 campaign, or the frantic efforts to deny that Obamacare is in fact covering a lot of previously uninsured Americans?"

It's not obvious to me that the ‘unskewing' mania of 2012 was all that widespread. I also remember liberal pundits being a lot more convinced of John Kerry's chances in 2004 than the polls justified. But climate change is a more solid example. And then there's the fact that nearly every elected Republican has signed Grover Norquist's anti-tax pledge, effectively promising to ignore both evidence and circumstance when building budgets.

So the question, then, is for conservatives: on what major policies is the bulk of the Democratic Party establishment ignoring — or, Norquist-like, promising to ignore — the evidence? And if that behavior isn't as prevalent among Democrats, why is that?

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