American conservatives: not quite that stupid

No, they don’t actually want to bomb the country from Aladdin nor do they believe that solar panels will drain the sun.


Don’t imagine Republicans are like this

Recently the American anti-tax campaigner Grover Norquist tweeted that:

The fact that it’s not very funny shouldn’t obscure the obvious: it’s a joke. Nonetheless, some people with politics different from Norquist’s have a low enough opinion of him that they seemed to think he was serious.

This is a very small example of the tendency among people who are on the left and/or European to underestimate American conservatives. That’s admittedly difficult to do. It uses conspiracy theories to dismiss awkward science on matters like climate change and evolution. Its alarmism often reveals its insularity: one can only really believe that a small expansion of the welfare state will lead to a socialist dystopia if you don’t know much about countries that have larger welfare states. And as Donald Trump is revealing its ideology is underlined by some unpleasant prejudices.

But too often its opponents reveal prejudices of their own. Take, for example, the claim that “30% of GOP voters support bombing Agrabah, the city from Aladdin”.  This was gleefully shared on social media but probably didn’t merit the snarking it provoked. For starters it’s not from a very reliable source. It originates from a poll by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic leaning outfit with a poor reputation. Nate Silver has accused them of manipulating their results to match the results of other more effective pollsters. Their reputation for asking questions that produce amusing results that get a lot of media attention has earned it the nickname ‘the troll pollster’.

On this particular occasion, they got a stupid answer by asking a stupid question. The respondents to the poll filled it out online and therefore had no chance to ask for clarification. Plus there wasn’t an option for “that’s a stupid question why are you asking me about bombing a fictional place”. And most voters reasonably infer that if they are asked something by a pollster then it’s a reasonable question. So it’s not surprising that a fair proportion wound up being led to a nonsensical answer. It’s not just Republicans: 20% of Democrats also chose the yes answer. This is a story that says less about politics than it does polling.

A more blatant misrepresentation came when it was reported “a town in the U.S. has…blocked construction of a solar farm, in part due to fears it would drain the Sun’s energy”. Predictably that turned out to be a substantial embellishment. The claims about the Sun being drained of its energy came from two members of the public at a public meeting rather than from an official source. When the story was followed up by a reporter from Vox he found that the real concerns lay elsewhere. The town in question was extremely poor, felt it had been exploited by commercial interests and believed the company responsible for the solar farm would continue this exploitation. They appear to have been justified in that belief. They would not have received any financial benefit. It would, however, have used up land on which residents hoped to see developments that might help regenerate their town. Bizarre ideas about how solar energy work seem peripheral to the story and it appears tragic rather than funny.

We have got to stop misrepresenting American conservatives. The obvious reasons are accuracy and fairness. But there’s a more subtle one: it may lead us to underestimate our own proclivity for making mistakes. If Republicans make mistakes because they are uneducated hicks, then we can imagine that as well educated cosmopolitans we are immune to such dangers. If only that we true.

Instead, I suspect that the problem is selective blindness. It’s not that they don’t have information available or evidence a blanket rejection of rational thinking. For example, they are quite content with the majority of scientific findings: it is only those like climate change and evolution that contradict their ideology that meet resistance. I would suggest that a useful concept here is ‘rational irrationality’. This was devised by Bryan Caplan in his book The Myth of the Rational Voter:

“In standard neoclassical economics, people are assumed to be rational; the notion of systematic bias is considered to be a sloppy assumption. In many ways, Caplan agrees with this: most people are rational when it comes to choosing a job, buying milk, hiring employees, and selecting a business strategy. They can be wrong, of course, but a systematic bias rarely, if ever, occurs.

But the author argues they are only rational because it is costly to be wrong. A racist will still hire a qualified black person because going to the second best option will be expensive to the company. A protectionist will still outsource because he has to achieve as many advantages over his competitors as he can to stay in business. Someone who thinks a discount store is haunted will seriously question their conclusions when they find their budget to be tight.

Sometimes, however, it is virtually costless for the individual person to hold on to their preconceived beliefs, and people like those beliefs. Rational irrationality simply states that when it is cheap to believe something (even when it is wrong) it is rational to believe it. They refuse to retrace their logic and seriously ask themselves if what they believe is true. For some people, thinking hurts and they will avoid it if they can. This often appears in politics. Caplan argues that, “Since delusional political beliefs are free, the voter consumes until he reaches his ‘satiation point,’ believing whatever makes him feel best. When a person puts on his voting hat, he does not have to give up practical efficacy in exchange for self-image, because he has no practical efficacy to give up in the first place.”

So, for example, I think that deep down many Republicans know that more guns leads to more gun violence. I posit that they have banned federal research into gun control because they (at least subconsciously) know what it’s going to wind up saying. But it’s psychologically easier to avoid confronting that information than it is to change your belief system or admit that it has a cost. If they have to come at the problem from an unusual angle then their underlying rational beliefs can emerge. Take the NRA backed Texas legislator who warned that the US could not take Syrian refugees because it would be too easy for one of them to buy a gun and commit a terrorist attack. Or in the video below at 4:20 you can see a gun advocate argue that it’s not fair to compare rates of gun violence in the US and Australia because “the US has a very high number of guns, therefore, there are going to be more chances for people to get killed with a gun”.

The problem is that this kind of “confirmation bias” is a universal human tendency. It’s not peculiarly American or conservative. For an illustration of this, I would recommend a recent article by Jesse Singal in New York magazine on how there have been some egregious examples of people on the left trying to suppress research in fields like psychology and anthropology that contradicts their political beliefs. And why wouldn’t they? They are people and people like things simple and dislike changing their mind. So if you meet a Republican don’t expect someone who has just climbed out of a hole, expect someone fundamentally like you.