I retract my Republican-Party-Bad post
I recently wrote a blog post titled “Conservatives good, Republican party bad.” There was quite a lot of reader push back, from left, center, and especially right. These readers have convinced me that my argument in the post was wrong, and that it was not very “Haidtian” of me to declare one side to be “bad” without a great deal of research, including efforts to solicit counterarguments. I seem to have gotten “carried away” by my liberal inclinations, as SanPete put it. I hope readers will at least allow me to turn this into a useful exercise in which I examine the episode from the perspective of The Righteous Mind.
First, as to why I wrote the post: I had just appeared on the Tavis Smiley show, and to prepare for it I had read Smiley and West’s new book “The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto.” The book includes many accounts of people in desperate straits, people who had worked all their lives and now, through no fault of their own, were out of a job and therefore out of health insurance, and in default on their mortgages. It’s heart-wrenching stuff, but I was particularly open to Smiley’s point of view because I was about to go on his show and talk with him, so the “social persuasion link” and the “reasoned persuasion link” of the social intuitionist model were working in tandem. I had stronger feelings of empathy than I normally would have.
The day before my talk with Smiley was taped (April 29) I read the Edsall column. I’ve talked with Edsall several times, and have a working relationship with him, so there too, I’m particularly open to being persuaded by him. And he was citing evidence on empathy collected on YourMorals.org – my research website – as analyzed by my friend and colleague Ravi Iyer. That same day I read the Mann and Ornstein essay in the Washington Post. I assumed (erroneously) that Ornstein was a conservative because he was at AEI, which gave the seemingly bipartisan team of Mann and Ornstein far more credibility in my eyes. So it all came together for me on that day – the feelings of sympathy for the poor and anger at Republican hard-heartedness, which put me into a “can I believe it” mindset, along with a powerful statement from what I thought was a bipartisan team saying that the Republican Party was the problem in Washington, which gave me permission to believe. I could feel my elephant and rider shuffling over to the left. The day after the Smiley interview aired (May 8), I wrote the blog post.
The reader reaction was swift, constructive, and (with the exception of one repeat-commenter) civil. Ben and SanPete pointed out that I was reading Cantor’s remarks in the most uncharitable way, whereas Cantor’s basic point — about the value of having “everyone in,” having everyone contributing even a token amount, is similar to one I made myself in a NYT essay about the value of “all pulling on the same rope” as a way of getting people to “share the spoils” of their joint effort. James Wagner, Tom, and The Independent Whig all pointed out that the Republican stance on “no new taxes” is very much a principled stance, once you understand their decades-long frustration with leaders in both parties who negotiate grand bargains, including spending cuts, but the cuts end up not happening, so spending keeps rising, government keeps growing, and bankruptcy looms ever closer. (I have been persuaded about the fiscal and moral damage done by our entitlement binge by Yuval Levin). So desperate measures, such as drawing a bright line at zero, are indeed backed up by a moral passion which I can respect. You really see that passion in Whig, backed up by a consequentialist analysis of what happens when one side keeps “caring” and spending.
Whig also linked to a point-by-point response to Mann and Ornstein that shows –as usual – the necessity in these complex matters of hearing from an advocate on the other side. One can make a case that the Democrats are the problem, or at least that the two sides are equally at fault for the dysfunction.
I’m not saying that both sides are necessarily equal; centrism doesn’t commit me to splitting the difference, or saying that both sides are always partially right in any dispute. But centrism does commit me to listening carefully to arguments from both sides, and taking my own biases into account, before trying to render any verdict. I didn’t do that. And my knowledge base as a social psychologist would give me no special skills in rendering such a verdict even if I were to put in the time. As James Wagner put it (in a separate email):
“you’re more of a descriptive than a prescriptive guy: I really want to urge you to stay more firmly with your competitive advantage, which is providing information and synthesis that the left and right can both hear well on why we act the way we do. You’re so incredibly good at that, and it’s exceedingly rare. Quite afield from current (or old) event analysis, which is not your bailiwick, which my brother-in-law does better than you.”
Point granted, chastisement accepted.
Well, even if I was wrong to write the original post, at least I can claim that I was wrong for reasons that can be explained by The Righteous Mind. And I hope this episode has an inspiring ending in that the entire debate was carried out so civilly, often with acknowledgment of points on the other side, and with such attention to making claims supported by evidence, that it did in the end change my mind. I never said reason is impotent. I just said that we’re bad at using it by ourselves to find the truth.From page 90:
We should not expect individuals to produce good, open-minded, truth-seeking reasoning, particularly when self-interest or reputational concerns are in play. But if you put individuals together in the right way, such that some individuals can use their reasoning powers to disconfirm the claims of others, and all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to interact civilly, you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system.
Thanks to you all, for making this blog a reasoning social system.