Basing a political affiliation on factual evidence
January 18, 2004 5:12 AM   Subscribe

Can one choose a political affiliation based on factual evidence (especially in the economic realm)? [MI]

Grossly oversimplifying, the left says "we need to spread the wealth so that people in need will be okay," and the right says, "we need to help the rich, because if we do, the rich will help the economy which will help all of us, including the poor."

Almost everyone I know, except for me, has a STRONG opinion about which one of these views is correct. When I ask them how they come by their views, it's usually a gut feeling or else they're just following the standards of their family or social group. And they tend to get pissed of at people who hold the other view or no view at all.

I was raised in a left leaning family, and I grew up with a vague feeling that right-leaners were bad because they wanted to help the rich and not the poor, which is not fair. Now, having met so many kind righters, I realize that most of them don't think that way. They genuinely believe that their social policy will help everyone -- including the poor.

I can't argue with them. I see no way to prove them wrong or right without fully trying their idea, then going back in time and trying a leftish idea and seeing what works best.

I've read a few books and essays on economics, but none seem heavy on evidence (what kind of evidence could their be?) They seem to either rely on half-baked ideas about human psychology or they bring up examples from other countries, which don't mean much in my mind, because the test tube is too dirty.

Is political affiliation essentially a religious thing? Do you just have to go by faith?
posted by grumblebee to Society & Culture (17 answers total)
Now, having met so many kind righters, I realize that most of them don't think that way. They genuinely believe that their social policy will help everyone -- including the poor.

I really, really don't want to get into part billion of the Right-Left MeFi pissing match, but many of the righties I know put it this way, "I am getting, or will get, mine. Get your own. To each his own."

My answer to your final question: Right, left, or center, where you stand politically is most determined by what you choose to ignore, not what you embrace.
posted by Mo Nickels at 7:26 AM on January 18, 2004

I think the first problem you're going to face is that terms like "right" and "left" are extremely vague; trying to capture the hypothesized social policies from such broad terms is going to be difficult or impossible. You could certainly test any given individual's social theories against fact, and that's worth doing before you go to the polls, but as a single party encompasses a very broad platform you'll be hard pressed to determine what you're analyzing.

And as Mo says, statements of policy tend to be significant in what they do not mention. You'll possibly find facts to support most of a given party's general social theory -- politicians love to point to examples -- as well as cases where the same theories did not hold true.

The general idea of putting political and social theory to test against emprical evidence is a good one, but I have serious doubts that you would be able to form a methodology to encompass entire parties. There are wacko theories on both ends of the spectrum, and most of the viable candidates for office tend towards the middle in one way or another in any case. I suggest narrowing your study to individuals on any given ballot rather than trying to affiliate yourself with a party this way.
posted by majick at 7:45 AM on January 18, 2004

I think the question itself is flawed, or rather, that the question is asking whether or not there is a rational basis for faith in the future actions of a group. And political party affiliation is really about faith, to a great extent. You might agree with some or most of the past actions of a group of people bearing a certain banner, and so by joining under that banner you lend your symbolic or real support to this group. That allows the group to become stronger, and whoever gains power within the group to execute a personal agenda with greater ease.

Though it's almost cliche to say one should vote for individuals and not parties, it is still true.
posted by Space Coyote at 7:56 AM on January 18, 2004

I don't think you should vote for individuals and not parties--Granted, it's the individual running that should excite and inspire you, but the party platform is very important, and telling, esp. when it's House/Senate or President. The individual elected will have to conform to certain views--and if you vote for the individual without paying attention to the party they belong to, you are espousing those views, like them or not, and giving whatever the agenda is for that party more power.

I think voting your pocketbook, and voting your issues/concerns is far more important. (Are you better off? Are your friends/family/community? And do you care about more govt spending on social problems or privatisation of services? or gun rights/gay rights/etc....?)
posted by amberglow at 8:19 AM on January 18, 2004

I'd also add that all presidential candidates run toward the middle, but don't govern that way at all usually.
posted by amberglow at 8:22 AM on January 18, 2004

grumblebee, the world is a very, very dirty test tube. :-) Last year, six-plus years into a Ph.D. in political science, I left grad school for the real world. Part of the reason for that was the sense that the 'scientific' (i.e., empirical, quantitative, testable) part of 'political science' was being privileged to such an extent that the methodologies we were encouraged to use were, in fact, ill-suited to accounting for reality. The desire for scientific-looking answers has, in many places, run roughshod over the desire to conduct useful investigations.

The most convincing accounts of reality that I have come across are those that blend empirical evidence with 'thick description', nuanced and plausible explanations of how parts of societies fit together, and a willingness to transcend historical and geographical boundaries in an attempt to demonstrate the desirability of a particular strategy or system.

That may be a bit abstract. At a practical level, I agree that you should try to ignore 'left' and 'right'. What should one look for in a party, a strategy, or a candidate? Concentrate on inclusiveness. Try to see who is consistently privileged by the party's policies, and who is consistently disadvantaged. Look for a demonstrated willingness to make compromises. Look for a history of transparency, relative lack of corruption, and a willingness to admit past mistakes.

Try to look at what political and economic systems (e.g., capitalism, social democracy, direct democracy) do and do not work at different levels of society (e.g., condo board, local government, national level, global level) with regard to a particular issue area (e.g., social policy, economics, environment), and ask yourself why what works in one context should (or should not) work in another context.

Sorry if this is somewhat rambling - it's a side-effect of being a recovering grad student.
posted by stonerose at 8:33 AM on January 18, 2004 [1 favorite]

Looks like the answer to the question is: no. This seems especially true given the current attitudes toward deficits. Moreover, "factual" evidence in politics (especially in the field of economics) is not only difficult for me to type but impossible to elucidate. I heard some interesting views on NPR recently about the lack of centralized news sources and its affect on politics. While the decentralization of news seems like a good thing, what it has done, at least as far as I understood, is fostered an inability for the American public to share common ground. This is not to suggest that we would all think the same things or way because we all watched the big three networks but that we all could have a conversation with a shared base. Or something like that.
posted by Dick Paris at 10:00 AM on January 18, 2004

People's political opinions depend on a lot of different things. No matter how much people may protest, reason is rarely part of it.

One difference is subjective values. Different people get outraged by different things. Some people believe in equality, others in reaping the fruits of one's labors. Some people are most afraid of government power, others of corporate power, others of any type of societal power over the individual, other of disorder and chaos. In general, people have radically different ideas of the meaning of the words "fairness" and "justice", which makes them essentially useless as a basis for argumentation. There is no "correct" political philosophy until you have defined the goals that society is seeking.

Another basis for people's philosophies is the kind of emotional and moral framework that appeals to them. Lakoff's ideas about political frames and metaphors covers this pretty thoroughly.

Another difference is how people bridge the gap between theory and the Law of Unintended Consequences. Both the left and right philosophies sound great in principle, but people have different willingness to accept that reality never corresponds to those principles. Very few people are willing to accept that every political system creates it own characteristic type of corruption. This is the primary reason why it's so hard to find consensus on what the empirical evidence demonstrates, since someone will always argue that any problems came not from the principles but from their wrongful application.

Another difference is personal experience. Many people build their political philosophy around rectifying the suffering of their family and friends, and have a harder time coming to a personal understanding of the suffering of people who are further away.

Another component is identity. People subscribe to a political philosophy because they identify with a certain group, and they ostracize people with a different philosophy as "evil". Political opinions are one way that people have of saying "this is who I am and this is the group I belong to". I personally believe that this is the primary reason why most people hold to a particular ideology.

In my world, the real difference is not between the left and the right, but between the ideologues and the pragmatists, those who believe that a single theory can govern human affairs versus those who believe we live in stonerose's "dirty test tube".
posted by fuzz at 10:07 AM on January 18, 2004

In my world, the real difference is not between the left and the right, but between the ideologues and the pragmatists, those who believe that a single theory can govern human affairs versus those who believe we live in stonerose's "dirty test tube".
But some of us believe that you can mix the two, and be pragmatic about the ideologies you hold, and recognize that it's always imperfect and messy, but you can take steps get to where your ideologies are more fully expressed--see the civil rights movement, for example, or gay rights, or women's rights...There are practical things, and votes for certain people over others that will actually make a difference.
posted by amberglow at 10:15 AM on January 18, 2004

This is all sloppy and off the top of my head, but:

Is political affiliation essentially a religious thing? Do you just have to go by faith?

To some extent. The effect has been diminishing over time, but by and large people are still brought up into their political beliefs. That is, (some) people are Democrats in the same way and for the same reasons that they're Methodists, or Packers fans. And, yeah, some people change their political affiliations, just like some Methodists convert to Catholicism, but that's not normally the way to bet. And as I noted, this effect has been dropping since the 1950's when we started looking at this in surveys.

If you're asking whether most people's political affiliations or voting patterns are a result of them reasoning from an ideology to the party that best matches it, the answer is clearly no. Most Americans simply don't think ideologically -- in surveys, they give no indication that they use a consistent left/right (or libertarian/statist, or anything else) ideology to constrain their thinking. Maybe 5--15% of American adults do that. Another 25--40% of American adults seem to think in terms of group benefits (he's good for business, he cares about farmers, etc).

The other major input on party choice seems to be retrospective evaluations. Lots of people are Democrats because Lincoln was a Republican, or because Hoover was. Party ID flexes over time as sort of a running tally of who screwed up, how much, and how often.

If you want to pick a party and find yourself conflicted, what that suggests to me is that you're likely a split-ticket voter anyway and might find yourself wanting to vote for Democrats and Republicans both to try to end up at a situation where they have to compromise with each other.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:25 AM on January 18, 2004

The desire for scientific-looking answers has, in many places, run roughshod over the desire to conduct useful investigations.

Can you think of concrete examples?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:39 AM on January 18, 2004

There are many equally valid bases for dividing the world into left and right. Economic considerations is just one. The Republican party today represents both country-club conservatives who just want to promote liberal trade and minimal government, and don't really give a rat's ass about social issues, and red-meat social conservatives, who want to enforce a certain definition of morality, and to the extent that they're interested in economic issues at all, they're as often opposed to the country-club set as in accord.

Which of these groups is the right wing? You could make similar observations about the left, which variously has social-justice, the environment, labor, etc priorities, depending on who you talk to.

In short, I'd agree with Amerglow that you need to look at specifically what an individual candidate espouses. Labels can be useful, but in this area, they tend to oversimplify.
posted by adamrice at 1:24 PM on January 18, 2004

[Apologies in advance ... this post is longer than even my usual discourse, but this question is one of the best I've ever seen asked ...].

The question is far more interesting than the usual sound-bite dichotomy, and in fact may be one of the most essential issues facing citizens in a democracy ... and in fact (IMO) should be considered a duty to ask of oneself.

grumblebee, if you don't mind, I'd generalize the question even further, reduce it to the core issue - and frame it as:

"How do I decide who to vote for?"

While looking for empirical data to inform one's decision making process certainly must be part of the equation, I would not start there - both for the reasons stonerose mentioned, and because of the problem of scale. The US population is approaching 300 million. Seems easy to write that, and we have become accustomed to throwing large numbers and statistics around, but I don't think an individual human mind is capable of grasping the immensity of what "300 million" means.

300 million free individuals, interacting daily on multiple levels, in every conceivable fashion, produce a functionally infinite amount of raw data. Things like economic statistics and public opinion polls attempt to give some shape to that immensity, but in truth are roughly analogous to sticking a teaspoon in the Mississippi river, and believing that by analyzing that water in that teaspoon one can understand the river itself.

Further, almost any internal belief can be justified by statistics - simply by selecting how one is going to do the sampling. I could prove that the Mississippi is either the most polluted river on earth, or clean enough to drink from unfiltered - just by carefully choosing where I dipped my teaspoon in. Both of those samples would be "true", but neither would even remotely convey the full truth.

In fact, we see this all the time on MeFi ... someone posts an opinion piece containing anecdotal evidence of something, or a news report containing the latest polls, or a political assertion backed by two or three links to different statistics of some sort. These posts, however, say immensely more about the person who posts them than they do about any sort of objective big picture. (Of course, the posters will all point to what they've posted, and insist that it is "true" - but this is like pointing to the water on one's teaspoon and insisting it is, irrefutably, Mississippi river water ... well yes, it is, but that by no means implies it is telling the "truth" of the Mississippi as a whole, or that 50 other people couldn't find places to dip their teaspoons that would not only tell different, equally compelling "truths", but truths diametrically opposed to the truths in the initial teaspoon).

So then, forgive me for getting all Socratic, but I believe the first step in answering the question "Who should I vote for?" has got to be self-examination. Our individual minds both perceive "the world", and filter that perception. And the composition of those filters largely determines what tiny slice of the total world we'll focus on (and usually, consciously or not, we'll believe that tiny slice to be the whole).

Physical vision is a good analogy - of the entire solar spectrum of light, the human eye is capable of actually responding to maybe 1/8 (we cannot see wavelengths shorter than violet, or longer than red ... so ultraviolet and above, and infrared and below can only be understood with other equipment) ... i.e., the entirety of what we commonly call "the physical world" is determined not by what the physical world actually is, but rather by the limitations of our own vision (a being with perceptual abilities capable of seeing the entire solar spectrum would not even be able to talk to us about "the world", so different would his/her idea of it be).

Same thing works, I believe, at the conceptual level. Because our conceptual filters (biases, beliefs, preconceptions, assumptions, & etc.) will go a long way towards determining which "empirical" evidence we'll look at, and how heavily we'll weigh its importance, it is essential to know, and acknowledge those filters. To drag them up from the unconscious and articulate them to oneself. It is a useless exercise to look at the outer world for evidence until one understands the agent that is doing the looking.

The second step, after self-examination, is (I believe) even more difficult and uncomfortable than self-examination can be: It is to genuinely seek alternative angles of vision quite different from one's own, and acknowledge that they may have an equally compelling validity.

(This, in fact, is what started grumblebee on this post ... when he says "I was raised in a left leaning family, and I grew up with a vague feeling that right-leaners were bad because they wanted to help the rich and not the poor, which is not fair. Now, having met so many kind righters, I realize that most of them don't think that way. They genuinely believe that their social policy will help everyone -- including the poor."

There are many folks all over the political spectrum that have never reached this level of intellectual development. Their view is the correct view, simple as that. All others are inferior. Bush is evil. Republicans are utterly selfish. The left is lazy and morally corrupt.

Once one understands one's own filters, the act of deliberately seeking, and trying to understand filters quite different than one's own - and even further, to put them on and look at the world through them - is (I believe) a mechanism capable of making one a much more "informed" voter. What grumblebee implies in his question is something that is really quite remarkable - he has actually acknowledged the belief system he grew up with, but is simultaneously capable of not only understanding a perspective different than his own ... but even acknowledging that it might be equally legitimate. He's already gone way beyond the one-liners and sound-bite nature of current political discourse.

The thing is, doing the first two steps alone naturally leaves one with the conundrum he's facing - if there are multiple, equally legitimate perspectives, how does one decide who to vote for? I believe this is confusing because he concluded that perhaps empirical evidence of some sort could be used to determine which perspective would actually lead to the best society. My own view is that it is premature to ask that question until a couple of other steps are completed:

Achieving personal clarity about what one believes motivates human beings, and clarity about the proper rights and responsibilities of an individual, and a government.

(The first two steps - understanding not only own's own filters, but those of others as well - should produce a range of possible answers to these question that is much broader than it would have been).

I believe clarity on these two questions is essential. Implicit (though often not overtly stated) in every public policy put forward by a candidate are assumptions about how it will affect the behavior of citizens ... and whether a policy succeeds or not is often highly dependent upon whether those assumptions were true or not. Evaluating the relative strength of these proposals from candidates requires some sort of standard against which to evaluate them - and the clearest standard is that of individual human motivation. (I might add that I believe politicians themselves have an even greater duty to think through this question ... as the "law of unintended consequences" mentioned above in this thread largely comes about because so many laws and policies are created that wind up being - clearly - deeply mistaken about what motivates human behavior, and as a result have effects much different than those the authors of those laws claim they'll have).

The second big question - regarding the proper rights and responsibilities of an individual, and a government - is also one it is essential to articulate to oneself at a conscious level, as (again) what one believes about this significantly effects one's evaluation of any claims and proposals being made by candidates. Again, implicit in most laws and public policies - and implicit in one's judgement of their correctness - is a distinct belief in what individuals ought to be responsible for, and what their government ought to be responsible for.

So then, when one is

1. Consciously aware of one's own internal filters, and has a solid understanding of the assumptions, beliefs, and biases through which they perceive the world;

2. Has vigorously attempted to understand and acknowledge a wide range of filters and perspectives different than one's own;

3. Has examined what motivates their own behavior, and come to conclusions about how the behavior of others will change as the result of public policy; and

4. Has clarified their beliefs about the duties of individuals and the duties of their governments ...

... I believe at that point, the process of examining the personal character of the candidates, what they are saying, what they have demonstrated in their past careers (whether in the public or private sectors), what they are framing as the current list of "problems", and what they are proposing as solutions ... can then be approached in a fashion that contains as much genuine clarity as it is possible to achieve.

I'd only add one further point - that in asking those questions, and engaging in that analysis, it is best to completely forget about any particular surface categories. The media certainly produces many sound-bites, and political operatives on all sides produce caricatures of their opponents. Those who adopt, and repeat these are those that have not examined themselves, or thought through the issues with an independent mind (in fact, they are produced precisely for those that do not wish to undertake that effort).

One of the surest signs that one has achieved this is that you find yourself coming to conclusions that simply do not fit easily into ordinary categories, and confuse your friends and acquaintances - to the degree they have put you in those categories.

(For example, I've been working through the process I've been describing ... and while it may make no sense at all to those on this board that frame all of my views within a distinct category, were I to be able to cast a vote today for one of the eight or nine candidates on both sides of the aisle, Bush would be my second choice ... Joseph Lieberman would be my first ... the process I described lead me to conclude that he's the one that would be the best President, and have the greatest chance of producing the most positive results both domestically and internationally. Go figure.)

At any rate ... I hope this thread gets more activity - as (IMO) it stands as one of the most worthwhile questions Ask MeFi will every be asked.
posted by MidasMulligan at 1:36 PM on January 18, 2004 [2 favorites]

about my assertion that much poli sci is driven by slavish adherence to methodology, rather than the desire to use the right tool for the job at hand, ROU_Xenophobe asked:
can you think of concrete examples?

I don't want to derail the thread, or (god forbid) get into a rat. choice vs. critical theory argument. I'll let Ian Shapiro speak:

"We [he and Donald Green] argued that method-driven research leads to self-serving construction of problems,misuse of data in various ways,and related pathologies summed up in the old adage that if the only tool you have is a hammer,everything around you starts to look like a nail. Examples include collective action problems such as free riding that appear mysteriously to have been “solved” when perhaps it never occurred to anyone to free ride to begin with in many circumstances,or the concoction of elaborate explanations for why people “irrationally” vote,when perhaps it never occurred to most of them to think by reference to the individual costs and benefits of the voting act. The nub of our argument was that more attention to the problem and less to vindicating some pet approach would be less likely to send people on esoteric goose chases that contribute little to the advancement of knowledge. "

"Problems, Methods, and Theories in the Study of Politics, or What's Wrong with Political Science and What to Do about It," Political Theory (August 2002).

By the way, for anyone looking for what I think is a fresh, accessible, no-nonsense approach to practical political theory, pick up the paperback of Richard Rorty's Philosophy and Social Hope.

(Now, I shall sit and wait for a Straussian to accost me.)
posted by stonerose at 2:47 PM on January 18, 2004

There's an awful lot of crap that got published and gets published, and Riker and the first crop of people from Rochester certainly had a certain evangelistic fervor about them, at least back in the 70s and 80s, and poli-sci does tend to be pretty trend-following.

But it's really only that first crop of stuff to which Green and Shapiro's critique applies with any force*; since then, people have largely calmed down and -- even for people who do it -- rat-choice work tends to be just another tool, and one that's more useful in some places than others (ie, applying to things like voting where there's no meaningful negative feedback for voting ``incorrectly,'' or to turnout, isn't the smartest idea anyone ever had, but using it to model elite-level stuff where there are actual consequences to losing isn't dumb).

Anyway, I don't really see why you'd've let the presence of bad work drive you off (wanting to stop being broke, now, that's a good reason to quit, as is just growing to dislike the whole endeavor or ceasing to give a damn). You can still get good work published that doesn't use rat-choice theory, or path models, or whatever the flavor of the month happens to be.

There is a certain sense though in which poli-sci attracts people who want to have erudite conversations over coffee, who get disappointed with arguing about what estimator you should be using for whatever. Mostly this is, I think, a failing in the way we teach methodology. There's a lot of cramming equations down people's throats for a couple of semesters, but not much attention (in the program or afterwards) about why you should give a damn about good methodology, or why one method actually works better than another, or what the actual inferential consequences of fucking up the methods are.

That said, some people also don't want to admit that the right tool for the job at hand really is some particular statistical method, or statistics at all, or who don't want to be forced to actually think in careful inferential terms about what their theory says (usual test: if you can describe how you would know if you were wrong, you're on solid footing).

*I've not read the article you point to, only their earlier book
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 3:45 PM on January 18, 2004

All very good points, ROU - I wouldn't quarrel with a single one of them. But at the same time, I think there's a huge place in poli sci for avowedly atheoretical, unfalsifiable work - descriptive work, for example, that shows how systems 'hang together,' or draws comparisons that make people see the world anew. In that regard, political studies can be like literature, and still be of value. This sort of study is, I think, given short shrift in the North American academe. Perversely, this is probably because much of it tries to masquerade as rigorous, positivistic social science out of insecurity, or a misplaced sense of what is valuable. I think it also hurts matters that many scholars are uncomfortable doing incremental descriptive work, leaving questions hanging, for others to pick up on.

Incidentally - I would hate for anyone to think that I cut and ran because there were people in my field doing stuff I didn't like... I'd have a hard time finding any job if that were my primary criterion! I was indeed bored, and sick of being in school, and I had figured out what I went into the game to figure out - and, as a bonus, I figured out that I couldn't stomach teaching undergrads year after year. :-) But most importantly, and happily, my dream job fell into my lap at the right time.
posted by stonerose at 6:14 PM on January 18, 2004

But at the same time, I think there's a huge place in poli sci for avowedly atheoretical, unfalsifiable work - descriptive work, for example, that shows how systems 'hang together,' or draws comparisons that make people see the world anew.

I don't disagree in principle, but I think there's a lot of inferential work to be done even in what you describe. Showing that two systems really do hang together in ways X and Y but not in way A takes inferential work to do, that's going to be more or less the same whether you're doing it qualitatively or quantitatively. If you want to draw a comparison to make the people see the world in a new light, there's serious inferential work to be done to make sure that the comparison is apt, to find the scope of its aptness, and to indicate to the reader when it's no longer apt. And, in both, there'd be serious big time work in finding what sort of confidence intervals / bounds of uncertainty are around what you're saying.

For that matter, I sometimes think (from conversations with English-PhD-track friends) that they'd be well served with a bit of attention to methodology, since some of them at least are doing what amounts to scientific research using texts as data (ie, they have theories and hypotheses and are using data to probe them), but they're not doing it as well as might be desired.

I think it also hurts matters that many scholars are uncomfortable doing incremental descriptive work, leaving questions hanging, for others to pick up on.

I think that's a separate matter of not rewarding data collection projects. If a new dataset that someone else used once (ie, a useful one) counted as a publication (even one in the Journal of Last Resort, you'd see a lot more of it done.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:29 PM on January 18, 2004

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