Yesterday, in a strangely appropriate thing to do for President's Day weekend, I visited the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. When I first got there, I had this idea that I might need to keep a low profile considering my liberal leanings and when I told a docent there that I was from Venice Beach, I projected a liberal-conservative frame upon him, as I took his information that General Electric had given them a grant to bus kids from Los Angeles to the library as partisan gloating, even as I've myself wondered why Republicans care about our president addressing our children. If I'm honest, there is not much difference and school children should be able to do both. Perhaps visiting his library is an opportunity to remove myself from partisan framing and to understand someone with a different worldview than myself.
Perhaps the most important thing I got from his visit is that I realized that Reagan was a far more complex, sincere and likable person than I might have thought. As someone who actively seeks to promote civility in politics, this was an opportunity to practice what I've often espoused. I was born in 1974, and so perhaps was too young to have any direct ideas about Reagan, instead relying on the caricatures of his persona from the current political discourse. These caricatures map onto the below graph of yourmorals.org data where strong liberals report being disgusted by conservatives and believe that conservatives are generally not good people (compared to the midpoint of the scale on a 1-7 disagree-agree scale). Vice versa, strong conservatives often believe that liberal democrats disgust them, are anti-country, and also are not good people. Note that these effects hold for "strong" partisans rather than slight partisans.
On visiting the Reagan Library, I learned a number of things that add depth to my impression of Reagan as a likable person, even if I disagree with much of his worldview. Among the things I learned were that:
- Reagan was the "first president of the United States to hold a lifetime membership in an AFL-CIO union". While he may be famous for firing the air traffic controllers, who imperiled national safety for fairly ambitious demands, I didn't get the impression that he would resolutely support Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's union busting ethos. Reagan's first political experience was actually in solidarity with students who wanted to strike to protest cuts at their university.
- Reagan actually was a Democrat in his early career.
- While governor of California, he actually signed legislation increasing the affordability of homes for low income individuals and funding grants for the disabled, meaning he was hardly as extreme as either liberals who villainize him or strong conservatives who hold him up as an example, make him out to be.
- Reagan appreciated nature in that he spent a lot of time outdoors in his spare time, and praised the government of Sri Lanka for it's "dedication to preserve God's gift of nature."
Civility does not mean that I have to agree with his policies, but rather that I am open to appreciating that he genuinely meant well for the country, was a good person, and was not someone to be disgusted by, in contrast to the above graph. Of course, there were many points where I disagreed with the focus of the exhibits.
- The cold war was portrayed as a struggle between good and evil, whereas much moral psychology would suggest that pure evil is far less common than we might think. Indeed, while "peace through strength" is a common theme of exhibits, it is Reagan's friendship with Gorbachev, not force, that ultimately seemed to be the breakthrough in the cold war.
- Reagan's belief in unrestricted free enterprise and supply side economics seems to me like an exercise in motivated reasoning, in that people don't like to make tradeoffs between helping the poor and rewarding those who produce more.
Still, my overall impression of Reagan was improved by my visit and perhaps a civil thing to do would be for all partisans to visit a presidential library of someone of the opposite party as familiarity breeds liking, and in these hyperpartisan times, we could all use a bit more appreciation for our friends across the aisle.
- Ravi Iyer
Rush Limbaugh recently talked explicitly about calls for civility in the media, saying that "civility is the new censorship". In a sense, he is correct, in that when liberals (myself included) talk about civility, we specifically mean people like Limbaugh, whose livelihood is based on demonization of the opposing political viewpoint. I have to admit that when I talk about civility in politics, as someone who views civility as an intrinsic part of their work, I have him in mind, not Rachel Maddow, the liberal equivalent (more on equivalency in a bit). However, perhaps liberals will get further by marginalizing rather than directly attacking people like Limbaugh.
In the wake of the Gabrial Giffords shooting, there is no real plausible defense of incivility that will sway much of the public. So instead, Limbaugh's basic argument is that liberals are even more uncivil than conservatives. Below is an excerpt:
RUSH: President Obama urges civility in public discourse. F. Chuck Todd is now happily reporting this on MessNBC: President Obama urging civility in public discourse. When I think of the left wing, I think civil, don't you? Code Pink, the New Black Panthers, union bosses beating up black conservatives in St. Louis, ACORN, illegal alien marches, why, it doesn't get more civil than that. The trashing of the Tea Party movement for the last nearly two years, that's civil. When I think of MSNBC, I not only think of journalistic excellence, but civility, don't you? That whole class warfare thing, I mean that's nothing but civility on display. When I think of the counterculture movement of the sixties, I think civility. When I think of Rahm Emanuel, the man Obama chose as his own chief of staff two years ago, I think of civility. We don't need lectures from uncivil leftists about civility, much less Obama. Bitter clingers and all the other incendiary things he's had to say, both as a candidate and as president.
In fact, ladies and gentlemen, isn't one of your complaints that Republicans are too docile? Isn't one of your complaints that Republicans just sit there and take it, that the left is always on the march, always accusing, always throwing bombs, and the Republicans just sit there and take it? The fact of the matter is the Republicans are civil, as the left defines it. They don't say anything. That's exactly what civil means. Another couple of examples. Give your civil reaction to the charge that you oppose Obama because he's black. Give me your civil reaction to you are a racist because you have criticized President Obama. Show me how to react in a civil way. Give me your civil reaction to this: You want to take money from the poor and line your pockets and the pockets of the rich. You don't care about the unfortunate. In fact, you and your buddies have created homelessness. Give me the civil reaction to that. If it was up to you, we would still have slavery today.
First, the point of civility is not to get people to "sit there and take it". Disagreement and debate about policy is healthy. Rather, as stated on the home page of civilpolitics.org, "Civility as we pursue it is the ability to disagree with others while respecting their sincerity and decency." It is possible to disagree on a policy, but believe that others who disagree are not evil, anti-American, stupid, or heartless. By that standard, Limbaugh clearly falls short and so does much of what goes on in liberal circles, where many liberals do think that conservatives "don't care about the unfortunate" and are either stupid or heartless. Being clear about what civility means allows us to setup bright lines that Limbaugh and Maddow both cross. Maybe calling liberals evil or anti-American is uncivil, but so is calling conservatives stupid or heartless, which is more or less what MSNBC does.
The other reaction I have to Limbaugh's passionate defense of incivility echoes the words of David Frum, a prominent conservative, who used these words to chastize Rachel Maddow, who was making fun of Sarah Palin in the below video. While my policy preferences rest with Maddow, I have to admit being swayed by Frum's specific words that: "The fact that other people fail in other ways is not an excuse for you failing in your way" (see about 4 minutes and 40 seconds into the below video). The fact that Limbaugh is uncivil does not make it ok for Maddow to be uncivil nor vice versa.
Frum goes on to talk about how the vocal liberals and the vocal conservatives "have a symbiotic relationship of negativity". There is much truth in this. For example, as explained in this article, conservative radio thrives on the idea that liberals want to silence them.
The take home message for me? It is time to unilaterally withdraw from the symbiotic relationship that the far left has with the far right. Frum quotes Ghandi in the above clip, saying that we should 'be the change' we want to see in the world. I agree. In Ghandi's philosophy (Satyagraha), you don't win by defeating your opponent, you win by converting them to your cause. Conservativism thrives under threat (see research on Terror Management). Instead of demonizing Limbaugh or trying to legislate the end of his livelihood, liberals would do better by marginalizing extreme conservative voices by refusing to cooperate in "us vs. them" zero-sum framing of politics. Conservativism is strongest when it has an enemy to rally against. Let us not be the enemy that Limbaugh needs to keep going.
- Ravi Iyer
For the past few months, I have been working with Matt Motyl and Jon Haidt on a website that promotes research based methods for increasing civility in politics. The desire to increase civility in politics is not new, having been parodied as the cliche-d dream of PhD Poli Sci students and recently promoted by Jon Stewart's Rally to Restore Sanity, but it has obviously been taken to a new level with the tragic shooting of congresswoman Gabriel Giffords and many others, with politicians on both the left and the right, calling for a less heated atmosphere.
Predictably, the response to the shooting has taken on a partisan tinge, with each side claiming that Loughner, the shooter, is a far-right activist, evidenced by his interest in Ayn Rand, or a far-left activist, evidenced by his interest in the Communist Manifesto. More indirectly, those on the left have blamed the right for their militant rhetoric, while those on the right have pointed out that the left sometimes uses similar rhetoric.
Some on the left have pointed out that the use of extreme rhetoric is unbalanced, and while I don't think this is necessarily wrong, I think it is a mistake to focus upon, especially for liberals and those who want less divisiveness in politics. It sets up an "us vs. them" dynamic at a time when all leaders, including Republicans that are sometimes characterized as obstructionist, are open to unity.
Have you ever noticed that liberal churches often have the word 'unity' in their title? That conservatives want to solve health care by increasing competition across state lines? That liberals prefer diplomatic, while conservatives prefer military solutions to conflicts? Doesn't it seem as if Fox News sees purportedly unbiased (e.g. NPR is run by fascists) and moderate (e.g. the Rally to Restore Sanity) entities as greater existential threats than the more obviously opposed, MSNBC?
Liberalism is congruent with cooperation, while conservativism is oriented toward competition. In social science, linguist George Lakoff shows how conservatives use the language of competition. In psychology, Morton Deutch's considerable work was inspired by the difference between competitive and cooperative systems and his work can be explicitly connected to liberal-conservative differences. Consider the below YourMorals data showing that liberals feel less warm towards sports fans than conservatives.
Neither cooperation or competition is inherently superior as there are situations where each is needed. Sometimes war is the only way to prevent injustice (e.g. stopping Hitler) or competition does lead to greater productivity (e.g. capitalism vs. communism). However, competitive framing and divisiveness is likely to increase both conservativism and vitriolic rhetoric (see this page on how competition leads to incivility) and most Americans now say that, at least in politics, competition for office has gotten out of hand, at the expense of cooperation on policy and now at the expense of innocent lives. We are in a moment when moderates on both sides of the aisle are preaching unity and civility, which should naturally lead to less divisiveness, threatening to marginalize extremists on both sides. If there is anything that the killer's reading list is indicative of, it is of extremism, not any particular political view. As such, those liberals who are using these events to specifically attack conservative rhetoric, further polarizing debate, are fighting a fire with gasoline.
- Ravi Iyer
ps. if you are interested, here is Jon Haidt's reaction to these events.
I recently attended a lecture by Vivian Schiller, the CEO of NPR, where an audience member asked her insights about Roger Ailes' recent assertion (Ailes is CEO of Fox News) that NPR executives "are, of course, Nazis. They have a kind of Nazi attitude. They are the left wing of Nazism. These guys don’t want any other point of view." Schiller's response was that she really had no idea where that came from, and could be perceived as conflict avoidant, in that she had an opportunity to reciprocate an allegation and did not. NPR (unlike MSNBC) doesn't appear to seek conflict with Fox News, and its "no rant, no slant" slogan would seem to differentiate itself consciously from partisanship. Similarly, Jon Stewart has sought to promote civility in a consciously non-partisan fashion, yet has drawn a lot of criticism for appealing to a disproportionately liberal audience. NPR's audience is a bit more balanced, but still with a slight liberal lean.
Some question the motivations of NPR executives or Stewart based on their audience, but what if something more basic is going on. Perhaps the concept of non-partisanship, conflict avoidance, and compromise is inherently appealing to liberal sensibilities. This can be framed as both a positive or negative trait, as being extremely conflict avoidant could relate to appeasing one's enemies or being a moral relativist. Some in the press have observed that "An endorsement of civility and reason is basically an endorsement of Barack Obama. 'Reason and civility' are practically the Democratic party's platform." Perhaps anyone with the motivation to promote reason and civility in politics would necessarily attract a liberal audience, regardless of how truly non-partisan one intended to be.
What psychological traits might relate to being conflict avoidant? The most obvious trait is Agreeableness, one of the Big Five dimensions of personality, depicted in the below graph of yourmorals.org data. As you can see, liberals do score slightly higher on measures of Agreeableness, which includes questions like not finding "fault with others" and being "generally trusting".
The effect size is fairly small though, so it might help to find some convergent evidence. I did find this paper, where a nationally representative sample was asked if people "try to avoid getting into political discussions because they can be unpleasant, whether they enjoy discussing politics even though it sometimes leads to arguments, or whether they are somewhere in between." There was a small, but significant correlation (r=.07) between being conflict tolerant and being Republican and a smaller, but insignificant correlation (r=.03) between being conflict avoidant and being a Democrat. This paper cites 6 instances where Agreeableness is negatively linked to conservativism, but also 2 instances where it is positively linked. It seems like there may be a link between being agreeable overall and being liberal (again, with both positive and negative connotations), but the link is certainly weaker than other effects (e.g. openness to experience or conscientiousness). Perhaps whatever effect exists due to differences in Agreeableness may be magnified by lower liberal perceptions of ingroup/outgroup distinctions, leading to reduced willingness to engage in conflict with out-groups, as conservatives have heightened concerns about constructs like group loyalty.
So far the data I have and research I've looked at doesn't yet paint a decisive picture as to why liberals disproportionately seem to rally around civility. I need to do more research on this and would welcome ideas that might yield cleaner data. Perhaps conservative critics are correct and the problem is the source of the message, but there does appear to be some intrinsic psychological mechanism at work that makes Fox News popular with conservatives, while liberals prefer an ostensibly neutral NPR to a more obviously partisan MSNBC.
- Ravi Iyer
I voted on Tuesday. Like many people on this day, one of the highlights was the opportunity to be part of something bigger than myself and cast my vote, in the hopes that whomever is elected, we'll work together to solve problems and make the world a better place. I actually had a mail ballot, but in California, you can turn in your mail ballot and vote in person if you want to. I chose to do so and went to the polling station with my wife. The polling station is cheerful environment and it may be my bias, but I felt that people were genuinely happy to see each other there and share their experience with others. When I got home, I changed my facebook status to indicate that I had voted and my conservative and liberal friends all 'liked' my status. It is one day of the year when liberals and conservatives have the same message. Please vote! In social psychology terms, voting could be thought of as a superordinate goal that leads to increased cooperation and goodwill between formerly conflicted groups.
The goodwill of the voting booth stood in sharp contrast to the shows I watched to get the results of the election. Consider the below exchange which led one blogger to comment that "manners are a dying art".
Other things I read or saw on election day included Fox Reporters talking about Democratic senators who kept their jobs as "missed opportunities", MSNBC reporters talking about how they really didn't want to see Republicans "with a kick in their step", and live chat comments like "is there a way to collect democratic tears in a cup, because I want to drink them?" It's one thing to celebrate our successes, but does that necessarily mean enjoying the negative emotions of others.
Realistic conflict theory, shows the conflict that inevitably arises when groups compete (also see Robert Wright's book Nonzero) and the resulting negativity towards each other. But that isn't the end of the story. In Sherif's Robers Cave study and Wright's book, there are great examples of situations where superordinate goals create goodwill.... the kind of goodwill I experienced at the voting booth. Those of you who watched Jon Stewart's Rally for Sanity may remember his analogy of the cars trying to enter a tunnel that took turns (see 10.5 minutes into this video). They each had the individual goal of getting to their destination, but also the shared goal of fairness and keeping traffic moving, that facilitated a relatively orderly process.
So as we enter into a new phase of politics with a divided government, perhaps we can think about how we can frame policy in terms of superordinate goals (e.g. more jobs, a decreased deficit, better healthcare) rather than as a zero-sum game (e.g. the battle for control of government between "socialist" Democrats and "heartless" Republicans). I generally vote liberal and may not agree on all of Boehner's ideas. But I share his goals of controlling the deficit, reigning in government spending and getting people back to work. And I'm hopeful he shares my goals of helping the working poor afford health care, even if we may disagree about the priorities of those goals. Perhaps consciously thinking about our superordinate goals is a way to increase civility in politics.
- Ravi Iyer
As someone who is interested in promoting civility and reason in politics, I have been really excited over the past few days by Jon Stewart's announcement of a Rally to Restore Sanity ("Million Moderate March"), coupled with Stephen Colbert's satirical "March to Keep Fear Alive". The below video, where the announcement is made, is well worth watching, if only for it's entertainment value.
|The Daily Show With Jon Stewart||Mon - Thurs 11p / 10c|
|Rally to Restore Sanity|
Normally, we look at our yourmorals.org data in terms of liberals and conservatives, but what can we say about moderates. In many instances (e.g. Measures of general moral or political positions using Moral Foundations or Schwartz Values), moderates score between liberals and conservatives. However, there are a couple interesting findings about moderates in our data that might be of interest.
First, moderates are less engaged in politics. This isn't a particularly controversial finding as research in social psychology shows that extreme attitudes are more resistant to change and more likely to predict behavior. Moderates are defined by their lack of extremity and this lack of extremity predicts a disinterest in politics and lack of desire to engage in political action.
As such, it is not surprising that, as Stewart notes, the only voices which often get heard are the loudest voices. Shouting hurts your throat and moderates are unwilling to pay that price. But couched in terms of entertainment and comedy? Maybe that will spur moderates to attend in a way that an overtly political/partisan event could never do.
Going a bit deeper, the other area where moderates score differently than liberals and conservatives is in terms of their willingness to moralize issues. Moderates are less likely to frame issues as moral and less likely to be moral maximizers. Morality can be a great force for good, but there is also research on idealistic evil and the dark side of moral conviction. You'll notice that while liberals and conservatives moralize individual issues in the below graph at different levels, the extremes generally moralize issues more than moderates or less extreme partisans. It's worth noting I recently attended a talk by Linda Skitka where her team found (in China) that high moralization scores predict willingness to spy on and censor people with opposing viewpoints.
Moderates also score lower on a general (not issue specific) measure of moral maximizing. Below is a graph of scores on individual moral maximizing questions. Again, a lot of good may be done in the name of morality and moral maximizers may be less willing to let people starve or let injustice stand. However, a lot of bad may be done in the name of morality as well and "never settling" for imperfect moral outcomes seems like a recipe for the kind of political ugliness that we see these days. Moderates appear willing to accept imperfection in the moral realm.
Maximizing is a concept made popular by Barry Schwartz at Swarthmore in his book, the Paradox of Choice and his TED talk. The argument isn't that high standards are a bad thing...but that at some point, there is a level where overly high standards have negative consequences. The point that Stewart and Colbert are making is that perhaps partisans have reached that point in our political dialogue, to the detriment of policy.
I probably won't make it to DC, but I do plan on celebrating the Rally to Restore Sanity in some way, perhaps at a satellite event. I am generally liberal and will be surrounded mainly (though not exclusively) by liberal friends. It would be really easy to use the event as a time to mock and denigrate the extremity of the other side. However, liberal moral absolutism has it's dangers too. For those of us who really want to restore sanity to political debate, it is an opportunity to be the change we want to see in the world and take a moment to reflect on how our political side can 'take it down a notch for America', rather than assuming that Stewart is talking to 'them'. And perhaps that begins with accepting some amount of moral imperfection.
- Ravi Iyer