Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Endogenizing Ideology: on Interfluidity
This post is somewhat of a response to interfluidity's argument about endogenizing ideology.

My problem with interfluidity's argument is that, applied to the current situation in Washington, it boils down to "the Democrats have good policy, the Republicans have strong ideology, and ideology wins so Democrats are losing". This is a gross oversimplification of his theoretical argument about ideology and policy, but it isn't nearly as far off as a description of the evidence he uses to support this argument.

The issue is that if you look at a lot of policy early in the Obama administration, before the Republicans were backed against the wall - call it the healthcare bill, call it the various Obama budgets, or whatever - the starting point was the ideological liberal wish list, and it was compromised only just enough to force it through a growingly unhappy Congress. This is no different to a bunch of the stuff Bush did, as well - the only difference being that the the INTRA-party squabbles for the Democrats were more public, whereas the uneasy alliance between fiscal conservatives, social conservatives and foreign policy hawks did tend to stay quiet - though not during voting season. A bunch of those fiscal conservatives ended up voting for Obama because they voted as independents.

Thus, it's hard to take his theory seriously when the only evidence he gives is, at best, highly Democrat-biased and debatable - if you see the Democratic wish list as a "moderate, good" policy, of course you'll think that ideology is winning when you need to compromise. However, it would be just as easy to use the same argument structure with different assumptions about the evidence to say "good policy shapes ideology" - if I wanted to put MY general slant on it, I could say "Over the last 40 years, we keep implementing policy that is slightly better than neutral - which is the point of having a government at all, one would hope. Because good policy is fiscally conservative and socially liberal, this also means more fiscally conservative than neutral and more socially liberal than neutral, and it has had good effects (look at the US trajectory compared to the rest of the developed world since the 70s!). People see these good effects, and at the median, people respond to these observations by moving ideologically towards fiscal conservatism and social liberalism." This model explains a much longer time frame of American politics than interfluidity does, and while ideology is still endogenous (an important observation that I don't want to discard), it is endogenous in a very different way than interfluidity means.

I'd argue this is exactly what did happen, and over a much longer time frame than interfluidity uses as evidence (he references decades but uses 3 years of political developments). It's easy to think the country has gone drastically Christian conservative or populist, but just because extremists get headlines doesn't mean they represent the majority. Look at attitudes towards gay marriage, marijuana legalization, etc. We haven't moved towards an extremist ideology, we've moved very incrementally towards the "educated ideal" (contrary to media perception of "educated elites", college-educated people are more fiscally conservative and socially liberal than the rest of the country). That also explains why so many people have such negative views of Congress, including me - the number of people who fight for ideologies not espoused in entirety by either the "right" or "left" seems, at least to me, to be going up, based on voting patterns rather than media exposure. Congress' approval rating is the lowest ever, and it's not like this is the only recession we've ever had. Prior recessions had actual inflation, too, not just inflation fears, and people were even more negative about the future (endless stagflation, etc).

So the funny thing is I kind of revise his opinion on ideology - ideological searching is important (that's a third of why I write this blog - the other thirds being policy exploration and stock-related analytical thinking), but if you come up with good policy, you're inevitably supporting an ideology. His argument is almost one of salesmanship - if you sell your ideology, you'll end up with lifetime supporters, while selling your policy is "in the moment". My response would be that strong salesmanship of a crappy policy doesn't convert a majority, it just makes a supportive minority more vocal. It alienates the majority. That was absolutely true for Obamacare, that was true for Bush's push on gay marriage abolition, and in general that goes for a lot of policies that seemed to shift the country's political stance.

If you'll excuse a more personal observation on interfluidity, the pity is that this post was almost Krugmanesque - formidable intellectual aptitude and structural thinking overlaid upon a set of assumptions that's been so politically skewed that the whole argument needs to be regarded skeptically - like the ever more complex models in the late renaissance that held the earth as the center of the universe and could still explain the recorded measurements... until more measurements were recorded and required even more updates. At a certain point, conceding "this was bad policy" has to be more logical than ever-complexifying arguments about Republican ideological salesmanship, even if it's more psychologically taxing.

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