Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Refusing to Split the Difference

In a new working paper two business-school professors and a law scholar (David Schkade, Cass R. Sunstein and Reid Hastie respectively) report some mildly discouraging results from an experiment in political deliberation in Colorado. In having leftist residents of a leftist city (Boulder) and rightist residents of a rightist city (Colorado Springs) separately debate several hot political issues, they found that participants ended up more extreme than when they started. The implications for democracy as a means to the good society are not terribly encouraging.

They explain their results in part by a desire to conform to the perceived “correct” opinion in their community, and note that by design the experiment did not generate discussion across the median, in other words between left and right in the same community. But that is part of the problem, in that the reason there was no such dialogue is because each city, because of the increasing geographical self-sorting in American that is going on, consists of increasingly like-minded people. We are not just a land of red and blue states but of red and blue neighborhoods. And even apart from that the literature on the ability of in-group discussion to promote compromise is not particularly encouraging if you think compromise is a good thing.

To be sure, we are not as polarized as we were in, say, 1859 or 1968. But there does appear less willingness to split the difference on many of the most incendiary issues we face. Such all-or-nothing approaches are of course found on the big issues like abortion – opponents will not tolerate encouragement of contraceptives to prevent them; pro-choicers have little interest in parental notification or in the pro-life “crisis pregnancy” facilities that, perfectly legally, encourage expectant mothers to choose, but to choose life. But even a relatively small-bore issue like whether to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge becomes apocalyptic in the political conversation. We might expect that if the Democrats regain the House impeachment hearings will be launched. If they control it by seven or eight seats the president might well be impeached (although the Senate would never remove him). This would give us two impeachments in a decade after having only one for over two centuries.

So what is going on now? In addition to the self-sorting explanation, which I find reasonable, another reason for the decreased unwillingness to talk to the other side in the interests of reaching common ground rather than debating them in the slash-and-burn way to achieve total victory is the nature of political influence these days. In his book Bowling Alone the political scientist Robert Putnam notes that whereas to be politically involved once meant being a member of a party, which was a large hierarchical association involving lots of hands-on activity such as precinct work, nowadays it now means belonging to a series of organizations whose primary activity is to maintain an office in DC to solicit funds and then lobby Congress. Such organizations have a financial incentive in encouraging would-be donors to feel a sense of urgency, and thus talk in terms of the imminent collapse of the national roof. They are able to use the same techniques marketers of commercial products do to "sell" donations to their group. Passive politics is extreme politics, a trend encouraged by the natural tendency to find extreme political talk on cable, the radio and so on to be very entertaining. The author who sells a lot of books due to his (or her) skill with polemical language seldom does so by composing well-crafted paeans to compromise.

Another factor is the growing tendency of politics to be used to address problems for which government is ill-suited. We need the government to defend the nation and build the roads, but should have low expectations when it is asked to manage the family or provide medical care. Charles Murray has noted that the decline of confidence in government has coincided with the rise of the number of things it does, but once a facet of society is the province of the state people turn their energies to politics, and when the problem fails to be addressed as effectively as they assumed they blame the machinations of their political opponents.

In addition to explaining some of the tendency of Americans toward reluctance to compromise, all of this suggests that we should be particularly skeptical of any resort to "global public opinion" as an indication that this or that policy should be followed. Whereas markets rely on competition among large number of people who must place their money where their mouth is, politics relies on large numbers of people who have little incentive to become informed and hence are more easily swayed away from what might be middle-of-the-road views by professional pressure groups representing this or that allegedly aggrieved people. Opinions are free no matter how intense they are. But information collection is costly, and one can have a very strong one on the Indo/Pakistani or Israeli/Palestinian conflict without knowing much beyond what some street demonstrator or website of unknown provenance told you. Because the stakes are so much larger, a tendency toward democracy in international affairs combined with the modern tendency toward extremism inherent in modern public opinion might be a recipe for disaster.


Post a Comment

<< Home