Arnold Kling  

Political Behavior

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Steven Johnson reports on some brain scans to detect political differences,


...early data suggested that the most salient predictor of a ''Democrat brain'' was amygdala activity responding to certain images of violence...

a recent study by Paul Goren at Arizona State found that voters typically formed their party affiliations before developing specific political values...

Those M.R.I. scans suggest an explanation. Perhaps we form political affiliations by semiconsciously detecting commonalities with other people, commonalities that ultimately reflect a shared pattern of brain function. ..

Say you're inclined to form strong emotional responses to images of violence or human suffering, and over the course of your formative years, most of the people you meet who respond to these images with comparable affect turn out to be Democrats. That's a commonality of experience that exists beneath conscious political affiliation -- it's closer to a gut instinct than a rational choice -- but if you meet enough Democrats who share that experience, sooner or later you start carrying the card yourself. Political identity starts with a shared temperament and only afterward deposits a layer of positions on the issues.

Meanwhile, Louis Menand writes,


[Political Scientist Philip] Converse concluded that “very substantial portions of the public” hold opinions that are essentially meaningless—off-the-top-of-the-head responses to questions they have never thought about, derived from no underlying set of principles.

When it comes to popular democracy, count me as one of the skeptics. I once wrote, "In my view, the genius of our nation's founders was not that they gave people the opportunity to vote. It was that they created a Constitution with limited government." Earlier, I had written,

It seems to me that someone who "trusts the people" must fall into one of two categories:

  1. Skillful demagogues, in which case what they really trust is their own ability to manipulate popular opinion.
  2. Ivory tower professors, in which case what they really trust is their expectation of never having to deal with "the people" face to face.
When it comes to exercising political judgment, I trust neither the people nor the elites.

For Discussion. How many of your friends have political positions that stem from a consistent set of beliefs?


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COMMENTS (4 to date)
Trent McBride writes:

Well, since I have no libertarian friends, I would have to say zero.

SomeCallMeTim writes:

I'm not sure why you would want someone's political positions (or sensibilities) to come from a consistent set of beliefs. At a minimum, that would seem to imply that we've got the human condition all modeled out, and that's clearly wrong.

Lookit- I can't think of a single field of science where there is an accepted Grand Underlying Theory of Everything. Instead, the sciences get built piecemeal. We learn about optics over here, gravity over there, and electricity three blocks back. But we don't throw up our hands and claim all we've learned is useless just because we can't tie all three closely together. Instead we tell our young scientists to make their names by knitting it all together.

If anything, I would be significantly more scared of a polity that based its decisions entirely on a prescribed set of "coherent reasons" than one that did things in a trial and error fashion.

Bernard Yomtov writes:

I agree with SCMTim somewhat. The world is complex. I find that those want a "consistent set of beliefs" too often want the set to be simple. It doesn't necessarily work that way.

Marxists have a consistent set of principles. So do extreme libertarians. I don't think much of the resulting policy prescriptions in either case.

I much prefer what SCMTim calls the trial-and-error approach, and what I think of as an empirical, data-based approach to policy-making. I would a lot rather rely on data and analysis to tell me what works and what doesn't than on broad over-simplified conceptions of the universe.

Robert Schwartz writes:

My only consitent principle is that all social and political theories are more or less junk.

I would say that most of my friends have a theory that is old bits and pieces of whatever they have always believed.

When I was in graduate school I got to play around with a body of survey data. I came to the conclusion that people were either answering questions off the tops of their heads, not understanding the jargon the questions were asked in or trying desparately to answer the question in some social goal oriented way -- e.g. shorten the inerview, please the inerviewerer, lengthen the interview, und so weiter. I no longer believe in polling data.

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