Monday, July 17, 2006

Why the Center Isn't

The political center can be defined in diverse ways, but I am going to take the easiest definition and speak of the statistical center. To try and make a more philosophically pure definition, comparing our categories to world opinion, or historical opinion, or opinion derived from first principles breaks down too quickly. We intuitively include one or more of these things when we speak of whether America is a conservative nation or whether the Democratic Party is a liberal party, but run rapidly into counterexamples which mess up the data in our neat categories.

Who we run into, or correspond with, or read we tend to think are near the center of the political spectrum. Even if we have a recognition that we hang with a more liberal or more conservative cohort than most, we are still susceptible to wrongly estimating where the center line is drawn, always perceiving it to be closer to ourselves. We are idiocentric, secretly believing that our opinions are the normal and sensible ones, and the farther from our beliefs, the more radical or insane those others are.

I don’t think it matters much whether we measure the center by interpolating between the positions of those we elect, or by surveying what folks say of themselves, or carefully determining where people come down on key issues. It will be about the same. And it’s to the right of where the networks and major newspapers are. It’s not necessarily an enormous distance to the right – what’s important is that it’s consistently to the right.

Much analysis of this fastens on personality characteristics – that journalists are prone to the embittered idealism, or are folks who want to “make a difference,” or people who like to dabble in many ideas without specializing in any. These may be true, but I think something simpler is happening.

Traditional media is based in the bluest areas of the country. That may relate to personality characteristics of those who want to move there, but the first point is to simply note this. Even within that blue population, the MSM interacts with a bluer subset: writers, government officials, people in the arts, and people working for causes and nonprofits. This isn’t new information. It has been noted often.

There is an extension of that priciple which I have not seen mentioned.

Traditional media outlets still interact with other nations, especially western European and Anglospheric nations, more than most Americans do. More specifically, they interact with their counterparts in those nations. Other reporters, people in government, writers of books and the like are who they run into. This quite naturally gives them the impression that this is what people in other countries think. But that group is also a bluer subset of a blue group.

This is changing. International business, cheaper communication via telephone and internet, and increased international travel have narrowed the gap between how much contact someone at NBC has with people outside the US compared to the average American. The news sources used to have a virtual monopoly on the trade. More to the point, the average American who has contact outside the US does not have that contact with the same blue subset that reporters are used to. Engineers talk to other engineers, marketing guys to other marketing guys, clergy talks with clergy, families talk to families. It’s different people.

The MSM hasn’t figured this out yet. Because they still have more contact, they still think of themselves as having the only contact, like it was in the Good Old Days. They see themselves as knowing more, because they’ve been and you haven’t. That’s true as far as it goes. But it’s less true than it was, and they haven’t made the necessary correction for the slant of their data.

I won’t neglect why it is that folks on my side of the divide might be drawing the line too far to the right, but I have a bit more to cover on this side still.

In one sense of the word, America is a most conservative nation. Our definition includes economic policy and refers to our free-market orientation. As a consequence, personal responsibility in general is a large part of our conservatism. We are conscious of the potential cultural losses as well as gains to broadening the economic safety net. The American conservative’s support for traditional family structure is not entirely religious and cultural – church attendance has dropped off among conservatives as well as liberals, and the divorce rate between them may not be that different. But the idea that parents have the primary responsibility for supporting and bringing up children undergirds much of American traditionalism in this area. Parents are on the hook first. The village is a fallback plan.

What people call “conservative” outside the US is somewhat different. While socialism is acknowledged as leftist, the alternative economic plan in other countries is not always a free market, but a class or clan-based system that has been in place for generations. A conservative pull in Argentina has strong overtones of a racial and class-based system of ownership; in Kyrgystan it is the remnants of a corrupt Soviet system administered through tribal ties. A freer market in those places is classically liberal, and people don’t use “conservative” to describe it. Traditional family structures and traditional religious practice in other places are often deeply hierarchical, and thus not traditional for Americans. The overlaps between our family and religious traditions and those of other countries, on such issues as gay marriage or premarital sex, are seen by liberals in both places as the whole picture.

It is interesting that liberals in America have adopted something of this attitude from other societies, equating the free market with a perpetuation of class, when it is actually the primary destroyer of it; and equating sexual conservatism with perpetuating provincial values, even though the American model has emphasized the nuclear family, which is by its nature more egalitarian.

A news correspondent in Rio or Vienna, speaking with a writer or professor in those societies, unconsciously picks up some of their associations with the words liberal and conservative, and reapplies them on Americans she doesn’t see much of, even when she’s home in Maryland. When she’s speaking to the home office, she uses words in this way, pulling her associates in this direction, which they were already headed.


How is it that conservatives err in the other direction? I don’t know that we do, but let’s assume I and we have a similar blind spot, and overvalue factors which cause us to draw the line too far to the right. What would cause that? There are the usually-cited factors, that those with children tend to associate with other parents as a natural by-product of our children’s activities. Married people vote more conservatively, and those with children more conservatively still, especially if there is more than one child. (Which phenomenon drives which remains a matter of debate.)

We take history into account when we survey the landscape. We give a vote to our ancestors, as CS Lewis wrote. Perhaps we are more likely to ourselves vote with descendants in mind as well – both physical and cultural descendants on a personal level, not descendants in an abstract sense so much.

The stereotype is that we overemphasize certain periods of history: the founding of the republic and the 1950’s. There’s some truth to that, and some clear dangers. None sees the national culture at the time of their childhood clearly. Our impressions are too dominated by very local events, and our status as children, who have their needs attended to by others. What our own friends, school, and church were like then we naturally see as how “kids,” “schools,” or “churches” were then. Great men rose to the challenge of designing a nation in the 18th C, and we put a great deal of emphasis on how they intended things. Perhaps another group of men (and maybe a few women by then) might have done better a hundred years later, or might do better now. But we find value in there simply being an anchor point, over and above the value of the particular anchor point of our Constitution. Law and culture have grown up around it in a Burkean way, which is more plus than minus.

And conservatives value history in general, particularly American and regional history. We think more of the individual struggles of our own grandmothers than of “women” as a group. Things that Americans have been able to do for a long time, such as own guns or build on property, we don’t lightly abandon. Issues such as gay marriage don’t start at an even balance for us. We look at what seems to work and wonder why we should change it. If something doesn’t work, we’re more likely to re-evaluate. History professors may be a liberal group, but historical re-enactors, purchasers of history books, local historians, genealogists, map collectors (or collectors of just about anything), and geeks who can recite the Bill of Rights are pretty conservative.

3 comments:

Midwest Product said...

You say at the outset that you seek to define the center statistically; in that regard your title is misleading as at any given moment the center is simply the mean (or I suppose you could use the median) of every individual position on the political spectrum. I think your argument, rather than debunking the notion of the existence of a center, instead highlights the fact that center is constantly shifting. Ideas that are conservative today would have been perceived as shockingly radical two hundred years ago, and perhaps vice versa.

Some disagreements I have:
-I don't think most people "secretly" believe that their views are normal and sensible, I think that they openly believe this.
-You make a blanket statement that the MSM is to the left of the nation's true center. This has become the conventional wisdom, but where is your evidence? I think this notion is a fallacy: the MSM may be far from the right, but it is also just as far from the left. The left blogosphere may not be calling for the public hanging of journalists the way the right is, but they are equally displeased.
-Traditional media is based in "blue areas" because that is where the highest concentrations of people are: cities. Their location does not speak to their politics. Traditional media outlets are also owned and controlled by the reddest subset of Americans in existence - the wealthy. If any outlet typifies the MSM today it is Fox News, owned by Rupert Murdoch, a man who is hardly a communist sympathizer.
-You say conservatives are unlikely to change something that works, citing gay marriage as your example, but divorce rates are hovering near 50% nationally, and are actually higher among religious conservatives than other groups (in fairness, this may because the religious feel more pressure to marry, hence they more frequently end up in bad marriages). You seem to say, "if it ain't broke don't fix it," but in what sense do you feel that the current marriage system in America "works"? And what would the state sanction of gay marriage do to alter this?

Kelly said...

Midwest -
A couple of misunderstandings in your disagreements:

The left-of-center MSM is conventional wisdom because it's actually true. (Sometimes the CW is accurate.) If the journalistic party/voting imbalance comparable only to academia doesn't strike you as evidence, I have to wonder what it would take to qualify.

Ownership does not equal control, as you so blithely assume. Particularly ownership of institutions, which develop their own norms and self-protective measures. One of the unremarked subplots of Good Night and Good Luck was that Murrow's was the era in which the professional employees took first control of the newsrooms away from their paymasters. No wonder journalists see this as a heroic Golden Age.

The wealthy are not actually the reddest subset of Americans: wealth-creators are. Those who inherit wealth or earn it quickly/easily have a tendency to skew rather left. Look at trustifarians, and the 527 donors in the last election cycle.

I would never argue that marriage is working particularly well these days. I only note that the suggested “fixes” of recent decades (no-fault divorce, trial cohabitation, unrestricted abortion, blended families) appear to have made things rather worse, so when the same crowd proposes yet another “liberalization” I wonder why they should be trusted this time.

AVI could have been more felicitous about the “secretly.” We ALL believe our views are sensible and normal; we secretly believe ONLY our views are. I would add that the further we are from the intuitively known center, the more open that secret becomes.

Midwest Product said...

It is obvious that, as Kelly states, a majority of participants in the traditional media are personally left-of-center. But that doesn't necessarily translate into left-of-center content, any more than the political affiliations of the media's owners translate into the content. All I'm asking for is a concrete demonstration that the content of the MSM is left-of-center.

Kelly is quite right concerning the correlation between changing divorce law (and public attitudes) on the rate of divorce, but I'm not sure I agree with the idea that, for instance, no-fault divorce actually causes divorce. I would rather use a term like "facilitates," because isn't it also possible that the number of bad marriages has been more or less constant, but the availability of a way out has contributed to an increase in the dissolution of such couplings? Or could it be both? I don't have an answer, I ask only from genuine curiosity.

I think, however, that this is tangential to the gay marriage question, because I fail to see how marrying gays has an any effect - positive OR negative - on marital success. I would posit that divorce rates between gay couples would mirror those of straight couples, the only substantive difference between the two types of pairing being that gay divorces would presumably less frequently involve children. The only idea I have ever heard advanced suggesting a possible effect on marriage is that it eliminates the idea of marriage as being aimed at procreation, but this is simply not credible because that idea is dead, long dead even.

AVI alludes in his original post to a fall-off in church attendance (on both left and right); again I wish to emphasize that divorce rates are highest among the religious.