Sunday, April 8, 2012

Why liberals were shocked at the SCOTUS healthcare deliberations

Prior to formal arguments in front of the Supreme Court, liberal pundits had been predicting a slam-dunk win for President Obama and the healthcare law’s supporters. After a couple of days of argumentation where it seemed that the US Solicitor General was getting his clock cleaned by the attorneys for the opposition, however, suddenly there was panic in the liberal ranks.

As a sign of how deeply the panic had set in, President Obama descended to a new low, essentially threatening the Supreme Court justices with all-out political warfare by saying that it would be “unprecedented” for them to overturn "Obamacare.”  One had to love Mark Steyn’s colorful portrayal of this:

  All that’s unprecedented here is the spectacle of the president of the United States, while the judges are deliberating, idly swinging his tire iron and saying, “Nice little Supreme Court you got here. Shame if anything were to happen to it.”

What was far more interesting was this article at the libertarian journal Reason. Here is the key excerpt:
What can explain liberals’ widespread failure to anticipate the Court’s wariness of the mandate? Research conducted by University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt suggests one possible answer: Liberals just aren’t as good as conservatives and libertarians at understanding how their opponents think.

Haidt helped conduct research that asked respondents to fill out questionnaires about political narratives—first responding based on their own beliefs, but then responding as if trying to mimic the beliefs of their political opponents.
“The results,” he writes in the May issue of Reason, “were clear and consistent.” Moderates and conservatives were the most able to think like their liberal political opponents. “Liberals,” he reports, “were the least accurate, especially those who describe themselves as ‘very liberal.’”

This is hardly a universal phenomenon -- Haidt seems to have been describing tendencies and trends in his study, not making blanket assumptions.  Anything else would be foolish. All conservatives have had conversations with thoughtful liberals who understand conservative positions quite well, and most of us have witnessed conservatives who seem completely incapable of understanding the opposition’s point of view and reasoning.

Our own unscientific observations, however, have largely been in line with what the above research suggested -- namely that all too many liberals seem to be more provincial in their understanding of what conservatives think and why when compared to conservatives of similar levels of education.

The reasons for this are multiple, but first among them is liberal hegemony of the press. Yes, Fox News is the most highly rated cable news channel on television, but it hardly outweighs ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, and MSNBC -- all of which lean left to varying degrees.

 Same thing for the WSJ, which is perhaps the only major newspaper in the US to have actually expanded its circulation in recent years. Its influence is swamped by the influence of the editorial pages (and even “hard news” content) of the NYT, Washington Post, LA Times, Time, Newsweek, and virtually every major media market’s dominant newspaper.

And yes, Rush Limbaugh has a huge audience, but this is nothing when compared to the combined audience of virtually every late-night talk-show host and comedian -- and for that matter to virtually every Hollywood celebrity who gets onto political topics in interviews. (The comparison is fair -- Limbaugh is a serious politico who tries to be entertaining, John Stewart is an entertainer who tries to be seriously political -- their success in either case is measured by audience ratings rather than the quality or objectivity of their “coverage.")

The study mentioned above doesn’t attribute character traits to the findings, nor should it. Conservatives are probably not intrinsically more capable of seeing someone else’s point of view (or should one say, those who are capable of seeing another point of view are probably not any more predisposed to be drawn to conservative thought than to liberal ideas.)  Indeed, one dearly hopes that the ability to see other points of view is a universally human one of which no one is genetically deprived.

One suspects, rather, that Haidt’s findings, to the extent that they reflect reality, arise from the fact that conservatives simply have considerable exposure to liberal thinking as expressed by liberals, by virtue of the mass effect of liberal dominance in the media. Conservative viewpoints being expressed by conservatives, in other words, have to be actively sought out, whereas it is very difficult to wander through life in America without encountering liberal ideas on a regular basis.


Ed Kemmick said...

Point: See above


Montana Headlines said...

Thanks for the link. While I have read neither Haidt’s original study nor Mooney's book, it seems that the two are making different points.

Haidt was studying whether liberals and conservatives were able to describe the opposing viewpoint. The starting point of good debate involves being able to describe the opposing position in a way that the opposition can accept as being accurate.

Mooney appears, on the other hand, to be addressing the question of whether someone can be moved from their own viewpoint to a different one. This is not an unimportant issue, but it is a different one from that which Haidt addressed.

Ed Kemmick said...

Yeah, I know. "Point, counterpoint" wasn't the best way to frame the two pieces. What I was thinking was more like, "Gee ain't it funny how someone on the right 'proves' the deficiency of the thought processes on the left, and vice versa."

It reinforces my disinclination to think in terms of groups, of sides, and of parties. It leads to self-serving, self-affirming generalizations that don't really do much to advance the discussion of a particular issue.