Monday, May 4, 2009

Living In The Right

I recently had the chance to watch Alexandra Pelosi's documentary Right America: Feeling Wronged. (I'm assuming the video is legally viewable on the internet; if it's not, this review contains a reasonable synopsis.) The film follows the McCain/Palin 2008 presidential campaign and interviews the supporters on their beliefs. It's roughly 45 minutes long, but I found it well worth my time.

First, a few disclaimers. Yes, director Alexandra Pelosi is the daughter of current House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. And like every other documentary, I'm sure there's an agenda behind it. But this isn't a Michael Moore documentary, where the whole film is a setup to make a targeted person or group feel uncomfortable and mocked for their beliefs. That's not what this film is about. Alexandra seems to understand that her political connections automatically make her motives suspicious, and she generally works hard to ask unbiased questions, without making the subjects feel like the purpose is to laugh at them. For example, after seeing an ornament at a trailer park labeled "Redneck Wind Chimes", she asked the residents this series of questions:
  • Are you rednecks?
  • What is a redneck?
  • Do you use redneck as a derogatory term?
Whether or not you actually laugh at their responses is your choice. I found most of the people surprisingly articulate, and more than anything, I felt pity for them. At any rate, the movie gave me a lot to think about, but I took two very important things out of it. Both of them changed my perspective on the conservative / liberal divide in America right now.

A) Most conservatives viewed the election as a choice between right and wrong.

Overwhelmingly the people interviewed has the viewpoint that McCain was clearly the right choice for president, and Obama was the wrong choice. In contrast, I feel like most liberal voters considered Obama the better choice and McCain the worse one. In other words, conservatives tended to evaluate candidates from the standpoint of black-and-white morality. For example, if you believe that abortion is a sin, then voting for a president who supports abortion must be a sin as well. That makes Obama an immoral choice.

I believe most liberals evaluated the candidates pragmatically. A typical liberal voter's top issues aren't morally charged in nature, so their voting selection process is based on which candidate will better address their issues. Voting for "the other guy" is merely a bad decision, not something that moves you one step closer to Hell.

B) Most conservatives have logically consistent opinions derived from a different set of premises.

These people gave Obama a good serving of all kinds of random accusations. Different people accused him of being a Muslim, a terrorist, the next Hitler, and even the Anti-Christ. These viewpoints are totally preposterous, but I want to stress that for the most part, the conservatives are acting rationally given their assumptions. If Obama really is a terrorist, then of course you shouldn't vote for him!

Most of the conservatives interviewed didn't even seem to be aware that other people might not share their premises. I got the distinct impression that many of these people couldn't figure out why liberals would vote for a known Muslim, and the best conclusion they can come to is that "those liberals must hate God".

I really want to stress this point, because it's very important. America's far right wing conservatives are not crazy. They are acting rationally from the basis of their premises, and they are not aware their premises might be incorrect. And for the record, liberals are the same. They are also not aware that their premises might be incorrect.

So if someone claims that Obama is the next Hitler because both were charismatic leaders who came to power at times of national distress, you won't make much headway if you flat out disagree with them. Saying, "Don't be silly; of course Obama isn't going to invade foreign nations, killing enormous numbers of innocent civilians," might be true, but it won't change their mind. It is better to discuss their flawed premise rather than disagree with their conclusion. For example, "Lincoln, Roosevelt, Washington, and Churchill were also charismatic leaders who came to power during national distress, and they were some of the best leaders of all time. Being charismatic doesn't mean he's evil."

This doesn't just apply to political groups either. It's easy to assume that any time someone disagrees that they are simply stupid or crazy. But more often than not, they are simply mistaken. That's why I have pity for both rednecks and Christians rather than disdain. And as a Christian, I pitied athiests. The vast majority of people are simply misinformed, and if you take the time to have an honest conversation with them, both of you will be better off for it.


Dave Mark said...

Actually, most of the conservatives I know don't care about the religious or allegedly moral issues. Most of the conservatives I know are simply against government intrusion and outright control.

The popularized stereotype of a "conservative", however, usually has the prefix "religious..." tacked on the front of it. The numbers show, however, that this simplification isn't even remotely correct. Without following your link, it sounds like your documentary specifically focussed on discovering this (and other) stereotypical members of this group. I've seen it done plenty of times before by news programs and what-not. It is completely unfathomable that "normal people" can be conservative -- or even Republican -- without carrying a bible, picketing abortion clinics, polishing their shotgun, etc.

It is because of this mis-characterization of the Republican part that many conservatives are leaning more libertarian these days (the small "l" belief system if not the big "L" party). (I've been a libertarian in belief for most of my life.) Of course, you will run into the same stereotypes of them as well: "Libertarians are pot-smoking anarchists!" is a favorite of mine.

Anyway, while you were on the right track about "they are just people who believe in something" careful about applying that too liberally to the conservatives only (pardon the term). After all, you don't have to look hard to find a liberal who thinks that nothing else in government matters beyond saving a particular species of rodent. They don't care if civilization collapses as long as that little rodent is there to see the end of days. Don't be too harsh... they just "believe strongly in something."

Ted Vessenes said...

Surveys done a few years ago (2006 I believe) showed that the religious right was the largest minority of the Republican party, comprising around 40% of Republicans. This was when Republican party identification was around 35% of the nation, putting the religious right at roughly 14% of Americans, or about 1 in 7.

However, according to this compiled survey data from, Republican party identification has been steadily dropping over the past few years, such that now it's around 25% of the country.

The primary party fragmentation has been from the intellectual libertarian "Reagan Republican" branch of the party becoming independents, meaning the religious right now composes roughly 14% of the Republican Party's 25%. That's actually a majority of the party these days, and I think that's a large factor in why the party seems to be getting more conservative in its message, not less.

Regarding this comment:

Without following your link, it sounds like your documentary specifically focussed on discovering this (and other) stereotypical members of this group. I've seen it done plenty of times before by news programs and what-not. It is completely unfathomable that "normal people" can be conservative -- or even Republican -- without carrying a bible, picketing abortion clinics, polishing their shotgun, etc.I highly recommend watching the video, because I was inspired to write this post specifically because of how normal the documentary showed these conservatives to be. Maybe I wasn't clear in my writing, but the point I was trying to stress was that this film was the exact opposite of what you described.

Keep in mind that there's an inherent sample bias when you primarily focus on people who attend Republican campaign rallies as well. The religious right (currently) has a much higher level of political enthusiasm than a typical libertarian leaning Reagan Republican. It seems quite reasonable to expect the vast majority of attendees to be generally normal people with strong religious beliefs, and that's exactly what comes out.

That said, I found the interviews set outside of the rallies to be the most interesting. I really liked hearing the comments from the "rednecks", because you could tell that they were just normal people who had been brought up to believe different things about who was qualified to be a leader.

Bryan said...

I liked the documentary. Pelosi mostly let the people speak for themselves and got a good sampling of people. The focus was more on attitudes, impressions, and how they see themselves.

Like Ted pointed out, there are distinct subgroups here, some of whom are going to make extreme political statements but be very normal people otherwise.

For the statistics, I identify myself as both religious right and libertarian conservative. How does that figure in to the party shift?

Ted Vessenes said...

There are really two kinds of Libertarians-- economic and social. Economic libertarians favor lower taxes (both individual and corporate) and less regulation in exchange for a government that handles fewer public services, such as roads, schools, and military defense.

Social libertarians favor fewer restrictions on social issues. Modern day social issues would be abortion and gay marriage. In the past, these issues have been things like slavery, voting rights for non-whites and women, civil rights for blacks, and interracial marriage. We take it for granted that black people cannot be owned for use as farm equipment even though the Bible permits it, but 150 year ago, this was a very dividing issue.

At any rate, for the past 40 years, the Democratic party has historically favored social liberties and opposed economic liberties while the Republican party has supported the opposite. However, the Bush administration ended up spending over a trillion dollars fighting a country that neither harbored or trained terrorists, and as a result the Republican party isn't particularly libertarian from either an economic or social perspective.

Its true that Bush cut taxes and removed regulations, but doing those in tandem with increased government spending is a recipe for disaster. The truth is that when a parties is power, it spends more money, and when its out of power, it campaigns on a platform of reducing spending. I cannot in good conscience call the Republican party's economic stance to be "Libertarian" right now given their past decade of actions.

So in my mind, the Democratic party is socially libertarian and economically conservative while the Republican party is socially conservative and economically conservative. That means the real political struggle in this country is still over civil rights, not economics.

At any rate, I assume that by "Libertarian" you mean you are economically libertarian, which doesn't really fit with the Republican platform. (And no, opposing 3% tax increase on the top 5% of the population does not make you "Libertarian".) There isn't really a friendly place in the Republican party for Reagan Republicans right now, so many people are forced to choose between their economic beliefs and social beliefs. This is precisely the issue that senators like Olympia Snowe are facing right now.

Bryan said...

I would consider myself economically libertarian / conservative. I'm still figuring out where I want to be socially, because one of the biggest issues there is national defense and war. Ron Paul is one of the few libertarians on both social and economic issues, and I'm very interested in him.

On gay marriage, I would rather just remove marriage from politics entirely. If the government can tell gays that they can't marry, then they can do the same to traditional couples as well. This should be solely the responsibility of Churches or equivalent organizations.

On Pro-choice / Pro-life, I think both sides argue from a libertarian position. Pro-choice argues for the rights of a woman over her body, while Pro-life argues for the rights of the unborn child.

Republicans typically favor gun rights.

You're definitely right on the conflict over social issues. The fight over Abortion, stem cell research, and related issues has polarized voters, even though very little changes.

You're right that neither party is really economically libertarian, even though Bush used the language a lot in his campaign speeches. I think there are a lot of republican libertarians who don't have much of a party to belong to right now.

Who is Olympia Snowe? It looks like I have to do some research.

Ted Vessenes said...

It's worth noting that no rights are "free". They always come at the cost of potential rights to someone else. Not that the allocation of rights must be a zero sum game, but there are trade-offs.

For example, when blacks were given some rights as citizens, whites lost a right-- the right to own blacks and use them as farm equipment. Much of the debate over these issues focuses on the question of what is a good criteria for dividing the rights that humans deserve. In other words, it's answering, "What does it mean to be human?"

Long ago we decided that ethnic heritage was not a good discriminator, so people of different ethnic backgrounds should have equal rights. And most people agree that adult women deserve more rights than their unborn children, but exactly how many more is contentious and I can understand the arguments of both sides. Of course, people who claim abortion should be illegal even in cases of medical emergency are arguing that a fetus has more rights than an adult, which seems rather preposterous. There aren't many supporters of this view though.

I agree that the state should treat the issue of marriage independent of sexual orientation, and I have no problems with religions only granting marriages to those who follow their beliefs (which could include restrictions on gays).

But a state's marriages confers special rights to the spouses, including a different taxation structure, shared insurance, and medical rights. Allowing straight people to marry but preventing gays means that gay people must cede their next-of-kin medical decisions to family members rather than the person they love the most. So even in the case of gay marriage, the "cost" is that family members of gay people lose the right to make some critical medical decisions. I think that's a great trade.

Olympia Snowe is a Republican senator from the very liberal state of Maine. She wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times on Arlen Specter's recent party switch which is worth reading. I also found this commentary on the Washington Times website which is worth a read. I particularly liked this opening quote, by South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham:

"We are not losing blue states and shrinking as a party because we are not conservative enough. If we pursue a party that has no place for someone who agrees with me 70 percent of the time, that is based on an ideological purity test rather than a coalition test, then we are going to keep losing."Last, there was a great article on addressing different kinds of conservatives. It's also worth a read.

Bryan said...

On the rights provided to married couples, I see no reason that these couldn't be provided more freely, based on whether people are living together or have joint property ownership. Declaring other people specifically to make medical decisions for you should be easy too. Asking for it to default that way might be more difficult.

On the articles distinguishing between different political classes, I want some representative issues so I can see what he's talking about more specifically and where I fit in. On analysis of the last election, I trust this a little more:
His pre-election predictions were wrong, but I think he has a much better grasp of the republican party. They have a strong history of just staying home and ignoring elections.

Ted Vessenes said...

I read over Sean Malstrom's writing. To be honest, comparing his analysis to 538 is like comparing Alchemy to Chemistry. The former is correct less often and has no real data to back up claims.

The posts are all of the form, "I feel X will happen because of Y." When X happens he says "Y was correct". When X doesn't happen, he claims why it really did kind of happen, or was else mitigated by reason Z. I can't help but think of someone saying "Rain will happen because of my rain dance". If it does rain, he claims the dance worked. If it doesn't work, he claims he didn't dance hard enough. In either case though, you cannot use the fulfillment of a prediction as proof the reasoning was correct.

So I would take it as a huge warning sign that his predictions were not terribly correct and Nate Silver's were. More on this later.

The real problem, though, is that Sean fundamentally doesn't understand statistics. Nate Silver has a degree in statistics from the University of Chicago. You can see Sean's misunderstanding in his critique of Nate Silver as a hack who calls other people's data his own and doesn't explain his methodology.

One of the most important concepts in statistics is the Law of Large Numbers. Paraphrased, it says that the more data you have, the more likely that data is to converge to the average. If you flip a coin 4 times and get heads 3, that's kind of lucky: 3 in 16 odds. But if you flip a coin 4,000,000 times and get heads 3,000,000 times, that's obscenely unlikely. Well less than one in a billion odds. The more data you have and the more you know about the potential margins of error, the better you can estimate trends.

Sean calls the posts at 538 as stealing the polling data from many sites and calling them his own. In reality though, aggregate polling sources lets Nate Silver get far more accurate numbers, since he's leveraging the law of large numbers to his advantage. Rather than having a sample set of 500 voters, he has a sample set of 10,000. The accuracy increases dramatically as a result. And of course Nate Silver doesn't call the results his own-- the tables all list the polling agency. In the academic community, that's known as citing your sources, not plagiarism, and it's encouraged.

Furthermore, if Sean Malstrom had even looked over the 538 site more, he would have seen a (very) long article explaining exactly how the regression model works and the statistical theory behind it. Anyone who has taken a college level statistics course should be able to understand it, as should most bright high school students.

This brings us to the issue of the hit record. Sean's predictions were way off base and Nate's were spot accurate. The thing is, the law of large numbers has a meta-application to the prediction model. Nate got 49 of 50 states correct, even including things like the claim that Nebraska's Omaha district would go to Obama and the other two would go to McCain. He got every senate race correct too. That level of accuracy is unheard of when you are talking about nearly 90 different predictions. Sean's numbers were nowhere near this.

You still can't say that Nate Silver's reasoning must be correct because his predictions were correct. However, it's FAR more likely that Nate got the reasoning right than Sean did. If you have to choose between two options, choose the one with the 99% accuracy rate, not the one with 60%.

Now you said you feel like Sean has a much better feel on the current state of the Republican party, and at this point I'm just making stochastic arguments. So let me argue based on a real data point: Party affiliation.

Sean claims that Republicans lost votes in the election because of lower turn out. In other words, the Republican party isn't losing members; it's just that more people are staying at home. This is in direct contradiction to all the polling data over the past year, which shows a clear trend of former Republicans becoming Independents. When you actually ask the people, they say as a whole that they are less Republican. Personal do not trump hard data. For the record, this is another instance of Mental Filters.

Bryan said...

First of all, I rarely trust polls. I have no problem with the statistics. My problem is that they don't ask the right questions. Surveys are the same way.

Political polls can do better if they just ask who will you vote for in the coming election. Once they start to ask why, they force you into a set of predefined answers where I have to fit my answer into their expectations, which my answers never fit cleanly and usually mis-represent my opinion. This is actually a strong component of Disruption theory and there is solid evidence behind this.

That 538 got good predictions on his actual results is a much better sign. I might need to look into him more.

I would expect the Social conservatives (Abortion, Stem Cell Research, Gay marriage) to stay home if they did not have a candidate representing their views. Economic libertarians will still vote for the more conservative candidate, with some supporting a third party.

The part I like best about Sean's analysis is that Bush and McCain are out of touch with their party. He lists a couple other things he got right, though the part about Republicans switching sides for revenge sounds too re-interpretive to support his points.

I have no idea if his comments on 538 are correct or not about being a hack. Both Nate Silver and Sean Malstrom need to define their terms a lot more.

Ted Vessenes said...

I'd suggest that Nate Silver at 538 really doesn't trust polls either. That's why his methodology involved compiling data from literally thousands of polls, just so that the law of large numbers could be applied to get more accurate results.

The site's FAQ has an extremely lengthy discussion on how exactly this model works. The sheer size and depth of explanation is kind of what made me laugh about Sean Malstrom complaining that "Nate doesn't explain his methodology".

You and he (and I) are also in agreement regarding question phrasing mattering. An important part of his model is measuring pollster bias, actually. The full explanation is lengthy but a good read. Here's the quick summary though. He measures all the polls that come from a polling agency against the mean for all polls on the same topic and looks for both party bias and margin of error.

So if a polling agency runs a poll in each state (50 polls), then each poll is compared against the average for all polls for that state. This might produce results like 1.2% Democratic lean, 3% additional polling error. The regression model then subtracts 1.2% from all polls from that polling agency when doing its next analysis. It also feeds the analysis a smaller polling sample size to account for the 3% additional error. The writeup has specific examples of how exactly this math is done, using some basic statistics formulas.

Ted Vessenes said...

Oh and for the record, almost all of the economic libertarians I know voted for Obama and expressed concerns about his economic policies. The typical perspective was that neither party could be viewed as fiscally responsible, but that Obama was more motivated to leave Iraq than McCain, and war in the middle east is a huge cash drain. The one economic libertarian who voted for McCain supports the Iraq war.

Bryan said...

The solution to bad poll questions is not asking better questions and using statistics. You need to look at behavior. Who did people actually vote for?

In the article, Nate Silver mentions that Obama won 43 percent of people who attend Church at least once a week. He assumed from there, that these people are social conservatives, which is unfounded. Some of them are, but a good portion are not, and support gay marriage, abortion, and other issues. The Catholic, Episcopal, and some other Churches are having real problems taking stands on these issues because a lot of their members don't agree.

Other posts seem to have better analysis, so it might just be this one I have a problem with.

I actually think the blog post that spawned this conversation says it better. Most conservatives see this election as a choice between right and wrong. That seems more in line with Huckabee's position than Nate Silver's.

Ted Vessenes said...

A few months ago, Nate posted a survey that cross-referenced party identification with a number of other factors and ran a regression on it. Far and away, the greatest predictor of someone's political affiliation was their answer to the question:

"How important is Church in your life?"

Or something like that. I don't think he's claiming that 100% of Republicans consider religion important, or that 0% of Democrats do. But there is a clear statistical link between how much someone values religion and whether they tend to vote Republican. So I don't find his conclusion unjustified. I'll try to dig up that other study if you're interested in the details.

That said, I don't feel like Nate's position conflicts with Huckabee's or mine. Nate is essentially claiming that the people who have left the Republican Party are economically conservative, socially liberal people who feel like the GOP is no longer a welcoming place. I'm claiming that most of the remaining GOP members are religious people who view the election in terms of right versus wrong, not better versus worse.

I'd also like to point out that a "better versus worse" mindset goes hand-in-hand with socially liberal beliefs while a "right versus wrong" mindset goes with socially conservative beliefs. Your economic beliefs don't have much impact on your particular mindset though. That's why I claimed that modern day politics is still more about social issues than economic ones. It is the largest divide between the two major political factions.

Bryan said...

Agreed. Also, I didn't see your post about your libertarian friends votes before I voted last time. Very interesting.

Anonymous said...

I guess I shouldn't tell you that I am a Sarah Palin fan then. Labels are for idiots. You either have a set of beliefs and morals or you don't. It is really just that simple.

Anonymous said...

The more I see what is going on in the country, the more I think that the social issues are a wedge to get people to quarrel with one another while the plutocracy/kleptocracy extracts as much money from the populace as possible.

It's a giant magic trick, a con, where the magician says "look over here at these gays" while covertly stuffing cash into his other pocket.