Culture clash

This excellent post by Publius on Thomas Frank triggers two thoughts, one frivolous, one not.

First, the frivolity: it is time to stop referring to ourselves or our demographic as "latte-sipping", etc.

The second potential argument is more interesting. It’s not that economics causes the culture wars, but that the culture wars are distractions from economic issues. This one hits far closer to the mark. There’s no doubt that Republicans fan the culture war flames to distract working class voters from other issues.

This “distraction” argument is the one Democrats use the most often, but it too has weaknesses. In particular, it’s not clear why cultural issues should play second fiddle to economic ones. Objectively speaking, economic issues don't necessarily have more value than cultural ones. Sure, most of these cultural grievances seem silly to me, but I drink steamed milk with espresso (sometimes even with delectable pumpkin spices) so what do I know. But seriously, if I thought abortion was truly murder, then marginal tax rates would be a lower priority.

You can now get a perfectly serviceable dry skim milk cappuccino at the Dunkin' Donuts in my mother's largely working-class hometown, which is smack in the middle of the reddest county in New York State. Time for a new metaphor. Soy chais, perhaps.

Non frivolous point: Publius is particularly smart here:

But what is irrational is for working class Americans to support Republican economic policies themselves. It’s one thing to support the Republican Party, but it’s quite another to support its regressive, anti-work, pro-wealth economic policies on the merits. If working class Republicans were acting rationally, they should at least advocate for more populist economic policies within the confines of the party.

But you don’t see that. Unlike the IP example above, it’s not like a big chunk of working class Republicans support the party on cultural issues, yet push behind the scenes for more equitable tax codes or more labor-friendly legislation/regulation. Most are as gung-ho on tax cuts for the rich as they are on gay marriage and abortion.

It’s here, then, that Frank’s “false consciousness” argument gains steam. It’s not so much that the culture wars are distracting people from economic issues. It’s that the culture wars cause people to prefer specific economic policies that they should be opposing.

Specifically, the anger and resentment triggered in the culture wars bleed into the realm of economics. If the liberals like it, it must be wrong. For instance, if contemptible secular liberals prefer gay marriage, then whatever economic argument they are making is probably wrong too. In this sense, the culture wars cause many working class Americans to give their “proxy” to Republicans, even on economic issues.

But of course, the thing runs the other way: liberals reject things merely because conservatives believe them. Our cultural and economic beliefs cluster irrationally on both sides, as Michael Huemer has noted:

Two beliefs are ‘logically unrelated’ if neither of them, if true, would constitute evidence for or against the other. Many logically unrelated beliefs are correlated—that is, you can often predict someone’s belief about one issue on the basis of his opinion about some other, completely unrelated issue. For example, people who support gun control are much more likely to support welfare programs and abortion rights. Since these issues are logically unrelated to each other, on a purely cognitive theory of people’s political beliefs, we would expect there to be no correlation.

Sometimes the observed correlations are the opposite of what one would expect on the basis of reason alone—sometimes, that is, people who hold one belief are less likely to hold other beliefs that are supported by the first one. For instance, one would naively expect that those who support animal rights would be far more likely to oppose abortion than those who reject the notion of animal rights; conversely, those who oppose abortion should be much more likely to accept animal rights. This is because to accept animal rights (or fetus rights), one must have a more expansive conception of what sorts of beings have rights than those who reject animal rights (or fetus rights)—and because fetuses and animals seem to share most of the same morally relevant properties (e.g., they are both sentient, but neither are intelligent). I am not saying that the existence of animal rights entails that fetuses have rights, or vice versa (there are some differences between fetuses and animals); I am only saying that, if animals have rights, it is much more likely that fetuses do, and vice versa. Thus, if people’s political beliefs generally have cognitive explanations, we should expect a very strong correlation between being pro-life and being pro-animal-rights. But in fact, what we observe is exactly the opposite.

Some clustering of logically unrelated beliefs could be explained cognitively—for instance, by the hypothesis that some people tend to be good, in general, at getting to the truth (because they are rational, intelligent, etc.) So suppose that it is true both that affirmative action is just and that abortion is morally permissible. These issues are logically unrelated to each other; however, if some people are in general good at getting to the truth, then those who believe one of these propositions would be more likely to believe the other.

But note that, on this hypothesis, we would not expect the existence of an opposite cluster of beliefs. That is, suppose that liberal beliefs are, in general, true, and that this explains why there are many people who generally embrace this cluster of beliefs. (Thus, affirmative action is just, abortion is permissible, welfare programs are good, capital punishment is bad, human beings are seriously damaging the environment, etc.) Why would there be a significant number of people who tend to embrace the opposite beliefs on all these issues? It is not plausible to suppose that there are some people who are in general drawn toward falsity. Even if there are people who are not very good at getting to the truth (they are stupid, or irrational, etc.), their beliefs should be, at worst, unrelated to the truth; they should not be systematically directed away from the truth. Thus, while there could be a ‘true cluster’ of political beliefs, the present consideration strongly suggests that neither the liberal nor the conservative belief-cluster is it.

On the other hand, perhaps some of the clusters aren't quite as unrelated as they seem. In small communities, economics can be a way to exert social control. And I don't mean that in necessarily a bad way. In many ways, communities are much better disbursers of charity than the government; they have the local information to determine who is needy and who needs some strong encouragement to get a job, take the baby to the doctor, and mow their lawn. As anyone who has had to move in with their parents after a financial reversal can attest, Mom is an excellent social worker--it's absolutely astonishing how fast you get your life back together when you have to sit down with her at the dinner table every night.

Small communities are also extremely attuned to property rights, because things like property lines matter to them in ways that they don't matter to city dwellers; conversely, they have a lot less shared space relative to private space. Those core beliefs about things like property rights and work arguably build up into something akin to the Republican economic agenda.