The Political Center is Endogenous to You

I stumbled into a twitter conversation about this relatively innocuous breakdown of news sources:

Now there are plenty of ways to pick this apart. No, I don’t care that you are socially liberal and fiscally conservative. I also do not care that a one-dimensional political spectrum can’t capture the fine nuance of your political ethos. Yes, the farthest left and right bins equivocate between often very different levels of bias, but that’s mostly of a product of only having five bins. Obviously greater accuracy could be had by delineating into 9 bins (and yeah, there is some real weird stuff in tails of this distribution). But coarseness or inaccuracy at the margin is not what grabbed by attention. I don’t really care that the lunacy at OAN and largely evidence-based reporting at Vox are in bins of seemingly reciprocal bias, as I know that’s just an artifact of the 5 bin structure.

Rather, what I was intrigued by were the frustrations and bias attributed in the comments about news sources, such as the BBC and NPR, improperly classified as the center. I’m well aware that many people are annoyed by “centrists”. They are traitors to the cause who should know better than to side with the enemy and will, of course, be first against the wall when the revolution comes. There is, more seriously, a frustration that centrists think they can make a claim to the truth by simply splitting the difference of the political distribution, like using the mean surveyed number of jelly beans in a jar. This aggravates people partly because it is a gross misuse of the wisdom of crowds, but mostly because we often think our position is the truth against which all other political identities should be gauged. It’s an old George Carlin joke – everyone driving slower than you is an idiot, everyone driving faster than you is an asshole. The “right wing” is everyone to the right of me. The “left wing” is everyone to the left of me. As for the crazies, well, that depends on your social identity. If you think of yourself as a right (left)-of-center, well then the far left (right) is full of lunatic socialists (corporatist fascists) out to destroy everything we love. The far right (left)? Well, they are a bit much I admit, but they are just spirited activists doing their best in a hostile environment.

Everyone hates centrists in large part because so many of us, on some level, think of ourselves as the reasonable political center. For some right or left-wing yahoo to plant their flag in to the rich soil of the center and call it their own is not just an affront to our sensibilities, it’s an act of political war.

To be fair to the Twitterverse, one person did manage to bring to this cavalcade of frustration an excellent alternative chart that had 7 bins (!) and a second dimension (!!!) regarding the reliability of information. That should have calmed most people down, obviously social media is neither the time nor place for such things.

It’s in this wonderful figure that so much of the story really comes out. People are rightfully upset that honest news sources are being conflated with tabloid rags. They’re also upset, however, that excellent and reliable sources are being attributed centrist neutrality. How dare they attribute the power of veracity and truth to those well-known right-wing whackos at the BBC! We tell ourselves we ignore the BBC/NPR/Economist/WSJ because of its gross bias, but the reality is we ignore them because they’re boring and never tell us we’re smart and pretty and righteous.

The original post was trying to suggest to people they consider balancing their political diet. My suggestion would not be to balance the bias in your diet (we like what we like), but rather to focus on the most reliable sources (the green bullseye in the second figure) and cut out the fried BS. All of that rage and confirmation bias, it’s nothing but empty calories.

Proxy Culture Wars 1

When contentious cultural and political issue arise in the USA, foreign intellectual elites invariably align themselves along partisan lines that try to mimick those of the cultural center of the world, the USA. The incomplete, and often contradictory overlap between foreign social reality, and that of the USA never fails to offer interesting paradoxes.

The intelectual battles, fought on foreign intellectual soil, are part of what I will call the proxy culture wars. The resulting paradoxes tend to stiffle local debate on local issues (I will use local as in local to a foreigner, i.e. not in the USA) by locking the participants into paradoxical positions. While the situation is amusing it causes real problems when trying to reach consensus on local solutions to local problems, communicating across the local partisan divide, or even thinking clearly about local issues.

For example, with the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court of the USA, legal twitter in Latin America has exploded in support or condemnation of her nomination. Those on the local/foreign right express their admiration for originalist interpretations, while those on the left local/foreign begin reciting Dworkin and praise interpretations of a living constitution. The ensuing battle would be relatively harmless if commentary on the goings-on in the USA was all that was at stake. But this is seldom the case as the parties bring out full battle regalia and engage in terms of the underlying merits of these positions as if they were general positions, applicable to local reality. In the fog of war, the local conditions and the contentious issues in the USA get mixed together.

The paradox arises when the debate turns local. For example consider Ecuador, where the constitution adopted in 2008 largely reflected the policy preferences of the self described twenty first century socialist president Rafael Correa (local left, now conviceted for corruption to 8 years of prison). Do those on the local right really admire originalism as a judicial doctrine? Do those on the Ecuadorean right really wish local judges would faithfully apply our constitution with its 99 constitutionally protected rights? Mind you, these rights include a right to universal access to information and communication technologies (Art. 16), recreation, the practice of sports and free time (Art. 24), and permanent and secure access to heathy and nutricious food, preferibly produced locally and in correspondence to the diverse identities and cultural traditions (Art. 13). Interesting side note: as documented by the Comptarative Constitutions Project, Ecuador ranks #1 in number of codified constitutional rights. But the nature of these rights and the problems they bring about are topics for future posts.

Are those on the Ecuadorean left, oponents of originalism and supporters of a living constitution really arguing for a more expansive interpretations of these rights? For example when the fiscal reality of the Ecuadorean government makes it impossible for the government to guarantee one of the 99 rights codified in the constitution, do those on the left argue for an expansive interpretation? Do they really want an expansive interpretation so that the government is let off the hook when it fails to provide access to smart phone technology for all Ecuadoreans, because of unsustainable fiscal position?

Of course what is really going on is a great example of motivated reasoning. Conclusions are arrived at, and arguments follow to support those conclusions. The paradox arises as the arguments that support “things I would like in the USA” do not necesarily map well to “things I would like at home”. The lack of coherence between local reality and comentary on the affairs of the USA leads to paradoxical positions that muddy local debate, and lead to incoherence and sloppy thinking.