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Thornton Hall

The Revolution Will Be Kuhnian.

What Do Tea Baggers Know, What Do They Believe, And What Do They Say? (With Comments on the Failure of Ideology Theory)

It has been my contention that a person who legitimately and earnestly believed the empirical claims contained in the Tea Party platform would find it impossible to function in the world. To take a couple of core beliefs, if Democrats really were aiming toward a society where government made all our personal choices for us and had the ability to control the public statements of climate scientists and/or everyone in Hawai'i involved with issuing birth certificates in order to advance that goal, then we would have the means, opportunity, motive and moral depravity to secretly "disappear" folks who had figured out our secret. Any Tea Bagger with an ounce of sense would keep a very low profile, rather than share his theories at work, with friends and on the Internet.

The rejoinder is to point to the Tea Bag love of guns and frequent references to "Second Amendment remedies" (Sharron Angle) or TJ's line about "the blood of tyrants" needed to "refresh the tree of liberty" (faced with an opportunity to spread a little of liberty's "natural manure" himself, TJ instead commandeered the fastest horse he could find and galloped in the opposite direction).

The rejoinder fails, however, because the time for genuine believers to take up arms has come and gone as the survival of ObamaCare has become a fait accompli. Freedom has already died according to Tea Party rhetoric.

In addition to the failure of Tea Bag action to bear out the genuineness of Tea Bag beliefs, it turns out that the ignorance logically required to sustain those beliefs is almost totally absent as well.

As Dartmouth College Professor Brendan Nyhan writes in the NYT's "Upshot" blog, there's evidence--on the subject of evolution, for example--that Tea Baggers have the same level of science knowledge as non-Tea Baggers:

In a new study, a Yale Law School professor, Dan Kahan, finds that the divide over belief in evolution between more and less religious people is wider among people who otherwise show familiarity with math and science, which suggests that the problem isn’t a lack of information. When he instead tested whether respondents knew the theory of evolution, omitting mention of belief, there was virtually no difference between more and less religious people with high scientific familiarity. In other words, religious people knew the science; they just weren’t willing to say that they believed in it.

The abstract of the Kahan paper is a fantastic example of political scientists ditching "ideology" for a framework that actually matches the data.

The “beliefs” individuals form about a societal risk such as climate change are not of a piece; rather they reflect the distinct clusters of inferences that individuals draw as they engage information for two distinct ends: to gain access to the collective knowledge furnished by science, and to enjoy the sense of identity enabled by membership in a community defined by particular cultural commitments.

Brief account of the failure of ideology theory

The above is linked to but not quoted by Nyhan in the NYT, not surprising given the fact that journalists have a vested interest in maintaining ideology centered analysis.

But it's not just journalists. The poli sci that gets quoted by TV pundits, promoted into blogs like The Monkey Cage at the Post, and published as popular non-fiction like The Gamble,(1) always features ideological based analysis.

All of these sources identify the patterns in data created by voter surveys that force respondents to label themselves either "liberal" or "conservative". The patterns are real but totally meaningless because (unbeknownst to the writers and pundits?) these labels have no consistent meaning whatsoever.

Here's how Professors Claasen, Tucker, and Smith from Wash U in St. Louis summarize the situation:

Analysts seldom ask Americans about their position on the general role of government that the symbolic labels are said to capture. Nor have analysts asked how Americans label the operational policy positions that they report on specific issues.

This leads to what political scientists call the "ideology puzzle":

The puzzle is that, on the one hand, Americans who call themselves conservative outnumber those who call themselves liberals and, on the other hand, a majority of Americans take a liberal position on most issues involving federal public policy. Appropriately, [fellow political scientists] Ellis and Stimson focus on the largest group of seemingly inconsistent Americans—those who adopt the conservative label and exhibit liberal policy views. These symbolic conservatives and operational liberals take the conservative label, Ellis and Stimson argue, because of its importance outside of politics. Traditional values, some rooted in religious commitments, lead a sizable group of Americans to adopt the conservative label even when their views about public policy appear to be liberal.

Real scientists don't call this kind of situation a "puzzle". They call it falsification. Hypothesis disproved. Next.

But political scientists make the exact same move as economists in similar situations. The hypothesis is still correct, and the puzzle is "solved" by reference to something exogenous of the model. Whereas economists resort to "exogenous shocks", Ellis and Stimson put the blame on the non-political field of religion.

But if we want to use the theory to figure out how somebody feels about the government providing health care to the elderly, the knowledge that the person is "conservative" is totally useless. That is the definition of a bad theory: the variable highlighted by the scientist has no effect on the outcome of the experiment. In botany, a similar theory would be that playing music helps plants grow. When the presence or absence of music makes no diffence in the growth, that's when you know that the hypothesis is false.

Returning to the question of what Tea Baggers actually believe

Thankfully, researchers like Kahan are using categories that come from the data. Doing so provides some fascinating insights:

The paper shows how appropriately designed “science comprehension” tests — one general, and one specific to climate change — can be used to measure individuals’ reasoning proficiency as collective-knowledge acquirers independently of their reasoning proficiency as cultural-identity protectors. Doing so reveals that there is in fact little disagreement among culturally diverse citizens on what science knows about climate change. The source of the climate-change controversy and like disputes is the contamination of education and politics with forms of cultural status competition that make it impossible for diverse citizens to express their reason as both collective-knowledge acquirers and cultural-identity protectors at the same time.

Without reading Kahan's paper in full, I think it's safe to say we are at least a little conscious of the distinction between our role as "collective-knowledge acquirers" and our role as "cultural-identity protectors". That's what I think happens in the minds of Tea Baggers: they know that certain beliefs are the ones to have if you want to be in the club, and they know that those aren't the same kind of beliefs that you use when you take a school exam. Of course, the latter situation never comes up, so in less you poke around with probing psychological questions, it will appear that there is no distinction between the "belief" that President Obama was born in Kenya and the belief that the sun will rise in the East tomorrow.

1. Note Re: The Gamble, by Sides and Vavreck:

From a book-selling point of view, it's fantastic to have a dominant discourse that simply assumes something--most voters are ideological and campaigns compete for the few non-ideological "swing voters"--that is false (Literally every study that invokes ideological categories demonstrates how useless they are. See, here and here. Meanwhile, campaigns themselves know that swing voters don't exist and try to target folks who may not vote but would support them if they did. See, Marc Ambinder, here.). It means that if you have some quirky and unexpected Gladwellian story to tell (eg, 10,000 hours of practice is all that stands between normal people and virtuosos) it's easy to demonstrate that, as crazy as it sounds, two or three economic variables published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (labeled "the fundamentals") are better at predicting elections then the (known to be false) media version of events. John Sides and Lynn Varacek do exactly that in The Gamble.

From the publisher's summary:  

 But when Obama and Mitt Romney finally squared off in the general election, there were few real game-changers. The candidates' billion-dollar campaigns were important but largely cancelled each other out, opening the way for Obama to do what incumbents usually do when running amid even modest economic growth: win.

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