Friday, July 17, 2009

Taking conservative ideas seriously isn't easy

Political scientist David Ricci points to a trend that illustrates how scholars can let an "ivory tower" perspective in which a focus on methodology and obscure topics to provide originality in research can seriously limit the ability of their discipline in understanding the world we actually live in. Ricci writing in the June 2009 Journal of Political Ideologies, "Political science and conservative ideas: the American case", indicates that during decades of conservative political ascendancy in both the US and Britain, the leading political science journals in both countries published very few articles devoted to the real existing conservative thinking.

He cites four reasons that contribute to the fact that conservative ideology doesn't lend itself easily to conventional scholarly analysis. He's too polite to be so blunt as to say that much of it is so flimsy that it's hard to take it seriously upon close scrutiny, even for conservative political scientists. And, in the United States, the political science profession has a reputation for being more conservative or at least more Establishment-friendly leaning than other social sciences. The four reasons Ricci cites include: the fact that the primary sources are exceedingly abundant and therefore much less subject to tight scholarly generalizations than the work of a particular non-living conservative philosopher of the past; actual conservatism is a fluid set of beliefs driven in major ways by electoral needs of the moment; "conservatives tend to embellish their talk with persuasive anecdotes rather than with the sort of data that political scientists are accustomed to analyzing in empirical research"; and, conservatives rely heavily on arguments based on asserting false correlations of a kind that don't stand up to minimal technical scrutiny.

The latter two are related aspects of the fact that the implementation of favorite conservative policies like weak safety regulations in the workplace or steadfast opposition to universal health insurance actually damage the interests of the large majority of the public. So the policies have to be packaged in deceptive ways. Anecdotes and false correlations are two of the most popular. Ricci gives some examples of the anecdote tactic:

Ronald Reagan was a master of this tactic, promoting a folksy vision of 'morning' coming again to America, lining up small stories in his overall narrative as poignantly as Norman Rockwell painted morality tales for Saturday Evening Post covers. While introducing a typical right-wing book, Russell Kirk explains why telling anecdotes is a preferred rhetorical device: 'The authors' method of rousing the great sleepy public is the true narration… [or] illustrative anecdotes extracted from our newspapers and magazines…. From these vignettes of what has been done to our neighbors, we learn what may be done to us, and soon'. Looking for the same effect, Steve Forbes notes that 'The statistics [on family life] are grim enough. But the anecdotal evidence hits home'.

To assure rhetorical impact, then, many conservatives enliven their writings with anecdotes relating to various public policy realms. For example, against officialdom, 'Someone once estimated that there are 502 taxes of one sort or another on a pair of shoes; each one levied at a different stage of production and distribution and sale by a different governmental agency' [Rus Walton]. Or, against coddling judicial detainees, 'It is indicative that Janet Reno, [President] Clinton's Attorney General, devoted more public comment to the rights of criminals than to defending the legitimate rights of crime victims and the community at large'. [Grover Norquist]

Or, against socialism, 'In the climactic hours of the Communist fall [1989-1991], someone - Boris Yeltsin perhaps - remarked that it was a pity Marxists had not triumphed in a smaller country because “we would not have had to kill so many people to demonstrate that utopia does not work”' [David Horowitz]. Or, against welfare, 'In the last years of the Clinton administration, 26 000 very special Americans received $8.5 million in food stamps. The reason that these Americans were special is that they were dead at the time the food stamps arrived' [Bill O'Reilly]. Or, against environmental regulation, 'Dr. Bruce N. Ames ... recently commented on the proposed ban on commercial pesticides by the EPA. I didn't record his exact words, but the gist was: There are more carcinogens in a cup of coffee than in all the foods you eat in an entire year' [Larry Burkett].

Or, in favor of 'tort reform', one rightist reports that 'a gymnast missed his one-and-a-half rollout in a trampoline, hurt himself on landing, and sued the manufacturer of the mat. He was awarded $14.7 million in the initial case' [George Roche]. Or, against 'humanism' defined as disregard for traditional decency, another rightist tell us that 'A father, dying of kidney failure, artificially inseminated his 16-year-old daughter with the help of her physician. Seven months into her pregnancy, the child was taken from her uterus by Cesarean section. The newborn baby's kidneys were removed surgically and transplanted into the father. Then the innocent new infant was cruelly left to die of uremic poisoning' [John Ankerberg].
And as anyone discussing politics has seen in practice, many rank-and-file conservatives pick up such claims and repeat them as Gospel truth. Ricci doesn't analyze or debunk these particular claims. That's why it would be helpful if the stenographers who in America call themselves TV "journalists" would make it a practice of calling their guests on the carpet if they try to pass off dubious anecdotes as arguments. It would be even better if they regularly debunked phony but popular claims and anecdotes.

Here's an example of a journalist actually researching one of these dubious-on-the-face-of-it claims - although this one is based on a bogus statistic rather than a bogus anecdote - this one pimped by our allegedly "moderate" California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger: Schwarzenegger's fraud allegation tough to pin down by Susan Ferris Sacramento Bee Online 07/10/09. This is a good example of how a journalist actually practicing journalism can call b******t on what is obviously a hokey claim that Schwarzenegger himself couldn't back up. The bold and tough "Governator" backed off the claim when challenged on it. But he still got it "out there", which for much of our broken-down press corps means that it should be incorporated into their this-side-says, the-other-side-says stenography without challenge. Susan Ferris describes this very process in her article; good on her for committing an act of journalism here.

There is often a short-term advantage in lying. Which is mostly why people do it. So if someone in a conversation pulls out some bogus anecdote and you don't know the actual background of the claim, you're often left either raising vague doubts about the claim or citing more general information. Unless you are very familiar with the particular subject or are willing to make up your own, you may not have a competing anecdote on the topic. And stories are persuasive and can create strong and lasting images that systematic statistics do not. It helps to develop a sense of what kinds of stories smell more like urban legends (or outright fabrications) than accurate accounts.

Still, the fact that conservative arguments don't hold up well to scholarly scrutiny or may be dull to read if you're not already a partisan true believer, their ideas have a very practical importance. As Ricci puts it:

Yet whatever our preferences might be, it seems to me that we should study conservative ideas because they impact importantly on modern society. Between 1980 and 2004, conservatives captured the Presidency five times; they repeatedly controlled one or both houses of Congress; and they appointed a series of right-leaning judges to various federal courts including the highest. In the same years, they scaled back or cancelled signature programs of the New Deal and the Great Society; they fostered deregulation and globalization rather than a deliberate social contract; and, in February of 2003, they propelled the nation into a war in Iraq that has taken tens of thousands of lives and will probably cost $3 trillion before it is over.
Ricci's appeal is directly specifically to scholars of political science. Within the blogging orbit in which I normally write, we've been grappling with these ideas for a long time. But it does strike me that the reluctance of political scientists to dissect present-day conservative claims in the context Ricci discusses may be part of the wider problem that gives us leading lights of the national media like NBC's Chuck Todd who are far more eager to talk down the whole idea of investigating Bush-era crimes - crimes whose occurrence is not seriously disputed in the case of the torture program - than they are in pursuing that alleged provision of journalism by pursuing such stories actively.

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