Commentary Magazine


Topic: ideology

Living in “Ideological Silos”

A new Pew Research Center survey finds that “Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines – and partisan antipathy is deeper and more extensive – than at any point in the last two decades.”

Among the other findings:

“Ideological silos” are now common on both the left and right. People with down-the-line ideological positions – especially conservatives – are more likely than others to say that most of their close friends share their political views. Liberals and conservatives disagree over where they want to live, the kind of people they want to live around and even whom they would welcome into their families.

Most of us live in some version of an “ideological silo,” and it makes perfect sense that we do. The deepest friendships, after all, are based not only on common interests but on seeing common truths. Many seek out a community of like-minded individuals who can offer support and encouragement along the way.

At the same time it’s important to resist the temptation to surround ourselves almost exclusively with like-minded people, those who reinforce our preexisting views and biases. For one thing, it can insulate us from the strongest arguments that challenge, or might refine and therefore improve, our stance on certain matters. If someone with standing in your life, whose good faith is unquestioned, takes issue with you on a subject having to do with politics or theology, you’re more likely to hear them out, or at least engage with them in a serious rather than dismissive fashion, than if you’re challenged by a stranger.

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A new Pew Research Center survey finds that “Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines – and partisan antipathy is deeper and more extensive – than at any point in the last two decades.”

Among the other findings:

“Ideological silos” are now common on both the left and right. People with down-the-line ideological positions – especially conservatives – are more likely than others to say that most of their close friends share their political views. Liberals and conservatives disagree over where they want to live, the kind of people they want to live around and even whom they would welcome into their families.

Most of us live in some version of an “ideological silo,” and it makes perfect sense that we do. The deepest friendships, after all, are based not only on common interests but on seeing common truths. Many seek out a community of like-minded individuals who can offer support and encouragement along the way.

At the same time it’s important to resist the temptation to surround ourselves almost exclusively with like-minded people, those who reinforce our preexisting views and biases. For one thing, it can insulate us from the strongest arguments that challenge, or might refine and therefore improve, our stance on certain matters. If someone with standing in your life, whose good faith is unquestioned, takes issue with you on a subject having to do with politics or theology, you’re more likely to hear them out, or at least engage with them in a serious rather than dismissive fashion, than if you’re challenged by a stranger.

According to Professor Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, individual reasoning is not reliable because of “the confirmation bias,” the tendency of people to favor information that confirms their beliefs and hypotheses. The only cure for the confirmation bias is other people. “If you bring people together who disagree,” he argues, “and they have a sense of friendship, family, having something in common, having an institution to preserve, they can challenge each other’s reason.”

In addition, creating “ideological silos” makes it much easier to caricature those with whom we disagree. There’s a strong temptation–stronger than most of us like to admit–to personalize political and theological differences; to assume that those who hold views at odds with mine are suffering from character flaws rather than simply intellectual ones.

One example of how things can be done the right way is the relationship between New Testament scholars Marcus Borg and N.T. Wright. They first met in 1984, after Wright read a book by Borg that impressed him but with which he had some disagreements. A friendship grew, even as Borg became one of America’s most popular liberal voices on theology while Wright became perhaps the most prominent standard-bearer for the traditional stance. Borg was a member of the Jesus Seminar; Wright was an outspoken critic. In The Meaning of Jesus, Borg and Wright presented their very different visions of Jesus. While they didn’t reach agreement on many matters, they did eliminate misunderstandings. Neither misrepresented the other. They operated on the assumption that admirable people can have deep and honest disagreements. And in the process they helped people, in their words, “grapple with points of view they might otherwise have dismissed without serious thought.”

In our unusually ideological age, that’s a fairly impressive achievement.

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Subordinating Truth to Ideology

In her review of Michael Novak’s autobiography Writing from Left to Right: My Journey from Liberal to Conservative, my Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Mary Eberstadt writes:

Throughout his writing, he embraces lines of argument and alternative ideas, admiringly turning them this way and that, with an intellectual openness rare to see—especially among intellectuals.

This quality of intellectual openness – in areas ranging from politics and political philosophy to religious faith — is among the more impressive qualities an individual can possess. And among the most rare as well.

I say that because most of us, to one degree or another, struggle to maintain genuine intellectual open-mindedness. By that I mean we approach a subject with a particular point of view — and once we settle on it we’re very reluctant to revisit our judgments and the empirical basis for them.

For example, choose a subject on which you have strong opinions –the Affordable Care Act, the causes of the 2008 financial crisis, same-sex marriage, Roe v. Wade, affirmative action, climate change, educational choice and teacher unions, gun control, tax rates, income inequality, and more – and think about how you react to the best arguments of those with whom you disagree and new evidence that seems to weaken your claims. (Hint: The odds are better than not that it will be negative rather than positive, hostile rather than intrigued, defensive rather than engaged.)
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In her review of Michael Novak’s autobiography Writing from Left to Right: My Journey from Liberal to Conservative, my Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Mary Eberstadt writes:

Throughout his writing, he embraces lines of argument and alternative ideas, admiringly turning them this way and that, with an intellectual openness rare to see—especially among intellectuals.

This quality of intellectual openness – in areas ranging from politics and political philosophy to religious faith — is among the more impressive qualities an individual can possess. And among the most rare as well.

I say that because most of us, to one degree or another, struggle to maintain genuine intellectual open-mindedness. By that I mean we approach a subject with a particular point of view — and once we settle on it we’re very reluctant to revisit our judgments and the empirical basis for them.

For example, choose a subject on which you have strong opinions –the Affordable Care Act, the causes of the 2008 financial crisis, same-sex marriage, Roe v. Wade, affirmative action, climate change, educational choice and teacher unions, gun control, tax rates, income inequality, and more – and think about how you react to the best arguments of those with whom you disagree and new evidence that seems to weaken your claims. (Hint: The odds are better than not that it will be negative rather than positive, hostile rather than intrigued, defensive rather than engaged.)

The flip side of this is confirmation bias, the tendency of people to favor information that confirms their beliefs and hypotheses. The instantaneous reaction most of us have when our views are challenged is to (a) go out in search of arguments and data to refute those who challenge our views and (b) selectively embrace information that restores and re-validates our pre-existing views.

Now there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, and there can be a lot right with it. The back-and-forth can create a dialectic in which truth can emerge. Nor am I arguing that people should live in a state of perennial doubt and uncertainty when it comes to basic worldviews. We all need to place an interpretive frame around a set of facts, experiences and observations. And of course none of us have the time or energy to research in detail, and on an on-going basis, our views on dozens and dozens of different matters. We often defer to experts whom we trust. What complicates matters even more is that, as the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt puts it, emotional intuition is the “elephant” and rational deliberation is the “rider” – with reason usually the servant to one’s own intuitions.

Intuition, it needs to be said, is not only powerful, it’s valuable. It can detect things that are beyond our intellect and help shape our moral sense. “The heart has its reasons which reason itself does not know,” Pascal wrote. The problem is when we hold to a view that actually does require amendment or revision. How open are we to do so; and at what point, if any, are we willing to re-examine what we thought to be true? And do we understand that even the truths we see are only partial truths, that we can see things in part but never in whole?

If we close off the possibility of change, self-reflection, and even self-criticism, then we are subordinating truth to ideology. We will disfigure reality in the service of dogmatism. And there is quite enough of that going on already. 

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Paul Ryan and the Role of “Ideology”

One year in college, I had a roommate who liked to talk about the implications of the idea of the “multiverse”—the existence of multiple universes—and the often accompanying theory of trans-world identity, which holds that probability suggests that these different universes likely contain identical objects. My roommate would explain that there was probably another planet out there with identical people in it, but they could be expected to react to the same events and stimuli in ways wholly different from us—a sort of bizarro Earth.

I couldn’t help thinking of that roommate’s expositions when I read the New York Times’s explanation of why Mitt Romney chose Paul Ryan as his running mate and how that changes the election. The Times writes:

In the midst of an election in which few voters have not already taken sides, he is now running a campaign more focused on energizing an anti-Obama coalition than on trying to expand the universe of Romney voters with an argument that he is the most qualified economic steward….

Persuasion, especially on the Republican side, has given way to partisan stimulation. A sharp focus on the economy is giving way to ideology and personality.

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One year in college, I had a roommate who liked to talk about the implications of the idea of the “multiverse”—the existence of multiple universes—and the often accompanying theory of trans-world identity, which holds that probability suggests that these different universes likely contain identical objects. My roommate would explain that there was probably another planet out there with identical people in it, but they could be expected to react to the same events and stimuli in ways wholly different from us—a sort of bizarro Earth.

I couldn’t help thinking of that roommate’s expositions when I read the New York Times’s explanation of why Mitt Romney chose Paul Ryan as his running mate and how that changes the election. The Times writes:

In the midst of an election in which few voters have not already taken sides, he is now running a campaign more focused on energizing an anti-Obama coalition than on trying to expand the universe of Romney voters with an argument that he is the most qualified economic steward….

Persuasion, especially on the Republican side, has given way to partisan stimulation. A sharp focus on the economy is giving way to ideology and personality.

Ryan is just about the most knowledgeable and charismatic advocate for his party’s policy proposals, and persuading the undecided voters—not, as the Times has it, the base–tops the list of his priorities. The base doesn’t need to be persuaded to vote against President Obama, and the base doesn’t need to be persuaded of the importance of reducing the federal debt, easing the tax burden on small businesses, or reforming entitlements.

I think the key to understanding the Times’s analysis, though, is the use of the word “ideology.” It’s deployed here because Ryan is a conservative. It might be a better label for the GOP ticket if Ryan hadn’t been selected as Romney’s running mate, however, because in such a case it would have been more likely that the campaign would have relied on sloganeering more than concrete policy proposals. But Ryan authored a budget, and that budget passed the House of Representatives. By choosing Ryan, Romney has made the race less about vague ideological principles and more about putting solutions in writing. You can call those solutions “conservative” if you want, but once you put legislation out there, its ideological genesis becomes more abstract and less relevant.

In Jonah Goldberg’s latest book, The Tyranny of Clichés, ideology is the first such cliché dealt with. Goldberg begins the first chapter with a quote from then-president-elect Obama before his inauguration, in which Obama called for “a new declaration of independence, not just in our nation, but in our own lives—from ideology and small thinking, prejudice and bigotry.” It’s a telling categorization, Goldberg notes, to include ideology with other clearly negative traits.

Obama does this, Goldberg points out, because he doesn’t associate himself with ideology—a common leftist pretension. According to the left, conservatives are the dogmatic ones, while liberals just follow what works. The fact that the liberal experiment in governing is failing spectacularly all around us, and that Paul Ryan has dedicated his career and now this campaign to enacting specific plans to fix those failures, has left some political reporters at a loss for how to describe this campaign in a way that flatters not just President Obama but their own liberal self-regard.

It turns out that’s a pretty tall order. Somewhere in the multiverse, the president stood above cheap insults and partisan closed-mindedness and the Republicans nominated a flamethrowing ideologue. And the New York Times coverage got it exactly right.

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