Democracy, Current Events

What Kneeling Athletes Reveal about Political Psychology

Today at the Princeton University Press blog, I have a post on the current controversy and what it tells us about how people “think” about politics.

 

Some excerpts:

 

Both sides accuse the other side of hypocrisy and bad faith. And both sides are mostly right. Hypocrisy and bad faith are the self-driving cars of politics. They get us where we want, without our having to drive.

 

…Instead, as economist Robin Hanson likes to say, politics is not about policy. The hidden, unconscious reason we form political beliefs is to help us form coalitions with other people. Most of us choose our particular political affiliations because people like us vote that way. We then join together with other supposedly like-minded people, creating an us versus a them. We are good and noble and can be trusted. They are stupid and evil and at fault for everything. We loudly denounce the other side in order to prove, in public, that we are especially good and pure, and so our fellow coalition members should reward us with praise and high status.

 

 

….Now back to football players kneeling. My friends on the Right refuse to take the players at their word. The players say they’re protesting police brutality and other ways the U.S. mistreats its black populace. My friends on the Right scoff and say, no, really they just hate America and hate the troops. This reaction is wrong, but not surprising. Imputing evil motives to the other side is essential to politics. The Left does it all the time too. If, for example, some economists on the Right says they favor school vouchers as a means of improving school quality, the Left will just accuse them of hating the poor.

It’s worth noting that since 2009, the Pentagon has paid the NFL over $6 million to stage patriotic displays before games to help drive recruiting.[i] The pre-game flag shows are literally propaganda in the narrowest sense of the word. Personally, I think participating in government-funded propaganda exercises is profoundly anti-American, while taking a knee and refusing to dance on command shows real respect for what the country supposedly stands for.

Read the whole thing here.

  • Sean II

    Problem: you make polarization sound like an inherent feature of democracy, and give plausible reasons why it might be, but you also note that as recently as 1960 political polarization was somewhere in the ballpark of 1/7th to 1/10th what it is now.

    That’s a big change, from T1 to T2 with only 40 years in between. And it can’t be explained by those inherent features of democracy – the cheap talk, the zero sum nature of politics – because those were present in 1960 as well.

    Something else must have changed, and the likely place to look is: in the content, not the structure.

    • Rob Gressis

      I’d love for Brennan to reply to this. That desire plus 0 peer-reviewed publications in a top 4 philosophy journal will get me nowhere with Jason.

      • Sean II

        Ha!

        • Rob Gressis

          If I ever do publish in Journal of Philosophy, Mind, Nous, or Philosophical Review, I hope to get an automatic update from Facebook telling me “you are now allowed to communicate with Jason Brennan.”

          • Sean II

            You’re killing me here.

  • Sean II

    “My friends on the Right refuse to take the players at their word…this reaction is wrong, but not surprising…the Left does it all the time too…”

    But it’s only the hypocrisy that makes this wrong.

    The correct solution is not to take both sides at their word. It’s to take neither.

    There is, as Lenin said, no such thing as a sincero-meter, but asking “does this person know what he’s talking about” is a pretty good start.

    A sincere person will study the subject on which he advocates. That’s a minimum, if sincerity means anything at all. And yet…

    The anthem kneelers of the Left know hardly anything about crime, criminal justice, use of force, rules of evidence, etc.

    The school choicers of the Right know hardly anything about the signaling theory of education, the fixity of intelligence, etc.

    The error here is not denying the other guy benefit of the doubt. It’s letting anyone have it.

    • A. Alexander Minsky

      Where did Lenin say that? I would have thought the diminutive Bolshevik viewed one’s actions during times of war and revolution as the ultimate “sincero-meter”.

      • Sean II

        He said it at the 2nd International.

        But yes, you know your man. The context of that remark was something like: “in the absence of a sincerometer, we judge you by your work”.

        • A. Alexander Minsky

          All modesty aside, I am quite the Leninologist. And that along with the proverbial four dollars will get me a pumpkin spice latte at the nearest Starbucks.

          • Sean II

            Well that, and you’ll probably be able to enjoy Death of Stalin on a deeper level than the average Iannuci fan.

            I need that movie. Because other than occasional chats with you and “Did You Know…” drop-ins on board game night, I never get to use the slag heap of Soviet trivia in my head.

            Lord knows you can’t bring that shit up in political arguments. It just comes off as a Godwin.

    • King Goat

      Those ellipses leave out quite a lot, and one should always be wary of that. If you want to say if someone is really sincere about something then they should engage in a deep academic study of the topic, go ahead (under this test the Amish who goes to prison during WWII is not really sincere about pacifism because he hasn’t read Tolstoy, Niebuhr, etc., on the subject). But Brennan’s unedited point is not about ascribing a want of sincerity, but how people actually go further and ascribe other, ‘evil’ motives to their opponents: “My friends on the Right scoff and say, no, really they just hate America and hate the troops.” His point is not about letting or denying the benefit of the doubt, it’s about not assuming the worst about those you disagree with.

    • Rob Gressis

      I’m with Goat here. I don’t see why sincerity requires study. A lot of times, people just rely on testimony: “oh, these people whom I trust say that X is happening? And X is something terrible? Well, there oughta be a law!” I think that’s a perfectly reasonable way to go about life for many people and for most things, because most people haven’t the foggiest idea how to study or how to figure out who is and isn’t reliable. I do it as well — Phil Magness was telling me on a FB post that Piketty’s empirical work was badly flawed. I didn’t understand what he was saying (and I told him as much), but it looked convincing to me, and he seems like a trustworthy guy, and Piketty’s being empirically sloppy is something I want to believe anyway, so I believe it! (True story.)

      • Sean II

        In slightly different order:

        1) “A lot of times, people just rely on testimony…”

        Fair point, except that reliance on qualified experts IS a form of study. But you can’t just take the first loudmouth you find and assume he’s an expert. That’s not due diligence.

        To keep things in the present example: anyone who’s kneeling because he thinks Colin Kaepernick has found a truth that eluded people who actually study law, crime, and criminal justice, is being crazy irresponsible.

        Talking while ignorant is bad. And the more energy you put behind it, the more stridently you demand agreement from other people, the worse it is.

        2) “…he seems like a trustworthy guy, and Piketty’s being empirically sloppy is something I want to believe anyway, so I believe it!”

        I don’t buy that. You may have switched your default setting on Piketty to “empirically flawed”, but you don’t “believe” this in the sense that someone else couldn’t talk you off it, with a good argument and evidence to back it.

        I’ve seen you operate, and you’re far too reasonable for such a one-way trip into dogmatism. Certainly you’re not about to join an anti-Piketty movement and start burning parked cars on the strength of what Phil told you.

        But the people we’re talking about, they will do that. They’ll buy into an idea on the strength of almost no evidence, and then quickly harden into a state from which no evidence can move them.

        I’ve never seen you do that, and don’t believe you would.

        3) “I don’t see why sincerity requires study.”

        Reflect on that. Specifically, try some introspection. What do you do when something is important to you?

        Do you study the matter (which includes soliciting the opinion of qualified experts), or do you just hope things work out?

        If you got sick, would you go to a doctor who studies or a shaman who merely prays?

        Or, to put it differently: most of us have met the sort of person who is quick with a promise to help, but who then turns out to be short on competence and slow on follow-through.

        How do we usually regard such flakes? Do we consider them to be moral equals of the friends who both promise and deliver?

        It’d be very weird if you could honestly say “yes” to that.

        • Rob Gressis

          “To keep things in the present example: anyone who’s kneeling because he thinks Colin Kaepernick has found a truth that eluded people who actually study law, crime, and criminal justice, is being crazy irresponsible.”

          Sure. But he could be sincere for all that.

          And remember–you more than anyone else here know what a sub-100 IQ is like (and if you don’t, read Education Realist). The vast majority of us never find it in our day-to-day lives. My worst students ever *maybe* had sub-90 IQs, and I teach a non prestigious state school. Given what it’s like to have a sub-100 IQ, and given that about half the population has it, it’s extremely implausible to expect them to be able to study such issues in any more depth than “does this person seem like my kind of people? If so, then I’ll trust him. And if he’s really upset about something, to the point where he’s risking his extremely high-paying livelihood, then there’s probably good reason to be upset about it too!”

          And even if they *did* study the most reputable, most highly credentialed people, they would all be saying what Kaepernick says themselves!

          “you don’t ‘believe’ this in the sense that someone else couldn’t talk you off it, with a good argument and evidence to back it.”

          OK, fair enough; are you operating with an all-or-nothing notion of belief? That’s fine — a lot of epistemologists do — but I wasn’t operating with that. I was doing a degrees of belief thing. I think it’s more likely than not (55%?) that Piketty was Nancy McLean levels of irresponsible with his data.

          “Reflect on that. Specifically, try some introspection. What do you do when something is important to you?”

          When it comes to GenPop, I’m a complete outlier. My introspective processes have almost nothing to do with how the average person introspects.

          Many people do go to psychics, witch doctors, shamans, homeopaths, etc., even when they have credentialed doctors available. I doubt they’ve studied the issue much, or studied it in anything near a responsible way, but they have skin in the game, and they still do this.

          • Sean II

            Out of sequence again:

            1) “And even if they *did* study the most reputable, most highly credentialed people, they would all be saying what Kaepernick says themselves!”

            That’s not true. Pro BLM sentiment is strong in the media, and among academics generally, but it is weakest in the fields directly concerned. Law professors can still tell you why the Freddie Grey and Michael Brown verdicts were correct. Social scientists can tell you the FBI UCR stats are broadly accurate. Even liberal-minded police reformers who teach at PERF or SMIP will tell you the Darth Vader riot suits actually save lives by putting a barrier between the antagonists, allowing cops to absorb a quantity of thrown bottles, bricks, etc. instead of going all Chicago ’68.

            Conquest’s first law, at its finest.

            2) Good point about IQ. Due diligence has to mean different things at different ability levels.

            No one likes to hear this, but at some levels due diligence means not having very strong opinions.

            3) “OK, fair enough; are you operating with an all-or-nothing notion of belief? That’s fine — a lot of epistemologists do — but I wasn’t operating with that. I was doing a degrees of belief thing”

            No, I’m not an all or nothing’er. I just was just trying use the shades of meaning between “believe”, “provisionally accept”, “pretend as if”, “merely suspect”, “doubt but hope to be wrong”, etc.

            4) “Many people do go to psychics, witch doctors, shamans, homeopaths, etc., even when they have credentialed doctors available.”

            Yes but fewer now than ever before, spirits be praised!

          • Rob Gressis

            1) Oh, I grant that the people who know the very most about this stuff won’t agree with Kaepernick, but I figured that people who wanted to know more about this would go to Slate, The New York Times, Huffington Post, Washington Post, etc. I didn’t think they’d go to academic books and journal articles. Hell, even academics don’t do that.

            That said, I *did* use the phrase “most reputable and highly credentialed”, and the most obvious meaning of that phrase is the one you attached to it. I should have written just “most ‘reputable'”, i.e., the most famous pundits who talk about this.

            2) I would assume–though I don’t remember if I read this or just assumed it–that people with low IQ would find it most difficult of all not to have strong opinions. After all, if you have difficulty grasping nuance, then all you’re left with is stark contrast and simple heuristics. It’s hard not to have a strong opinion in those circumstances. So, sure, they *shouldn’t* have such strong opinions, but chances are they’re in tough circumstances, and so I don’t think they have as much moral responsibility for their having such strong opinions.

            As for Jason, yeah, he pulled off something surprising. I recall talking to a colleague about epistocracy shortly after Trump was elected, and he said he found the idea plausible, but that it would never work because too many white men would be unable to accept the notion of lots of black folks being allowed to vote while they couldn’t. That said, I suspect what Jason wrote about black women in his book will eventually be discovered, and it will cost him. That said, he also defended killing police, so he’ll have some cover.

            3) OK, that’s fair. I provisionally accept it. There are very few non-logical truths and basic perceptual claims I *believe*, save perhaps for the claim, “way too many people have way too much confidence in way too many of their opinions about complicated things.”

            4) How do you know that it’s fewer than ever before?

          • Sean II

            4) Revealed preference. More people seek the help of Western medicine that even before.

            “How do you spot a 21st Century believer in alternative medicine?”

            “He’s the guy talking about crystals and miracle diets while sitting in an MD’s waiting room .

            2) I feel like it wasn’t always so. Growing up I remember a lot of low Q people who seemed to know they were low Q, and who as a result steered clear of complex questions.

            “Don’t ask me, I’m just a product of public education” or “whoa, that’s way over my head”, stuff like that. Usually said with no real hint of embarrassment, sometimes said with a note of pride.

            Obviously such realism had to die so that the Lake Wobegon theory of education might live. But we could get back to it if we wanted.

            1) True, but access to the real deal has never been easier.

            That objection would work better pre-1995, when the Times really did have a stranglehold on information.

            Kap seems like a major idiot, but even he could find and read the DOJ report on Mike Brown if he wanted.

          • King Goat

            “And even if they *did* study the most reputable, most highly credentialed people, they would all be saying what Kaepernick says themselves!”

            That’s not true.”

            Wrong. Go to Google Scholar and type in freddie gray verdict

            The majority of articles, written by highly credentialed people in law and social science, take the view favorable to Kaepernick. I would think someone who goes on at length about the liberal ivy tower academics would have guessed that.

            Now, obviously you’d say ‘well, those highly credentialed experts are full of it!’ And you might be correct. But now you’re asking average joe to be able to discern which Phds and JDs are right and which are not, and if they can’t, well, they’re not as authentically sincere as…you.

    • Jeff R.

      Wait a second, are you telling me we shouldn’t be taking the political views of athletes and other celebrities seriously? That they have no special insights on matters of public policy just because they happen to be good at running fast and catching leather balls?

      • Sean II

        At this point, I’ll take the athletes and actors over the student-activists.

        It might be that no studying is morally preferrable to fake studying.

        • Jeff R.

          True. Colin Kaepernick might have a totally distorted view of any number of features of American culture and socio-economic strata, but even he does not presume to lecture anyone about Intersectionality and Structural Oppression.

  • A. Alexander Minsky

    I truly wonder if Jason Brennan actually has friends, or even associates, who contend that those NFL players taking a knee hate America and the troops. Mr. Brennan strikes me as a fellow who spends most of his time in academic settings, and academics, no matter how conservative, tend to have more thoughtful and nuanced ways of expressing themselves.

    My apologies in advance if Mr. Brennan genuinely does spend a significant portion of his leisure time socializing with blue collar Fox News viewers.

    • Sean II

      Maybe he meets those guys when he’s off looking for his 25th fistfight 😉

    • I know some people who believe what Jason says the right believes. They phrase it a little differently, but their meaning is the same: supplication to America’s patriotic institutions trumps any other statement one might wish to make.

      What would be really interesting is to compare and contrast these NFL protests to the American Olympians who gave the Black Panther salute when they won their medals. As Sean II noted, times sure have changed.

      • Sean II

        I’ve heard people say the kneelers “hate America”, but I’ve never heard anyone say kneeling = “hate the troops”. I suspect Minsky is right: the person who told Jason that protestors “hate the troops” may come from the same realm as those pithy cab drivers who are always picking up Thomas Friedman at the airport.

        It’s not a great example in any case, because some (probably not too many) in the BLM orbit WILL flat out tell you they hate America.

        Indeed that issue caused an interesting bit of internecine struggle on the Left last year. Hilary wanted to defeat MAGA with the slogan “America is Already Great”.

        But the hard Left, and especially the black Left, wanted the answer to be “America Was Never Great”.

        Let’s keep an eye on that chasm. It’s bound to grow in the years ahead.

        • Rob Gressis

          “Indeed that issue caused an interesting bit of internecine struggle on the Left last year. Hilary wanted to defeat MAGA with the slogan “America is Already Great”.”

          “But the hard Left, and especially the black Left, wanted the answer to be “America Was Never Great”.”

          Is this *literally* true? Or is this a lyrical way of putting the larger point?

          • Sean II

            No, it’s for real. Those two slogans fought it out on Twitter last fall.

            Whites of the Silicon Valley stripe liked Hilary’s “Already Great” version.

            People like DeRay and Netta liked the “Never Great” one.

            It was pretty funny. White allies train themselves never to disagree with anybody black (unless he’s a conservative), but then of course they also wanted to stand with the Hill.

            Surprised I never caught anyone using BOTH slogans.

          • Rob Gressis

            America is already never great?

          • Sean II

            Problem solved, problematically.

          • Cassiodorus

            Of course it’s not true, but what would Sean be without his straw leftists.

          • Rob Gressis

            Yeah, I looked this up, and I didn’t find what he claimed.

        • Theresa Klein

          Nobody is under an obligation to think America is great, and black people have more reason than most to not think so.

  • stevenjohnson2

    “Imagine a professor told her 1000-student class that in fifteen weeks, she would hold a final exam, worth 100% of their grade. Suppose she told them that in the name of equality, she would average all final exam grades together and give every student the same grade. Students wouldn’t study and the average grade would be an F. In effect, this scenario is how democracy works, except that we have a 210-million person class in the United States. The downside is not merely that we remain ignorant. Rather, the downside is that it liberates us to use our political beliefs for other purposes.”

    If this is the sort of thing Achen and Bartels, and Mutz, are really teaching then they are learned trash. First, if students can figure out that grading on a curve means they need to pillory the curve-buster, they’re capable of doing the math and figuring out how this will go.The outcome assumed is not a reasonable projection but an expression of prejudice against humanity. No doubt you learn this stuff at your mother’s knee, but that doesn’t make it true, no matter how many scholarly citations you offer.

    Second, as usual with philosophical thought experiments, this abstracts from the real issues, to sow confusion. If the professor had announced that at the end of the course, the students would receive a grade based on the grading matrix voted upon by the students. The cheap shot is to claim that of course the class would vote for a matrix which awarded 100% to every student. Except that every student who needed the credit for a prerequisite would have to worry about whether the instructor could get away with it, or be reversed by the administration. Or whether the news of this meaningless grade would give a bad impression to later instructors. No doubt all negative consequences could be avoided if every member of the class agreed to perfect discretion. As if.

    ” People know their interests. They then form preferences about what the government should do to promote these goals. They vote for parties and politicians who will best realize these goals. Then the government implements the goals of the majority.” Thus Achen and Bartels, Brennan tells us. Well, by libertarian standards, I am without a doubt stupid, ignorant and hypocritical enough to count as one of the folk. But, my index card theory of democracy goes like this: People have needs they can’t meet alone, so they form governments. They try to figure out the most important needs for the country and vote for meeting those needs. If governments fail to serve the needs of the people, then they’re not doing their jobs. Voting is about indicating priorities.

    The follow up to my notion of democracy is what’s wrong, which isn’t what Achen and Bartels, and Mutaz and Brennan and Hanson say, which is that people aren’t interested in policy, they’re interested in condemning political opponents, for feelz wid our friends! Well, if political polarization is due to human nature, then this crew has the problem that for some reason in real history human nature is remarkably variable, Sometimes there’s Civil War, sometimes there’s an Era of Good Feelings. Makes you wonder if the theory of human nature is the error. People with money using their money to get government policy to serve their own interests are part of the problem. In particular, I think we folk tend to see politicians and parties as not committing to policies, and therefore voting is futile, meaning time spent on political study and debate is more or less a hobby. And for most of us, the real problem is knowing who the majority is, given how easy it is to think our personal friends and us are the people.

    Part of the problem with Achen and Bartels and Mutz and Hanson and Brennan is the absurd notions of reasonable disagreement. The world has mostly been without a minimum wage, and the common people have mostly been poor, even to the point where their children’s growth was stunted, if they didn’t die young. So, no, the insistence that minimum wage makes people poor isn’t a terribly reasonable one, even at first glance. The insistence that the mass of people must be indoctrinated in elaborate academic literature unavailable to most of them is convenient for attacking the mob, no doubt. But, reasonable? I think not.

    • Theresa Klein

      if students can figure out that grading on a curve means they need to pillory the curve-buster, they’re capable of doing the math and figuring out how this will go

      I’m confused by what you mean. Generally, the curve buster is the asshole who gets an A and thus makes the score needed to get a C (typically the mean) higher than it otherwise would be. At least that’s how it worked in classes I have taken that were graded on curves. The high scorers were punished because everyone wanted to get higher letter grades.

      The analogy claims everyone would get an F, but really in an actual curve everyone would pass with a C, but the C would represent a much worse objective score.

      • stevenjohnson2

        The people who won’t study will be the assholes who lower the final grade. It’s Brennan who claims that people in this class wouldn’t be able to figure that out and therefore the final average would be very, very low. That’s nonsense, like so much of what Brennan says. It’s his argument that relies on this absurd projection, and therefore fails.

        By the way, it’s not impossible that the strongest students would cooperate to ensure that the weakest students knew the material. That would make this a cooperative learning aiming at mastery, rather than a competition for credentials. Or a hare-brained experiment in equality. In principle it’s possible for everyone to get a high score. In practice, there is likely a Brennan in the class who doesn’t want to cooperate, and doesn’t want to learn, but wants to win…and would rat the instructor out to the dean. In a way, that is sort of what the Flanagan family pays Brennan to do. In practice, the objection to egalitarianism is the desire to be the superior, coupled with the conviction that “I” the inegalitarian would be one of the superior. Whether the self-image is recognizable by others is sort of irrelevant to the argument.

        At any rate, only women are expected to look up to their superiors, which is why feminism is so often conceived as a leftist ideology by its essential nature. I suppose most reconcile this with some sort of separatism. I believe separate is never equal, but others disagree.

        One last note: The idea of “satisficing” appears to be absent from discussions of equality. Therefore any deviations from optimum fairness are deemed to refute egalitarianism. I suppose this is philosophically irrefutable. But then, this is the sort of thing that makes me think philosophy is the branch of rhetoric that relies on the appeal to reason to achieve its goal. Unlike forensic rhetoric, it is not to convince of innocence or guilt/truth or falsity. The aim is consolation for the evils of the world.

        Of course you could say this is sour grapes over my failures as a philosopher.

  • Cassiodorus

    Without diving into the merits, I’d note the comparison of taking a knee to privatizing education doesn’t really work, since the aims of privatiziers are the type of thing that can be quantified. We can see if test scores go up, for example.