You’d agree with Randolph Scott

Interesting post from Justin Fox over at Harvard Business Review. He cuts right to the chase:

We all like to think we can evaluate information and arguments rationally, regardless of where they come from. But we don’t.

No. We certainly do not. Fox quotes Yale Law School Professor Dan Kahan, who notes that:

People feel that it is safe to consider evidence with an open mind when they know that a knowledgeable member of their cultural community accepts it.

Fox then says:

Kahan is most concerned about scientific issues (climate change, HPV vaccines) where he thinks group identities get in the way of reasoned discussion. But the same tendencies can be seen in pretty much any case where there are conflicting opinions — which ought to make them of interest to anybody in a management or other decision-making role.

There’s probably some sophisticated PR insight that can be drawn out of this but I don’t have it right now. Other than arguing with people in a respectful way and trying to acclimate yourself to their predispositions and speech conventions, I dunno. No deep thought for today.

Just got my deep thought. I wonder how true this is for political discussion. Obviously, if you’re dealing with one person and your job is to convince him/her, then you have to be accommodating and understanding and non-snarky and never condescending and all that.

But what if we’re talking about political persuasion? Basically half the people in the country don’t vote. I’m not sure why (that’d be an interesting study but I imagine they might be hard to get hold of). Would using intentionally inflammatory rhetoric, designed to catch the attention of other people who weren’t paying attention, be a better strategy? Because remember: the people you’re attempting to convince probably won’t listen to you anyway for the very reason that Fox outlines.

I feel like the equation has to change when you’re switching from a one-on-one conversation with a committed, opposed person to a series of messages that appeal to millions of people, some of whom are already on your side, some of whom aren’t and around half of whom aren’t even paying attention. Is it worth catering your argument to the delicate sensibilities of ideologically hostile people in the hope that they see the light? Or are you better off torching those people and crossing your fingers that your tribe gets riled up while the unaware half takes a few minutes to stop watching porn and check out what’s going on? Another question to which I don’t have the answer.

And yes:

Randolph Scott!

Finally got around to reading Jon Chait’s piece on liberal disappointment a few days ago and now I’m really finally getting around to posting about it. I came to it by way of Booman, who has a response up about how Chait fails to draw a distinction between the liberal movements pre-Vietnam and post-Civil Rights and how that means he’s missing something. I dunno whether that’s true, but it isn’t what struck me about Chait’s piece.

Conor Friedersdorf has a post up complaining that Chait doesn’t take into account all that crap that Obama’s pulled allowed to continue w/r/t foreign policy and I agree with what he says. At first, I thought that the stuff Friedersdorf raises was beyond the scope of Chait’s argument, but I’m now remembering that Chait takes a dig at Greenwald early on, and because Greenwald’s schtick is mostly foreign policy/security state, I think it’s fair game.

But here’s what stood out to me: on the last page, Chait writes about how liberals will never view Obama’s presidency the same way that conservatives view that of Reagan. Here’s how the article ends:

Did liberals really expect more? I didn’t. But when you dig deeper, liberal melancholy hangs not so much on substantive objections but on something more inchoate and emotional: a general feeling that Obama is not Ronald Reagan. Obama invited the contrast with Reagan himself when he noted during the campaign, “Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not.” And yet so far at least, this country does not feel fundamentally, systemically changed by Obama in the way that it is remembered to have been by Reagan.

But here again, memory is problematic. Reagan, you’ll recall, spent most of his administration raising taxes, signing arms-control treaties, and otherwise betraying right-wing dogma. Yes, his accomplishments were more substantive than Nixon’s or Clinton’s, but they were not quite the sweeping, nation-transforming stuff liberals enjoy recalling in horror. In terms of lasting change, Obama probably has matched Reagan—or, at least, he will if he can win reelection and consolidate health-care reform and financial regulation and tilt the Supreme Court further left than he already has.

And yet Obama will never match among Democrats Reagan’s place in the psyche of his own party, as reflected in the endless propaganda campaign to give him full credit for the end of stagflation and communism, the dogmatic insistence that everything the great hero said offers the One True Path for all time, and the project to name every possible piece of American property after him. Republican Reagan-worship is a product of a pro-authority mind-set that liberals, who inflate past heroes only to criticize their contemporaries, cannot match. If recent history is any guide, they are simply not capable of having that kind of relationship with a president. They are going to question their leader, not deify him, and search for signs of betrayal in any act of compromise he or she may commit. This exhausting psychological torment is no way to live. Then again, the current state of the Republican Party suggests it may be healthier than the alternative.

OK, first off, to steal Buzz Bissinger’s legendary line, it pisses the shit out of me when people claim that they didn’t expect anything more from Obama. I don’t believe them. I just don’t. Obama, despite the accomplishments that Chait lists in the article, some of which are substantial and for which he does deserve lots of credit, has been an abject disappointment in other areas (handling underwater mortgages, handling the banks, how he’s dealt with Republicans, how he’s crafted his rhetoric, the expansion of drone attacks, the expansion of our presence through Black Ops, etc). I just don’t believe that Chait isn’t on some level disappointed, especially w/r/t foreign policy. He comes from TNR, though, so I guess maybe not.

But beyond that, which is my own pet peeve, I think Chait’s is right that Obama will never be another Reagan. The reason for that, though, is not because liberals are ridiculous, hopeless dreamers who have persistently unrealistic expectations. It’s because Reagan has come to mean, at least to this liberal, so much more than his actual presidency. Reagan, even if he didn’t embody this at the time, is a one-word term for the transformation of the Republican movement. The Laffer curve, tax cuts raising revenue, the explosion in defense spending, the welfare queens bullshit, the preeminence of the greed is good mentality, Grover Norquist and ATR, Jack Abramoff & co, slashing income tax rates, screamingly large deficits, Heritage, Cato and Peter G Peterson.

That’s a list that isn’t all entirely attributable to Reagan and doesn’t end with him. But all of those people played a role in that era, that ethos, and they have dominated the past thirty years of our politics. Their vision of public policy has run this show and, even in the age of Chait’s (and my) credentialed and successful liberal president, they continue to run this show. To me, Reagan was the jumping off point for much of what I listed above, directly in some examples (Pete Peterson and voodoo economics) and indirectly in others (“greed is good” gone way overboard and Grover). Reagan was the catalyst for that transformation.

Will Obama be the liberal version of that? Maybe. I can’t imagine so, because FDR, who was truly transformational, had WWII to cow the opposition and American politics were just different then because Republicans weren’t congenitally insane. Even if Obama ends up being that guy, we won’t know for another few decades. As I said, I can’t see it. But the world is full of surprises and he may yet be our Randolph Scoooooooott.