Sunday, August 24, 2014

Attack of the Crazy Centrists

I’m by no means the only person, or even pundit, who sometimes (often) feels that centrists are the craziest people in our political life. Liberals these days rarely stake out really extreme positions (more on that in a minute); conservatives may denounce Obama as a Muslim atheist communist, but at least they know what they want. The really strange people are those who insist that there is symmetry between left and right, that both are equally far out and equally at fault for polarization, and make up all kinds of strange stories to justify this claim.
Barack Obama is, of course, the biggest target of these delusions; it’s really amazing to see pundits accuse him of being chiefly to blame for Republican scorched-earth opposition — you see, he should have used his mystic powers of persuasion to bring them into the tent. But liberal commentators also get hit — usually via gross misrepresentations of what we said. And of course I get this most of all.
Today Jonathan Bernstein leads me to Andrew Gelman, who catches an assertion that I’m all wrong about the difference in conspiracy theorizing between left and right.
What I said was that conspiracy theories are supported by a lot of influential people on the right, but not on the left. They misrepresent this as a claim that most conspiracy theorists are on the right, and point to evidence that “motivated reasoning” is equally common on left and right as proof that I’m wrong.
This is doubly wrong. For one thing — Gelman doesn’t say this as clearly as I’d like — motivated reasoning isn’t the same thing as conspiracy theorizing. Believing that official inflation numbers understate true inflation, based not on understanding the data but on political leanings, is motivated reasoning. Believing that the BLS is deliberately understating inflation and unemployment as a political favor to the White House is a conspiracy theory.
And there’s a big difference even when it comes to conspiracy theorizing between having something believed by some, maybe even a lot, of people and having it stated by influential politicians and other members of the elite.
So how did my claim about elites and conspiracy theories — which I think is very defensible, even obvious — turn into a supposed claim that isn’t defensible, and can be dismissed as foolish? Well, you know the answer: centrists want to believe that liberals are just as bad as conservatives, so they see shrill partisanship even when it’s not really there.
It is, in short, a classic illustration of politically motivated reasoning.

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