Exaggeration in Political Stereotypes

Jonathan Haidt’s latest.

The ideological “culture war” in the U.S. is, in part, an honest disagreement about ends (moral values that each side wants to advance), as well as an honest disagreement about means (laws and policies) to advance those ends. But our findings suggest that there is an additional process at work: partisans on each side exaggerate the degree to which the other side pursues moral ends that are different from their own. Much of this exaggeration comes from each side underestimating the degree to which the other side shares its own values. But some of it comes, unexpectedly, from overestimating the degree to which “typical” members of one’s own side endorse its values.

Pointer from Kevin Drum, via Tyler Cowen.

This is consistent with what I think happens in my “three axes” model. That is, I would expect progressives to view themselves as particularly sympathetic to the oppressed and to view others as on the side of oppressors. I would expect conservatives to view themselves as particularly sympathetic to the civilized and to view others as on the side of barbarism. I would expect libertarians to view themselves as particular sympathetic to freedom and to view others as on the side of coercion.

Let me emphasize that I am not using “three axes” to try to explain what different people believe. It is not a theory of why people believe what they believe. Rather, it is a way of organizing their beliefs. It is a way of predicting how different partisans will communicate their beliefs, how they will interpret issues, and how they will interpret the views of those who disagree.

Haidt is a major influence on my thinking. However, there are limits as to far I want to go in the direction of relating ideological beliefs to personal psychology. As Jeffrey Friedman has taught me, trying to explain why person X believes something is often an effort to avoid treating X’s beliefs with respect. It is really hard, perhaps even impossible, to psychologize about someone else’s political beliefs in a way that is not demeaning.

The goal of the three-axes model is to enable people to see how others might arrive at a different viewpoint on a particular issue. My own leanings are libertarian. However, I would hope that anyone, whether progressive, conservative, or libertarian, could use the three-axes model to better appreciate that others’ views have some justification.

4 thoughts on “Exaggeration in Political Stereotypes

  1. A question on the three axes: Should there be a fourth axis for authoritarians, or are they simply the inverse of libertarians?

    Another way to ask: Are Stalinists and Nazis nothing but progressives and conservatives who are willing to use extreme coercion to get rid of oppressors or barbarism, respectively? Or do they have more in common, as libertarians often claim?

  2. Your leanings are libertarian *now*. When they weren’t, how did you view the world then?

    As you shifted to libertarianism, did the shift to a “freedom/coercion” axis perspective lead, lag, or precisely correspond to that shift?

  3. What’s interesting about Haidt’s work is that I came to the very same conclusions while converting to libertarianism. I hesitate to say “convert,” but it really was such a dramatic shift in my thinking that any other word would not suffice. I had already come to realize that the other side of the debate often had the best of intentions. The problem was not intentions; it was the consequences. This brings to mind Hanlon’s razor: “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.” I think that explains a lot of Haidt’s work in much shorter shrift.