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How politics always under-estimates support for left-wing views

by Chris Naden     March 6, 2013 at 9:15 am

It is a truism of politics, oft-cited by Jonathan Bernstein, that activists and politicians always feel the opposition are better organised and less principled than themselves.

In that spirit we should perhaps not be surprised at left-wing frustration over the long-vaunted, rarely-seen ‘moral’ (read reactionary) majority that drives so much of our national discourse on social policy issues.

The Washington Post’s Wonkblog has the breakdown on a Berkley working paper which, as far as I can tell, suggests very strongly that on this particular issue the liberals are right.

According to initial findings by Broockman and Skovron, politicians of all parties consistently and significantly over-estimate the ‘conservativeness’ of their constituencies. Liberal politicians underestimate the strength of support for liberal policies, even when that support is 80% or better: and conservatives, by a much larger margin, over-estimate conservative strength in their districts and in the polity at large. Key from the original paper:

[…] nearly half of conservative politicians appear to believe that they represent a district that is more conservative on these issues than is the most conservative district in the entire country.

“These issues” being health-care and gay marriage.

Reality is more biased toward liberals than even the liberals imagine.

Dylan Matthews conclusion:

The research here is young and, as a general rule, reading too much into a single working paper is foolhardy. It’d be good, for one thing, to perform district-level surveys to confirm these findings. But the data holds against a battery of robustness checks the authors threw at it. The finding on conservative legislators in particular is so large that it’s hard to imagine any subsequent research would completely overturn it. But if the findings hold, they suggest both that epistemic closure on the right is real and affects state-level policymaking, and that there is a systematic bias against liberal policies at the state level.

This is important.

I would be very surprised to discover that the British political class did not share this bizarre feature of thought.

As my last article implied, it is my observation that British politicians routinely underestimate the popularity of liberal policies and massively over-estimate the strength of reactionary opinion on a number of issues.

Many of us have long thought it, and this paper offers a strong case that we now know why it’s so damn hard to get popular, liberal policies through our legislatures. Elected officials are permanently afraid of political retribution from a reactionary ‘majority’ of Edwardian moral vigilantes which simply does not exist.

Heavily invested in sacred cows

by Chris Naden     February 27, 2013 at 11:30 am

This neat piece from Steve Benen reminded me of this longer, but wonderful piece from Jonathan Chait in 2005 on epistemic closure and the remarkable lack of interest, from the right, in evidence-based government.

The New Republic piece is full of quoteable moments, and well worth reading in full, including this on the non-equivalence of the parties;

Part of this difference reflects the cultural predilections of the last two presidents–Bush is the instinctive anti-intellectual who likes to go with his gut, and Clinton is the former Rhodes scholar who relished academic debates. But it also reflects the natural tendencies of conservatism and liberalism.

Clearly, after the 112th Congress and the theatrics of the 2012 Republican primary, Chait’s theme has been much explored since. The rise of the Murdoch-influenced ‘conservative’ press, and its influence on creating an extraordinarily lucrative rage market for Limbaugh, Beck and company; the disturbing elevation of Paul Ryan and his numberless economics; Sarah Palin; and the radicalising effect of two cycles of TEA-Party politics in the House and in State Houses across the country have all washed the GOP further from their old moorings on the shores of reality. Here’s J. Bernstein in 2011:

No, the difference between the parties is how well party dogma is aligned with reality. [..] Republicans are required to be sceptical of evolution, to deny climate change, pretend missile defense works, and otherwise ignore real-world evidence. […] a lot of GOP policy positions [are] “conservative” in the sense of being aligned with what Rush or Beck says, but not in the sense of being aligned with ideological conservatism.

Which got me thinking about the UK. There are certainly ideological factions in parliament. British government has clearly been divorced from any great emphasis on evidential policy for some time. But in the same way that the GOP has become an echo-chamber of dog-whistles and plutocratic catechisms, rather than becoming an ideologically conservative policy actor, the UK scene is ignoring evidence not so much for reasons of ideology as for reasons of faith and habit.

One cannot overestimate the power of habit in British politics; which is mostly a Sir. Humphrey-ish artefact of the professional civil service. It is amplified in the echo chambers of the tabloid press. The Sun, the Mail and their ilk exist, like Limbaugh and the departed Breitbart, to serve a market in fear and rage. Several, in fact; for example, the under-educated working class rage is mostly in the Sun, the educated middle-class rage is mostly in the Mail. Humans are habit-forming and change resistant, older humans are more so, and thus change can be easily presented in a manner which will induce fear and rage in a lucrative and electorally effective demographic.

Then we come to faith. Both major parties have significant and strident minority membership from the wing-nut end of socially conservative Christianity, but that’s not really one of the core articles of faith which have been so damaging. Both major parties also have a religious faith in the free market fundamentalism of the Great Moderation. Both have been captured by financial vested interests. Both have nailed their trousers to the mast on Austerian fantasies and will find it very difficult to climb down.

Both major parties are instinctively authoritarian, and with the triumph of the Orange Book faction of the Liberal Democrats, they’re not much better. Both major parties (since the New Labour course change) are reflexively, rather than in any real sense ideologically, right of centre. Once again, the Liberal Democrats aren’t much better. It should be noted that this matters relatively little as the Coalition may prove to have done more damage to the LibDems than 1983 did.

That British government is no longer moored to evidentiary standards of reality is visible in a number of very high profile incidents. The Dodgy Dossier, for one. The Nutt Sack affair. Public-Private Partnerships. ATOS. Faith schools. The entire Broken Britain narrative, which I have ranted about before. Ridiculous rhetoric on immigration. And in probably the most egregious example currently going, George Osborne’s economic policies.

Both major parties, and to a lesser extent the LibDems front bench, are heavily invested in sacred cows. That’s not a good way to run a country.

Climate change and Cumbria’s floods

by Chris Naden     November 22, 2009 at 1:01 pm

Imagine, if you please, a kettle. The empirically-minded may wish to actually fetch one and 3/4 fill it with water. Examine the water in this imaginary (or actual, for the science geeks) kettle. It’s pretty much stationary. Now turn the kettle on and watch very carefully. You will quite quickly notice that the system becomes less predictable, less stable, more active and wilder, as the heat in the system increases.

If you increase the temperature far enough, your system will change radically and comprehensively (all the water will change state and leave the system through the cracks) leaving you with a barren, parched shell of what was once a nice cup of tea in potentia.

This is the image you should have in your mind when you hear an Environment Agency spokesmen using words like “unprecedented”.

The Second, Law, of Thermo, Dynamics.

The flooding in Cumbria is not quite Hurricane Katrina, but then we’re not in a hurricane belt. For Britain, even a Britain recently flooded a number of times in different areas, this has been a pretty wet week. Most specifically over a foot of actual rain fell on the Lake District and south-western Scotland [1] over the last 24 hours alone.
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The real point of Climate Camp

by Chris Naden     August 30, 2009 at 8:06 am

The Climate Camp is back, and thoroughly established on Blackheath, scene of a number of very drunken evenings of burly cheer back when I was a Kent schoolboy rugby player.

They’re slowly getting their message across in spite of all the distractions. They’re a broad, consensus-based coalition which carries no universal ideological burden. The only point of cohesion is that they are all dedicated to true debate, to collective action and to direct, rather than “representative”, political systems for self-determination.

They are able to be all of these things because they live in a society where the cost of entry into the communications market is so low that normal people can play too. And they’re winning the spin war, so far. Being factual, organised and in the right really helps with that. Mr. Cameron, take note.
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You are being watched

by Chris Naden     July 26, 2009 at 10:12 am

Surveillance, it seems to me, comes in two categories differentiated by purpose; that is, all surveillance efforts will fulfill one, or both in some mixture, of two purposes. The first is the easiest, and the most etymologically obvious: surveillance is investigative.

A typical example of such surveillance work would be a phone tap. You initiate a phone tap to find out things you didn’t know before; it is an investigative tool. But it is worth noting that this investigative function for surveillance is effective precisely in so far as it is covert; a subject aware of observation behaves differently.
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How the government started owning our pubs

by Chris Naden     July 19, 2009 at 9:28 am

It hadn’t occurred to me, though it really should have, that the British Government is now a considerable player in the pub trade. It was pretty much inevitable, given that the financial crisis is derived from an artificially inflated and then over-exploited property boom, that at least one of the failed banks was going to be a pubco owner.

So, my hat is tipped to Private Eye (1240, p29) who have had a good look at the ridiculous and incestuous relationships between the PubCos, the government, and the Government’s “independent” body of pub valuers, RICS. This Labour administration has continued the trend established in the 80s of setting thieves to encourage thieves when it comes to regulation. In the process, they managed to create the conditions for a scam even more ridiculous than the brewery-tied lease.
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Moderate Muslims fight back

by Chris Naden     June 5, 2009 at 11:43 am

Bizarrely, from the Daily Fail, comes good news for British moderate muslims. One of the straw men often presented to the moderate muslim community (apart from “There is no moderate muslim community!”) is that if they existed, and cared, and were not tacit fascists, they’d be out in the streets protesting against or confronting the militants in their own community.

Where are the moderate muslims shouting down Omar Bakri? Where are the muslim Britons defending our troops from the insults of extremists?
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How can we trust police intent now?

by Chris Naden     May 10, 2009 at 5:05 pm

“Liberal Democrat Tom Brake says he saw what he believed to be two plain-clothes police officers go through a police cordon after presenting their ID cards. Brake, who along with hundreds of others was corralled behind police lines near Bank tube station in the City of London on the day of the protests, says he was informed by people in the crowd that the men had been seen to throw bottles at the police and had encouraged others to do the same shortly before they passed through the cordon,” reports the Guardian today.

I really hoped that the assault on Ian Tomlinson had been an accident. It wasn’t. I really hoped that the police medics had not been engaged in violent assaults: they had. I really hoped that the police medical teams had been provided to care for the injured; in fact protesters were explicitly refused help, by medics, while bleeding. I really hoped that the police had not been targeting legal observers and arresting them, harassing them, stealing their recording equipment, defacing their notebooks. All of these things were happening.

But now there is much more.
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Patriotism, the BNP and being a publican

by Chris Naden     May 4, 2009 at 6:30 pm

To “serve and protect” is a phrase famously associated with police officers in certain high-profile cities in America but it’s also a phrase I associate with the job of landlord. It’s a pun first made to me by the landlord at my local down in Southampton mumble years ago. The pub was a tiny Victorian establishment with a 2-barrel brewery that was visible through a glass panel behind the bar, so you could drink your Sweet Sensation [1] and watch the next batch brewing. I was told “Our job is to serve drinks and protect peace of mind. The brewer sells beer: the landlord sells happiness.”

I am tired of being told I’m a leftie, which I’m really not; but I’m equally tired of the assumption that if I were, I must ‘hate Britain’. That’s very Yankee thinking; that any progressive view or compassionate view or inclusive view is anti-patriotic.
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Police: several levels of ‘culpability’

by Chris Naden     April 27, 2009 at 9:20 am

Having gone truncheons to tasers in a generation, I also have to wonder what purpose the current Police Service has been built for?

It looks like we have been built to violently confront and overcome people. I am not saying that is our mindset, but it is without doubt what we are equipped to do. Once people get over the quasi military kit, we are mostly approachable and pleasant people, it’s just that we dress like Imperial Stormtroopers.
NightJack, Winner of the Orwell Prize for Blogs, 2009

The last week I’ve been pulling apart the Climate Camp Legal Team report and collating the data into a structured analysis over on my blog. As of today, this is what we know: the rioting police forces were systematically hiding their identities to avoid accountability. There was a coherent policy of abusing the statute book as if it were a catalogue of ways to harass specific individuals and groups. The TSG paramilitaries were directed to use the assault on Climate Camp as an opportunity to punish dissenters. And there was a comprehensive and systematic effort to suppress and destroy evidence of criminal activity by officers of the law.
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