Weekend Reading List

Sunday, October 21st, 2012

For this weekend’s reading list, we have articles about how Mitt Romney would be a servant of the right wing if he were to become President, how Romney’s “jobs” plan would destroy jobs, the cost of Romney’s plan to abolish Medicare, the flimsiness of Republican’s Benghazi criticisms, and why progressives should not cast a third-party “protest” vote.


Mitt Romney, Servant of the Right – a good overview of just how reactionary the agenda that Mitt Romney is running on is, which disproves the fantasy that Romney would somehow be a moderate if he were to become President.

Party Animals - recent history shows that were Romney to become President, his Administration would be run by the same right-wing Republican insiders that ran the George W. Bush White House.

Mitt Romney Has No Real Jobs Plan - an in-depth report on how Romney’s “jobs” plan relies on failed economic theories and would actually cost jobs, rather than creating them.

The Benghazi Controversy, Explained – an accounting of the Benghazi attacks that shows just how flimsy are the Republican criticisms of the Obama Administration’s response to the attacks.

Transforming Medicare Into a Premium Support System – an independent analysis finding that Mitt Romney’s plan to end Medicare as a guaranteed universal insurance program for seniors and replace it with vouchers would increase costs for the majority of seniors.

The Case Against Protest Voting - an argument that the importance of who gets lifetime appointments to the federal judiciary is a sufficiently compelling reason for any progressive to resist calls from some on the left that they should vote for a third party as a “protest” against President Obama



The Republican Brain, Part III: Changing Minds, a Q&A with Chris Mooney

Monday, June 4th, 2012

(By NCrissie B)

Over the past couple of posts, I have been looking at Chris Mooney’s The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science – and Reality. First, I considered some of the false beliefs held by Republicans, and whether Democrats are equally committed to false beliefs.  Next, I explored the research on why the two parties are not mirror-images, each stubbornly clinging to opposing false beliefs. In this post, I conclude with a brief interview with Mooney, and his proposals for bridging the partisan gap.

Chris Mooney is a senior correspondent for The American Prospect and a contributing editor for Science Progress. In 2009, he was a visiting associate at Princeton University’s Center for Collaborative History. In 2009–10, he was a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Chris Mooney is traveling this week and was unable to join our discussion in the comments. However, he graciously agreed to answer several questions by email:


How much did researching and writing the book require you to “change your mind,” and how difficult was that process for you?

There have actually been several mind changing moments for me here. And in each case, the process is somewhat difficult, but I feel that you have to follow the evidence over time because, well, you respect science too much not to.

First, and like many journalists and many liberals, I was initially resistant to the fundamental idea that liberals and conservatives are just different people. For instance, if you read my Mother Jones article about motivated reasoning that preceded the book, I basically argue there that both sides are biased, end of story, no reason to go any further.

However, the more I read the research being produced by people like NYU’s John Jost and his colleagues, the more I became convinced that they had compiled a body of evidence too compelling to ignore. The evidence came from multiple researchers and disciplines, and it supported the idea of liberal-conservative differences in interlocking ways. This is what we expect to see in serious science, of the sort that points to reliable conclusions. So that was one mind-changer.

The second one is that I initially thought that in terms of how they process information, the key difference between liberals and conservatives would indeed be a difference in a specific mechanism called motivated reasoning. And that’s what the study at the end of the book is designed to test.

Note: Mooney helped Dr. Everett Young design and conduct a study at Louisiana State University to test whether conservatives are more likely to engage in motivated reasoning on any issue – political or non-political – and their initial data do not support that hypothesis. While conservative subjects were more likely to resist new information that related to political issues, there was no statistical difference between conservatives’ and liberals’ resistance to new information on non-political issues such as a favorite athlete, musician, or university. However, Mooney and Young found a difference they had not predicted: conservative subjects spent much less time reading the new information they were presented, regardless of the issue.

But the study didn’t really show this – though it contained some fascinating hints. So as of now, I cannot say that motivated reasoning is the key source of the difference that we’re seeing, between left and right, in terms of how they respond to inconvenient realities.

And in fact, it turns out that isn’t really necessary to postulate that the left and right, on average, differ in a tendency towards motivated reasoning in order account for the results we’re seeing. There are many ways in which they do differ, such as personality and openness to new information (with conservatives less open), or tribal and in-group commitment (with conservatives more group-oriented), that could produce a “reality gap” between left and right of the sort that we actually see in the world today.

So that was another mind changer.

You offer research showing that Republicans find it harder to “change their minds,” at least in terms of new information that challenges conservative orthodoxy and identity. Have progressives’ and conservatives’ responses to your book been consistent with that hypothesis?

Oh yes, absolutely. Note that in the new study reported in the book, we found that conservatives were spending a lot less time reading the essay materials we gave them – and indeed, the conservatives who are angriest about my book show little evidence of having read it.

So, yes: The conservative response to the book, perhaps epitomized by Jonah Goldberg of the National Review, but also Andrew Ferguson of the Weekly Standard, smacks of closed-mindedness. The irony is here is sort of staggering. These people are willing to dismiss an entire scientific field – and it just happens to be an entire field which suggests that they’re willing to dismiss entire fields.

In The Republican Brain you focus on the importance of respectful conversations that identify and build on shared values – what we at BPI call Fred Whispering – and on using evocative and true stories rather than reams of facts. What advice would you offer for advocating progressive ideas to conservatives?

In general what we find is that it is possible, to an extent, to get conservatives to change their views in controlled psychology experiments, depending on how you frame information for them. The real word is not a controlled experiment, though, so whether this actually works very often there is another matter. But based on the experiments, these are the sorts of things you want to do if you want to open a conservative mind about ideas like global warming.

First, have an exchange in person. Interpersonal exchanges always work better and force people to listen to one another, rather than demonize one another.

Second, frame the science in a way that supports this conservative’s core values. So show that climate science is consistent with religious values, free market values, entrepreneurial values.

Third – and this is where liberals inevitably fall short – it would help to, er, be a credible conservative messenger. A religious leader, for instance, or an industry leader. But liberals have far too few of those in their ranks.

Clearly, speaking as an authority that conservatives respect will help change their minds.

You also call on progressives to be ‘more conservative,’ not in policy but becoming better organized and self-disciplined. Do you worry that may prove as difficult as convincing conservatives to be more open to science and/or that practicing greater organization and self-discipline might nudge progressives’ policy ideas toward greater conservatism?

Not really. I think this is unnatural to progressives, just as circling the wagons to defend the team or tribe is natural to conservatives. But the big difference is that by definition, progressives are open to change and trying out new things. That’s the mark of who they are. So they should, by definition, be more adaptable. They should be better able to come up with different strategies when the ones they’re using aren’t working.

I think progressive movements have, for too long, splintered into disloyal factions or rambled a disorganized fashion. In terms of disorganization, I think Occupy Wall Street epitomizes this problem.

But I know that progressives want to do better and are deeply intellectually interested in why they so often do not. To me, over time, that means they are going to embrace this knowledge, look in the mirror, and organize themselves better.


Changing minds: ours and others’

I agree with Mooney that we progressives must become better organized and more self-disciplined in our advocacy. We discussed one example last week: why words like “marriage equality” matter in political dialogue. Too often we adopt the language of Conservative rather than rigorously speaking the language of Progressive. Ironically, in resisting pressure to “repeat the party line,” we often end up repeating the other party’s lines.

However, while the Occupy Movement have not (yet) shown the organization or discipline of the Tea Party – who found and supported Republican candidates for federal, state, and local elections in 2010 and 2012 – they did introduce the phrases “Top One Percent” and “99 Percent” into the Progressive language. Those have been stickier and more effective in pushing the issue of income inequality than President Obama’s and the Democratic Party’s “Wall Street/Main Street” frame.

I was delighted to see Mooney emphasize the face-to-face political conversations that we at BPI call Fred Whispering. It’s not enough to talk among ourselves, online or in progressive and Democratic offline groups. We must also talk with our friends, family, coworkers, and neighbors in our communities, and focus more on forming relationships than on ‘winning’ arguments. We can’t all be religious or industry leader Authorities, but we can often become another, equally convincing kind of Authority … trusted friends.

Finally, Mooney also reminds us to become better storytellers. As we discussed in January, stories are ‘stickier’ than facts and logic. And as Chip and Dan Heath emphasize in Made to Stick, stories better embed nuance and – more important – work as “flight simulators” that better prepare us to take action.

Research suggests conservatism may be the ‘default’ attitude, but history shows that progressives can overcome that if we work together, reach out to people we meet, and tell our stories.

(Crossposted from Blogistan Polytechnic Institute (BPICampus.com))


The Republican Brain, Part II: Politics, Psychology, and Biology

Thursday, May 31st, 2012

(By NCrissie B)

This week I’ve been looking at Chris Mooney’s The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science – and Reality. In the first post, I considered some of the false beliefs held by Republicans, and whether Democrats are equally committed to false beliefs. Today I explore the research on why the two parties are not mirror-images, each stubbornly clinging to opposing false beliefs. Tomorrow I’ll conclude with a brief interview with Mooney, and his proposals for bridging the partisan gap.

Chris Mooney is a senior correspondent for The American Prospect and a contributing editor for Science Progress. In 2009, he was a visiting associate at Princeton University’s Center for Collaborative History. In 2009–10, he was a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“Both parties are (not!) the same.”

We often hear that “both parties are the same,” comprised of extremists who ignore inconvenient facts and stubbornly cling to false beliefs. Indeed the Americans Elect project was based on The Myth of the Missing Center, where both main parties are equally wrong and the truth lies somewhere between them. And as we saw yesterday, both Republicans and Democrats get facts wrong.

However, Mooney cites studies that show Republicans and Democrats get facts wrong for different reasons. As we saw in reviewing Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, progressives respond most strongly to stories about Harm and Fairness, a bit less to stories about Liberty, and much less to stories about Loyalty, Authority, and Purity. Conservatives respond about equally to stories about all six moral foundations, though “extreme conservatives” respond slightly more to stories about Loyalty, Authority, or Purity than to stories about Harm, Fairness, or Liberty.

Mooney and Haidt also agree that progressives and conservatives tend to evaluate Fairness differently, with the left more likely to favor equality and the right more likely to justify inequality in terms of unequal virtue or contribution. When an issue pushes our moral-emotional buttons, we are more likely to engage in motivated reasoning, constructing an argument to bolster intuitive emotional judgments rather than the Enlightenment model of weighing facts through dispassionate logic.

The studies Mooney cites also show Republicans and Democrats respond to new information differently. Progressives are more likely to change our beliefs when offered new evidence and highly-educated progressives are even more prone to do so. Conversely, the studies show conservatives more likely to defend their beliefs against new evidence and highly-educated conservatives are even more prone to do so. Mooney calls the latter “smart idiots” who use their intelligence and education to construct sophisticated arguments that dismiss contrary evidence and maintain false beliefs.

Drops in an OCEAN

If these studies are reliable, what explains the differences? The key, Mooney argues, may lie in the Big Five model. This proposes five broad personality traits – Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism – thus the acronym OCEAN. While there is no definitive model of human psychology, the Big Five model has been refined over several decades and researchers have devised several tests that reliably measure the five traits.

Mooney cites studies that show Democrats score higher than Republicans on Openness, which corresponds to an appreciation for and tendency toward innovation, creativity, curiosity, complexity, and ambiguity. Conversely, Republicans score higher than Democrats on Conscientiousness, which corresponds to an appreciation for and tendency toward efficiency, discipline, duty, loyalty, and stability. Indeed Openness/Conscientiousness scores correlate to political ideology and voting patterns more reliably than income or religiosity.

Personality is biological, but …

They do it because they were born that way.

That is the essence of conservative pundit Jonah Goldberg’s withering criticism of Mooney’s book. Other critics like Alex Berezow and Hank Campbell follow the same path, criticizing Mooney for claiming that “Republicans are genetically inferior.” In fact, Mooney makes no such claim. While there is evidence that personality traits are heritable, Mooney repeatedly emphasizes that “the brain is highly plastic” and that our personalities are strongly influenced by our family and cultural experiences. Still, Mooney is correct that our personalities are biological. As he writes:

We’ve inherited an Enlightenment tradition of thinking of beliefs as if they’re somehow disembodied, suspended above us in the ether, and all you have to do is float up the right bit of correct information and wrong beliefs will dispel, like bursting a soap bubble. Nothing could be further from the truth. Beliefs are physical. To attack them is like attacking one part of a person’s anatomy, almost like pricking his or her skin (or worse). And motivated reasoning might perhaps best be thought of as a defensive mechanism that is triggered by a direct attack upon a belief system, physically embodied in a brain.

Our beliefs, moral values, preferences, attitudes, and knowledge exist as networks of neurons in our brains. We reinforce those networks when we repeat familiar tasks, or repeat familiar arguments. We rewire those networks when we learn new tasks, or adapt to new information and new ideas. As cognitive scientist George Lakoff writes, to “change our minds” is to literally “change our brains.”

Mooney’s thesis is that more Open people are more comfortable with changing their minds, while less Open people find that more threatening. Conversely, more Conscientious people are more comfortable with stability, while less Conscientious people find that more stifling. Combine the two traits and it makes sense that Democrats would lean somewhat more toward science and Republicans would lean somewhat more toward tradition.

… Personality is also situational.

These general tendencies are not fixed at birth. We can change our minds through study and reflection, and our minds can change depending on the situation. Indeed, research suggests that conservatism may be our ‘default’ ideology:

A research team led by University of Arkansas psychologist Scott Eidelman argues that conservatism – which the researchers identify as “an emphasis on personal responsibility, acceptance of hierarchy, and a preference for the status quo” – may be our default ideology. If we don’t have the time or energy to give a matter sufficient thought, we tend to accept the conservative argument.

“When effortful, deliberate responding is disrupted or disengaged, thought processes become quick and efficient,” the researchers write in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. “These conditions promote conservative ideology.”

That study involved interviewing subjects on moral-political questions as they emerged from a bar. Subjects who were more intoxicated were more likely to give conservative answers, even if they self-identified as liberals and voted for Democrats. Dr. Eidelman and his colleagues emphasized this does not mean conservatism is either ‘natural’ or ‘stupid.’

We do not assert that conservatives fail to engage in effortful, deliberate thought,” they insist. “We find that when effortful thought is disengaged, the first step people take tends to be in a conservative direction.

Other studies have found that subjects are more likely to offer conservative responses if they are frightened, tired, unhappy, or standing near a hand-washing station or a smelly trash can. Another study found people more likely to offer progressive responses (and better able to solve complex problems) after watching a brief comedy clip.

In short, neither Mooney nor the scientists he cites argues that Republicans are “stupid,” or that “they are born that way.” Instead, the science suggests that our political beliefs reflect our personalities, that our personalities are partly heritable but strongly influenced by experience, and that our political beliefs are also subject to situational factors such as fatigue, mood, and even scents.

Given our growing understanding of how humans actually think, it’s hardly surprising that mere facts and logic are not enough to sway voters’ minds. In the next post, we’ll hear from Chris Mooney and discuss what how we can better advocate progressive, evidence-based ideas.

(Crossposted from Blogistan Polytechnic Institute (BPICampus.com))

Weekend Reading List

Saturday, March 17th, 2012

For this weekend’s reading list, we have articles on the impacts of Texas’ new forced sonogram law and of conservative efforts to privatize special education programs, how the conservative movement has been crazy for the past sixty years, greenwashing at Walmart, and the impacts of cost-benefit analysis on environmental protection.

If you have any feedback on these articles or would like to recommend an article for next weekend’s reading list, let us know in the comments section below or at the Winning Progressive Facebook page.


‘We Have No Choice’: One Woman’s Ordeal With Texas’ New Sonogram Law – the story of a Texas woman seeking to terminate her pregnancy upon finding out that her child would have serious and irreversible abnormalities, and the emotional and financial burden imposed on her by Texas’ new anti-choice sonogram law.

My Nephew and My Fears for His Future – blogger Steven D at Booman Tribune writes about how conservative efforts to privatize special education programs and get families to give up their federally protected special education benefits makes him worry about the future for his disabled nephew.

Why Conservatives Are Still Crazy After All These Years – an essay arguing that conservatives are no crazier today than they have been for the past sixty or more years.  Instead, it is just that those crazy conservatives have more power than they used to because they have taken over the GOP.

Walmart’s Greenwash -a report documenting how Walmart’s sustainability PR campaign masks a company that has massive adverse environmental impacts and regularly backs anti-environment political candidates.

Applying Cost-Benefit to Past Decisions: Was Environmental Protection Ever a Good Idea? - an interesting argument that had the type of cost-benefit analysis that conservatives demand for public health and environmental protections would have delayed or foreclosed three of the most successful such protections – removing lead from gasoline, reducing vinyl chloride exposure in workplaces, and not damming the Grand Canyon.

Race, Class, and Conservative Objections to the Social Safety Net

Tuesday, January 17th, 2012

(By NCrissie B)

I didn’t think of health care reform as a racial issue. Based on my own experience and the stories I saw – purely anecdotal evidence – the demographics of health care failure seemed to match the demographics of our nation as a whole. But Glenn Beck saw it differently:

Barack Obama is setting up universal healthcare, universal college, green jobs as stealth reparations. That way the victim status is maintained. And he also brings back back‑door reparations.

By February of 2010, Rush Limbaugh was also calling health care reform “reparations” for slavery. Researchers at Stanford and U.Cal-Irvine found that people who scored higher on a racial prejudice exercise were more likely to oppose health care reform. Even more intriguing, in a subsequent test such people were more likely to support the health care reform bill if told it had been proposed by President Clinton in 1993 than if told it was proposed by President Obama.

I haven’t seen statistics, but it seems reasonable that health care failures – lack of insurance, denial, rescission, bankruptcy due to medical bills – correlate to household income. The lower your household income, the more likely you can’t afford good insurance and can’t afford to see a doctor without insurance. If so, the racial disparity in household income would be indeed mirrored in health care failures. In that respect, increased eligibility for Medicaid, increased funding for public health centers, and health insurance premium subsidies probably would help proportionally more persons of color.

But as I see it, the racial issue is not the Affordable Care Act that tries to help the people who need help. Likewise with Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, food stamp and school lunch programs, Head Start, SCHIP, LIHEAP, Pell Grants, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and other programs that help people who need help. The racial issue in those programs is the income disparity … that persons of color are more likely to qualify for help because they are more likely to need it.

Nonwhite Government

Yet as Ian Haney-López writes in a law review article titled “Freedom, Mass Incarceration, and Racism in the Age of Obama,” conservatives have for the past forty years used that racial income disparity to paint a dark face on the social safety net and government itself:

Here I want to start using a term that was first introduced by Michael Omi and Howard Winant. They refer to the “racial state.” They use the term to emphasize that the state does not stand above the racial fray, but is itself thoroughly immersed in racial contests. There is, though, another way of seeing the state as racial: disputants may present the state itself as having a racial identity. Consider in this vein the backlash against the Civil Rights Movement and against state efforts to promote social welfare. Rather than seeing the state as immersed in racial conflicts, conservatives depicted the state (and certainly the Democratic Party) as captured by nonwhites. The state became a racial state in the sense of being by and for blacks. It supposedly coddled persons of color through civil rights laws. It refused to hold them accountable out of tender regard for the rights of criminals. It spent massively on their welfare, education, and other needs. And it hired and promoted incompetent nonwhites under the guise of affirmative action. Caricatures of the local welfare office – with persons of color not only standing before but also sitting behind the counter, outnumbering and displacing whites – became the image of the dysfunctional state promoted by racial reactionaries.

Picture again the taxpayer, government clerk, and person applying for food stamps. Did the taxpayer have light skin? Did the clerk and person applying for food stamps have dark skin?

When conservatives talk about “freedom” and “government interference,” Haney-López argues, they mean a nonwhite government interfering with white people’s freedom. Consider what Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) said about the Civil Rights Act last week:

There are things that people were concerned about that were unintended consequences [of the Civil Rights Act], for example, people who believe very fervently in people having equal protection under the law, and are against segregation and all that, still worried about the loss of property rights … for example, I can’t have a cigar bar any more, and you say, “well, that has nothing to do with race” — the idea of whether or not you control your property, it also tells you, come in here I want to know the calorie count on that, and the calorie Nazis come in here and tell me. [...] The point is that its not all about that. It’s not all about race relations, it’s about controlling property, ultimately.

White Government

Now picture again the cop, prosecutor, judge, and prisoner. Did the cop, prosecutor, and judge have light skin? Did the prisoner have dark skin? If so, your impressions were not off the mark. Most law enforcement officers, prosecutors, and judges are white. And a disproportionate number of our prison population are persons of color.

Indeed Haney-López argues that this make sense of a curious dichotomy: conservatives arguing for greater “freedom” while at the same time defending our nation’s absurdly high incarceration rate:

Between 1970 and 2003, the number of people in state and federal prisons serving at least one year behind bars rose from around 200,000 to 1.4 million. At the end of that period, county jails warehoused another 700,000 persons either awaiting trial or serving sentences of under a year, while a further 4.7 million persons were on probation or parole. Putting these numbers together leads to the harrowing truth that in 2003 the correctional system held under its coercive thumb more than one in every twenty adult males in the United States. This incarceration rate, the highest in the world, exceeds the highest rate in Europe by five hundred percent. The United States has five percent of the world’s population, but immures twenty-five percent of the planet’s prisoners.

You might think that imprisoning so many people would argue against our nation having “more freedom,” but consider this graph made by Mike Konczal at Rortybomb:


This graph shows that countries with higher prison populations tend to score higher in the Cato Institute’s ratings for “Economic Freedom.” And more specifically, the U.S. “Economic Freedom” score increased alongside the huge growth of our prison population from 1980-2000.

When the topic is programs that help lower-income Americans, who are disproportionately people of color, conservatives say “government interferes with our rights.” But bring up our huge prison population, also disproportionately people of color, and conservatives say “government keeps us safe.”

But it’s not about race….

(Crossposted from Blogistan Polytechnic Institute (BPICampus.com))

Weekend Reading List

Saturday, September 17th, 2011

For this weekend’s reading list we have the story of almost certainly innocent death row inmate Troy Davis, the contrast between the fundamentalist Republicans and the pragmatic President Obama, the waste of taxpayer money that is government use of private contractors over federal employees, why the Solyndra “scandal” is nothing of the sort, and how recklessness and a lack of oversight led to the BP oil spill.

If you have any feedback on these articles, or would like to recommend an article for next weekend’s reading list, please let us know at Winning Progressive’s Facebook page

Explaining the Death Penalty to My Children – the writer tries to explain why Georgia is preparing to execute Troy Davis next week for a murder that he almost certainly did not commit.   Mr. Davis’ execution is scheduled for Wednesday, September 21.  If you want to help prevent him from being executed, click here to send a letter to the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles, or call the Board directly at (404) 656-5651.

Republicanism as Religion – Andrew Sullivan writes about the 2012 elections are a show down between the GOP’s blind ideological purism that rivals that of the most fundamentalist religions and President Obama’s approach that is based in pragmatism, civility, and reason.

Bad Business: Billions of Taxpayer Dollars Wasted on Hiring Contractors – a report from the Project on Government Oversight about how billions of dollars of taxpayer money is being wasted by increasing use of private contractors in place of federal government employees.

Green Jobs Stimulus: Why Solyndra’s Loan Guarantees Were in the Stimulus Bill - an explanation for why the federal Department of Energy loan guarantees to now-bankrupt solar company Solyndra were not, contrary to the GOP’s attempts to gin up another fake controversy, a sign of corruption.  Instead, they were part of a sensible stimulus program.

What Happened at the Macondo Well? – a review of four books regarding how reckless profiteering and lack of oversight allowed the BP oil disaster to occur, and as to whether we will learn from the experience.