What’s With All the Ideology?

An Australian reader named Michael Edmonds writes with an interesting question. He did worry a bit that he’d be considered anti-American for posing it, but hey — nothing good in life is without risk …

I live in Australia and I’m a regular reader of your site. I’m frequently surprised by the ideological battles that occur in the comments on your site (and others) on topics such as tax, healthcare, homosexuality, the financial bailout, European countries (socialists), religion, Palin, Obama, etc. On almost any topic, there are extreme opposing viewpoints. Why does the U.S. have so many ideological extremists?

My impression may be explained by one of the following:

1) The U.S. may be no different from other Western democracies, but I don’t notice it in Australia or other places.

2) It may be that the people who comment on websites are not representative of the population, so my view is wrong due to sampling error.

3) The centrist views are drowned out by the clamor of the extremists.

4) The ideological extremists may make a bigger impression on me and I forget about the centrists, leading me to think that there are more extremists than there actually are.

I tend to discount option one because we have many of the same debates in Australia, but I rarely witness the same fervor in debates. I suspect option two is also an inadequate explanation because it is easy to observe ideological extremism in other media. At this point, I can’t discount option three, and option four is a possible (although I think incorrect) explanation.

This leaves me with my impression that the U.S. produces far more ideological extremists than other Western democracies. Do you have any thoughts on why this may be the case or why I may be mistaken?

I think there’s validity to Nos. two and four, but if I had to give one answer, I’d say that it boils down to incentives.

If you are the kind of person who wants his or her voice to be heard (as most of us are), there’s little incentive to playing things down the middle, for then your voice won’t be heard. Voicing an ideological extreme, therefore — whether or not it’s truly how you feel — is an exercise of narcissism, for you’ll stand out in a crowd. And considering how costly other forms of narcissism can be, spouting a super-ideological viewpoint in fact comes pretty cheap.

I also think that Michael is witnessing a spike in ideological chatter due to a long and heated presidential election. In this country especially, elections often come to resemble a slightly elevated form of Color War, wherein everyone’s a partisan, and the thrusts and parries are so predetermined as to be nearly comical. It is especially irksome to hear “average voters” in media interviews who parrot, nearly word-for-word, the political parties’ talking points.

If I am even a little bit right on this last point, then Michael (and all the rest of us) can expect to see the ideological fever fade a bit in the coming days — unless, of course, the election result is contested, and drags on for a few more months …


anna

i would tend to think that it is cultural and can perhaps be taken from the 'creation myth' of the US being one where extreme opposition is championed. basically, you tried really hard to be different from the English.

in Australia, we aren't even a republic yet. our 'creation myth' is very different and far less predicated on opposition. this may be one reason why we don't seem to value it as much (except when we play England in any sort of sporting event).

i wonder also if the much harsher Australian landscape and climate meant that early on we had to learn to get along with each other if we wanted to prosper. a generally highly productive landscape is much more forgiving to loners.

how it came to be is pure speculation, but the degree to which we value opposition, ideology and outspoken-ness seems to be cultural.

Jessica

I think it is an education thing. Americans are woefully undereducated compared to most other developed democracies; furthermore, America has the anti-intellectualism trend that dates back to its founding. So pundits have no incentive to make arguments or put forward positions that are intellectually viable. First, viability is seen as overrated (better to have "common sense" or whatever). Second, most Americans are not educated enough to recognize an outlandish position when they see it.

If you look at democracies with undereducated voters (typically non-Western democracies) you will more frequently see the kinds of extreme arguments and demagoguery that get used in the United States.

Also I would note the geographical scope of the United States and especially the disparity of wealth. American voters are more different from each other than voters in New Zealand are, so the variety of positions they support similarly occupies a broader range on the political spectrum.

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Chris Buckley

I suspect that the nature of the media involved (TV, internet) are playing a role in this. These media are like advertising ... contributors must compete for their message to be heard and understood. So contributions that with subtle or equivocal messages "on the one hand... on the other hand" are in the minority, just as you won't hear ads that say "Crest toothpaste is fairly good..."

Another factor is the impersonality of the internet and TV: comments tend to be more strongly expressed when you can't see the person you are communicating with (think of road rage), since the moderating effect of another human presence is absent. We don't often see two people work out their differences and reach a new understanding on an internet discussion board!

James C Wilson

Knowledge is the enemy of ideology. Ideologies tend to be all-encompassing systems of thought that offer simple explanations to most questions. The real world is far more complex than any ideology can admit. When confronted with actual facts and the complexity of reality, ideologies crumble. Marxism and Free-Market Fundamentalism share this same structural weaknesses. But some Americans are particularly good at ignoring facts and disregarding reality.

A significant fraction of the McCain-Palin voters do not accept evolution as the foundation of biology; they do not accept geology as a guide regarding the age of the earth; they do not accept emissions of long-lived green house gases as the cause of the recent climate warming and they do not accept the release of long-lived halogen containing gases (such as CFCs or Halons) as the cause of stratospheric ozone depletion. They believe that sub-prime mortgages caused the credit crisis, that abstinence-only sex education can combat teenage pregnancy, and that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. A higher fraction of Texans (23%) believe that Obama is a Muslim than Muslims believe that 9/11 was justified (7%). These people do not care much for facts and do not believe that science has a privileged role in descriptions or explanations of nature. They are suckers for doctrine and ideology.

America does not have much of a left wing. The so-called liberals believe that the government can and should solve some important social, economic and environmental problems. But they are never found discussing dialectical materialism or advocating the dictatorship of the proletariat. There are no armed left-wing organizations in the US. The right wing is full of them. Following the election, there is much chatter about whether the US is center-right or center-left. The Lunatic Right is so muscular that it tends to pull the average in that direction and tends to bias the statistics - it is not a normal distribution. It is bimodal with the main peak somewhere near the center-left according to Tuesday, but there is a hump that is so far right that they have their own version of reality and screw up the mean.

So the guide for sensible people is "Neither Leninist nor Maoist nor RushLinbaughist be." Such a guide can accommodate those who want a larger government or a smaller government and who argue about whether the facts support one or another of those positions. American's Right Wing, however, requires its own custom set of facts and can not even take part in the conversation with informed people. The ideological polarization results from a high level of delusion on the Right.

Regards,

Chuck Wilson

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echoclerk

Its so typical and representative that many in the US will cite as examples of 'what makes the USA so great and unique' concepts and ideaology that currently exist and have existed or were developed by other nations long before the USA even existed..

One of the strangest things about the USA is that for the self appointed 'Champion of Democracy' they can't even run a decent fair election at home (2004, Anti-ACORN propaganda, voter fraud, computer failure...) or more generally even provide enough voting boths for the population to avoid 6 hour queues!

There would be a complete scandal in Australia if the people were forced to spend hours queing to vote.

James

As an American who's been living in Australia for a few years, I'd say that Eric Grant #22 has it.

Hughes

The concept of "never voting for a tax increase", like, ever, is an extreme position. You can't be more opposed to tax increases than this. This seems to be the standard view of Republican pols in the U.S. Amazingly, this is viewed as "Center Right" in the U.S. Center right pols elsewhere would, I'd argue, never say never.

When a President can be declared a "Socialist" for advocating a 39% top marginal tax rate, this attempts to narrow, on the left, the range of non-extremist positions.

Obama would be a standard center right politician elsewhere. The extremists are all on the right in the U.S.

Frank Buiter

The sharpness of the debate may indeed be correlated with liberty. In the birthplace of liberty, The Netherlands, the discussions are way sharper and more insulting than in the US and leave little spite in its trail. In Belgium, Germany and Briton on the other hand, having a less distant past of feudalism, the discussion is far more polite and subdued. German discussions, however, tend to be even more ideological than those of the US. Maybe this has to do that most people in the red counties are of German ancestry and were Americanized only during WWI. It takes me to much energy to read the French blogs, but I guess they are close to the German ones.

Griff

As a UK citizen, I share Michael's point of view...

The debate does seem to be more intense/ideological compared to the UK.

Also, things seem to be an issue where they're not in the UK - gay marriage is a non-issue here.

Forgive me for saying it, but I also feel any environmental, green energy, car-related etc debate seems to be going over stuff that was long since settled in Europe - its like tuning in to 15 years ago.

And then there's the guns thing... endless debate on how if this or that was altered, then the whole side effect of massacres and dead people would just go away...

Anyway, the level of debate over here is nothing to be proud of - Freakonomics contributors at least are articulate, back their arguments with fact and above all are interesting, which is why I read this!

Johan Sterk

I think there is a historical explanation for this. American culture is both rooted in Medieval European Christianity with a tendency towards theocracy, relevated truth, authoritarianism, tribalism and militarism on the one hand and a derivative of 17the century radical enlightenment that favored rational discussion, freedom of thought freedom of religion, freedom of way of life, freedom of the press, toleration and finally democracy. Modernity is built on these pillars. And gave the world tremendous prosperity through science and technology. European representatives of both cultures were dissatisfied with the status quo and colonized the Americas. I think the persistence of this conflict of modernization makes America strong but leads American political discussion toward extremism. As I read both French, German, British, American, Dutch and Asian newspapers' analysis of the financial crisis, it occurred to me that the more ignorant the commentators were on the causes of the crisis the more ideological and moralistic their comments were. It seems that ideology takes the place of insight and/or ideological thinking breeds ignorance. There is a strong case to be made for America to restore the emancipatory character of its education system. And that the civilized world truly finds a meaningful synthesis of both cultural aspects. Teaching the originals such as Spinoza and Bayle is a good place to start. The price of chauvinism and bigotry is simply to high.

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Julian

Electoral districting has a lot to answer for in terms of extremism in America. In safe districts, the elected representative is that most acceptable to the political party, not to the voters. Thus, the (relative) lack of competitive districts in the US puts disproportionate power in the hands of ideologues. It's not surprising that they're more vocal, because more people in power are listening.

Miguel

"Why does the U.S. have so many ideological extremists?"

It has? In Europe, we have communists (and even anarchists) in the left; Le Pen, Alessandra Mussolini, etc., in the right; even the "absolutist monarchists" are not totally extinted.

Compared to some movements that we find in europe, everybody in US is a "centrist"

CHRIS

A Frenchman once observed to me, "America is a land of contrasts. It is so hard to understand. Even when one travels here, you are amazed at how the South is so much different than the North, and the East from the West. To us French, this is uncomprehensible and even more revelational when one spends a lot of time there (in the US)."

JW

Remember the incident in Jules Verne's "Around the World in 80 Days" where the travelers wind up stuck in the middle of a raucous political debate, with both sides shouting at each other? And it ended up being an election for Justice of the Peace?

I agree with those who say that more moderate voices don't speak up (by their very nature, some of them are just not as passionate as those on either side).

For those who say that the political debate has gotten worse, they're as bad as everyone who says "This is the most important election ever" or "The country has never been more divided". The political discourse has always been strong and voracious. Early on, people fought duels over politics. Senators attacked each other in the Capitol. The Civil War was previously mentioned. Get some perspective, people.

The 2 party system generally means broad views within each party. In Europe, there are single-issue political parties. They swing wildly from left to right. I think the 2 party system may actually help tone down debates, as each party generally must appeal to a broad group in order to win elections. Even if moderates feel ostracized during debates, the parties still need their votes.

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Val

Perhaps other countries don't have America's religious right extremists. Topics like how to conduct spending, taxing, and policies could be discussed with various ideas on the best way to accomplish the goals.

But an undercurrent of wanting to control women, and keep them chained to fear of pregnancy or disease, is the only explanation for our extremists. There is no other explanation for what you would otherwise expect to be common sense: that people opposed to abortion would be fervently in favor of contraception, which would prevent it.

But this is not the case: those opposing abortion are often strenuously against contraception and drugs to treat STDs. The pretended motive of being concerned about life does not explain this. If the motives matched the pretense, policies on cheap, available drugs and contraception would be very different. So would the discussions, which would then deal with economics, medical practice, and policy very differently. They would be task-oriented instead of raving about draconian restrictions on what choices pregnant women could make.

This is only one example of the hatred-filled underbelly of America: men who conceal filthy lies under sanctimonious platitudes.

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Doom

I'm in Canada, and like the 1st commenter appears to be suggesting, I think that the 2 party system in the US is the cause of that.

Billy

I'm agreeing a lot on 4. Even though a lot of us here in the US see a lot of extremist views, I think most of the general pop. keep it to themselves or don't really have that strong of an opinion as for 2, it crucial to note that not only online but also in the streets. And the cartoon South Park mocks at both the extreme left and right.

Kristine

"The extremists are all on the right in the U.S. "

Not so - otherwise we wouldn't have Lieberman as an Independent.

Nosybear

It's the standard "U" curve for voluntary survey responses. If I ask customers to respond voluntarily to a survey asking how they like my product or service, I'm going to get a number of people who are dissatisfied, hopefully a greater number who are satisfied and very few in the middle. Reason? Don't know but my hypothesis is it takes effort to respond and the return of a "middle of the road" response is deemed less than the effort of responding. Same is true on the Internet - it takes an effort to compose a response, to log in to the site or to create a login so those who may have a moderate view probably don't consider it worth the effort.

Result, you only get the passionate outliers.

JR

How about the fact that it simply matters more? U.S. politics are felt directly around the world. No one worries about which way Australians or Canadians vote, it just doesn't matter as much. Arrogant? Yeah, but true.