Right Is The New Left

Wednesday, April 30th, 2014

Right is the new Left, Scott Alexander has found:

A friend recently pointed out that conservatives aren’t, on average, very smart. He illustrated this with a graph of IQ vs. political belief which confirms that the left has a significant advantage.

But I look at my Facebook feed, and here is what I observe.

I see my high school classmates — a mostly unselected group of the general suburban California population — posting angry left stuff like “Ohmigod I just heard about that mayor in South Carolina WHAT A FUCKING BIGGOT!!!”

I see the people I think of as my intellectual equals posting things that are conspicuously nuanced — “Oh, I heard about that guy in South Carolina. Instead of knee-jerk condemnation, let’s try to form some general principles out of it and see what it teaches us about civil society.”

And I see the people I think of as the level above me posting extremely bizarre libertarian-conservative screeds making use of advanced mathematics that I can barely understand: “The left keeps saying that marriage as an institution isn’t important. But actually, if we look at this from a game theoretic perspective, marriage and social trust and forager values are all in this complicated six-dimensional antifragile network, and it emergently coheres into a beneficial equilibrium if and only if the government doesn’t try to shift the position of any of the nodes. Just as three eighteenth-century Frenchmen and a renegade Brazilian Marxist philosopher predicted. SO HOW COME THE IDIOTS ON THE LEFT KEEPS TRYING TO MAKE GOVERNMENT SHIFT THE POSITION OF THE NODES ALL THE TIME???!”

(I will proceed to describe this level extensionally: Jonathan Haidt, Bowling Alone, time discounting, public choice theory, the Hajnal line, contract law, Ross Douthat, incentives, polycentric anything, unschooling, exit rights)

And, I mean, I know the reason I get so many people trying to come up with bizarre mathematizations of politics is because those are the sorts of people I select as my friends. The part I don’t get is why so many of them end up weird libertarian-conservative. Certainly not because I selected them for that. I don’t even think they were weird libertarian-conservatives a few years ago when I met a lot of them. It just seems to have caught on.

And my theory is that in a world where the upper class wears black and the lower class wears white, they’re the people who have noticed that the middle class is wearing black as well, and have decided to wear white to differentiate themselves.

It’s the reverse of the 1950s. Assume you’re a hip young intellectual in the 1950s. You see all these stodgy conservatives around you — I don’t even know what “stodgy” means, I just know I’m legally obligated to use it to describe 1950s conservatives. You see Mrs. Grundy, chattering to her grundy friends about how scandalous it is that some people read books about sex, lecturing to the school board on how they had better enforce her values on the children or she will have some very harsh words to say to them.

And you think “Whatever else I am, I’m not going to be a mediocrity like Mrs. Grundy. I’m not going to conform.” Which, in the 1950s, meant you became a leftist, and talked about how stodgy society was fundamentally oppressive, and how you were going to value different things, and screw what Mrs. Grundy thought.

And gradually this became sufficiently hip that even the slightly less hip intellectuals caught on and started making fun of Mrs. Grundy, and then people even less hip than that, until it became a big pileup on poor Mrs. Grundy and anyone who wanted even the slightest claim to intellectual independence or personal integrity has to prove themselves by giving long dissertations on how terrible Mrs. Grundy is.

But when Mrs. Grundy herself joins the party, what then?

I mean, take that article on Dartmouth. A group of angry people, stopping just short of violence, invade a school building and make threats against the president unless he meets their demands. Every student must be forced to attend moral instruction classes inculcating their (the protesters’) values. Offensive terms must be removed from the library. And the school must take care to admit people of the right race. When was the last time you could hear a story like that and have it be even slightly probably that the mob was rightist?

It’s hard to argue that Mrs. Grundy is not a proud leftist by now, still chattering about how scandalous it is that people read books with the wrong values, still giving her terminally uncool speeches to the school board about how they had better enforce her values on the children (and if she can get the debate society on board as well, so much the better).

There must be overwhelming temptation among hip intellectuals to differentiate themselves from Mrs. Grundy by shifting rightward.

And perhaps so far this has been kept in check by the second rule of our cellular automaton — you can’t take a position that would get you plausibly confused for a person of lower class than you.

I was tickled by a conversation between two doctors I recently heard in a hospital hallway:

Doctor 1: My daughter just got a full scholarship into a really good university in Georgia.

Doctor 2: Congratulations!

Doctor 1: Thanks! But I’m hoping she’ll choose somewhere closer to home.

Doctor 2: Why? Because you want to be able to visit her more?

Doctor 1: There’s that. But the other problem is that the South is full of those people.

Doctor 2: So? Colleges are like their own world. Your daughter probably won’t even encounter many of them.

Doctor 1: I know. But I keep worrying that just by being there, she’ll make friends with them, and then end up bringing one home as a boyfriend.

“Those people” is my replacement, not the original term used by the doctor involved. The doctor involved said a much less polite word.

She said “fundies”.

Fundies — in all of their Bible-beating gun-owning cousin-marrying stereotypicalness — have so far served as the Lower Class With Which One Must Not Allow One’s Self To Be Confused. But I think that’s changing. Sorting mechanisms are starting to work so well that, at the top, the fundies just aren’t plausible. In our model, people from class N can be confused with class N-1, but never with class N-2. But as the barber-pole movement of fashion creeps downward, fundies are starting to become two classes below certain people at the top, and those people no longer risk misidentification.

I notice that, no matter how many long rants against feminism I write, everyone continues to assume I am a feminist. It’s like, “He doesn’t make too many spelling errors, his writing isn’t peppered with racial slurs — he’s got to be a feminist. He probably just forgot the word ‘not’ in each of his last 228 sentences.”

And I wonder if maybe the reason why I am outraged by the debate team but not by the South Carolina mayor isn’t that I feel a greater threat from the debate team, but because I feel like there is a greater threat of me being mistaken for the debate team. If impotent expressions of outrage divorced from any effort to change things are ways of saying “I’m not like this! I promise!” And I get less outraged than some other people about South Carolina because I feel confident enough in my intelligence that I don’t worry anyone will mistake me for a fundie. But I feel less confident no one could mistake me for the sort of person who judged those debate championships, so I need to shout at them to show I’m Not Like That. This would actually explain a lot.

If some intellectuals no longer need to worry about being mistaken for fundies, that frees them to finally breath a sigh of relief and start making fun of Mrs. Grundy again. And that means they’ve got to become conservatives, or libertarians, or anything, anything at all, except for leftists.

So far it is just a few early adopters — the intellectual equivalent of the very trendy people who start wearing some outrageous fashion and no one knows if it is going to catch on or whether they will be soundly mocked for it.

And they are having a really difficult time, because a lot of conservative ideas aren’t that great. Like, reality leaves you a lot of degrees of freedom when you’re deciding your political self-presentation, but it doesn’t leave you an infinite number of degrees of freedom, and the project of creating something that is both anti-leftist enough to serve as a fashion statement but reality-based enough not to be dumb is still going on. The reactionaries are doing an excellent job maximizing the “anti-leftist” criterion. The “reality-based” criterion is a harder egg to crack, but it makes me think of Drew Summitt, Athrelon, and some of SarahC’s more political moments.

As the Commissioner puts it, “Evolution is at work here, but just what is evolving remains to be seen.”

When I put it like this, I realize I’m not becoming more conservative at all. I’m becoming anti-leftist. Actually, put that way a lot of people seem to be anti-leftist. I can’t think of a single specific policy proposal supported by Glenn Beck. Can you?

And I think the best explanation is that all my hip friends who I want to be like are starting to be conservative or weird-libertarian or some variety of non-leftist, and Mrs. Grundy is starting to become very obviously leftist and getting grundier by the day, and so the fashion-conscious part of my brain, the much-abused and rarely-heeded part that tells me “No, you can’t go to work in sweatpants, even though it would be much more comfortable”, is telling me “QUICK, DISENGAGE FROM UNCOOL PEOPLE AND START ACTING LIKE COOL PEOPLE RIGHT NOW.”

And I said this is my favorite of all the explanations. Why?

Because if it’s true, and it spreads beyond a couple of little subcultures, it means my worst fears are misplaced. The future isn’t a foot stamping on the face of a a college debate team forever. It’s people — or at least some people — rolling their eyes at those people and making fake vomiting noises. And then going too far, until other people have to roll their eyes at those people. And so on. Instead of a death spiral we get a pendulum, swinging back and forth.

But I would hope for something even better than that. Like, at each swing of the pendulum, people learn a little. I was really impressed with how many smart and decent people thought that the Eich thing was wrong (…and wore kilts, and played bagpipes…shut up). Fashion does not accrete, but maybe reality does. And I would like to think that the rationalist movement is a part of that. And if that’s true, that’s a way in which reality will eventually come to overpower fashion and the arc of the universe might tend toward justice after all.


  1. Sconzey says:

    Shit the bed, Scott Alexander! You mean most of democratic politics is just exosemantic gang signs!?

  2. Alrenous says:

    Reading Alexander reminds me of something I need to be reminded of. Pretending to be dispassionate is not productive of scholarship. If I’m not dispassionate, rather than striving for the ideal, I should just be open about it.

  3. Sconzey says:

    Did Scott Alexander even read that link? I don’t think it shows quite what he thinks it does…

    Also: my comments keep disappearing into the aether. Am I getting put into a moderation queue?

  4. Isegoria says:

    Sconzey, thanks for the heads-up about your comments. They weren’t in the moderation queue; they were in the spam folder! (Only the two with your website listed as demonstratum.com got filtered out, it looks like.)

  5. Aretae says:

    I made that argument to my dad the liberal about 10 years ago. In a lot fewer words — and not written as well.

    There were a lot of useful insights to be gleaned on the left back when the conservatives owned the world. The position has changed.

  6. James says:

    Like how my tenured college professors ten years ago were so confused that I took their admonition to “rebel against the establishment” as an invitation to debate their leftism?

    Can’t we just watch PCU again?

  7. Toddy Cat says:

    I wonder if Scott Alexander realizes he just admitted his total intellectual bankruptcy in this post? No news to those of us who have had the misfortune to read him, but still…

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