It’s the Disposition, Stupid

Ideology is an indispensible category in the construction of political movements as well as in their analysis. But the longer you spend invovled in politics, the more you come to notice that it’s not particularly useful in explaining what motivates people to support politicians and movements. On the ground ideology is more like an ex hoc justification for something people were already feeling: first you have the inclination, then you rationalize it with appeals to existing ideologies. The ideological rationalization is more for the people who question you about your beliefs than it is in helping you form them. Very few people actually sit down and reason from first principles all the way to their party and candidate of choice. Rather, they just kind of a have a gut feeling about things, and it never really seems to go much beyond that.

Samuel Popkin would probably say that that’s as it should be, and I’m not really inclined to disagree. The overwhelming majority of people have neither the time nor the talent to be fussed with policy-making of any kind, let alone checking that a tranche of existing policies is ideologically coherent. What’s more, it would be terribly inefficient – wealth destroying – to ask them to be. People can and do put their time to better use; policy, like so many other specialized things, is a domain for experts. And yet We The People have a right to participate in government – a moral right, founded on the idea that wielding power over us is something people only do by and with our consent. So how’s a bloke to decide?

A la Popkin, we find "low-information heuristics" to help us. These are things like Ted Cruz calling a basketball hoop a "ring,": harmless in itself, but it does signal that he’s not the basketball fan he was claiming to be, which in turn reminds Hoosiers – a basketball-obsessed lot – that he’s not one of them, begging the question of why he’s trying to come across that way? It leaves a bad taste. It doesn’t rigorously say anything about his bona fides for the job, but the believe is that it does say something revealing about his character, which may be more important. After all, no one can know what fate is going to throw their way once they’re in the hotseat; it’s simply impossible to prepare for everything. From a certain point of view, therefore, getting an idea, in the abstract, of how a person reacts to things may be a better metric for suitability for the Presidency than a list of stated policy preferences. George W. Bush, after all, campaigned – sincerely, I believe – on reducing foreign intervention in 2000 only to turn around, in the wake of 9/11, and ramrod one what is easily the most expensive and entangling foreign adventure in a generation. It wasn’t predictable at all from the direct text of his campaign speeches, but it might have been predictable from an analysis of his character. He just seems like the kind of guy who would react that way to something like 9/11.

I tend to agree with Popkin, though in slightly different terms. Rather than thinking of it as low-information heuristics, I think it’s better described as having a political "disposition." People don’t have political ideologies and firm opinions about politics – not really. What they have instead are political dispositions – which I might loosely describe as inclinations to react in certain ways to given stimuli. The ideology they end up with is one that offends their disposition the least – either from a list of ones they’ve encountered, or the best sui generis model they could come up with on their own.

To take an example, a memory I have from back when I used to regularly attend local Libertarian Party meetings is of this woman sort of taking the floor to make a speech. I can’t remember what about, but she ended on some cheesy rabble-rousing phrase like "…lighting the fires of Liberty!" And she kind of looked around, expecting cheers – which she got, but only half-heartedly, and after our delayed reaction realizing that’s what she wanted. It was the wrong crowd for that kind of thing, and she was the wrong person. It’s clear that she had been a hippie of some kind in an earlier life – her main interest in the LP was its anti-Iraq War stance. The point she was missing is that Libertarians just don’t do "that kind of thing." We don’t make rousing speeches. We don’t like rousing speeches. Swelling music and inspiring imagery don’t work for us. There’s no ideological reason it shouldn’t. I can think of plenty of Libertarian causes one can, in principle, get Hollywood dramatic about. But we don’t do that. And this is what I mean by "disposition." There are no great libertarian orators. Great debaters, perhaps, but no orators – not a single one. The only one that springs to mind is a big ol’ stretch: John Galt. And even he doesn’t count – because even leaving aside the obvious disqualifier that he’s fictional, the "Big Speech" in Atlas Shrugged is better read as a philosophical essay than an appeal to anyone’s heartstrings. It’s a justification for actions already taken and not, as most political speeches are, a plea for future support. Libertarians just don’t do stirring speeches. It’s not our way.

Another example: Basic Income. It seems like every corner of the political spectrum has something like this – a policy that, ideologically speaking, should be anathema, and yet has a baffling amount of traction. Lots of libertarians – me included – are open to Basic Income, even though we’re allergic to just about every other welfare scheme you can name. What gives? What’s different about this one? If anything, it’s worse than other welfare schemes because the sheer scale of the property transfer involved positively dwarfs that of any single other program you can name. And yet it doesn’t trigger our allergies.

I use the phrase "trigger our allergies" advisedly – because while there are some cogent libertarian justifications for a Basic Income Guarantee, I think it mostly does come down to that. We like it because it’s simple, universal, across the board, and amoral. Libertarians mistrust, on a gut level, anything messianic. To us, people not only can’t be saved, they shouldn’t be saved – because they’re responsible for saving themselves. If you tell me that structural factors make it likely to the point of a statistical certainty that certain kinds of people will end up poor, then I’m sympathetic, and I want to help. But I don’t want to guide or nurture. People would be on their feet but for circumstances, so by all means let’s offset the circumstances with cash payments. But if people would be on their feet but for character flaws, well, that’s really not my problem, nor something I care to correct. Giving someone the right to be themselves means giving them the right to fail, and in the right society bad people will fail. Ideologically speaking, libertarians should be – and actually ideally are – against government welfare programs of any kind. But we’re also humans like anyone else, and ideology has less to do with it than disposition. What I suspect it really comes down to with government welfare programs for a lot of us is just that we’re highly irritated by the suggestion that the government can save people. We’re certainly highly irritated by anything that gets the government – or strangers of any kind, really – more involved in our lives than they have to be. Basic Income suits our disposition – because it’s simple, minimally meddlesome on an individual level, and it doesn’t come with baked in opporbirum of rich people or wealth or success. By not specifically targeting the needy, it signals to us that it’s corrective rather than salvational. That matters.

Donald Trump is another thing that I think makes a hell of a lot more sense if you stop thinking in terms of ideology and switch to a "dispositional" analysis. From an ideological point of view, his success in the election makes absolutely no sense. To all outward appearances, the man is anything but conservative – and in fact the media never tires of pointing out just how many conservative sacred cows he’s skewered on his way to the nomination. He likes Planned Parenthood, he wants to raise the national debt, he’s open to raising taxes, he’s more or less in favor of Obamacare, he not only opposes the Iraq War, he claims it was based on a brazen lie, he doesn’t seem to believe in God (certainly isn’t very pious if he does) … the list is virtually endless. How is it that someone who shares so few Republican sympathies managed to muscle his way to the front of that crowd?

Ideologically, there’s no explanation, but try asking yourself whether this man that Republican pundits (especially at National Review) love to call a liberal in disguise could’ve made it to the front of the Democrats’ pack? It’s simply unimaginable. That’s not to say that Democrats don’t have their own dangerous, mould-smashing demagogues from time to time, because they definitely do (personal opinion: Bernie Sanders is one). But Donald Trump is the kind of character who appeals to Republicans. He has a Republican disposition, even if he’s not ideologically compatible with the party itself. In what way? Well, he’s a nationalist, for one. When Democrats talk about patriotism, they’re usually appealing to some sense of shame. Americans can’t be proud of their country until it provides more healthcare than Sweden, for example. It’s always an "America is great, but [insert some project that needs to be completed before we can truly feel proud of ourselves]." With Trump, the valence is reversed. America is naturally great – the fact that it’s great is a given – and it’s only because we’ve let things hold us back that prevents it from being true on the ground today. For another thing, he’s politically incorrect. He doesn’t have time for pieties, and he doesn’t care about people’s feelings. Personally, he flaunts his wealth and celebrates success. Republicans like that sort of thing. They may be against tax increases in principle, but all they’re really against on an emotional level is the suggestion that there’s something inherently wrong with wealth. I suspect that the fact that his answer to everything is "let’s negotiate" is another thing that’s dispositionally Republican. Despite what you hear in the media, Republicans aren’t actually all that ideological. Conservatism is more a methodology. It’s just a maxim that puts the burden of proof on anyone advocating for a change. Change makes Republicans a lot less nervous when it’s negotiated and incremental – because changes that are negotiated tend to blunt the impact on the status quo. It’s not that they’ve suddenly become "hope and change-y," it’s that what bothered them about Obama-style "Hope and Change" was the idea of change for its own sake, without any kind of review or dampening process. Republicans like practicality. Whether Trump is actualy practical in real life is a different matter – the point is just that he styles himself – successfully – that way in public, and that’s a dispositionally Republican thing to do. That doesn’t fly in Democrat circles. Democrats – dispositionally – like to hear romantic, Dr. McCoy outbursts. "Don’t tell me what’s logical, Spock, people are suffering here!" They don’t really do "let’s look at this problem from all sides and settle on something that maximizes the desireable outcomes." It isn’t that Democrats are opposed to practicality – they’re not (and they’ve arguably been more practical on the ground than Republicans recently) – it’s just that dispositionally it’s not what they like to hear in their speeches. They like to hear that nothing will stand in the way of doing what’s right. If practical details come up, well, you know, they do that – why harsh my buzz by mentioning it? I’m trying to feel some righteousness here, man! We’ll do practical on the job – like, later, OK? Trump’s been widely mocked in the media – quite correctly, in my opinion – for never giving any specifics about his proposals. On a normal day, Republicans would join in the mocking – and you know, most of them do. But if a giant chunk of them don’t, it’s because of the way Trump dodges specifics. He never waves them off as irritating details, what he says instead is that he can’t give you any until he’s in the heat of negotiation. It may be a dodge – it’s certainly my personal opinion that it’s a dodge – but it’s dispositionally the way Republicans approach things, and so it signals the right attitude.

Point being, ideology is almost an epiphenomenon on the level of individual political decisionmaking. It’s a necessary construct for policy analysis. It’s certainly a necessary construct for any conceivable policy creation framework. It’s a useful tool for political scientists to study political movements. But it’s just not all that active in ordinary people deciding on whom to support or vote for. And by "ordinary" I mean essentially everyone – including people like me who like to think of ourselves as above all this, even as we know we’re not – who is not professionally involved in academic politics (and, you know, even a fair number of them). People have political dispositions, and they rationalize these in ideological terms, but if you look closely, you’ll find that lots of things that don’t make too much sense through an ideological lense become a lot clearer when looked at through a dispositional one.

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