Late last night, McClatchy reported that the CIA inspector general has asked the Justice Department to investigate allegations that the CIA illegally monitored Congressional staff investigating the Agency’s secret detention and interrogation programs. The Senate Intelligence Committee spent four years and $40 million investigating the use of waterboarding and enhanced interrogation techniques in secret overseas prisons, producing a reportedly “searing” 6,300 page finding excoriating the Agency’s actions.
As part of this investigation, intelligence committee staff were required by the CIA to use Agency computers in a secure room in Langley to access millions of sensitive documents. Congressional investigators reportedly agreed to use those computers under the condition that their work not be monitored by the CIA, in accordance with due respect for the separation of powers and the integrity and independence of the investigation. Apparently, the spy mentality proved too strong to resist, as earlier this year the committee determined that their work had in fact been monitored in possible violation of their agreement.
The Senate Intelligence Committee report was finalized 15 months ago, and submitted to the CIA for classification vetting. Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) is now asking President Obama to strip the vetting control from the CIA, which may have been dragging its feet in allowing the release of a document that, according to McClatchy,
details how the CIA misled the Bush administration and Congress about the use of interrogation techniques that many experts consider torture, according to public statements by committee members. It also shows, members have said, how the techniques didn’t provide the intelligence that led the CIA to the hideout in Pakistan where Osama bin Laden was killed in a 2011 raid by Navy SEALs.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) apparently was referring to this situation back on Jan. 9 when he asked CIA Director John Brennan whether the federal statue banning unauthorized computer access applied to the CIA. Brennan demurred.
McClatchy describes the situation following the criminal referral by the Inspector General to be “an unprecedented breakdown in relations between the CIA and its congressional overseers.”
President Barack Obama has made it absolutely clear that he will rule by Executive Order for the remainder of his term. Republicans and independents have decried this as an unconstitutional power grab, a usurpation of authority granted by the Constitution to Congress, while Democrats are mostly too embarrassed to defend what they so strongly opposed under George W. Bush and Richard Nixon.
A conservative response should begin by observing that the U.S. Constitution is not as legally neat as the protesters suggest. While most folks focus on the uplifting sentiments of the Bill of Rights to liberty and property, the essential Constitution is all about power and how it is divided. The progressive myth of a legalistic constitution of rights is just that, a fable to cover its own view of political power. The Bill of Rights was not even part of the original document. The fundamental Constitution is outlined in its Articles, dividing power between legislative, executive, judicial, state and amendment institutions. But the boundaries between them are anything but clear.
Abraham Lincoln suspended judicial habeas corpus and controlled speech during the civil war without legal support from Congress and actual opposition from the Supreme Court. The succeeding Reconstruction Congress impeached the president for merely attempting to replace his own cabinet and when unable to convict him made his veto a nullity by strict party rule, rigged voter lists in the South, and effectively unicameralizing the Senate and House under a joint committee of Republican leaders. Andrew Jackson directly refused to implement a Supreme Court decision supporting Cherokee property rights, distaining the court to enforce its ruling if it could because he would not.
Isn’t the Supreme Court supposed to have the last word on these matters? In challenging President Bush’s attempt to replace regional U.S. Attorneys against Congressional opposition in 2006, Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman said such differences between the executive and legislature must be umpired by the courts. He and his classmates were taught in law school that “the Constitution was what the Court said it was.” Bush replied he would not allow his Attorney General to enforce a judicial contempt order even if the court issued one and that was that. More recently, President Obama announced he would not enforce federal anti-drug laws against states with marijuana legalization laws and refused to deport certain illegal immigrants. Back in 1988, Congress passed a Civil Rights Restoration Act specifically nullifying the Grove City Court decision and in 1991 passed a civil rights bill overruling five Supreme Court decisions by name.
Even with their relative decline in recent years, the states are not without redress either, as the marijuana legalization laws demonstrate. States have created constitutional amendments, laws, and attorneys general suits to circumvent national laws and opinions on marriage, abortion, racial preferences, gun restrictions, the Real ID Act, Obamacare (by more than half the states), and many others. Indeed, many federal laws and court decisions are administered by state bureaucracies that differ in their interpretation and enforcement greatly, as Alabama and Massachusetts in fact do. Amendments to the Constitution have been passed on many critical subjects over the years and on several occasions the mere threat has changed federal policy.
Taxes would seem one area where the legislature must predominate. No taxation without local representation was the principle complaint justifying the American war for independence. Today the effective imposition of taxes by creative executive regulatory interpretation—such as the recent increase in fuel emission standards—is the rule rather than the exception. Judges have required state legislatures to increase taxes to upgrade schools for minorities or to redress other presumed shortcomings for all kinds of special interest purposes. A St. Louis federal court in effect ran the local school for decades. Since the Supreme Court has ruled that the Obamacare penalties were taxes, exemptions and changed regulatory requirements are in effect taxes passed by the health and treasury secretaries alone.
President Obama is by no means the first to govern by Executive Order. Read More…
“There is no education in the second kick of a mule,” said Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
With some such thought in mind, Speaker John Boehner strode to the floor of the House to offer a “clean” debt ceiling bill and relied on Nancy Pelosi’s Democrats to pass it. They did. ”Surrender” and “betrayal,” are among the epithets coming the Speaker’s way.
Yet Boehner was holding a losing hand. Had he added a GOP wish-list bill to the debt ceiling, Harry Reid’s Senate would have rejected it. President Obama would have denounced it as putting at risk the full faith and credit of the United States. Big Media would have piled on. The markets would have been rattled. The Dow would have begun to swoon. Corporate America, cash cow of the Republican Party, would have begun to howl. A clamor to pass a clean debt ceiling bill or risk a new recession would have arisen. And the House Republicans would have caved, as they finally had to cave on the budget bill last fall.
Rather than play Lord Raglan and lead his cavalry in another Charge of the Light Brigade, Boehner chose to withdraw to fight another day on another field. Yet, the Tea Party has a right to feel cheated. When does the Republican Party, put in power by the Tea Party, plan to honor its commitment to halt the growth of the Federal monolith and bring the budget back into balance? Is there is any hope things will be different, should the Tea Party help produce a GOP Senate in 2014? If the Tea Party is in some despair, is it not understandable? For while there are countless proposals and plans to cut back on federal spending, from Simpson-Bowles on, it is impossible today to see in either party the political will to do the surgery. Read More…
I was pleased to see Howard Kurtz respond to my post on why President Obama shouldn’t fear a GOP Senate, even as he thinks I’m “all wrong.”
An all-Republican Congress can make life miserable for Obama and, by extension, for Hillary Clinton if she runs. The notion that the GOP will suddenly function as a cooperative partner totally underestimates the poisonous atmosphere in Washington.
Nowhere in my post did I suggest that the GOP would “suddenly function as a cooperative partner.” I made a narrowly focused prediction that “things may actually improve slightly”—most likely on the issue of immigration, concerning which Kurtz argues:
Republicans are highly unlikely to be passing immigration reform in 2015 even if they win the midterms. The base hates it, and more important, we’ll be in the opening innings of a presidential campaign in which the party’s contenders will be pulled to the right, as Mitt Romney (he of “self-deportation”) was in 2012.
Kurtz here is just projecting the status quo into the indefinite future. Yes, the base “hates” the idea of amnesty. But guess what? 1) The base cannot deliver a Republican president in 2016. 2) The Romney campaign sucked; and the GOP establishment is not anxious to repeat its mistakes (the “self-deportation” rhetoric was a particularly and self-evidently disastrous mistake). This is why I believe there’s at least a sliver of a chance of compromise over the issue. With unified control of Congress, the GOP will very likely be able to present to Obama a bill with tough enforcement measures and no path to citizenship. It will be able to declare victory on a major issue on its own terms, not the Democrats’, and it will have laid the groundwork for a campaign that courts Latinos afresh. And as I noted in my original post, Obama will have little choice but to accept whatever cards the GOP deals him on immigration.
Kurtz takes, issue, too with my argument that “Republican Congress” will make for juicy target for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 campaign: “Two years of a Republican Congress won’t be much of a 2016 target, if things aren’t going well, compared to eight years of the Obama administration. As a bogeyman, John Boehner is no Newt Gingrich.” Well, yeah, true. But I never made such a comparison. The Republican nominee will run against Obama’s eight years no matter which party controls the Senate. And Hillary won’t need a neo-Newt bogeyman. She will instead sow fear of unified Republican control of the federal government. Of a return to the mismanagement of the Bush years. Of unchecked power.
Kurtz’s final point:
If they control the Senate machinery, Republicans will be able to launch twice as many investigations as they can now by holding just the House. They will be able to block Obama nominees, creating a sense of dysfunction. They will be able to bring bills to the floor, while Harry Reid watches helplessly, solely for the purpose of forcing Democrats to cast politically dangerous votes that can be used in attack ads. They can cut the budget in the name of deficit reduction. They may even be able to force Obama to veto legislation that suits their purposes. In short, the White House will lose the bulwark of a Senate that ensures all conservative legislation dies in the House.
I will concede that a Republican Senate could make life for Obama marginally worse than the carnival barker Darrell Issa already has. But the rest of the paragraph is almost adorable. “They will be to block Obama nominees, creating a sense of dysfunction [emphasis mine].” No kidding? I’d say Obama is fairly used to that kind of thing by now. “They can cut the budget in the name of deficit deduction.” You don’t say? And good luck getting legislation to the floor. There’s this thing in the Senate about invoking cloture. I hear it’s really difficult to do lately. And about “conservative legislation dying in the House”: I was around in the late 1990s when complaints from House Republicans about their lamentably milquetoast brethren in the Senate were routine and vociferous. Such may be the case again in 2015. With a Republican Senate, “conservative legislation” won’t die in the House. It will die instead in conference.
Kurtz’s scenario of Republicans’ eliciting embarrassing vetoes on show-me bills (“legislation that suits their purposes”) is outdated. Obama’s not running again. There will be no painful vetoes for him—only gleefully satisfying ones. And if, as a consequence, Hillary needs to run to Obama’s right because of something he vetoes, so much the better for her. If legislation that’s sufficiently moderate does miraculously make its way to his desk—most likely, and probably exclusively, an immigration bill—he will sign it.
That’s all I’m saying. There will be no “Kumbaya” around a campfire.
Conventional wisdom says the Obama administration is effectively toast if Republicans capture the Senate this fall. I’ve peddled it myself, and I’m not certain it’s wrong. But here are a few reasons why it might be:
His agenda is dead anyway. What the moral-equivalence mainstream vaguely calls “dysfunction” is really a poisonous dynamic in which compromise, the mere scent of it, politically lifts Obama and splits Republicans. Of immigration, Carl Hulse writes this morning:
Republicans knowledgeable about the issue said immigration was not yet completely off the table. Instead, they said, reaching any agreement has become appreciably harder because of a Republican reluctance to get caught up in an internal feud and stomp on their increasingly bright election prospects.
This is why new gun regulations were never going to pass. Or tax reform. Or tweaks to Obamacare. Or an extension of unemployment insurance. Looking back, it’s obvious that Congress would pass nothing of any significance after November 2010. This is a pitfall of divided government. You can blame James Madison if you like. (Garry Wills once made a provocative case that our notion of Madisonian checks and balances is so much mythology—an argument for another day.)
Arguably the only thing that President Obama and Congress have accomplished since the GOP House takeover is a sharp reduction in short-term budget deficits. Neither party has benefited politically from this accomplishment. Nor has the economy improved appreciably. Rather, it has probably been dragged down. (One day, historians will look on the period of 2011-13 and unanimously conclude it was utter madness.) Consequently, both sides have wisely given up on debt and deficits for the meantime.
There is the issue of judicial and executive branch appointments. But the heavy lift on those probably has already taken place.
Things may actually improve slightly under a unified GOP Congress. Look at it this way: if Republicans win the Senate, their next prize, obviously, will be the White House. That’s a different ballgame altogether—a bigger, browner electorate. Suddenly the imperative to obstruct the Obama agenda begins to recede. A different incentive structure will take shape: the party will have to govern, or at least appear as though it’s trying. As Hulse writes in the Times, some Republicans “believe it would be smarter to wait until after the midterms and pursue immigration in 2015 leading up to the presidential election,
when Republicans will be more motivated to increase their appeal to Hispanic voters. If the midterm goes their way, they will be strengthened in Congress.
The Chamber of Commerce wing of the GOP desperately wants an immigration bill. Obama desperately wants an immigration bill. With control of both the House and Senate, the GOP could write a bill that’s more to its liking than the dead-in-the-water bill the Senate passed last summer. And Obama will have no choice but to sign it. It’s the last feather in the cap of his legislative legacy, with the White House now set to pursue the Podesta strategy on unilateral executive action.
If it takes losing the Senate to pass immigration, Obama should welcome it. Come 2017, he’ll be working on his memoirs and running a foundation.
Speaking of the next presidential campaign…
“Republican Congress” will make for a juicy target in ’16. In 1996, President Bill Clinton had great fun turning the moderate Sen. Bob Dole into the sidecar villain of Speaker Newt Gingrich. There’s little reason to think the next Democratic nominee, whoever he or, ahem, she turns out to be, won’t be able to repeat the trick.
If, however, the trick proves unrepeatable—if the attack line that Republicans are extremist refuseniks loses its punch—it will have been due to some kind of thawing in the great cold war between Obama and Republicans. It will have been due to something like, say, the passage of immigration reform (see point two above), plus one or two other major compromise measures. Which, as far as Obama is concerned, would be all to the good.
Put it this way: if Republicans win the Senate, the prospects for getting something through Congress may brighten for Obama. And if they don’t brighten, his frustration—and the country’s—will ultimately redound to the benefit of Hillary Clinton, who is faced with a uniformly depressing and horrendous array of potential GOP contenders.
Last summer I tried to tease out the complications of adopting libertarian-populist standards. The self-dealing of, say, an aluminum company lobbying for and benefiting from fuel-efficiency regulations seems, on its face, sleazy and reprehensible. But what, I asked, can be done to avoid such conflicts of interest when there is a public good being pursued?
[D]id Obamacare’s architects desire to turn insurance companies into public utilities as a policy end in itself—or was it a means of broadening access to medical insurance (a goal the public generally favors)? …
After September 11, the Bush administration and a bipartisan majority of lawmakers concluded it was in the national interest to invade two countries. A giant new security apparatus slowly spread its tentacles across American life. Defense contractors and security consultants dine out on this policy sea change to this day. One can argue until one is blue on the face about the wisdom of these policies—but at the end of the day, one is forced to mount an argument about an overarching public good (or ill).
Simply asking “who, whom?”, as libertarian populism would have it, will only you take you so far.
Timothy Carney grapples with this question in a lengthy and thoughtful piece at Reason magazine. After having run through a series of real-life examples of wheeler-dealing, he delineates a set of best practices for industry lobbyists:
There’s nothing inherently wrong with profiting off big government. If the government creates a surplus of deer, someone has to thin that surplus. If government forces factories to clean up their emissions, someone has to make the smokestack scrubbers. If government requires drivers to use ethanol, someone has to make the stuff.
Nor is it inherently wrong to lobby for policies that increase your profits. “Petitioning the government for the redress of grievances” is protected by the First Amendment, and the regulatory environment often chips away at the profits companies would otherwise make. What is wrong is to lobby for policies that enrich your business by taking away other people’s property or liberty.
In a nutshell, the Carney Standard—unassailably reasonable, I’d say—is this: Do not lobby in favor of unjust laws.
Read the whole piece, however. It’s well worth your time.
While President Obama famous labored over all the drafts of his one State of the Union speech (and documented those labors), the opposition party apparently worked overtime to make sure that their response was thoroughly recorded, with no fewer than four broadcast or streamed statements given by House Republican Conference Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) in the official Republican response, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) in the official Spanish-language Republican response, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) in the Tea Party Express response, and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) speaking for himself.
Past official responses have often been delivered by strong state officials, with many getting their first glances of Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Mitch Daniels of Indiana in such forums. As Daniel Larison remarked yesterday, such a Congress-heavy slate of respondents risked “cement[ing] the current GOP’s identity as a mainly Congressional party” when Congress’s approval ratings are, as is now customary, at all-time lows. What is interesting about this all-Congressional slate of respondents is how neatly it cuts across the traditional divide of Beltway-establishment outside-the-Beltway-free thinking. Rand Paul and Mike Lee both were swept into the tradition-soaked Senate as Tea Party candidates in 2010, and Rodgers herself presented a somewhat new and more promising messaging than even the venerable outsider governors have been able to marshal in recent years. As I do not know a lick of Spanish, I regret that I have to refrain from comment on Rep. Ros-Lehtinen’s message.
Lee and Rodgers, when taken together, make for something of an interesting pairing. Most of the policy talk, or what passed for policy talk, in Rodgers’ address was regular Republican boilerplate. The framing, however, served a dual purpose of addressing the “cares about you gap” that hurt Romney so severely in the last election and in combatting the mostly unfounded “war on women” meme that many Democrats have been propagating. While framing American exceptionalism in its most vague generalities of economic growth and positive feelings, Rodgers rang a money line, that “That is what we stand for—for an America that is every bit as compassionate as it is exceptional.” Her compassionate pitch was not big government in sheep’s clothing, though, but a direct connection to American political conservatism’s most potent emotional appeal: the pro-life fights and defenses of the most vulnerable. By discussing her own middle child, diagnosed with Downs syndrome, as a manifestation of God’s gift rather than a tragedy her family would overcome, Rodgers draped drab Republican economics in compassionate clothing. Moreover, her discussion of her own marriage after coming to Congress, and rising to the fourth highest position in the House even as she continued to have children and grow her family, made her the highest exemplar of a Douthatian natalism.
Senator Lee has already been a favorite of the Douthat reform conservative-types, and last night he condensed the arguments he has been making over the past year into a concentrated recounting of conservatives making a positive case for their agenda just as the Founding Fathers did for theirs. He also continued to make the case for a libertarian populism-infused inequality definition:
This inequality crisis presents itself in three principal forms:
immobility among the poor, who are being trapped in poverty by big-government programs;
insecurity in the middle class, where families are struggling just to get by and can’t seem to get ahead;
and cronyist privilege at the top, where political and economic insiders twist the immense power of the federal government to profit at the expense of everyone else.
When combined with his family-friendly tax reform plan, for one night at least, American conservatives seemed to be represented by a party that both knew to value families and children, and how to serve them.
For his fifth State of the Union Address, and arguably the most politically fraught moment of his presidency, Barack Obama offered what he called “a set of concrete, practical proposals to speed up growth, strengthen the middle class, and build new ladders of opportunity.”
“Ladders of opportunity” is a go-to phrase of Obama’s. It not only predates his presidency, but also his career in politics: you can hear him (a “civil rights lawyer”) use it here, in this 1994 NPR commentary warning against Charles Murray and Richard Hernnstein’s The Bell Curve.
It’s more than a go-to phrase, actually; it captures something fundamental about his assumptions about government and markets. He does not believe that the outcomes of the latter are morally authoritative. Hard work does not always pay. Discipline is not always rewarded. Consequently, it takes a thumb on the scale to break up—not necessarily equalize—patterns of wealth distribution, to ensure that there are rungs on the “ladder” and not just a pretty view of the mansion on the hill. And it requires a central government to promote a healthy ecosystem of the future, where things like the DOD-hatched proto-internet, the Air Force-administered GPS, and biomedicine can grow fruit.
In the back-and-forthing of State of the Union addresses, this debate is typically reduced to Democrats arguing for things like, well, an increase in the minimum wage, more spending on early-childhood education, job training assistance, an extension of unemployment insurance, new infrastructure spending—all of which Obama called for tonight—and Republicans responding that Democrats believe in “equality of outcome” and government’s picking economic winners and losers.
In short, Barack Obama is the keeper of a shriveling post-WWII consensus about economic development and countercyclical strategy.
And quite frankly, he picked a terrible time to be president. Trust in government, whether to manage the national economy or protect the “privacy of ordinary people” (as he put it in tonight’s address), is miserably low. Indeed, if there’s an issue on which he truly enjoys the will of the people at this back, it’s in his insistence on preventing direct U.S. government involvement (to put it cheekily) on foreign soil.
As I see it, there’s a tension within Obama’s (and mainstream Democrats’) stubborn clinging to the old consensus. The fact is, they don’t just want to create “ladders of opportunity.” They want a strong safety net that extends from early-childhood through to retirement. You could hear this in the speech’s section on financial security:
Let’s do more to help Americans save for retirement. Today, most workers don’t have a pension. A Social Security check often isn’t enough on its own. And while the stock market has doubled over the last five years, that doesn’t help folks who don’t have 401(k)s.
And probably the most potent appeal of Obama’s mention of the Affordable Care Act was its link to financial security: you will not go bankrupt if you get sick.
As a strong-government conservative, I’ll cop to this: I’m sympathetic to the old consensus. But I’m equally sympathetic to the Republican critique of an agenda that doesn’t seek to just equalize opportunity, but rather a cradle-to-grave latticework of care and feeding.
To be sure, there are compelling Rawlsian social-justice arguments for the latter—but they should not be confused with the former. Dollars spent on the old are dollars not spent on the young and underprivileged. This is not a summons to throw grandma over the cliff. It’s simply an acknowledgment of a finite budget.
Say this for Obama: he seemed upbeat, despite low polling and talk of lame-duck-ery spreading like wildfire. If nothing else, he seems aware of the fact that there will be no more major legislative accomplishments of his administration. (Count me in the camp that immigration reform remains a long shot.) If he does nothing else than push the boulder of his approval rating a few points up the hill, and thereby maintain Democratic control of the Senate, he will maintain a semblance of relevance for the last three years of his presidency.
This can only end well.
Last night Reuters reported that Congress recently approved funding to send small arms and anti-tank rockets to perceived non-Islamist Syrian rebels, though it continued to withhold portable anti-aircraft rockets that could be used to shoot down civilian airliners. “The weapons deliveries have been funded by the U.S. Congress, in votes behind closed doors, through the end of government fiscal year 2014, which ends on September 30,” according to two officials.
Congress was apparently satisfied that the Obama administration and any intermediaries it was using would be able to reliably get the weapons to “moderate” rebels without strengthening the al-Qaeda-aligned rebel forces that have often proven militarily superior. Such funding had been suspended after reports of weapons filtering to more radical elements. It is unknown when this change of heart occurred, though the Reuters article notes that nonclassified defense funding passed in December.
While there is surely great diversity in Syrian rebel forces, the inclination of many prominent foreign policy voices in Congress and the media to follow John McCain’s lead in seeing a George Washington in every irregular colonel does not give one great confidence that classified Congressional appropriators are well positioned to put guns in good hands. At the very least, “moderate” may be the single least helpful adjective in foreign policy discussions. As Donald Devine wrote late last week,
Both administrations and the Journal view democracy and moderate leadership as their goals. But what does “moderate” mean? When this author was in Iraq in 2003, the moderate Shi’ite leadership was all for “democracy,” but freely admitted it was because their majority could institute their version of Sharia. …
It also wants to support “moderate opposition” in Syria and Iraq. But isn’t Maliki a moderate, who we allied with against Moqtada al-Sadr? Of course, he oppressed his Sunni moderates too, but who in the region does not oppress moderates? Do we support moderates generally in Iraq, only Sunni moderates, or only non-ruling Shi’ite moderates? In Syria, we support the Sunni moderates, but extremist rebels have defeated them at every turn, chasing the moderate military leader out of the country and turning back a recent moderate surge. The only one protecting Christian, Druze, and Turkmen minorities is the Shi’ite/Alawite dictator. There are no good choices in the Middle East.
Or, as TAC alum Michael Brendan Dougherty (who debuted his new position at The Week writing about the plight of Middle East Christians last week) put it:
“Want a gun?” “Yes!” “You’re going to kill Assad?” “Yes” “Going to kill Christian?” “Of course!..” *frowns* “..not” http://t.co/2h8jAhflcH
— Michael B Dougherty (@michaelbd) January 28, 2014
Also, while secrecy surely has a necessary place in foreign policy and military decision making, the sheer amount of uncertainty created by classified national security and military budgets necessarily undermines the possibility of democratic governance and accountability. The fact that not even the reporters breaking the story can quite nail down when the classified budget was passed makes combating waste and fraud seemingly a fool’s errand.
If a friend or a first date sidles up to you and asks “Do you prefer cats to dogs?” or “Do you keep your desk neatly organized?” they may be trying to divine your political leanings.
Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind, teamed up with Time to offer readers a 10 question quiz that promised to guess their politics by asking seemingly unrelated questions. The survey turned out to be fairly strongly correlated with a person’s self-identification as liberal or conservative (Haidt’s model explained 60% of the variance in people’s self-reported political leanings). On Facebook and Twitter, readers shared their results and kibbitzed about whether it was fair to claim that conservatives had a better claim on dog-ownership than liberals.
Haidt’s project closely resembled a research project conducted by the dating website OkCupid. The company trawled user data to find the question that best predicted whether someone was willing to have sex on the first date. (It turned out to be “Do you like the taste of beer?”).
These kinds of studies are informative, but only in a very narrow way. They might be useful if you have no easy way to uncover information directly—maybe you’re barred by law from asking an employee about her politics, or barred by social niceties from asking directly about sexual proclivities on the first date. But it’s a mistake to treat these findings as though they really flesh out our understanding of the people we’re studying.
Statistics software can tease out correlations, but just knowing two survey answers are related doesn’t do much to expand our understanding of the world. If two answers are linked, one might cause the other (favoring tradition and authority leads you to seek out a pet that acknowledges you as sovereign—a dog—over a more anarchic cat) or vice versa (exposure to a dog causes you to change your position on Iran sanctions) or both outcomes might be caused by a third, hidden variable (perhaps living on a farm leaves you more likely to own a working dog and to keep the government at arms length).
Any of these predictions are testable and posit something about how people’s ideologies are formed. A causal prediction prompts us to be curious about how someone thinks and their intellectual journey. But an unexplored correlation simply leads us to choose up sides and adopt more trivialities as tribal markers, in much the same way that ‘arugula’ became a sneering byword for liberalism.
It’s odd to see Haidt behind this clickbait survey, since his own research on moral foundations theory suggests that the liberal-conservative dichotomy isn’t the most informative way to classify the world. He identified six major considerations (harm, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority, and purity) that might be weighted more or less strongly in someone’s moral calculus. Self-identified liberals and conservatives tend to prioritize these factors differently. Liberals tend to care primarily about harm, fairness, and liberty, while conservatives tend to factor in all six criteria.
In other words, Haidt’s own research suggests we can’t easily dichotomize the world, and that there’s little reason to desire to. An OkCupid dater may only have one important question to answer, but a politician still has a lot to learn after they learn that a potential collaborator identifies liberal or conservative. They may still share enough moral foundations to be able to find common ground.
The Time poll keeps training us to think that conservative versus liberal is the most interesting and essential part of our identity, but it’s much more important to learn what someone is trying to conserve and why. You might be able to get there in ten questions, but they’d compose a much deeper conversation.