Attributions of causality
Like a lot of people, I think, I’m a bit dazed by the fact that apparently, really, the British public has voted to leave the EU. I’d prefer we lived in a world that was coming together rather than fraying apart. Other than that I’ll refrain from comment and just wish everybody the best.
I do want to remark on a piece by Kevin Drum, written perhaps too quickly in reaction to the results. Drum writes:
I am sick and tired of watching folks like Boris Johnson, Marine Le Pen, Donald Trump and others appeal to the worst racial instincts of our species, only to be shushed by folks telling me that it’s not really racism driving their popularity. It’s economic angst. It’s regular folks tired of being spurned by out-of-touch elites. It’s a natural anxiety over rapid cultural change.
Maybe it’s all those things. But at its core, it’s the last stand of old people who have been frightened to death by cynical right-wing media empires and the demagogues who enable them—all of whom have based their appeals on racism as overt as anything we’ve seen in decades. It’s loathsome beyond belief, and not something I thought I’d ever see in my lifetime. But that’s where we are.
I would never want to shush Kevin Drum. I’m extraordinarily fond of him. But I think he is making a mistake here, empirically and morally.
It is not in fact broadly true that emerging racially-tinged right-wing movements are a “last stand of old people”. Marine Le Pen’s Front National, for example
is strongest among younger voters. It took the votes of 30% of those aged under 35, 27% of those aged 35 to 59 and 21% (noticeably less than its average vote) among the over 60s.
are mainly men with low incomes…43 percent of the voters are between 25 and 39 years, followed by 24 percent being 40 to 50 years old and 15 percent aged 55 to 64 years.
In Great Britain, Leave supporters skew old, as do Trump supporters in the US. But if you wish to look for commonalities between right-wing nationalist movements, I think you’d be better off looking at gender, or profession, or the economic status of the localities from which people hail, more than age.
Drum is certainly right to characterize the explicitly racist appeals of these movements as loathsome. But it isn’t enough to say “that’s where we are”. His interlocutors are right to point to economic anxiety and other disruptive changes rather than leave it there. We have to share the same world with every other human. Drum and I have to share the same country with Trump voters. We try to understand the world in order to better live in it. Explanations or assertions that don’t contribute to that are not worth very much.
How we attribute causality is a social choice, and it is a choice much less constrained than people who clothe themselves in the authority of “social science” or “the data” often pretend. Quantitative methods like instrumental variable analysis at their best indicate that some element is a factor in causing a measured phenomenon. For anything complex, they are rarely strong enough to even suggest either the necessity or the sufficiency of a factor. Social outcomes like susceptibility to racist appeals are affected by lots of things, and are probably overdetermined, so that one could generate equally strong results implicating a wide variety of different factors depending upon what is excluded from or included in ones model.
In political life, there are nearly always multiple reasonable models to choose from. Our choice of models is itself a moral and political act. For example, conservatives prefer cultural explanations for communities with high rates of young single motherhood, while liberals prefer economic explanations. These explanations are not mutually exclusive, both can be simultaneously true, but cultural explanations serve mostly to justify the social stratification that correlates with single motherhood, while economic explanations invite remedies. It might be true, and demonstrable in the usual statistical ways, that a certain neurological state “causes” the verbally expressed sensation of hunger. It might also be true and demonstrable that a prolonged absence of food causes the same expressed sensation. Both of these models may be true, but one of them suggests a more useful remedy than the other. And a more moral remedy. Prescribing a drug to blunt the hunger may yield a different long-term outcome than feeding food, in ways that are morally salient.
It may or may not be accurate to attribute the political behavior of large groups of people to racism, but it is not very useful. Those people got to be that way somehow. Presumably they, or eventually their progeny, can be un-got from being that way somehow. It is, I think, a political and moral error to content oneself with explanations that suggest no remedy at all, or that suggest prima facie problematic responses like ridiculing, ignoring, disenfranchising, or going to war with large groups of fellow citizens, unless no other explanations are colorable. It turns out that there are lots of explanations consistent with increased susceptibility to racist appeals that also suggest remedies less vague and more constructive than, say, “fighting racism” or censoring the right-wing press. With respect to Britain’s trauma, for example, Dan Davies points to Great Britain’s geographically concentrated prosperity, and the effect that has had on the distribution of native versus immigrant young people. I can’t evaluate the merits of that explanation, but it might at least be useful. It does suggest means by which the British polity might alter its arrangements to reintegrate its divided public.
I don’t mean to pick on Kevin Drum, whom I’ve read for more than a decade, and whom I really like a great deal. But it seems to me that the alleged “good guys” — the liberal, cosmopolitan class of which I myself am a part — have fallen into habits of ridiculing, demonizing, writing off, or, in our best moments, merely patronizing huge swathes of the polities to which we belong. They may do the same to us, but we are not toddlers, that is no excuse. In the United States, in Europe, we are allowing ourselves to disintegrate and arguing about who is to blame. Let’s all be better than that.
- 25-Jun-2016, 2:30 a.m. PDT: “writing off, or, in
itsour best moments, merely patronizing”
- 25-Jun-2016, 3:15 a.m. PDT: Added extra “[and more]” Chris Arnade link.