Is Hidden Tribes Highfalutin’ Bunk?

In the previous post I noted that More in Common’s new report, Hidden Tribes: A Study of America’s Polarized Landscape, is extensively researched. But extensively researched does not necessarily mean well-researched. Conscious or unconscious bias can creep into even the most rigorous study. The obvious bias here, as New York Magazine’s Eric Levitz pointed out, is that “More in Common was never going to release a study showing that Americans have very little in common.”

That’s not necessarily a fatal problem. But I would feel more confident about the findings if they came from SurveyUSA, ABC News/Washington Post, or another disinterested source rated highly by Nate Silver.

Research design can also create problems. For instance, what if you’re given a multiple-choice question where none of the answers work for you? More in Common used a well-known set of either-or queries to determine the authoritarian inclinations of interviewees. If asked “is it more important that your child be independent or respectful of elders, obedient or self-reliant?” I’d have no problem saying independent and self-reliant, the anti-authoritarian answers. But if asked “is it more important that your child be well-behaved or creative?” I’d say “both!” Same if asked “is it more important that your child have curiosity or good manners?” If forced to choose, I’d say creative and curious, but they’d be 60-40 choices — meaning the study would count me as an anti-authoritarian absolutist when in truth I feel some ambivalence.

Another design problem is vagueness. Harvard lecturer and rising pundit Yascha Mounk wrote an article about Hidden Tribes for the Atlantic Monthly headlined “Americans Strongly Dislike PC Culture.” Not only does earnest discussion of political correctness take up only half a page of the 156-page report, but the report never defines political correctness. “While there may be agreement about the problems with ‘political correctness,’ this phrase is hard to define,” More in Common lamely admits. This is enough for Salon’s Paul Rosenberg to assail both Mounk and More in Common in an article called “Do Americans Really Hate ‘Political Correctness’? Another Misguided Attempt at Balance Falls Flat.” Rosenberg claims Hidden Tribes includes findings “almost the exact opposite of the point Mounk’s article tried to make.”

Does this all mean that Hidden Tribes is highfalutin’ bunk?

I would prefer to think not, because I have a fondness for studies that divide society into compelling categories (see this post, and this one too), and Hidden Tribes plays into my need for confirmation bias. Among the cherished assumptions it confirms are that:

  1. Most Americans are liberals and moderates.
  2. Progressive Activists, the most extreme advocates for safe space and against hate speech (and therefore most susceptible to authoritarianism), constitute a distinct minority within the left-wing community.
  3. Left-wing extremists (the Progressive Activists) are only one-third as numerous as right-wing extremists (Devout Conservatives and Traditional Conservatives).

But even if the report’s findings are rock solid, they’re not news. Yes, it’s nice to confirm what we know. But what we really need from More in Common and groups like it is a study of how other democracies, confronted with the poisoned politics America faces, have surmounted the challenge — assuming any of them have. If they have, how might their solutions be adapted to our circumstances? If they haven’t, how long can I reasonably expect to continue this blog before it lands me in jail?

Until we get such a study, the only solution I can think of — as previously mentioned — is voting. The Fabulous Wife and I sent in our ballots this morning.

I’m also going to contribute a bit more to three candidates I’d like to see win: Josh Harder in California’s 10th Congressional District, favored to turn that red seat blue; Andrew Janz in California’s 22nd Congressional District, a very long shot to beat Devin Nunes; and Stacey Abrams in Georgia’s gubernatorial race, running even with her Trump-hugging opponent.

If all my candidates win, our politics won’t necessarily get better. But they’re less likely to get worse.

Times Square, November 4, 2008.

Former Risk Manager at UC Berkeley, author of four books, ectomorphic introvert.

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