Tag Archives: disagreement

Qualunquismo

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One sense of the difficult-to-translate Italian term “qualunquismo” (average-Joe-ism might be a start)  is a distrust of politics. Underneath this notion is the idea that what animates politics, disagreement, is motivated mostly by self-interested people. Most people, average people, or what they call l’uomo qualunque, know that these disagreements are pernicious.

Strolling through Twitter this morning, I stumbled upon a repost of an article from NPR Illinois comparing then-candidate Trump to current Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner. The basis of the comparison is not the bombast, but rather the outsiderist pitch: I’m not in government, I’m average, I distrust it like you, it’s a swamp of special interests, etc.

Much has been made of Trump’s appeal among voters who tend toward authoritarianism. But that’s not Rauner. Instead, political science offers a better explanation of the appeal of the governor’s pitch: stealth democracy. The idea was outlined by John Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse in their 2002 book Stealth Democracy: Americans’ Beliefs about How Government Should Work. It goes like this: people are angry, but not because they don’t like the policy outcomes of our political system. Rather, they don’t like the process. The three main components of the idea have to do with misunderstanding how much people agree on a public agenda, a disdain for self-interested policymakers and intense dislike of the arguments and mess inherent in democratic governance. Seen through the framework of stealth democracy, Rauner is a most typical American.

“People tend to see their own attitudes as typical, so they overestimate the degree to which others share their opinions,” Hibbing and Theiss-Morse write. Last week, Rauner said Illinoisans needed to make their voices heard in the Capitol: “We need democracy to get restored in Illinois, and we need the people to put pressure on members of Speaker Madigan’s caucus to do the right thing.” Of course, thousands of people are doing just that. But among the Democratic supermajorities in the House and Senate, they’re being pressured to do a “right thing” that is not what Rauner has in mind. Where Democrats would balance the budget with a combination of tax hikes and spending cuts, Rauner says he would balance the budget with a combination of tax hikes and spending cuts only after passing business-friendly legislation and weakening collective bargaining.

When the governor makes this case, which he’s done again and again, Rauner is playing on the Stealth Democracy idea that most voters don’t understand why politicians are always fighting. Hibbing and Theiss-Morse write that because most people are not interested in getting informed on more than a few issues — if that — they can’t see what all the fuss is about: “When it is apparent that the political arena is filled with intense policy disagreement, people conclude that the reason must be illegitimate — namely, the influence of special interests.”
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“People’s tendency to see the policy world in such a detached, generic and simplistic form explains why Ross Perot’s claim during his presidential campaigns in 1992 and 1996 that he would ‘just fix it’ resonated so deeply with the people,” Hibbing and Theiss-Morse explain. Remember Rauner’s campaign slogan? “Shake up Springfield. Bring back Illinois.” And Trump’s? “Make America great again.” They could slogan-swap without missing a beat. Stealth Democracy tells us that that since most Americans think everyone else agrees with them on what’s best for the nation, and that achieving those results ought to be as simple as putting a bill up and voting for it, we should not be surprised when people see no need for debate and compromise.

This thesis of Stealth Democracy seems to be that people are essentially qualunquisti. Underlying the qualunquista thesis is a fundamental intolerance of disagreement, especially motivated, partisan disagreement.

In the end, qualunquismo is somewhat of a meta position. It’s a position about positions whereby the taking of a position is inherently suspect. Or alternatively, the existence of disagreement is ipso facto a sign of something amiss. This is a very attractive view to hold when you don’t have any knowledge of what people are disagreeing about. Normally, or rather, to some, the existence of a disagreement is a sign that views about that position diverge. The existence of divergent views, about which one is unaware, is strong evidence then that there’s something important one knows nothing about.

Taking the qualunquistic approach saves one the trouble of thinking themselves ignorant of something important or consequential. It also rewards one with the feeling that they’ve seen through the disagreement about the subject they know nothing about. They’ve seen that it’s partisan bluster or corrupt, machine politics. In Illinois, we might call this Madiganism, after Michael Madigan, the Democratic Speaker of the House everyone seems to blame for the fact that our state went two years without a state budget. He appears infrequently in public so he makes this easy.

It seems obvious to me that qualunquismo is self-refuting. Not having a view is a view for the same reason that a color-blind society is silly racial politics.

The trick is that qualunquismo has a built-in defense: it’s almost impossible to explain why, if they don’t trust disagreement, they’re wrong.

Hillbilly resistance

There is now a cottage industry that produces essays having the following form: the reason Trump got elected is because liberal snobs have long looked down their noses at regular folks and the regular folks were just plum tired of it so voted for Trump despite his evident shortcomings. I read the first one of these in the Chronicle or Higher Education or Inside Higher Ed within days of the election. They have followed at a steady trickle.

Here’s a variation the other day from someone in Philadelphia:

A lot of people out there are tired of being called stupid, whether directly to their faces or indirectly with the raised eyebrow of the highbrow. I almost think they can deal with being called racist, sexist or homophobic (which some are, some aren’t and who cares anyway, since liberals are exactly the same,) but cannot deal with being ridiculed for their allegedly inferior intellects.

When people do that, they just galvanize the Hillbilly Resistance to reject any notion that the press is in danger, that Trump is a beast, that Ivanka is a Stepford daughter, that Melania lives in a tower and lets down her hair on weekends, and that we are in danger of another revolution.

I have two comments. Before those, a confession. I hate being called stupid. I hate it because, to be honest, I fear that it may be true. When someone’s accusation is particularly well phrased, it costs me a lot of time (and maybe some money if I have to buy books or something) to consider the question. Back to my comment.

First, these people are snowflakes, apparently. They so bristle at the thought of having their beliefs questioned that the behave irrationally. I can’t think of much that’s more insulting than that claim.

Second, if someone knows a way you can disagree with someone without there being the very real implication that one of you is mistaken and has therefore failed in some kind of cognitive obligation (i.e., is stupid), then I’m all ears.  Your answer may make me feel bad because I currently think there isn’t one.

In closing, the implication that people with whom you disagree are deficient is not something that has suddenly just appeared, by the way:

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Crooked Hillary

Not all arguments involve fundamental disagreements. Those that do, however, come along with a couple of challenges. One challenge regards the consequences of the disagreement.  There are many, but I only want to talk about one. When A disagrees with B about some proposition p , then A impugns B’s competence, intelligence, or perhaps morality. That’s why people enter into such discussions in the first place–i.e., to levy these accusations and, hopefully, adjust the behavior or ideas of their interlocutor.

It’s frustrating to me, therefore, that people confuse these necessary concomitants of argument as somehow wrong or out of bounds. It’s especially frustrating when these people ought to know better. Here’s an example I stumbled over in the Chicago Tribune:

If Trump pursued the politics of resentment in courting white, working-class voters and their rural cousins, Democrats succumbed to what I call “the politics of righteousness” in overlooking their concerns and underestimating their power. By righteousness I mean the tendency of the Democratic Party to assume ownership of the moral high ground whenever cultural values and social norms are at issue in American politics — and to presume that those who disagree are, as Hillary Clinton put it, “a basket of deplorables.”

Aside from the false claims about “overlooking their concerns,” the assumption of “ownership of the moral high ground” is just what a debate about moral issues involves for Pete’s sake. What do you call people who call other people “Crooked Hillary”? That’s a moral position if there ever was one. Need we talk about abortion, gay marriage, or any of the other issues that are properly characterized as moral issues?

It’s a waste of time and energy to focus on garbage like this. We all take the moral high ground in moral debates where we hold some definite position. That’s how you play.

Never go full Godwin

From NPR’s All Tech Considered:

Godwin explains that the comparison is usually out of desperation. “Discovering what other people think when they disagree with you is quite disturbing. So there’s a tendency to escalate,” he says. He adds that the Internet created the first opportunity for such a diverse range of people to interact in an unmediated space.

To this I would add that dealing with disagreement is time-consuming, fatiguing, and emotionally distressing. Finding an easy way to do it is the name of the game. Hitler will do just fine.

Fun with charts

Lots of arguments fail the freshness test; they’re fallacious for reasons any undergraduate can point out.  These are our focus here for the most part.

Other arguments, however, fail for slightly more sophisticated, but not less pernicious, reasons.  These cloak themselves in the sincerity of honest inquiry or grown up skepticism, but in reality they’re just mechanisms for refusing to engage with the claims of the opposition.  This chart, found at the Wonkblog (thanks Colin) identifies some common strategies:

Fun times.