Monday, December 31, 2012

THE BELL CURVE OF POLITICS



My politics are pretty moderate for the most part; the half-joking way I describe myself politically is “excessively centrist”.  My friends and others who are liberal, left-leaning are convinced I’m a heartless right-winger, while conservative, right-leaning friends and enemies alike are certain that I’m a bleeding-heart communist.  Taken together, that tells me that I’m about in the right spot – somewhere in the center of all the extreme right/left madness.

But if you think about it, there’s an implicit thesis here:  The best position on most social and political issues lies somewhere in the middle, between what the far right and the far left believe.  Furthermore, the closer one’s position is to dead center, the more likely it is to be correct or wise or whatever.  Folks on the right and the left alike surely don’t believe that is the case, but the more you think about it, the more sense it makes.  Here’s why.

An important “given” in evaluating any issue is to consider all sides before deciding where you stand on it.  Be it evolution vs. creationism, raising taxes vs. cutting government spending, loosening vs. tightening restrictions on illegal immigrants, or just about anything else – one cannot come up with an intelligent opinion without considering the arguments on each side.  If you believe otherwise, then read no further, because this is a bedrock assumption that underlies logical decision making, as well as the rest of this essay.

Let’s use the idea of stronger gun control as an example for this discussion.  If one says that much harsher gun laws are a necessity and that there is no room for compromise, then that implies that the gun rights crowd is either ignorant or illogical.  And vice-verse: the Second Amendment fanatics who won’t even consider more restrictions on gun ownership must implicitly see the other side as being misinformed and/or just plain stupid.  Now of course, either side could be right, but what are the chances? 

To figure that out, let’s expand this issue just a bit to talk about Democrats and Republicans in the U.S.  Since most Democrats favor stricter gun control while most Republicans do not, this isn’t much of a stretch; nevertheless, I am tweaking the conversation a bit here.  But at any rate, the question now is:  How smart and how educated are Democrats compared to Republicans?  Because if one group or the other really is uninformed and/or .... a bit slow, then that would justify ignoring their views and sticking with the opposite, extreme view.  But if they’re not, well, that suggests something entirely different. 

As someone in academia, the consensus view I get is that Democrats are, as a whole, more intelligent and also better educated than Republicans.  I suspect there’s something to that, but probably not as much as academicians, who tend to be Democrats themselves, believe.  A quick scan of Internet websites and articles on the topic seems to suggest that the average intelligence levels of Democrats and Republicans are about equal (such as http://anepigone.blogspot.com/2008/11/politics-and-iq-conservative-democrats.html ).  Similarly, Democrats and Republicans have about the same overall levels of education, except in the category of post-graduate university study, where Democrats have a pretty big edge: 58% of voters vs. only 40% for the Republicans (http://www.cnn.com/ELECTION/2008/results/polls/#USP00p1)

To be honest, though, I have mixed feelings about folks with graduate degrees and those who operate in academia (teachers and professors).  On the one hand, they are more likely to be knowledgeable about a variety of topics than someone without an advanced education.  But on the other hand, high schools and universities are notoriously skewed towards liberal views in most parts of the country.  So the knowledge one gains in school is likely to have been presented in a biased (liberal) manner.  I haven’t confirmed this claim through research and data, but suspect that there's sparse evidence otherwise.    

An example of this liberal bias in schools is Howard Zinn’s popular A People’s History of the United States, which several of my colleagues use in their history classes.  This book is widely acknowledged for its  extreme leftist bias, and George Mason University's History News Network recently named it the second least credible American history book .  It missed getting first place by just a small margin to Jefferson's Lies: Exposing the Myths You've Always Believed about Thomas Jefferson, by the way, as biased on the right as Zinn’s book is on the left.  (http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/07/lies-the-debunkers-told-me-how-bad-history-books-win-us-over/260251/)  While A People's History is noteworthy for its groundbreaking work in social history and willingness to look at the darker side of our nation's history, few objective historians believe A People’s History should be taken as a realistic view of our history; it's too deeply flawed by its non-stop bias.  Yet I don’t think my esteemed colleagues and most of the thousands of other teachers/professors who assign the book present Zinn as an example of a biased, far-left author (he was, in fact, an ardent Marxist), but instead give students the idea that his book is really telling it like it is. 

This connects to the other concern about those in academia:  Most teachers/professors have little “real world” experience, having gone directly from high school to university to teaching, without the benefit of a career outside of academia.  As such, their views tend towards the ivory tower, theoretical variety, not tempered by the realities that often conflict with knowledge found in books and from professors.   

As a result (of liberal bias and often the disconnect from the real world found in schools) many students leave high school and college with a distorted view of American history, among other topics. Overall then, I think that being better educated is a good thing, but may also carry with it some negative baggage. 

But back to the greater point.  Whether liberals are smarter or better educated as a whole than conservatives, the fact remains that there are a great many intelligent and well-educated people in both of our two main political parties.  According to the Gallup group in 2011, 31% of Americans were Democrats and 29% were Republicans (the rest were independents).  Other estimates show much the same picture: there are about as many Democrats as there are Republicans in the U.S.  That means there are millions of each, and out of those millions, surely there are many thousands of Democrats and many thousands of Republicans who are more intelligent and better educated than either you or me. 

Certainly some of those Republicans are only out to "protect the rich and keep minorities down", while some of the Democrats are "communists who want to destroy the America we love", as members of those parties are quick to characterize their adversaries.  But apart from being rude stereotypes, those kinds of characterizations have the added disadvantage of being largely inaccurate, as most Democrats and most Republicans are decent people who only want the best for all Americans.  And if those things are true, i.e. both parties have highly-educated, intelligent people who want what's best for the country, then we are led to conclude that there must be valid, well-thought out reasons for supporting both liberal (Democratic) views and conservative (Republican) views.  This, in turn, suggests that extreme leftist or extreme rightist views fail to acknowledge (or are perhaps unaware of) the merits of other points of view, and are therefore unlikely to be correct or wise – to give the best answer, as it were. 

That reality reminds me of the Bell Curve often used in assigning test grades.  In curving grades, a few people are going to get A’s and F’s, more people are going to get B’s and D’s, and the biggest chunk will get C’s.  Probability wise, then, the further we are from the center (a middle C), then the less likely one is to get that particular grade. 

I think it’s the same with political opinions.  It’s certainly possible that a very far-right or far-left view is correct on a particular issue, but the odds are against it.  That would require that all of those intelligent, educated people on the other side are totally wrong, or do not have the country's best interests at heart.  Again – that is possible, but not likely. 

On the other hand, as we move more to the center from the extremes, we can accept the validity of what each side sees.  Liberals may be looking at different facts than conservatives, or simply interpreting them differently.  The centrist view basically says: “Look, you make some good points and so do the other guys, and the best answer is likely to be one that recognizes this fact."  Then it just comes down to how much each of us values the merits of the various points.  You see more merit in the conservative views, so you’re a conservative-centrist, while I see more merit in the liberal views, so I’m a liberal-centrist.  But we’re not so far apart, and we can function effectively and civilly this way.

That’s what is so sorely lacking in the U.S. these days – effective functioning and civility in politics, based on the ability to see all sides and find common ground.  Accordingly, that’s what I’m going to continue teaching in my classes: The most sensible understanding or opinion is likely to be somewhere in the middle, the one that acknowledges valid points from various perspectives.  Students who insist that their far-right or far-left views are the only possible answer have the right to do so, but they are going to be continually challenged in my classroom to show how that can be.  And to whatever degree that strategy mitigates the liberal bias they find in their other classes, well - that is as it should be.

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

Power corrupts, whenever you replace them, new people playing the same games. The only way of getting rid of this is by getting rid of the government.

John B. said...

You are, in the most basic sense, correct. Extremist opinions are ridiculousness. You do however, build too much off of the opinion of these parties, and treat said opinion as fact. Dividing the world into black and white is a bad idea, and while wrong and right is a spectrum, it is maybe more complex than just being able to hold an opinion in the middle. The opinions that we hold affect the way facts are viewed and used far more than you give credit for.

Frieda Curtis said...

More and more, I'm finding myself having to make decisions and it seems like considering all sides first is the only effective way to come to a relatively non-biased conclusion. As you mentioned, Zinn's, A Peoples History of the United States, if taken as gospel, could lead to the wrong conclusion and it is important to understand the point of view from which he writes. Knowing that he writes from the viewpoint of the oppressed, I found myself able to question some of his statements and research the validity of his facts. I agree that the visual image of the "bell curve" is a pretty accurate way to think of politics. Hopefully people from all walks of life will, at some point, realize that there is value in understanding all points of view and finding a way to compromise.

Christina Schweighardt said...

I agree that the “bell curve” does represent the differences in the two political groups. Both groups always seem to be disagreeing with each other and never look for compromise to help our country as a whole. As a student, this just brings me to realize that I cannot just agree with whatever someone says. I must take into consideration where they are coming from and what is the other side to their opinion. In the end, we must all understand that a difference in opinions should not just be simply argued over, however we should always be looking for a way to compromise.

adam wright said...

The central view still, and most likely always, will be the best viewpoint. I don't understand why more people, especially the politicians, can't grasp that idea. I do realize that it is because they think that their side is better and that the other side is misinformed, but it seems like they educated men who control our country would be able to identify their faults.
Now that I read this blog post, it also reminds me, though I have not noticed it, how you implement this into your class, and im guessing into your life. Whenever we are talking about an issue and most of us take a side, even if the other side is wrong, you make us think about that other side and evaluate it. This couldnt be more helpful for training us to be in the real world, where being in the middle will make a difference.

Anna Cridlig said...

The extreme liberals and the extreme conservatives should consider becoming "centrists" in their values, as you mentioned, because it would widen perspective and compromise, resulting into beneficial decisions for everyone. The clever analogy with "The Bell Curve" shows how much more likely it is for the opposing views of both parties to have valid reasons among themselves rather than a single correct answer on one side. This essay offers a wise statement that emphasizes "sticking to a middle-ground" as to evaluate all perspectives and ideas into a coherent opinion.

Alonzo Castanon said...

The idea that the best position on social and political issues lies in the middle of a left/right wing spectrum is probably an accurate statement, however, that is not to say that the centrist position is one every politician should adopt unanimously. Consider the following metaphor: In a court trial, there is (in an extremely simplified scenario) a prosecutor, a defendant, and a judge. In this case, the prosecutor and defendant are interchangeable, and can instead represent two opposing sides, such as Democrats and Republicans. It is the job of these two sides to uncover any information and fact to support their beliefs, while also pointing out any flaws in the other side’s argument (hopefully civilly). Finally, the judge, who represents the centrists, decides what the best course of action is. Of course in reality centrists don’t get the final word on decision making, but for the sake of the metaphor this will be assumed.
Furthermore, the idea that the “bell curve” presents validity of political opinions is conceptually sound, however, still contains room for error. For the bell curve concept to be true, the most “valid” political opinions lie in the center of the political spectrum. As has been noted throughout history however, most successful political decisions are actually affiliated towards a specific side, though not on the extreme end of the spectrum. In this case, a slightly modified inverse bell curve would be more accurate. That’s not to say that absolute centrist political opinions lack merit, but rather, that without some sort of affiliation to a side, it is essentially as “extreme” as an extreme left/right opinion.
Instead of more true centrists in our government, I would argue that more of liberal centrists and conservative centrists are necessary to achieve a truer balance in our government. These politicians would not only pursue seeking fact and strengthen the points of their political affiliations, but would also be willing to consider the arguments of the other side, resulting in a more educated and concrete decision in the end.

Jared Creamer said...

This is a very well written essay because while not only supporting both sides of the argument, you also provide valid sources, arguments and examples to help the reader understand. However, the only flaw in this essay is that you don't provide enough background information which may confuse a reader who isn't very informed with politics. Overall, this is a very well written essay and it is very informational which everyone should read.

Franny Suarez said...

“How smart and how educated are republicans compared to democrats?”. But really… this is a valid question. I believe that currently, in the year 2013, many people would say that Democrats are much smarter and overall cleverer than Republicans. After so many fobs and scandals, Republicans nowadays have a disadvantage. In my opinion, my generation is being raised in a way that is teaching us to embrace the new and innovative, i.e. democratic views. Democrats haven’t always been considered the liberal party group, but recently, the Democrats of America are gaining a following.
Almost everyone I know around my age is a registered Democrat. With a newly elected president who happens to be the first black man in the Oval Office, I struggle to come to terms with the view that the center of the “bell curve” is the best place to be. As part of a younger generation, I struggle to be heard by our lawmakers, so its no surprise to me that all of my peers support democrats and their liberal politics; they make the most sense to us.

Jasmine Alicdan said...

There is never a simple answer. If we think there is, then we should reevaluate, that’s what this blog has taught me. With one decision made, there will be disappointment amongst the opposing side.

Democrats and Republicans can only agree to disagree a majority of the time. But they have to because they do represent the people who share the same views. If they didn't then politicians would be run out of office. Aiming for the "center" is goal but I also believe that some issues require having to shift a little to the right or left.

The "bell curve" seems to be accurate when visualizing where people stand politics and other social issues.

ari said...

I really could not agree with you more about what the best position is to take on most political and social issues. When you mentioned that one could not come up with “an intelligent opinion without considering the arguments on each side”, it made me immediately think of the movie Twelve Angry Men. The main character who was the first juror to “think of the other side” brought up the idea that there was a chance the young boy could NOT be guilty. Throughout the movie, more and more of the jury members catch on to the guy’s point, but we see how turned off the one guy is to examining the possible cases they bring up. The further they keep proving the boy to be innocent, it is almost like the one juror won’t even consider the other side just for protecting his pride (because he defended his side the entire movie).

When you talked about the example of the split opinions on gun control, I liked how you said that both fanatical sides will see each other as “misinformed and/or just plain stupid”. Using my extremely conservative grandma as just one example I can see your point that having extremists who don’t even give the other side a bit of a chance at standing, are very detrimental to our society. This is because all of a sudden they start caring more about WHO is right, rather than WHAT is right. I think we both agree that this is a very bad way of solving political and social problems. In fact, it WILL NOT solve them. And that is why our country gets hung up on things like gun control. I am certainly not saying everyone should always agree. A little dissension is good but we must see all sides.

Melinda said...

This article has led me to agree with the stated idea that one political party often completely shuts out the ideas of another political party because they assume that the only opinions that will matter will be the opinions from their own political party. If we all were to listen to BOTH sides of every story, however radical they may be, and ignore the labels that we have (republican, democrat, independent, etc…) it would be a whole lot easier to get things done and find an effective solution that works for (almost - you can't please every person) everyone.

Anonymous said...

I think that basically, the main issue with the American people is that
A) They don't keep an open mind (i.e. they're unwilling to view the other side) and
B) There's a peer pressure or otherwise desire to fit in, and that makes it so that people tend to conform with the people they're around, causing a @localization@ in political affiliation.

This ultimately leads to people getting brainwashed into following a political party.

BPYL

Lizzie Hall said...

I think that your comparison of republicans and democrats to the bell curve scale was accurate. It is true that since republicans and democrats have such different views, the only way we will be able to solve any issues is by compromising. You pointed out that the number of democrats and republicans in the US is extremely close. It is because of this small gap that compromise is so important in our society.

Samantha said...

As a newly turned adult, it seems that more and more conversations among peers begin to gravitate towards political views. I think that articles such as this, which not only deal with one institution's viewpoint but instead offer an analysis of the opposing parties' arguments, are valuable to someone such as myself, as I am just beginning to establish my own political views.

I felt that this blog post was particularly relevant to my future career in its address of political bias in academic institutions. It is true that members of academia tend to support the Democratic party because of its historically pro-education stance,but left-wing philosophy and intellectual careers should by no means be tied together out of habit. As I embark on both my higher educational and career path, I hope that I will remember to question even the norm, particularly the norm, of the most widely held beliefs in my social circles, in order to avoid falling prey to holding certain political views by default.