Liberals Read, Conservatives Watch TV
Explaining why Trump emerged on the right, why only liberals debate filibuster reform, how anti-vax became a partisan issue, how David Shor is half right, "Dems are the real racists" and much else.
Disclaimer: This is a very long piece (about 9,000 words). I thought about breaking it up into different essays, but concluded this is one of those things where you need to see the argument in its entirety to appreciate the constituent parts. I also think it needs many qualifiers and caveats in order to avoid misunderstandings, as the argument is extremely broad. Anyway, feel free to read in more than one sitting. A summary can be found in the table right above the first sub-heading.
How are conservatives and liberals different?
There are many ways to approach this question. One can discuss psychological predispositions, demographics, education, professional background, or a hundred other things.
Political psychology interested in the question has fallen into two camps: narratives that flatter the left and insult the right, and those that work in the lab but don’t explain all that much in real life.
For example, some have claimed that conservatives are more “authoritarian” than liberals. When you ask people whether individuals should like the military and defer to cops, surprisingly enough conservatives are more “authoritarian.” Yet change the elites in question, and suddenly liberals become the authoritarians. Attempts to explain that conservatism is rooted in prejudice similarly fail because it turns out both sides are prejudiced, just against different groups.
The second way to explain differences is by positing different moral values. I don’t think this effort has had much success. Jonathan Haidt showed that in the abstract conservatives and liberals will adopt different values, but moral foundations matter a lot less than partisanship in the real world. This research is also extremely sensitive to how one defines terms like “sanctity.” When it comes to religion, conservatives are higher on this value, but as I saw Haidt himself once ask an audience, what would the reaction in the room be if he made a joke about Martin Luther King?
Psychological accounts focusing on the individual also tend to miss larger dynamics within each movement and society as a whole. If you want to understand the social norms of a prison, it is not enough to study the psychological profiles of criminals. One must also take into account the environment they’re in, which includes people with similar traits, and how such individuals interact with one another. We likewise miss quite a bit when we reduce political differences between groups to individual psychology and ignore the ways in which communities organize themselves.
I want to present a new theory of American politics: liberals live in a world dominated by the written word, while conservatism is something of a pre-literate culture. This can be summarized as “liberals read, conservatives watch TV.” Let’s start with a graph:
On the Republican side, when it comes to newspapers, the most relied upon source is The Wall Street Journal (11%). On the Democratic side, 30% read The New York Times, and 26% read The Washington Post. Democrats even read the WSJ more than conservatives do, and are just as likely to report The New York Post as a source! On both sides, only a minority reads any particular newspaper, but having half of your supporters read something instead of 15%, or whatever the exact numbers are, creates a completely different culture.
On the conservative side, 19% got their information from Hannity, and 17% from Rush Limbaugh. There are no equivalent personalities on the left, although liberals do listen to radio in the forms of NPR and the BBC. Yet those outlets are very different from Hannity and Limbaugh; although biased, they have apolitical content and should actually be considered more news than sources of entertainment. I think if you want to find a Hannity equivalent on the left it would be someone like Keith Olbermann, who is nowhere as influential.
Here are another two figures, showing media sources trusted by each side.
We once more find a Democratic bias towards the written word. Again, this even applies to The Wall Street Journal and The New York Post, which Democrats trust more, and the two sides trust The Washington Examiner about equally. Since I doubt The Washington Examiner is too left wing for most Republicans, what I think is going on is a lot of conservatives who know nothing about the publication just have a general distrust of the written word. “If it’s a newspaper, it must be bad.” Democrats may have the opposite bias, but at least seem familiar enough with most publications to know which side they are on.
Even when Republicans do read, the content and style of their sources are similar to TV and radio. In the first figure above, about the same percentage of Republicans read Breitbart as Democrats who read Vox. Both fall into the category of “news websites,” but there’s something very clearly different between them. You might go to Vox and find a serious analysis of the prospects for nuclear fusion or trends in architecture. You would struggle to find anything on Breitbart that is not directly related to some hot button issue in Washington. Here are the front pages of the two sites as I write this.
At a superficial level, they’re both ideological and biased. But while Vox has an agenda, it’s somewhat subtle and they at least go through the motions of pretending to try to inform you about something. Notice every Breitbart story has a clear villain: Fauci, Biden’s economy, Biden’s vax mandate, Soros, etc. “Let’s Go Brandon!” is the ultimate substance free rallying cry. Vox, in contrast, does not mention any Republican on its front page, and has a broader range of interests than simply hating its enemies. (UPDATE 11/2/21: Someone pointed out to me there is in fact one mention of Trump and Bannon at the bottom left of the Vox screenshot.)
Vox and Breitbart are both news websites, but the latter is closer to talk radio or TV than a newspaper, with its simplified messaging and clear infotainment purpose. You might be a conservative and go to Vox to learn something, as I sometimes do. No liberal is going to Breitbart to learn anything unless they want to specifically study the conservative movement. Liberals do have sites that are like Breitbart (check out Daily Kos), but they’re not nearly as influential. Similarly, conservatives do have some more intellectually interesting publications, like City Journal and American Affairs. But I think if you’re looking at the highest level of politics, say who influences members of Congress the most, Vox captures the spirit of liberalism, while Breitbart is most representative of conservatism.
I don’t think that conservatives and liberals are the way they are because media sources made them that way. Markets have emerged to speak to two classes of people. The fact that one side reads and the other watches TV reflects the fact that there are two broad psychological profiles at work. Over the last two decades, we have seen a large increase in political engagement. The graph below ends in 2016, but the process has accelerated since, with 2018 seeing the highest midterm turnout in a century.
In the age of cable news and the internet, the main media sources on the left and right have each engaged in a mass mobilization campaign. Conservative media perfecting the “infotainment” genre of news commentary brought people into politics that a generation earlier would’ve paid more attention to professional wrestling or monster truck rallies instead. Liberalism has captured a combination of an overeducated class with more desire for status than intellectual curiosity along with mentally ill individuals who in the 1990s might have joined some apolitical subculture instead of becoming passionate about race and gender issues. While during the Clinton era the split between the TV watchers and readers alongside the right-left axis was already there, it has become much more extreme. This has been referred to by political scientists as “increasing education polarization,” a phrase that I don’t think captures the most interesting aspects of what is going on.
A summary of the main arguments made throughout the rest of this essay can be found in the table below.
Some Caveats and Motivations
Usually, my inclination is to put disclaimers and caveats at the end of an essay. In this case, I think there is so much potential for misunderstanding, and the topic so controversial, that I should put them up front.
First, when I say “conservatives are like this, liberals are like that,” one should think more in terms of overlapping bell curves than categorical statements. For example, throughout this piece I discuss how conservatives personalize their political criticism, tending to focus on Fauci, Soros, or whoever. Someone might be tempted to respond with something about “Trump derangement syndrome,” and they’re going to be right. If you turned on MSNBC or CNN during Trump’s presidency, it was sort of like Breitbart’s front page, just with a different main villain. At the same time, conservatives are still more extreme in the extent to which they make politics about personalities, as on the right the issues that get TV watchers excited don’t have any competition from more intellectual spaces. Just like with media sources, different branches of conservatism and liberalism may lean more towards one or the other side. Libertarians are more like people who read, while Resistance obsessives on the left are more like TV watchers. Nonetheless, my main focus here is what makes the two sides of the political spectrum different, although one could just as easily write an essay about all the ways in which they are the same, even if it would be less interesting.
Moreover, movements change over time towards one end of the TV-reading spectrum or the other. If you apply the frame of this analysis to American politics 25 years ago, it would basically be correct, but it’s gotten much more extreme over time. Liberals and the Democratic Party have moved more towards the written word, conservatives and Republicans in the opposite direction. When Fox News didn’t exist and there was only talk radio, intellectual outlets like National Review, Weekly Standard, and Commentary along with think tanks like Heritage were much more influential in setting the agenda on the right, only having to compete with talk radio. Now, there is cable news and the internet, and this has tilted things to the advantage of the TV watchers.
This is not a theory about the average Democratic or Republican voter. TV watchers are the human norm, so if you’re talking about the bottom 80% of the population or so in political knowledge, the two sides are going to be pretty similar. Even among Democrats, many more watch CNN than read the NYT. This is a theory about the political class, that is, the community of journalists, activists, informed voters, and politicians on each side. And just as how most Democratic voters being TV watchers does not contradict the theory presented, neither does the fact that conservatives have an intellectual class. The arguments are mostly about the dominant forces among the politicized members of the public, not a way to think about everyone on one side or the other.
I also want to say it’s difficult to talk about differences in a way that doesn’t fall into one of two traps. The first of these is an analysis where you just say “one side is good, the other is bad” and build an intellectual framework around that. This is what political scientists were doing when they invented “right-wing authoritarianism” and decided that was the defining feature of conservatism. Alternatively, one may try to pretend everything is the same, and you end up saying nothing about differences at all. It’s easy to show that, for example, partisans switch their positions on the filibuster depending on who is in power, and jump to the conclusion that conservatives and liberals are basically just mirror images of one another.
A truthful appraisal of both sides would be highly unlikely to come to the conclusion that they are equally flawed in the exact same ways. My view is that conservatives and liberals each have some unique strengths and weaknesses. Liberals being more ideological is not necessarily a good or bad thing; abolitionists being ideological was good, communists being ideological is bad. Meanwhile, conservatives not being taken in by the written word makes them stupider, but that can be protective against certain harmful intellectual trends where instinct is a better guide than expertise, as is often the case, given that so much expertise is fake.
Overall though, I can’t deny that my analysis generally makes liberals look smarter and more honest than conservatives. Yet the fact that I disagree with liberals about almost everything should therefore give my analysis more credibility.
Another caveat is that I’m talking mostly here about mass opinion and elite discourse, not necessarily governing. Below, I talk about how Trump is the ultimate “tribal, non-ideological” politician. In office though, the lack of interest he and his supporters had in governing meant that his agenda was to a large extent outsourced to Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, who did have ideological commitments. Yet while elite discourse does seep into governing, over time what Republicans actually do in office hasn’t changed nearly as much as their rhetoric and the slogans that have mobilized their voters. Liberals tend to beat conservatives in the policy space. But within conservatism, the more ideological forces like the pro-life movement and libertarians tend to have a larger influence on governing than, say, those concerned with “cancel culture.”
Finally, “watching TV and reading” are not simply euphemisms for “low IQ and high IQ,” although there is certainly a relationship to intelligence. To have a consistent ideology requires one to be smarter, but reading about politics is more high effort than watching TV or listening to the radio, and many intelligent people are too lazy or distracted by other things to get very into the world of ideas. If there is one trait besides intelligence that predicts where one will be on the TV-reading spectrum, I would guess it would have something to do with idealism, with the two traits being highly correlated. While the idea that liberals are more idealistic isn’t new, I don’t think anyone has thought through all the implications of this fact for American politics.
This essay can be understood as another part of a project to try and understand differences between conservatives and liberals, and why liberals tend to win. The first essay, “Why Is Everything Liberal?” focused on the psychology and motivations of individuals. A follow-up, “Woke Institutions is Just Civil Rights Law,” discussed the legal mechanisms used by the left to cement and expand their power over social issues. This essay can be considered more of a sociological analysis, explaining how two sides with different psychological profiles create communities with different norms and kinds of politics, and how they interact with one another and ultimately shape culture and policy outcomes. The arguments are connected. People who care more about politics read more about the issues and create laws and institutions that help make their vision a reality.
Ideological Versus Tribal
In his 2005 inaugural address, George W. Bush talked about democratizing other countries as a national calling, completely ignoring any domestic issue. A few years later, the Tea Party arose in opposition to bailouts, and conservative politicians started getting primaried for not being extreme enough in their support for small government and lower levels of spending. This was an era in which Republicans nominated for the Senate a guy who opposed the federal minimum wage, and another who opposed anti-discrimination laws. By the end of Obama’s presidency, nobody cared about small government anymore, and they nominated Trump, whose signature issue was immigration, and who thought all the human rights stuff in foreign policy was stupid. Today, somehow, Republicans are fundraising off of opposition to vaccine mandates, something that hasn’t ever been associated with the right.
It doesn’t work like that on the left! Sure, they don’t believe the exact same things they did 20 years ago. They are more militant about race and LGBT and more left-wing on economics. Yet going from pro-civil unions to pro-gay marriage to pro-trans is not the same as going from democratizing Iraq to not caring about Iraq and opposing universal vaccinations. What we see on the left is ideological evolution, pushed forward by an activist base. When Al Gore was running for president, they were pro-redistribution and in favor of government interventions to help designated minorities. Now, they are more left wing on these issues, and have debates within the party over how left wing they should be. Some are under the impression that Democrats are now the pro-war or anti-civil liberties party, but that’s a myth, although foreign policy is the one major area where they have not really moved left.
One good way to understand the differences here is by looking at the 2020 Trump campaign, which was sort of a reductio ad absurdum of the general trends we see on the right. Republicans simultaneously attacked Biden for being woke and wanting to let BLM burn down cities, and also for being “racist” because he was once tough on crime. The Democratic base would not have let Biden get away with something similar; they demanded he demonstrate an ideological commitment to being softer on crime than Republicans, and he generally did, although he may not have gone far enough for some activists.
How cancellations work on each side also demonstrates the ideological versus tribal divide. On the left, people are cancelled for ideological transgressions. Al Franken was hounded out of the Senate and Andrew Cuomo from the governor’s office for MeToo reasons, with pressure coming from their own side. And when we talk about a Democrat potentially getting primaried, it’s usually over their positions. Republicans, meanwhile, have been purging people for insufficient loyalty to Trump, not over any ideological principles. Recall that Liz Cheney was originally promoted to the third highest Republican position in the House, despite supposedly being ideologically as far away from Trump as one can be. Meanwhile, no one was more supportive of Trump’s agenda, to the extent there was one, than Jeff Sessions, and now Republicans hate him, because again, loyalty to Trump is all that matters.
Here are some interesting figures from the height of the Tea Party movement in early 2011.
What’s notable here is that even when cutting government spending was the main Republican issue, most Republicans were against actually cutting government spending on almost anything! Not even those that identified with the Tea Party could find majority agreement on reducing spending in any but a few areas. Of course, after Trump came into office, concerns about government spending mostly melted away, even rhetorically.
What was the Tea Party about, then? For certain libertarian ideologues, it was actually about government spending. For most of those who supported the movement, however, it was a tribal signifier. Some just didn’t like the fact that we had a black president, or were motivated by the same things conservatives have hated about liberals since the 1960s. A mere six year earlier, they had expressed this sublimated anger by criticizing liberals for not “supporting our troops” fighting in Iraq, and soon they would accuse them of trying to change the country through mass immigration.
Kinds of Lying
There are two ways to lie in politics. Let’s say Side A wants to spend more on government, and Side B wants to spend less. Side A might exaggerate the benefits of investing in poor communities, and Side B might tell a story about how tax cuts for the rich will pay for themselves. This can be called directional lying, with each side trying to convince you of something, and this is how politics pretty much worked until the last few years.
Republicans, because they are tribal and not ideological, do not punish their politicians for non-directional lying, or simply making things up. I already mentioned the schizophrenic messaging about Biden and crime.
Trump mostly governed like a typical Republican, and his administration pushed for things like less spending on entitlements. Republicans meanwhile have been running ads accusing Democrats of wanting to cut Medicare. The party made opposition to Obamacare maybe its central political messages across three election cycles. Before his 2018 Senate election, Josh Hawley had signed his name to a complaint that would have gotten the Supreme Court to overturn Obamacare. He also ran an ad saying he wanted to protect people with preexisting conditions from losing their health insurance. You can be generous to Hawley and assume that maybe he liked the preexisting conditions part of Obamacare, but thought the law was so bad overall it still needed to go. Still, the practical effect of voting for Hawley and other Republicans in that election was that they would make it less likely insurance companies would have to cover preexisting conditions, making this a case of non-directional lying.
Trump supporters argued he was the most pro-gay rights presidential candidate in history. Meanwhile, his administration rolled back anti-discrimination protections. You can say that “gay rights” is not synonymous with “the policy wishes of the LGBT activist community,” but that’s how most people understand these terms. Anti-discrimination laws based on sexual orientation and gender identity have wide popular support, meaning that when most people hear a politician saying he is pro-gay rights, they assume he supports such policies. And maybe Trump actually does, but in his administration it was social conservatives who set the agenda.
Liberals say really false things like “men can get pregnant,” “police are killing large numbers of innocent black men,” and “poor people are more likely to be fat because of food deserts.” Yet these are lies (or more usually, kinds of self-delusion) that you would expect from people who’ve adopted crazy ideological commitments: the blank slate theory of human nature, an aversion towards “blaming the victim,” championing minority sexual identities as normative ideals, and a worldview where the problems of the poor can always be blamed on their oppressors. Russiagate was a kind of paranoia of the left that was similar to the conspiracy theories of the right. But liberals only had one Russiagate; conservatives have had many, including Vince Foster, Benghazi, Birtherism, Hillary’s e-mails, the stolen election, QAnon, etc. I don’t think every aspect of each one of these conspiracy theories is false, some have a bit of truth in them, but none of them have deserved anywhere near the attention they have received from the right, which obsesses over such things because it is excited by personalities and bored by ideas. Some have pointed out that “systemic racism” is a kind of conspiracy theory, and I’m inclined to agree, but it involves testable ideas that have an ideological basis beyond “the other side is bad.”
Perhaps the most dishonest and annoying form of conservative non-directional lying is when they claim to be heirs to the civil rights movement.
It is true that more Republicans than Democrats in Congress voted for the Civil Rights Act. But the law was the fundamental cause of the political realignment that lasts to this day. Southerners and their politicians did not happen to start going Republican in the 1964 election because of a newfound love of free enterprise. The Civil Rights movement continued after 1964, and the exact same people who got rid of Jim Crow demanded things like affirmative action, speech restrictions in business, government overruling private property rights, school busing, and economic redistribution. The conservative movement has fought these things every step of the way, yet somehow today has managed to embrace MLK without ever disowning Goldwater, who got the Republican presidential nomination precisely because he opposed the Civil Rights Act for reasons rooted in conservative ideology (read Nixonland for the continuities between the race debates in the 1960s and those of today).
Liberals don’t do this. Most Americans remember Ronald Reagan fondly. But Democrats don’t say they’re the party of Reagan; the left opposed him while he was alive because he wanted a smaller government that did less to address “racism” and “sexism,” which is why conservatives supported him. The political divisions of the 1980s are still with us, as are those of the 1960s. But only one party is uninformed or dishonest enough about its own history to occasionally forget which side it has been on. Retconning Trump as the “most pro-LGBT president in history” is similarly confused.
Why Liberals Win
I can see why conservatives do the “Dems are the real racists” thing. Most Americans believe in a feel-good story of the civil rights movement, and would like to separate MLK from affirmative action and other racial policies adopted by the federal government. And polls say most people support gay marriage and anti-discrimination laws for LGBT, so again, it’s convenient to forget which side conservatives were recently on, and even to obscure their current positions. Republican politicians continue to do things like oppose more stringent applications of anti-discrimination laws, while trying to give the opposite impression to the general electorate.
The question is why Democrats don’t do this too? Forget claiming Goldwater or Reagan. In 2015, Democrats renamed the “Jefferson-Jackson dinner.” And about a year ago, the official account for the Democratic Party sent out a tweet claiming that Mount Rushmore was a symbol of “white supremacy” before deleting it.
While conservatives are trying to claim MLK, a 1960s liberal, for themselves, Democrats are inching towards denouncing nearly all of American history.
This difference can be explained by Democrats having a base that cares about ideas, rooted in the worlds of journalism, academia, and activism. You can’t feed them a completely inverted story about the history of civil rights. Just as how leftists wouldn’t let Biden get away with pretending to be tougher on crime than Trump, they wouldn’t let him claim the legacy of Goldwater at the same time that the modern Democratic Party opposes everything he stood for.
I have no doubt that Republicans have the smarter political strategy. But liberals who care about changing the world have more to celebrate than conservatives, who gain political power by doing things like enshrining the civil rights and LGBT movements as central to American identity.
Take the “trans women in sports” debate. A generation ago, conservatives complained about Title IX of the Civil Rights Act as a kind of social engineering that created mandates for girls sports where there was little or no organic demand. Now, rather than openly dispute that children can choose to change their genders, they disingenuously talk of “protecting Title IX” from liberal activism.
On hot button issues, there tends to be a cycle that goes something like this:
1) Liberal activists and the media start taking some far off position on a social issue (defund the police, trans rights, gay marriage).
2) It makes elected Democrats uncomfortable, as Republicans gain some electoral advantage.
3) No matter what happens electorally, bureaucrats, courts, HR staff, and other members of the managerial class make sure that the left-wing position wins.
4) Public opinion moves left and accommodates the new reality. Democrats go all in on the new consensus.
5) Conservatives rhetorically accept all the moral assumptions of the new position, sometimes arguing it was their idea all along, while in practice fighting its more stringent applications.
6) Republicans start talking about opposing the next step liberals are taking, as the cycle starts over again.
Recently, there has been a lot of attention given to David Shor telling Democrats to be more moderate so they can win elections. People point out that “defund the police” polls terribly. Yet if you look at such polls, they find that people are pretty open to taking money out of policing and putting it into social services. The fact that someone out there is talking about “defunding the police” makes that the extremist benchmark, which makes taking some money away from the police look moderate. One example of many below:
In 2004, running against gay marriage helped Republicans. A decade later, gay marriage was legalized everywhere and Republicans no longer wanted to talk about it. Defund the police is probably following a similar pattern. Unlike gay marriage, what “defund” activists are demanding is too extreme to ever become political reality. But we’ve seen a few major cities actually take money away from policing and put it into left wing causes, and I think in the immediate future we’ll see less policing and more money going towards “mental health” and “social work” rather than men with guns. That some form of “de-policing” is happening in the midst of a historic increase in murder makes this all the more impressive.
The key point here is that to get the cycle going, you need some activists who are willing to push things beyond the comfort zone of the average voter and politician (step 1). This requires some part of your coalition that is willing to go out on a limb and act against your side’s short-term political interests. Go too far on wokeness, and you might get Trump. But by the end of his first term, Trump is talking about the lowest black unemployment in history, all the money he funneled to historically black colleges and universities, and bragging about being the most pro-LGBT president in history.
Republicans tend not to do that; they want to win the next election and have already forgotten the last debate anyway. The TV-watching base can’t accept that a battle has been lost. Nor will it respond to a message that the party needs to take a principled stand that might cost it votes in the next election but change the country in the long run. TV watchers need immediate gratification. To stay glued to their screens, they must believe that whatever is happening right now is the most important thing in the world, even if it’s the integrity of girls high school wrestling.
Two major exceptions to this general pattern on the right are the pro-life and pro-gun movements. Both take some pretty extreme positions that poll poorly, like support for heartbeat bills and opposition to all kinds of background checks. They may occasionally cost Republican politicians votes, but they maintain a grip on the party, and actually get something when it wins. See my tweet thread on how the pro-life movement in particular is an outlier in conservative politics.
How Ideas Shift Within Movements
The previous section discussed how overall public opinion shifts on important issues. What about how opinion shifts within each coalition? My model goes something like this:
Liberal opinion does not come from the masses, nor from politicians, but through an intermediate class of activists, lawyers, journalists, professors and bureaucrats. Whatever activists in the LGBTQ movement or other identity-based organizations believed 5 or 10 years ago has become the standard in Democratic politics. Liberals being the side that reads doesn’t necessarily mean they’re carrying around Marx or Foucault and then consistently applying their principles to modern issues. I think HR is more important than political philosophy (can’t recommend this essay enough). Rather, they “read” in the sense that wherever they get their ideas from, there is a class of liberals that have jobs that involve interacting with the written word, and they push both politicians and the general public to see things their way. One has to make a bit of effort to apply new principles consistently, and those who read Vox and the NYT are more likely to have the cognitive traits to be able to do so than fans of Sean Hannity.
Conservatives to a large extent lack this intermediate activist class. Therefore, ideas come from the extremes, that is either the very top or the very bottom. The Republican Party starts championing causes either because the president told them to, or TV and radio hosts are responding to market incentives and giving their audience what they want. Conservatives started caring about democratizing Iraq and believing in Hydroxychloroquine in each case because of things Bush and Trump said. Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum, the whole debate about Critical Race Theory started just because Chris Rufo got on Tucker. Again, pro-life and gun activists are the exception, and are able to force a litmus test on Republican politicians. Note that while running in 2016 Trump was willing to offend neo-cons, free traders, anti-LGBT activists, and every other variety of conservative, on abortion and guns he never wavered.
Right now, I’m getting a lot of e-mails from the RNC and conservative groups about stopping Biden’s vaccine mandates. How did this become a conservative issue? We’ve had vaccine mandates my whole life, and neither political party ever cared. Even if you believe in small government, forced vaccination is pretty much the textbook case of justified coercion. While liberals have overreacted to COVID-19 on things like lockdowns and masks, vaccination is both the most low cost and most effective intervention one can recommend, which makes the only rational response to the pandemic at this point “pro-vaccine, anti-everything else.” If conservatives just opposed mandates that would be one thing, but they’ve gone further and are in some cases protecting anti-vaxxers through anti-discrimination laws, even in the case of healthcare workers. This is contrary to normal Republican practice, where they’re usually the side that is against creating new civil rights protections in employment, which is why they prevented Congress from expanding anti-discrimination laws to cover LGBT (that is before Bostock did it anyway). Some conservatives now compare private vaccine mandates to Jim Crow. To say conservatives are “not anti-vax, just anti-mandates” therefore makes no sense.
At a recent rally, Trump got booed by his audience after telling them to get vaccinated, and appeared to back down. Republicans becoming anti-vax is just the extreme version of them becoming the party of TV watchers. Even though vaccine mandates are popular, I trust that Republicans know what they’re doing on fundraising. Anti-vaxxers have been excluded from politics because elites have not wanted to be associated with them, which would cause them to lose the respect of their peers, even if one might gain politically by appealing to a minority that is extremely passionate about an issue. It was the TV-watching, non-ideological party that took advantage of this opportunity and brought the anti-vaxxers into their coalition.
I see conservatives on social media, some of them non-idiots, saying things like “I was going to get the vaccine, but not if they want to force me to.” Liberals go through a thought process like this too sometimes, and of course have tribal instincts. But most liberals at least feel enough shame to pretend like they actually have substantive arguments for whatever they happen to believe at the moment, and haven’t completely embraced tribalism as a normative principle.
Climate activists have on several occasions occupied Nancy Pelosi’s office. Liberal activists get in the face of their politicians for not doing the things they want on policy. BLM and other movements riot over “racism” and the false belief that cops are killing large numbers of innocent black men. Here is a video of liberal activists humiliating the Democratic mayor of Minneapolis last year. Conservatives only engage in civil disobedience and break the law to show loyalty to Trump; it was unclear exactly what the January 6 rioters thought the policy agenda of a second Trump administration would be, besides executing the pedophiles, but they knew that they wanted him back in office. During the Tea Party era, when Republican politics was driven more by ideology, politicians would be primaried for being too friendly towards government spending. But even that required the boogeyman of Obama to rally the right and get them to organize around the issue. Climate activists and BLM might be more or less mobilized when Democrats are in power, but unlike the small government wing of the Republican Party, they don’t take a few years off when their guys win.
There have always been reading movements and TV movements, even if TV is a recent invention. Before modern communications technology, men sat around a campfire or whatever, and got psyched about how much they hated the other tribe and how they were going to steal their land and women. At some point, someone invented literacy, and then a small, more intelligent elite started caring about ideas, which occasionally led them to criticize their own tribe more harshly than their enemies and try to remake their own society or faction. Maybe deep down, these new elites were after the same thing as those sitting around the campfire, that is status and power. But because they were physically less imposing, they needed to create a new value system. Think Nietzsche’s master-slave morality, though that spectrum is a bit different than what I’m arguing for as my formulation says less about the content of any particular belief system, as reading cultures can be pro- or anti-egalitarian.
TV movements are the human norm. But they generally lose to reading movements, which have the advantages of staying focused on a goal, and the ability to appeal to intelligent, idealistic people who can be motivated by a vision and occasionally act against their own self-interests. In asymmetric warfare, governments fighting a counterinsurgency war will usually represent TV watchers, while guerrilla movements are more ideological. If one side has both ideological certainty and government power, then it can crush its opponents and there is no insurgency in the first place.
This is not simply a left/right divide. The Taliban is certainly not a TV movement (literally, they used to ban TV). It’s actually led by a highly selected intellectual elite.
The Afghan government, in contrast, was a lot more corrupt and incompetent, because it was composed of individuals who were more self-interested. You don’t outlast the United States 20 years without some deep belief in what you are fighting for.
Communism during its peak likewise overwhelmingly appealed to natural elites. Pol Pot and Deng Xiaoping were talented enough that they were selected among the handful of students in their countries for study abroad. Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin were all “men of letters” who cared enough about ideas to debate things like fundamental questions in linguistics.
American conservatives are like the old Afghan government, or the decrepit regimes that fell to communism in the 20th century. They have self-interested and ideological reasons for opposing the forces of the other side, and will make some sacrifices to do so. But in the end, if their enemies triumph, they will adjust to the new reality.
Libertarianism is also an “ideas” based movement on the right. Some people think of libertarianism as having failed in American politics. I disagree. Given that we live in a democracy, and how unpopular libertarian ideas are, the fact that libertarians have any influence at all in Washington is quite remarkable. Normal people vote Republican because they dislike pressing 1 for English and new gender pronouns, but by doing so they end up empowering men in glasses who think environmental regulations are too strict and don’t pass cost-benefit analysis, even if every single environmental regulation probably polls well in isolation.
On the left, it is those interested in social issues who are the true reading movement, while those in favor of economic redistribution are more a TV movement, with Russiagate obsessives the most TV-watching of all. On social issues, Democrats are always taking risks and pushing the envelope because the activist base will not let them do otherwise. Left-wing views on economics are more broadly popular, but here Democratic politicians follow the current center of public opinion rather than lead it.
The overall result is that, in terms of policy outcomes, libertarian economics on the right and SJWism on the left both overperform relative to public opinion, while their opposites underperform.
This is why Trump, despite being the least libertarian friendly Republican president in generations in terms of rhetoric, ended up with tax cuts as his major legislative accomplishment and sought to reduce the social safety net. Conservative intellectuals who believe in small government supported Rubio, Cruz, or Jeb, but basically got Trump to implement many of the same policies. The notable exceptions are on trade and immigration, where Trump’s anti-foreigner instincts were particularly strong, but even on trade, he pretty much just renegotiated NAFTA, made some very slight changes, called it a “Trump trade deal,” and moved on. I’ve been trying to find the major differences between NAFTA, which Trump opposed, and USMCA, which he signed, and they seem quite small. Libertarians are the leftists of the right. Even when they appear to lose political battles, they still mostly win, because their philosophy inspires a small number of idealistic people who care about ideas, no matter how broadly unpopular they are, and they keep working after others have stopped paying attention.
Human nature is to submit to power. The movements that make history inspire a relatively small number of actors to take risks and make sacrifices that are probably irrational at the individual level: Christianity, Islam, communism, the Taliban, and Civil Rights/Wokeness.
The Personalization of Politics
Liberals tend to criticize the other side for their ideas, while conservatives attack in personalized terms (again, think in terms of a spectrum, not absolutes! Can’t stress this enough times). You have to turn on cable news every now and then to get the extent to which the right wing echo chamber is following a soap opera. As the NYT wrote about a week before Biden’s inauguration,
With Democrats set to take power in Washington, Fox News’s pundits are trotting out the old hits. On his Friday program, which aired shortly after Twitter announced that it had banned the president from its platform, Mr. Hannity promised, rather generically, to “expose what is breathtaking hypocrisy of Democrats and the media mob.” He went on to attack familiar Fox News villains like the Clintons, the Obamas, Madonna and the comedian Kathy Griffin. It could have been a rerun from 2014. (Mr. Hannity, in fact, had pretaped his 9 p.m. show a few hours earlier.)
Trump derangement syndrome is a thing, but even with Trump, liberals tended to talk more about his “racism” than generic non-ideological criticisms like those related to corruption or health. Conservatives also accuse liberals of “racism,” but it’s more of a “racist is just a bad word” sense than a “we’re communicating something about what we actually believe” sense. Moreover, the guy liberals are deranged about was the actual president. You pay attention to conservative media, you find them obsessed with people no one outside their bubble has ever heard of. Do the names Peter Strzok and Lisa Page mean anything to you? When’s the last time you thought about Kathy Griffin?
While conservatives have surrendered ideological ground, they have become more “procedurally” extreme, investigating their opponents, wanting to lock them up, saying any elections they lose are rigged, and demanding that politicians vote against the other side as a litmus test. TV watchers don’t care what their politicians do about expanding Medicare, and may even support it. But if it has Obama’s name on it, then it must be opposed.
A recent essay by Matt Yglesias demonstrated the extent to which the last Republican administration simply folded on major questions of ideology in negotiations over spending bills, despite later making unusual efforts to stay in power after the election. Conservatives wanted Trump to win, and didn’t care much about what he did with power.
The filibuster debate liberals are having right now would be unthinkable on the right, because the conservative base doesn’t care about policy or laws, so there is never any pressure to make passing laws procedurally easier. Sure, some policy wonks do, but they’re not sufficiently powerful within the coalition to matter, relative to the talk radio and cable news wing, which just wants its politicians to say the right words about Fauci, stolen elections, and cancel culture. Liberals want voting rights, amnesty for illegal immigrants, expansions in the welfare state, and major climate legislation. None of these things is primarily about “owning the cons.” More moderate Democrats don’t want to pass these things, or are at least uncomfortable with getting rid of established norms and procedures to do so. Nonetheless, this is an actual debate about ideas.
Conservative intellectuals have debates, like the famous fight over David Frenchism, or libertarians versus populists. But at the highest levels of the Republican Party, these things matter very little. Nobody was under any illusions that if Republicans won in 2020, they were going to pass any significant bills that had been shaped by these debates. One can’t explain away this discrepancy by saying that Democrats are more likely to want to get rid of the filibuster because they’re the party of activist government, as conservatives can be very activist on things they care about, like going after abortion providers and supporters of BDS, and even if you want to reduce the size of government, you still need to pass laws to do so. When conservatives control Congress, they have to pass budgets anyway, and there is practically no pressure on them to seriously cut government spending or do much about cancel culture through that process.
Movement Versus Grift
Ideological movements can commit atrocities, but they tend to be less corrupt. Individuals gain status by virtue signalling. In contrast, movements of TV watchers gain status by having the nicest house or flashiest car or whatever, and this is why Trump’s “I’m such a rich guy who doesn’t need this” schtick worked in 2016. Check out this video of the Taliban rummaging through the mansion of Afghan warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum.
In contrast to Afghan warlords, Taliban leaders have been known for their spartan lifestyle. According to a biography of Mullah Omar commissioned by the movement, "[h]e has adopted a simple and plain style in all aspects of his life. Simple dress, simple food, simple talk, frankness and informality are his natural habits." The fact that he lived under humble conditions and personally sacrificed a great deal for his beliefs is confirmed in western reporting. There is a general consensus that during the war rural Afghans saw the Taliban as less corrupt than the government. The same was said about ISIS in the areas it took over. According to The New York Times, writing in 2015, “its officials are apparently resistant to bribes, and in that way, at least, it has outdone the corrupt Syrian and Iraqi governments it routed.” That Islamists are more educated than the populations they come from has been demonstrated in studies of militants affiliated with Palestinian organizations and Hezbollah, as well as recruits to ISIS, indicating that such movements appeal to the more idealistic.
After the communists took over China, periods with high levels of ideological fervor like the Cultural Revolution were characterized by their low levels of corruption. As Yuen Yuen Ang writes in China’s Gilded Age,
Corruption was limited under Mao not because bureaucrats were morally upright, as fervent Maoists believe, but because people were impoverished and punishments were harsh. As one official recounted, “During the [Maoist era], people were summarily executed for even a bit of corruption. Nobody dared to be corrupt.”
It takes ideological fervor to execute people for corruption! Human nature is for elites to let other elites get away stealing from the masses while they all enjoy the advantages of power. You only kill people for stealing when you truly believe in what you’re doing.
A purple-haired academic with pronouns in her (“their”) bio – going to school for a decade and a half and living off a $20K stipend to become the world expert in queering dog walking and one day be quoted by NPR – is the feminized version of the young engineer who leaves a comfortable middle class life in the West to go fight in Syria.
One thing I noticed a while ago is that, while I read a lot of different websites, only conservative sites tended to slow down my computer with spam. And a lot of it is simply fraudulent, stuff like “check out Ben Carson’s secret brain pills.” My theory as to why is that conservatives are trying to squeeze every penny out of their audience, while liberals also care about maintaining credibility with smart people and signalling that they run serious websites. Moreover, the alternative to ads is making people pay for a subscription, something liberals are more likely to do. I just went to the Washington Examiner and clicked a random article, and got this, only after clicking through a pop-up that took up the whole screen.
To be fair, The Nation is pretty bad too. Here they’re offering me gold coins, likely because the algorithm knows I was just at The Washington Examiner.
Yet The Nation seems to be something of an outlier, and the only major liberal sites I found that were similar after a quick search were CNN and the Huffington Post. Meanwhile, The New Republic, The Atlantic, and Vox are very low on spam, while The Daily Caller, Washington Free Beacon, Daily Wire, The Blaze and Breitbart are high. This isn’t because most conservative news sources are shut out of paying for mainstream advertising software, as CNN seems to use the same tool as some right-wing sites.
My main test of whether a website is “spammy” or not is if they have one of those ugly “around the web” plug-ins at the bottom of their stories. Here is what I see when I click a random story on the Washington Free Beacon, a publication I sometimes enjoy and one that is on the more intellectual end of the conservative news spectrum.
I’ve noticed that if you go to really ideological sites, stuff like Daily Stormer, Counterpunch, Unz, or the World Socialist Web Site, you get no spam at all. Maybe it’s because advertisers and software companies don’t want anything to do with them, but I think it’s also because they simply care more about the ideas that they’re spreading and less about trying to make money.
I’ve also tried to compare Republican and Democratic fundraising emails, and have gone out of my way to keep tabs on both sides. It’s clear that Republican pitches are more dishonest and aimed at a lower level of intelligence. Breitbart recently e-mailed me to say that Kamala was going to take over soon, and that I better give my money to their sponsor to avoid the coming “boomer tax.” I’m on many liberal mailing lists too, and I don’t get this kind of stuff from them. I think members of the conservative intellectual class let one another get away with things like this because they’re all in on the scam, and have scorn for anyone who wants to “virtue signal” by doing things like not ripping off those who trust them, or telling old people in Red States to get vaccinated and saving their lives when you can instead take advantage of their stupidity for political gain.
And yes, I’ve heard of the Clinton Foundation. But note how when liberals are being corrupt, they at least have to pretend to be doing some good. The Clinton Foundation has actually saved some lives, and is thought pretty well of by those who rate charities. Maybe by doing some good and hiding your self-interest behind fake altruism, you end up much wealthier in the end. Nonetheless, the fact that they have to even pretend to be virtuous makes it a different kind of scam than “freedom phones.”
Parties and Political Movements
We usually think in terms of right-left. Yet this essay presents a different spectrum, one that puts Mao, the Taliban, ISIS, SJWs, Jacobins, early Christians and abolitionists on one side, with military juntas, Republicans, nineteenth and twentieth century monarchies, and US puppet regimes in the third world on the other.
This TV-reading spectrum explains differences in tribalism, psychology, and effectiveness between the two main factions of American politics, along with power dynamics within each coalition. It also explains how while both sides say things that are untrue, they lie in different ways.
Again, it’s easy to find counterexamples to the arguments presented. Of course liberals behave in tribal ways, and occasionally scam their followers. And yes, Republicans can be ideological. There is a story to tell in which both sides are the same, because in some ways they are. But focusing only on similarities leads to all kinds of puzzles, including why liberals tend to win, why George W. Bush’s signature issue from a decade and a half ago has no resonance in conservative circles today, and why someone like Trump emerged on the right but not the left.
A fundamental lesson of these differences is that when giving advice to one side or the other, one should consider the audience. To Republican politicians only interested in being in office, I would advise them to keep doing the same thing they’re doing now. Despite public opinion always moving left on social issues, and despite Republicans adopting massively unpopular economic positions, they still manage to win about half the elections (the only reason they don’t go further to the left on economics is because of ideological libertarians, who read, but the GOP can’t go as far as that faction would like given political realities; they submit to inertia and meet the public halfway, not permanently expanding government and not cutting it either). Those who want their children to actually live in a more conservative country, however, cannot feel good about the way things are going, and should probably be doing more to make the right more of a “written word” culture, where politicians are actually held accountable for what they do.
On the left, I think it is the activists, rather than the party, that is advantaged by the way things work now. David Shor is right that Democratic politicians are probably too left wing on social issues for their own good. But if you’re a liberal activist, that’s exactly what you want. Power is worthless unless you do something with it, and politicians have to be pressured into doing things that are hard, as they can be relied on to do the easy things on their own. LBJ passed the Civil Rights Act, the Immigration and Nationality Act, Medicare, Medicaid, and the Voting Rights Act. Democrats then lost the 1966 midterms and most presidential elections for the next three decades. So what? Republicans haven’t repealed any of it. In some cases, they’ve built upon his agenda, and now Ted Cruz claims most of what LBJ did for himself.
Conservatives should hope for their own LBJ, that is someone who does things that seem so radical that Republicans lose elections for a while, maybe decades. Liberals have an advantage here, as it’s easier to expand government than to shrink it. But conservatives aren’t going to face anything like the realignment of the South after 1964. The fact that we are so culturally polarized means that it matters less what politicians actually do.
My guess is that if a Republican administration scaled back most of the Great Society, the party would get crushed for a few election cycles. Democrats in power would maybe get back 50% of what Republicans got rid of. Although it’s easier to expand government than scale it back, the strongest bias in the system is towards the status quo, which is why no Democratic president has fundamentally remade the country since the 1960s. But memories are short and cultural polarization is powerful, so in 5-10 years the parties would be back to having about an equal chance of winning presidential elections, and there would be a new, more conservative equilibrium. If conservatives can combine disempowering the left with policies that would actually be popular, say defunding public education and giving the money to parents, reforms would be even more likely to stick.
Yet such a path is unlikely for a party of TV watchers. The two power centers in the conservative coalition, party leaders and media personalities, have an interest in the fight for its own sake, not actually winning or changing the country. The political left, in contrast, understands that its own interests and those of the Democratic Party are not the same thing. Because it has longterm political goals that go beyond beating the other side, it is sometimes able to accomplish them.
Great post, mostly agree with it.
There is something to be said, however, about how our culture's system of social incentives and prestige—in which the left holds a dominant position—impacts even what preoccupies the time and energies of thoughtful and motivated right-leaning activists and intellectuals.
Consider law professors. I don't have a empirical study handy to prove this, but I read many right-leaning legal scholars, and this is my impression.
Generally, these scholars focus on arcana—carefully avoiding hot-button issues like race—whereas leftist have no qualms with making radical, incendiary proposals.
For instance, a conservative prof may write about arcana like restoring the original understanding of some equitable remedy, whereas—in her essay "Whiteness as Property"—leftist professor Cheryl Harris advocated for the U.S. to model its constitution on South Africa's to enable the expropriation of whites in perpetuity.
Even libertarian lawyers, who in theory would support abolishing civil rights laws, tend not to focus on this topic. They instead prefer to write about issues that appeal more to their leftist colleagues, like immigration.
So social incentives move even the educated class on the right—those who actually read— away from tackling the very issue that is determinative of whether they can have a moderately successful political movement.
Beyond just social incentives, there might be something about the disposition of centre-rightist intellectuals that drives them towards pilpul and proceduralism. Though, I am not sure how well this translates outside of law.
The reason that the right doesn't have the written word culture is that the left has successfully made it impossible. They use their control of institutions to destroy people who seriously oppose them or have any real ideas. A right-wing written world culture would be led by canceled people like Charles Murray and Steve Sailer. The issue is that the left can make you lose your job and whatever else you have by disagreeing with their ideas.
Consider the fact that any real right wing party would run on repealing the Civil Rights Act because it is the skeleton key the left uses to pass every insane social policy. (They're even using it to enforce masks in schools) Who can say that publicly? We live in a totalitarian system where dissent is punished, not a real two party system.