Friday, 29 September 2017

My Last Word: The Status Anxiety of Post-Liberalism

Some weeks ago I wrote a thread outlining why, in my opinion, far too much focus has been given to (admittedly self-described) amateur sociologists’ theories (in particular the work of Chris Arnade and David Goodhart) to explain the emergence of a disaffected electoral block responsible for the rise of Trump and the UK’s decision to leave the European Union. I promised to write up these thoughts into a blog post - so here it is. This is intended to be my very last word on the subject and my apologies to everyone already exhausted by the debate to date.

The full thread can be found here, but below is a short summary of the main points:

1) There is a genuine problem of inequality of access to the public sphere and consequent marginalisation of people and groups whose problems are therefore de-prioritised in policy circles. This, however, does not mean that all barriers to the public sphere are illegitimate (e.g. those that protect others from harm).

2) The authors in question tend to see themselves as conduits into the public sphere for some of those marginalised groups, but the imposition of their own grand narrative serves to make these voices secondary to their own.

3) There’s a bait-and-switch going on where we are invited to condemn the clear inequity of access but in doing so are pushed also to access the much more spurious Front Row/Back Row or Somewheres/Anywheres sociological categories, for which there appears to be very little evidence. Moreover, the entire debate obscures the evident weakness of the policy proposals that come out of said distinctions.

4) Both Arnade and Goodhart reject data-based approaches to their subject – even where the data might offer some useful support or counterpoints to their theses. In particular, voting patterns by income bracket, education and age cohort paint a much more complex picture of these evolving phenomena that the authors seem to allow for.

So, what evidence can I offer in support of the above. I think both Arnade and Goodhart are right in identifying the self-reinforcing barriers to entry into the public sphere as a form of cultural elitism that is designed to prevent certain groups from voicing their concerns except through the intermediation of other members of the elite. Those barriers are educational, geographical, racial and cultural in nature and, though they might manifest themselves somewhat more subtly than they did in the past, the difference in life experience of being in the in-group or one of the many out-groups remains stark.

I should caveat here that I am not a sociologist. These are merely observations garnered in (I imagine) much the same way as Arnade and Goodhart have garnered theirs, through idle conversations on and offline and trying to read as widely as possible on the subject. Where I think they overstep is in extrapolating from this ad hoc approach to the grand theory.

Let me explain what I mean by example. Here is a passage from Arnade’s blog:

“We are a divided country, split along race and class. We are also divided by education. Front row kids, many with post graduate degrees, versus the rest.
The front row kids and minorities overwhelmingly support Hillary Clinton. A large percentage of everyone else supports Trump. The front row kids can’t understand why anyone would support Trump, often saying anyone who does is just dumb.

The divide between the two is huge. It is beyond just living in different places, and voting for different people.”

As I said, I don’t think much of the above should be all that controversial and there certainly are parallels between groups that have seen significant declines in their relative status in the US and the UK. But the observations don’t end there. Arnade continues (emphasis mine):

“The front row kids (who live in big cities and university towns) primarily find meaning through their careers, and hence through their education. It defines who they are. Their community, and their neighborhoods, are global. They moved towns often for their careers. 
The back row primarily finds meaning through their local community, and its institutions like church and sports. They live in places they have long lived in, and their families have lived in. They didn’t leave for education, didn’t leave for jobs.”

Given the breadth of the political coalition necessary for affecting the type of electoral results we are discussing the above seems rather reductive. It also seems to me to confuse identifying some of the superficial manifestations of cultural and economic divides in the US and reads through it into a fundamental, all-encompassing psychosocial phenomenon about how individuals “find meaning”.

Worse, when this quest to find meaning in “community, church and sport” doesn’t find representation in the public sphere this particular out-group are seemingly uniquely vulnerable to being taken in by conmen.

“Here is the thing I want to hammer on. When the front row (me, you, pundits, politicians) call Trumps voters, the back row, stupid. Or dumb. Or idiots. When we scold them for supporting such an awful man (he is!). That plays right into everything they have been told all of their lives. 
Being called stupid, being told they can’t keep up, is why many of them feel and are stuck in their towns. Why many of them are humiliated and angry. Why many want revenge. Why many are ripe to follow a racist like Trump.”

For me, this intellectual overstretch is precisely a function of the weakness of the anecdata approach. If you don’t have a defined academic mandate, and you don’t have any controls, and you don’t weigh what you’re hearing in a rigorous way imposing any sort of coherent thesis over the top of years worth of even carefully recorded conversations can only be done by riding roughshod over nuance and complexity.

At least one of the unfortunate results of the above is to attribute Trump’s rise to a single out-group – the disaffected, predominantly white working class – rather than the whole coalition that included huge swathes of what Arnade would classify as “front row”. As evidence of this, note the elision of Trump voters/back row in the first paragraph above.

Goodhart’s post-liberalism is based on a similarly flawed approach. In response to then-NIESR director Jonathan Portes’ discovery of a series of factual errors in a book Goodhart had written on immigration he responded: “I do check facts but I also go out and listen to what people are saying.”

Yet while there may at least (theoretically) be some value to the many interviews Arnade has carried out over the past few years in themselves, I'm afraid there seems to be little to commend Goodhart's approach to his subject. He seems mostly to rely on a series of half-remembered statistics cobbled together in a loose thread of narrative to conclude, somewhat half-heartedly, that "lower-income whites sometimes lack the mutual support that minority communities often enjoy — this can translate into a sense of loss and insecurity. This, too, should be recognised and factored into the policy calculus". In other words, we should skew policy to crudely privilege one small sub-group for a decline in their relative status rather than addressing more tangible problems of poverty, prejudice and inequality of opportunity.

If you think that too harsh a summary, the full piece inexplicably published by the FT can be found here.

Indeed, a broad dismissal of the data-based approach to their subject matters in evident in both Arnade and Goodhart. Below is another exchange between Portes and Goodhart on Twitter:

And here’s a quote from a recent profile of Arnade from the Wall Street Journal: “I’ve come to understand the value of thinking emotionally. Thinking about things rationally through numbers is very confining.”

Arnade is right. Thinking through numbers is confining. But that’s the point. The data do not allow of grand interpretations without statistical significance and can surprise and even delight us by confounding our preconceptions. Sticking to the standards of academic rigour doesn’t impose an undue burden on the subject matter, but in fact gives it a respect that the authors both seem to want to give to those they speak to.

At any rate, the thing that has latterly worried me most is that the victim status that both Arnade and Goodhart give their out-groups seems to be creeping towards the authors themselves (see the latest pieces here, here and here). That, for me, is the biggest warning sign that the group status these authors are most concerned about may be their own.

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