The Principal Component of Political Orientations

You may not know it, but today is factor analysis day. That means we're gonna not care about uncommon variance, let exceptions be exceptions and subtleties subtleties, and generally get to the heart of things. The topic is political orientations.

As I've said before, all disagreements about politics may be boiled down to two kinds of issues. The first kind is disagreement about empirical questions, such as: What effects does immigration have on the wages of indegenous workers? (Henceforth: type-one disagreements.) The second kind is questions about values, such as: How do I value the well-being of (potential) immigrants relative to the well-being of nonimmigrants? (Henceforth: type-two disagreements.)

There is a view that ascribes differences in basic political orientations to type one disagreements. For example, according to a model that may have originated with Clarence Thomas, the basic difference between righties and lefties is that the former view people as basically flawed and weak by nature, which is why they need to be reigned in, while the latter see people as potentially perfect, which is why they need to be given opportunities to realize their potential.

This may be an overly simplified version of the argument, but never mind: It is an argument from type one disagreements. And all arguments of this kind suffer from one very serious problem: People of different political orientations, by and large, have access to the same data, at least in the aggregate. Surely differences in data availability or interpretive style cannot explain the differences in political orientations that we observe?

This problem disappears when you postulate that type one disagreements are actually epiphenomena. I guess most people would agree that there is some truth to the view that people (perhaps unconsciously) choose their facts and their interpretation of these facts in line with their previously established political orientations. "Motivated cognition" is a staple of psychology textbooks. I submit that at the heart of political disagreements we find type two disagreements.

Additionally, I submit that these type two disagreements yield a handy one-factorial solution. I call this factor "attitudes towards the unfamiliar". Righties have negative attitudes towards the unfamiliar, whether it be unfamiliar-looking people, unfamiliar lifestyles, or unfamiliar music. Conversely, lefties have positive attitudes towards the unfamiliar. Classical liberals are more or less neutral in this respect.

If I fleshed this out properly and added all the necessary caveats and complications, this would be a book rather than a blog post. But for the time being, I think I'll leave it at that. Polite and thoughtful disagrement welcome.

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