The New Republic’s Open University is a new blog with the goal of providing a place for “the magazine’s contributors and friends in the professoriate comment on current events, bring their expertise to bear on Topic A, and discuss the academic issues of the day.” As one with a bit of “policy wonkishness”, my interest was piqued and already rewarded by posts by Cass Sunstein and David Greenberg on the idea of “Ideological Amplification.”
According to Sunstein:
A few years ago, I was involved in some studies that uncovered a funny fact: When Republican-appointed judges sit on three-judge panels with other Republican appointees, they show unusually conservative voting patterns. So too, Democratic-appointed judges on three-judge panels show especially liberal voting patterns when sitting with fellow Democratic appointees. In short, like-minded judges show a pattern if “ideological amplification.”
….It turns out that ideological amplification occurs in many domains. It helps to explain “political correctness” on college campuses–and within the Bush administration. In a recent study, we find that liberals in Colorado, after talking to one another, move significantly to the left on affirmative action, global warming, and civil unions for same-sex couples. On those same three issues, conservatives, after talking to each other, move significantly to the right.
Greenberg points to a study by Valdis Krebs “on the polarized political reading habits of Americans.” In short, according to Greenberg, Krebs used Amazon’s “‘Customers who bought this item also bought…’ feature” and “found that people who read Ann Coulter weren’t reading much of Michael Moore, and vice versa. The few books that found audiences of diverse ideological persuasions were those by straight news reporters like Stephen Kinzer, Tom Friedman, and Bob Woodward.” (Krebs explanation and updated data can be found here). The obvious question is a familiar one: do we tend to reinforce our ideology by living in an “echo chamber” and, if so, is it a good idea to do so? My answer is “Yes” and “No.”
It is intellectually necessary to venture outside of one’s own ideological box to encounter–and confront–ideas that are different. Such intellectual curiosity can expose you to ideas that will change your mind about how you view issue “X”, but that’s not a bad thing. However, it is more likely that such intellectual adventuring can help to reinforce your ideological predispositions. Confronting the way that different ideologies approach issue “Y” forces you to reason beyond your gut instincts. You are forced to organize your thoughts and thus are better prepared to refute the arguments of your ideological opponents.
Some people are satisfied to trust their gut instincts because they are confident that they are right. Trusting your gut is both perfectly fine and a very American thing to do. However, for those of us interested in political ideas and rhetoric, it is necessary to be familiar with the ideas–and the tactical arguments used to espouse those ideas–that we seek to refute while battling in the arena of ideas. To paraphrase Sun-Tzu, “Know thine enemy.”
And that brings me back to Open University. Most would agree that The New Republic is a liberal-to-moderate publication. Thus, with it’s stated goal of serving as a go-between for academics and the public, it is in the best interest of conservatives to be in the vanguard of those who will be exposed to the ideas emanating from academia. In short, conservatives need to be on the front line of the informal peer review system that has emerged on-line.