Liberal or conservative? Most of our beliefs shift around

What? Okay, that sounds good. Justin Lane/EPA

One common reaction to the election of Donald Trump (and perhaps to a lesser extent, the Brexit vote) among liberals like me is an expression of dismay that some of our fellow citizens are more racist and more sexist than we had dreamed. It seems many were prepared, if not to support openly racist comments and sexist actions, then at least to overlook them. It looks as though battles we thought we had won, having to do with a recognition of a basic kind of equality, need to be fought all over again. Many have concluded that they were never won at all; people were just waiting for a favourable climate to express the racism and sexism they held hidden.

This story is surely at least partially true. Anyone who has recently come out in support of Richard Spencer – the “leader” of the alt-right movement – for example, was likely just waiting for the right opportunity to express their racism. But I suspect the story is quite different with regard to most of the people who voted for Trump or Brexit. They never were strongly anti-racist, and they are not really and deeply racist now. Insofar as they had views on these matters at all, they were and are pretty undeveloped.

In fact, our beliefs are often quite vague and malleable. This is particularly true with regard to moral and political beliefs. Suppose you are a liberal. What does that mean exactly? By itself, it doesn’t imply anything very specific about a huge range of important political questions. What should a liberal say about identity politics, for instance? It is possible to make a “liberal” case for any position, from strongly supportive to strongly opposed. Liberals may choose one by looking at what people like them support (and people they take to be unlike them oppose).

Of course, the same is true of conservatives. Right now, for instance, conservatives tend to oppose environmentalism, but that’s a historically recent phenomenon. A strong commitment to the environment is just as consistent with conservatism (as the shared etymology of “conservatism” and “conservation” suggests). Donald Trump himself is good evidence of how malleable conservative commitments are: for some, he is the antithesis of everything it stands for, and for others he is the embodiment of it. Think, too, of his views on Russia. Two years ago, being seen as too close to Russia would be disqualifying for a conservative; now there is no problem with it.

There is experimental evidence for how vague and unformed our beliefs often are. We often accept or reject policies not on the basis of their content but on the basis of whether people we identify with accept them or not. Ifat Maoz and others found that attitudes to a peace proposal among Israeli Jews and Arabs were very significantly influenced by who the peace proposal was ostensibly written by.

Geoffrey Cohen found in another study that attitudes to a welfare policy were more strongly influenced by information about who supported the policy – Democrats or Republicans – than by the content of the policy. Our political views are often formed on the fly, by reference to cues like these, and not fixed beforehand. Do people like me support this? Then I do, too.

Good and bad news

Choice blindness experiments are spectacular demonstrations of this phenomenon. In a choice blindness experiment, people choose between options (Which face is more attractive? Which action is better?) with choices represented by cards. The card chosen is placed in a pile. Subsequently, the experimenters go through the pile with the participants, asking them why they made the choices they did. Unbeknown to the participants, though, the experiments use sleight of hand to switch some of the cards chosen for unchosen ones. In most trials, the participants don’t notice the switch and go on to defend the choice they never made.

I definitely chose that one. Shutterstock

Choice blindness also applies to support for political policies, even among the most committed voters just prior to an election. Again, this is the utilisation of cues to give content to political views: I chose this policy, therefore it must have a lot to recommend it.

If, as I suggest, most of us have pretty vague political commitments most of the time, it is not surprising that we are subject to large shifts. We can move from supporting one set of policies to another, given relatively small nudges in one direction or the other.

Politically, this is both good and bad news. It’s bad news insofar as it suggests that fights against sexism and racism are never over, in the sense that we can never relax and think that gains have been definitively made. Swings in the opposite direction are still liable to occur. But it’s good news for us right now. We shouldn’t think that recent political events have revealed the deep underlying sexism and racism of our fellow citizens. They have just shown how our political commitments are inchoate and susceptible to constant reinterpretation.


In conjunction with Oxford University’s Practical Ethics blog