Talking to ourselves

Has the Reality-Based-Community joined the Right? Yes, if you judge by our links.

My previous post on Martin Luther King was picked up by a website (unpartisan.com) that specializes in going through the blogosphere and picking up posts on both sides of an issue so that readers can see a real debate. But unexpectedly, it was listed on the column Labeled “From the Right.” Why? The reason’s here:

Much like the way news stories and blog postings are chosen, blogs listed on this site are chosen by a number of criteria and are categorized by a computer algorithm. This algorithm takes into account the criteria described above in determining which blogs should be listed in order to ensure that only the most popular and relevant blogs are polled. The categorization of blogs is determined by which types of blogs link to you and who you link to. If the majority of sites that link to you are known to be conservative and the majority of the sites you link to are known to be conservative, you get lumped in with the conservative blogs. This tends to work close to 98% of the time, and saves me the time of analyzing every single blog that is listed here. If you were miscategorized, please let me know through the feedback form and I’ll be happy to fix it immediately.

The last part is true and the site owner is very courteous, but I’m interested in the algorithm: Characterizing a blog as conservative if the majority of its links are conservative works 98 percent of the time. The Reality-Based-Community gets labeled as Right because Mark Kleiman has always made a point of both reading conservative blogs—expressing mostly disagreement, of course—and writing in such a style as to be read by them. If unpartisan.com is correct, and I have no reason to doubt, the proportion of the blogosphere that engages in such cross-party arguments is one in fifty.

This shouldn’t surprise us. That people like encountering opinions similar to their own is obvious if you think about it, or read sociology. It’s the basis for there being social and political groupings about which we can generalize. (I’m not immune: one of the most excruciating parts about leading a little study group on the 2004 campaign was that I actually felt the duty to read the National Review Online and the Weekly Standard as well as Slate and the American Prospect. I’m not saying that I didnt’ learn anything: the learning was substantial—but so unpleasant that I won’t soon repeat it.) Nor is this a problem if one values the blogsophere as a mechanism for sorting out what “our side” thinks, or ought to think, or should make its talking points for the day. But it is a problem for those who hoped that blogs would create an independent or objective public sphere, or even that some acquaintance with others’ sincerely held views would lead to a bit of irony, toleration, or forgiveness. We have instead two (at least) different publics, and never the twain shall link.

If I believed that the problem were inadequate information about what’s out there, I’d say unpartisan.com had the right idea. What I actually believe is that people who follow politics know very well that there are arguments against their own views—and that they don’t want to hear them. To engage consistently with the other side’s points is to swim against an undertow, not a tide.

UPDATE: A reader, Jeff Leyser, points me to a blog entry by Eszter Hargittai that reports on this question with some more complete data (with a promise of more to come, which has perhaps happened by now since the post is from a while back). Check out the whole thing. Short version: it’s not as bad as I said; lib-con linkage is not infrequent (though there’s no reason to doubt that Mark’s having more than half his links to and from blogs across the isle is an outlier). Longer version: most blogs don’t deal with the substantive arguments of postings they agree with OR disagree with. Maybe the bigger problem with the genre is shallowness, not partisanship.

Still longer version: never trust a posting that extrapolates from “few people do X more than 50% of the time” to “few people do X more often than never.” (After all, the fact that I myself don’t read conservative commentary half the time also doesn’t imply that I never do.) No doubt I’d have thought this through sooner if some conservative blog had been reading my post and had mocked my folk probability.

CORRECTION: The first version of this post said that the unpartisan.com link to my original post had “since been trashed as no longer timely.” Not so, and the link has been put in above.

Author: Andrew Sabl

I'm a political theorist and Visiting Professor (through 2017) in the Program on Ethics, Politics and Economics at Yale. My interests include the history of political thought, toleration, democratic theory, political ethics, problems of coordination and convention, the realist movement in political theory, and the thought of David Hume. My first book, Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics (Princeton, 2002) covered many of these topics, with a special focus on the varieties of democratic politics and the disparate qualities of mind and character appropriate to those who practice each of them. My second book Hume's Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England was published in 2012; I am currently finishing a book on toleration, with the working title The Virtues of Hypocrisy, under contract with Harvard University Press. A Los Angeles native, I got my B.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard. Before coming to Yale I taught at Vanderbilt and at UCLA, where I was an Assistant, Associate, and Full Professor; and held visiting positions at Williams, Harvard, and Princeton. I am married to Miriam Laugesen, who teaches health policy and the politics of health care at the Mailman School of public health at Columbia, and we have a twelve-year-old son.