Hudathunkit? Dep’t.: Bundy’s racist rant and the partisan asymmetry in motivated cognition

Bundy turns out to be a racist loon. Surprised? See Klein v. Kahan on the (a)symmetry in motivated cognition.

Cliven Bundy, right-wing hero, is a howling racist.

Good to watch Rand Paul and Greg Abbott backpedaling now. But wasn’t it enough that Bundy denied the jurisdiction of the government of the United States and organized an armed mob to threaten federal officials carrying out lawful court orders? It should have been.

This just illustrates the point of Ezra Klein’s sophisticated take on Dan Kahan’s work about motivated cognition. Yes, human beings divided into feuding factions tend to act less intelligently than those same human beings would in a less polarized context. But all factions are not alike on this crucial dimension. Some track reality – and encourage their followers to track reality – pretty well, some not so well, and some abominably. The Red faction, where the fringe has become the base and where no adult supervision is allowed to interfere with the dissemination of pure lunacy, is radically more detached from reality than the Blue faction. Of course there are Blue lunatics, but they aren’t allowed to dictate the terms of debate. (When you hear a Blue thinker accused of “hippie-bashing,” that often means he or she is doing the job of keeping the team tethered to consensus reality by calling out fringiness. And yes, there’s a hyperactive form of this where perfectly sensible proposals and statements supported by good evidence but that don’t yet have widespread public support get dismissed as “loony left.”)

Tracking reality maps, albeit imperfectly, into acting with decency: “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” It’s not by accident that the party of global-warming denial and poll unskewing is also the party of torture.

No patriotic American should be pleased that our republic no longer has two political parties either of which can be safely entrusted with the task of governing. But wishing that fact away will not make it disappear. What the republic needs right now is a public awareness of how sick and twisted the Red team actually is, leading a series of devastating electoral defeats for the Republicans sufficient to shock them back into contact with consensus reality.

Footnote Since I’m claiming that there’s a factional difference, let me illustrate by criticizing Harry Reid’s rhetoric in the Bundy case. If you want to call his followers seditious, the dictionary is on your side. If you want to call them unpatriotic, by my guest. If you want to say that they are advocates of lawless violence and therefore enemies of the project of free government, I’ll join the chorus. But “domestic terrorist” is not only inflammatory but simply wrong.

Abortion-clinic bombers are terrorists. So are some of the animal-rights and eco-fringe groups. The Klan was a terrorist organization.

Militas, by contrast, are rebels, or at least cowardly rebel-wannabes. There’s a difference. Even the assassination of officials – which of course is deplorable in a republic – isn’t terrorism. Neither is simple crazy violence, even if the person carrying out the crazed violence embraces some crazy ideology as well. Terrorism is an organized effort to use violence to spread fear in the general population for political purposes.

Right now, the U.S. suffers from the threat, and sometimes the actuality, of right-wing violence, but to my knowledge there is no right-wing terrorist activity, or even any lively threat of such activity. So let’s call Bundy’s armed mob what it is – which is plenty bad enough – and not what it is not.

In criticizing a politician I generally support for making a statement that I think isn’t factually or logically sound, I’m acting like … a liberal. No doubt other liberals will disagree with me on the substance or think that, with Reid standing almost alone against Bundyism, it’s impolitic to criticize him. But all of that is perfectly normal, on my side of the great divide. On the other side – with, of course, honorable exceptions – not so much.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

13 thoughts on “Hudathunkit? Dep’t.: Bundy’s racist rant and the partisan asymmetry in motivated cognition”

  1. Right now, the U.S. suffers from the threat, and sometimes the actuality, of right-wing violence, but to my knowledge there is no right-wing terrorist activity, or even any lively threat of such activity.

    Yes there is and you even mentioned it two paragraphs earlier: the anti-abortion movement does have an organized terrorist element within it. It's not just lone gunmen perpetrating the occasional murder. There are routine threats of violence against those who provide abortions and regular destruction of property meant to deny access to services and to intimidate those who might use them.

    I do agree with you on the status of Bundy, though I do think some of the militias occasionally veer into actual terrorism. I'm thinking in particular of the backpack bomb left ready to explode into a civil rights march a couple of years ago.

  2. "The Red faction, where the fringe has become the base and where no adult supervision is allowed to interfere with the dissemination of pure lunacy, is radically more detached from reality than the Blue faction."
    Does this capture the full spectrum of decay on the American Right? The intelligent cynicism of Nixon and Kissinger is still on display in the plutocratic wing, say Mitch McConnell and CJ Roberts. I would have added the Kochs to that list, before the self-pitying WSJ op-ed, indicating a certain detachment from reality, as with Mitt Romney. The third wing are the libertarians, exemplified by Ryan. Each wing thinks of the others as useful idiots, though the wingnuts have escaped the strings of puppetry. I'm not sure where Murdoch and Ailes fit in: perhaps they represent the synthesis of plutocracy and resentment.

    1. I think Murdoch and Ailes fit somewhere around Nixon — intelligent cynicism seems to be their mode of operation. I don't have the sense that either of them believe the nastiness that spews from Fox, but they'll use it because (so far) it appears to work to keep the plutocracy going.

  3. This will just widen the Red Blue divide.

    Some conservatives are already weighing in with comments like: What Bundy is saying is correct and only fear prevents most people from speaking this “truth to power”.

    In their tiny minds they are just offering “the Negro” some good advice; only LIEberals would mistake this for racism. /snark off

    Bundy’s rant: bug or feature? If feature, then nothing to apologise for.

  4. I view these sorts of issues through the lens of the responsibility to police your own side.

    In other words, in any political coalition, there are going to be some reasonable people, and some very bad people who are nonetheless attracted to the coalition for some reason. Usually, the reasonable people are in charge.

    And as a result, it's the responsibility of the reasonable people to take responsibility for and denounce the haters. It's not fun, for a number of reasons– it requires that you say bad things about people who support you, it risks their support, people resent having to do it because the other side has bad people in its midst too, etc. But you have to do it. If you don't, it's fair to tar you with the views of your supporters.

    There are plenty of non-racist conservatives. There are also a ton of racists who support the Republican Party and the conservative movement. So, it's very important that they repudiate the haters.

    And power comes into play. Bundy's fairly easy to denounce. But Rush Limbaugh is a flaming racist, and very few conservatives ever denounce HIM.

  5. I must beg to differ on one detail. The statement "[e]ven the assassination of officials – which of course is deplorable in a republic – isn’t terrorism" is a bit of an overstatement. The assassination of officials by a recognized, uniformed military force is not terrorism under the law of war. The assassination of officials by anyone else, however, does qualify as terrorism under the law of war if that assassination was of the officeholder and not of the person (that is, the assassination was of the Director of Sanitation Services, not personally directed at Ed Norton who just happens to work for the sewer department). At this time, the US seems to be slowly moving its own law toward the admittedly murky law-of-war treatment of terrorism… individual case decision by individual case decision.

  6. Why assume that the GOP will always exist? Given the fact that there is an infinite supply of money behind the fringe, they are structurally doomed to continue down the Reaganist dead-end.

    Eventually, a new, reality-based, right-leaning party will emerge, free to disown the radicals in the GOP rump party.

    Finally, 50 years from now, when the last office-holding Republican dies in the South Carolina statehouse, the GOP will go the way of the Whigs.

  7. "Terrorism is an organized effort to use violence to spread fear in the general population for political purposes."

    In his 1980 State of the Union Address, President Carter called the Iran's holding of American embassy personel an act of international terrorism. American immigration law, specifically 8 U.S.C. 1182, defines "terrorist activity" to include assassination, and has done so since at least the year 2000. This isn't to defend Harry Reid, just to point out that he hasn't broken any new ground.

  8. You have written a wonderful essay. Only a pedant would comment with a semantic quibble. I am that pedant. The original referents of the Russian word translated terrorist were assassins of public officials. They called themselves terrorists (in Russian). I'm pretty sure the word was originally a reference to the Jacobin terror so the original concept was an analogy between killing by private citizens and state terror.

    I agree with you that the Bundy bunch are not domestic terrorists. They have threatened violence, but they have not committed violence yet. However, I don't think you have the authority to define the word and I don't think it is universally agreed that it refers only to using violence to spread fear in the general population. I agree with you that the English language would be even more useful if we agreed to use "terrorism" with your narrow definition and called assassins "assassins." I use the word as you use the word. But definitions of words should be based on consensus and there isn't yet a consensus in favor of defining words so as to underline the important distinction between assassinating public officials and using violence to spread fear in the general population.

    Again I agree with you on Reid's use of the word. Carrying guns and acting in a threatening manner isn't terrorism. The Black Panthers were gun toters not terrorists. Marion Barry before being the amazing corrupt crack head mayor of our capital toted a gun (and before that he was a hero of the civil rights movement) but he was never a terrorist.

    I am amazed at my own pedantry. But you started it.

  9. Kennethalmquist. as ultra pedant I disagree with you. Prof. Kleiman disagrees with Reid, Carter and 8 U.S.C 1182, but Reid has broken new ground. The Bundy backing buffoons aren't assassins. As far as I know, none of them has ever killed anyone, neither a high official nor an ordinary person. Pointing a gun at someone is a crime and is terrifying, but it isn't terrorism until you pull the trigger.

    I think Prof Kleiman goes beyond the consensus in his narrowing of the definition of "terrorist", but it is very important to resist expansion of the definition until (to quote John Stewart) "the war on terror is over and terror is no longer available as a human emotion." Reid used the word too broadly too soon after George Bush claimed the authority to imprison Jose Padilla forever without trial, because he declared Padilla was a terrorist. The word is dangerous. It should be handled with care.

    1. FWIW, The Southern Poverty Law Center has claimed that over 100 deaths have been caused by the loosely connected groups known as "Preppers, survivalists, etc."

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