The Open Mind VI: The Last Word

All previous rounds in this series can be found at the right of the horizontal drop-down menu above. Comments are closed on this post here at the sad red earth and should be offered at ShrinkWrapped instead.

The Open Mind VI: The Last Word

I appreciate Jay’s admission of insufficient diligence in making his allegations about the Tea Parties:

In the matter of the alleged slurs and spitting at the congressman, I have not the slightest difficulty now recognizing and acknowledging that I relied on media reporting that was not sufficiently corroborated to be reported as fact. I could enumerate a host of standard blogging excuses, but why bother. If I had sufficiently checked the reporting before my post, as I have since Shrink’s post yesterday, I would not have posted that particular material.

I have thought for a good long while that my readers and commenters are some of the smartest people around.  To my mind they did an excellent job refuting Jay’s efforts to attribute racism to the Tea Partiers and, by extension (since he is convinced that the Tea Parties are the spawn of the Republicans), the Republican Party.  The idea that Republicans are inherently racist is part of the core beliefs of a great many of those who refer to themselves as Liberals.  Having grown up a Liberal, surrounded by Liberals, my sample size may not be statistically significant, but it is large.

Nonetheless, in the spirit of open inquiry, I will address Jay’s challenges.

Well, now, I’ve written before to the point that it is almost venerable Republican tradition to think the republic in peril at the hands of Democrats, but how matters have reached, indeed, an unhinged extreme. Why would we conclude otherwise from the recent Harris poll reporting that 57% of Republicans believe Obama to be Muslim, 45% that he was not born in the U.S., 45% again that he is a domestic enemy of the United States, 42% and 41% respectively that he is racist and anti-American, 41% again that he wants to take dictatorial powers, 38% that he is “doing things that Hitler did,” 22% that he wants the terrorists to win, and the Late Night Top Ten number one reason that Republicans are unhinged: 24% that Obama is the anti-Christ.

A quarter of the Republican Party believes that the President of the United States is the anti-Christ.

For the record, I do not think that Obama is a Muslim; I believe he is an American citizen born in Hawaii; I do not think he is a domestic enemy of the United States; I do not think he is a racist but do believe he is a racialist; I do not think he is anti-American but do think he is anti-American exceptionalism; I suspect that, like many politicians (and Tom Friedman), he would like to be able to govern by diktat but do not believe he plans on instituting a dictatorship; I do not think he wants the terrorists to win; finally, I do not believe Obama is the anti-Christ.  I also believe that his policies are very bad for the country and unsustainable, but that would be a topic for a different episode of TOM.

I remain disappointed in Jay, however, because I do not think his evidence cited is in any way meaningful.

I believe that Maxed Out Mama addressed this point in one of her comments, but allow me to reiterate: the aforementioned Harris Poll is nonsense on every level.  If you don’t believe me, perhaps Newsweek would be a more acceptable source:

Obama Is Not the Antichrist—And Nobody Really Thinks He Is

There are two major problems with the Harris poll that found 14 percent of Americans think President Obama may be the antichrist and has some Dems freaking out.

The first problem is question design and survey format. The poll started by telling people “Here are some things people have said about President Obama” and then asked them to agree or disagree with a series of pejorative statements—from “Obama wants the terrorists to win,” to “Obama may be the antichrist.” Respondents were not given a set of alternative statements to consider. As ABC’s award-winning pollster Gary Langer explains, presenting the questions like that practically guarantees a skewed result. “‘Some people have said’ is a biasing introductory phrase,” he writes. “It imbues the subsequent statements with an air of credibility—particularly when you don’t note that others say something else.”

Using such biasing phrases, and giving respondents no alternative premises to consider dramatically enhances what statisticians call “acquiescence bias”—a tendency in survey respondents to agree with all the questions asked of them, especially when respondents are in doubt. Acquiescence bias is particularly pronounced in surveys that employ truisms (like, “do unto others as you would have done unto you”). But it also creeps up with inflammatory statements (like “your president is the devil”).

The second problem is sample selection. The Harris poll relied on people who signed up to participate in an online survey regarding negative opinions of President Obama in exchange for cash and prizes. A slew of studies have shown that offering people gifts in exchange for filling out an online questionnaire does not produce a random sample—the gold standard in polling. People who opt in to such surveys are a self-selecting bunch and because of that, their opinions and attitudes are not representative of the population at large.

In fact, surveys based on nonrandom samples are so notoriously unreliable—as Langer says, they “lack the theoretical underpinning on which valid research is based”—that the official policy at most news organizations (including The Washington Post and The New York Times) is to ignore them. Not a bad idea.

This does not mean there are no Americans who believe nonsense.  I recall multiple surveys suggesting that up to 25% of Americans still don’t believe we landed on the moon.  There is a large body of Americans who believe that AIDS was invented by the government to kill black people.  That group includes Barack Obama’s former Pastor.  That many Americans will believe nonsense is unremarkable and not particularly significant since the various nonsenses thus believed crisscross the body politic.  It does mean, however, that citing such a survey as evidence of anything is unhelpful in a discussion which aims to find areas of reality to agree upon.  We may never agree in our opinions but we should be careful to maintain a reasonable standard of proof for our allegations, which goes back to my initial objection to Jay’s post and his second challenge.

But as to evidence regarding the Tea Parties, the following are the product of about twenty-minutes of googling, and are from Tea Parties nationwide. And I omitted much I might have included.

From there, a large number of pictures of people holding signs followed.  In my original post I linked Zombietime for one of my data points.  I chose to link to Zombietime, rather than the myriad of other options available, because when Zombie posts pictures from demonstrations, he typically posts multiple photos from the same demonstration; each demonstration is the subject of its own post.  Granted, he chooses to post pictures from anti-war demonstrations that are populated by the extremes but there are many of them and they tend to characterize the tenor and beliefs of the demonstrations thus posted.  In addition, Zombie labels each photo that he posts, with a date, time, and place.  In contrast, the photos that Jay pulled off the internet do not even contain such minimal context.  Are the protesters Larouche supporters, not central to the Tea Party?  Are they agent provocateurs, a not unknown possibility, one even discussed in blog posts on the left?  Are they isolated lunatics?  There is no way of knowing.  To suggest that the photos are representative of the Tea Parties may not be disingenuous but the pictures are hardly dispositive.  GaryK and many others who have attended Tea Party events have reported seeing no such offensive signs, or if such were sighted, they were rare outliers.  In addition, while some of the posters would be clearly offensive to most people, others are merely nasty or funny and pointed; some could only be found racist in those observers who have a super-sensitive ‘racism” detector.  There may be some overlap in these categories.

In my challenge to Jay I tried to incorporate links to original sources so that any reader could follow the links and make up his own mind about the commentary by the linker and the substance of the original source.  I do not think Jay followed that rubric in his post and I am not only unconvinced of his thesis but worry that he believes he has proved his point in the absence of anything approaching significant evidence.  I would hope we can agree on certain minimum standards of evidence in future debates.

I have no doubt there are racists and haters on the Right.  Some of them may have hitched themselves to the Tea Parties.  But I do not think the 48% of Americans who support the Tea Parties (Rasmussen Reports) are primarily motivated by racism or hatred.