Facts v. Values, Numbers v. Ideology: Which is More Important for a Healthy Democracy?

“Most of the questions we turn to politics to resolve are not simple questions of fact.”

Osita Nwanevu and Oliver Traldi at Wisdom of Crowds:

Dear Osita,

You and I both like democracy, and we both want to push back against the theoretical challenges it’s faced in recent years. But I think there are three places where we disagree: first, regarding the nature of politics and how we can rationally draw political conclusions; second, regarding ideological coherence and whether positions “go together”; and third, regarding political parties and how they affect political beliefs.

For you, the most central political judgments are judgments about what’s right and wrong, or at least about what’s right and wrong for us. So you aren’t quite at home in the debate between epistocrats and epistemic democrats, both of whom worry about how to produce the best empirical judgments. But we can’t resolve most concrete ought questions without knowing how things stand when it comes to what is. We may value peace, but without understanding geopolitics we won’t know which policy is most likely to afford us peace. We may value freedom, but without understanding how one kind of freedom affects another we won’t know which policy is most likely to maximize freedom for all. Hating violence, for instance, we might be tempted to ban violent video games, but if those games act as a “safety valve” for people’s violent instincts, giving them an outlet to blow off steam, that ban could lead to more actual violence.

Next, ideology. For ideology to be a good explanation of people’s political beliefs, we don’t just need there to be some ideological story that could in theory undergird some combination of their views. We need the story to undergird plenty of their views, and we need it not to be the case that there are alternate stories that could undergird alternate configurations of views. Mere non-contradiction is not enough to avoid the charge that ideological stories are post hoc. And explaining political beliefs that don’t cohere with their bearers’ purported ideology in terms of material interests or moral values raises more questions than it answers. Why are some political beliefs determined by ideology, some by moral instinct, and some by material interest? And why does this happen in the patterns we see and not in other patterns?

Thinking about empirical judgments – not our stances on political issues, but the beliefs about the world that support those stances – really drives this point home. How are our empirical political judgments related to one another? One way is by playing on the same kinds of tropes or heuristics. Another is by being propagated by the same sources, like media outlets or political parties or figureheads. This is the sort of thing that worries epistemic democrats like me: those sources are basically doing people’s thinking for them, undermining the wisdom of the crowd.

Trusting and allying oneself with one or another kind of source is part of a larger project of political self-branding which many Americans undertake. This project goes far beyond our beliefs — it affects where we live, what coffee shops we frequent, what cars we drive, what music we listen to, what television we watch, and so on. Once we note the massive correlations between these ranges of activities, political beliefs, and partisan alignment, it is hard not to think that there must be some sociological explanation that can give us insight into all of them at once — an explanation from political parties and political identities.



Dear Oliver,

I think there’s something to the epistemic line of thought. But many, if not most of the questions we turn to politics to resolve are not simple questions of fact. On geopolitics, for instance, the reality is that people starting from different normative premises can look at the same information on, say, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and come to different conclusions about how we ought to respond. “If we value peace,” as you write, certain facts might be particularly relevant. But whether and how much we should value peace to begin with is not a matter that facts alone can resolve, which is my point. And we can make reasoned judgments about certain policy questions without making use of factual information at all.  I’m just not sure it’s true that, as you write, “we can’t resolve most concrete ought questions without knowing how things stand when it comes to what is.” On some of the most highly contested social issues of our time ⁠— abortion, the death penalty, gay marriage, guns, and the like ⁠— it is of course entirely possible to come to one’s stances solely on the basis of certain ideas about the meaning and value of human freedom, the intrinsic value of life and where it comes from, and so on. Data may bear upon matters of relevance to each issue, but you do not intrinsically need empirical information to come to a reasoned opinion on whether governments should be able to kill convicts or whether people of the same sex should be able to marry.

On those and other matters, we often consult ideology instead ⁠— largely because the prevailing ideologies in the United States today, progressivism and conservatism, do offer us the resources to make sense of plenty of the issues facing us. As you suggest, I’m not especially troubled by this, even granting that much ideological reasoning may be post hoc, though I’m not prepared to say how much. The epistemic ideal seems to be a world in which we each independently make judgments about political questions on the basis of hard empirical information, without being substantially swayed by our peers, the media, or other potentially distorting influences.  I do not find this world plausible. We cannot make fully informed judgments about very many political issues on our own; even to the extent that we are “informed,” it is almost never through independent, unmediated access to information. Influences creep in from without and shape even the thinking of experts as they try to make sense of the facts; inevitably, ideologies take root.

“Why,” you ask, are some political beliefs determined by ideology, some by moral instinct, and some by material interest?” I don’t think it’s even possible to disentangle the three; ideologies emerge at the confluence of other forces. But they also shape those other forces in turn.  This is why I think ideologies help sustain democracy on balance. They organize politics. Economic interests, social identities, the machinations of political parties, familial ties, religion, geography — it would be incredibly difficult to galvanize political action and govern absent ideology with all of these forces cacophonously at work. Ideologies are glue ⁠— they bring people from different backgrounds together and they can encourage people to think conceptually rather than fixating upon their own narrow interests. And even when ideological beliefs are shaped by those interests, they force political actors to address themselves to principle. It will not do, in a world where ideology has weight, to say merely that this or that policy will benefit you in particular even if it’s true ⁠— you have to make a case to a wider political community and make appeals to higher ideas. And when the kind of post hoc reasoning you allude to is at work ⁠— when we furnish explanations for why disconnected beliefs are actually connected or adopt new ideological beliefs to fit in with our peers ⁠— that kind of reasoning is often critical to the success of coalitional politics. Even if I only care about x, I may come to understand that x will never happen unless I join together with people who believe in y and z and find a way to make a compelling political case for all three. I think this is fine and perhaps even democratically vital.



More here.