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Andrew Gelman on Murc’s Law


Andrew Gelman, author of the terrific blog Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science, notes something that’s closely related to what at LGM is known as Murc’s Law, i.e., the assumption in American politics that only Democrats have agency, while Republicans do what they do for the same reasons that sharks eat seals or rocks roll downhill. Gelman discusses a Columbia Journalism Review piece that, in the context of the Congressional investigation into the 1/6 insurrection, critiques “the commonplace journalistic assumption that Republican bad faith… is just a feature of the landscape,” whereas a given Democrat is “an actor with agency, and subject to scrutiny.”

Gelman notes this is a more general tendency:

[T]hat reminded me of something I’ve noticed in popular history writing, which is a form of reasoning that focuses on the mistakes on “our side” and assumes that whatever “their side” does is pre-ordained. It’s a sort of fundamental attribution error by which our decisions and mistakes are based on context and circumstance, whereas theirs are based on their unchangeable character.

An example that came up in this space a few years ago is the tendency of some British historians to blame World War 1 on . . . Britain! See here (Christopher Clark) and here (Niall Ferguson, taking a break from gay-bashing and campus politics).

I don’t think this is political, at least not in a direct sense. I’m guessing most U.S. political journalists are center-left (not a difficult place to be in the U.S., given that publicly objecting to the January 2021 insurrection will automatically put you somewhere in the center or left of the spectrum in this country), Ferguson is on the center-right (or maybe not anymore after that riot), and I have no idea where Clark falls on the political spectrum. I see this more of a general problem that we assign more agency to people who we feel are, or should be, on our side. I guess I do this too sometimes, for example when I get annoyed at practitioners of bad science. I’m a scientist myself, so I think of other people with the “scientist” label as being my sort of person.

I don’t have anything new to add here; my main point is the similarity I see of reporters blaming U.S. political culture on the Democrats to historians blaming WW1 on the British, in both cases just accepting by default the idea that the people on the other side had no choice.

People always have a choice. The complicating factor is that choices are constrained in various ways. In 2021, Republican politicians’ choices are constrained by some combination of public opinion of Republican voters, the rules of the U.S. Senate, and the role of partisan news media. In 1914, German leaders’ choices were constrained by outdated military theories, internal politics, and international alliances. You can blame the constraints and also blame the individual decision makers. But if you’re not careful it’s easy to assign most of the agency to your own side.

Now this is definitely a thing, and I think it has several distinct causes, which come from multiple motives and psychological directions. These include but are not limited to:

(1) The same perverse fatalism/victim-blaming dynamic that for example focuses on blaming an abused woman who is beaten up constantly by her drunken violent husband for not leaving him, as opposed to focusing on the man who is getting drunk and beating her up all the time.

This mentality is especially evident in elite media treatment of Donald Trump. Trump tried to overthrow the government via a seditious coup attempt, carried out in full public view, and is now currently begging, also in full public view, Vladimir Putin to release the supposedly damaging information the war criminal dictator possesses regarding Joe Biden’s son. This treasonous insanity would get Trump imprisoned in a moderately well-functioning society, but it’s pretty much taken for granted in the elite media framing of all this that that’s just how Trump is, so what’s even the point of focusing on any of it? (I don’t know . . . maybe enforcing the law? Garland? Garland?).

(2) Infantiliztion/depersonalization of the Other. “Those people” are just “that way,” while “we” ought to have higher expectations of ourselves.

(3) Reverse partisanship/reverse nationalism. By this I mean a distinct psychological type that is far more committed to despising one’s own tribe than to any positive allegiance. It’s kind of an inverted jingoism, where the same blind credulity and severe bias of the ultra-nationalist is applied to one’s own side, except in reverse. See for example how Glenn Greenwald’s only political principle is that the United States is the source of all evil in the world, and that therefore nobody else is ever responsible for anything, most particularly someone like Vladimir Putin.


It is also worth emphasizing once again that nationalist feeling can be purely negative. There are, for example, Trotskyists who have become simply enemies of the U.S.S.R. without developing a corresponding loyalty to any other unit. When one grasps the implications of this, the nature of what I mean by nationalism becomes a good deal clearer. A nationalist is one who thinks solely, or mainly, in terms of competitive prestige. He may be a positive or a negative nationalist – that is, he may use his mental energy either in boosting or in denigrating – but at any rate his thoughts always turn on victories, defeats, triumphs and humiliations. He sees history, especially contemporary history, as the endless rise and decline of great power units, and every event that happens seems to him a demonstration that his own side is on the up-grade and some hated rival is on the down-grade. But finally, it is important not to confuse nationalism with mere worship of success. The nationalist does not go on the principle of simply ganging up with the strongest side. On the contrary, having picked his side, he persuades himself that it is the strongest, and is able to stick to his belief even when the facts are overwhelmingly against him.

Ultimately I think there’s a complex relationship between these various factors, that produces among other things reactionary centrism, red-brown alliances, etc.

But it all comes down to the same tendency that Gelman comments on in his post.

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