A question

Here’s an excerpt from a profile on Ted Cruz’s time at Princeton, before he made a colossal fool of himself and contributed to a near-default on American sovereign debt:

“He’s not someone who shifts in the wind,” Panton says. “The Ted Cruz that I knew at 17 years old is exactly the same as the Ted Cruz I know at 42 years old. He was very conservative then, and an outspoken conservative. He remains strongly conservative today.”

….

The time-capsule quality of Cruz’s politics is lost on no one who knew him at Princeton, none of whom could point to a political position that he held 25 years ago that he does not seem to still hold today. For some, that amounts to a laudably consistent belief system. For others, it reveals a man of calcified thinking, dangerously impervious to facts, reality, and a changing world.

“More than anyone I knew, Ted seemed to have arrived in college with a fully formed worldview,” Butler College colleague Erik Leitch said.  “And what strikes me now, looking at him as an adult and hearing the things he’s saying, it seems like nothing has changed. Four years of an Ivy League education, Harvard Law, and years of life experience have altered nothing.”

A counterfactual: what if we substituted “liberal” or “leftist” for “conservative” in that first paragraph? Here we have someone  whose political values have remained relatively stable and consistent over his adult life, which can either be evidence of  commitment and a “tough-mindedness” to make William James proud, or “calcified thinking, dangerously impervious to fact, reality, and a changing world.” While this profile makes a good-faith effort to present both interpretations, embellishment and hendiatris in second suggest the second to the reader. Would it make that suggestion had Cruz held liberal or leftist views throughout his whole life?

There are undoubtedly many undergraduates who matriculate with liberal or left-leaning outlooks and never seriously revise  or reconsider their views over the course of college and after graduation. But how do commentators speak of them? Even if they moderate their policy positions, recent anecdotal but non-trivial evidence suggests they’re more likely to be praised for hewing to principles they learned about the necessity of an active government.

I fear this asymmetry results from a conceit about the limits to the ways people can reasonably disagree about politics. It’s comforting to think that if we all thought hard enough, we’d converge on the same set of political principles. Both contemporary political psychology and a long-running tradition in political philosophy, however, give strong reasons to doubt that hypothesis. And when abused, the purported neutrality of reflection, openness, and flexibility can be a subtle tool to de-legitimize unpopular views.

Instead of the current asymmetry–intransigent conservative views get labeled pejoratively, but intransigent liberal views get labeled approvingly–I’d prefer more general taboo against intransigence. That would take us one step closer to my desired Millian political situation, where each of us remembers that a political philosophy:

“unless it is suffered to be, and actually is, vigorously and earnestly contested, it will, by most of those who receive it, be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds.”

While it wouldn’t produce convergence in policy, more cognitively attentive politics could produce more stability and civility. And that would be a real improvement.

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