Ethnography of the Left

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I have lived for 20 years in Santa Cruz, CA, one of the more reliable political time warps in America. I am a libertarian-leaning conservative, now also a leisurely retired college professor. Unavoidably (and I do nothing to avoid it), I interact daily with many liberals, progressives, radicals, and such.

To save myself from going crazy, I have adopted a pseudo-scientific stance toward those people. I am engaged in a permanent ethnographic study of the Left. (It’s genuine ethnography because I am able to observe it in its own habitat.) As a pop-ethnographer, I have been puzzled by the follow- ing simple phenomenon: individuals in my age range (early boomers), with life trajectories resembling mine, whose lifestyle is indistinguishable from mine, whose values are even similar to mine, nevertheless seem to hold political positions dramatically different from mine.

I am puzzled in part because I am slow to demonize my adversaries. (It would be difficult to do so anyway. In this small town, their lives are open books. It’s obvious most of them are not evil.) Also, I avoid carefully the temptation to affix a psychiatric label to what’s far from my own understanding of reality. (Nevertheless, I have developed fast and dirty tests to save me from wasting my time with the broadly insane.) So, I am speaking here about apparently rational people.

Here is what I think I have found among this particular category of political animals:

1) a strong and consistent preference for bad news;

2) a tendency to switch quickly from topic to topic;

3) cognitive dissonance; although their sources of information often overlap mine to a surprising extent, they often don’t understand what they hear and what they read. This lack of comprehension extends to basic concepts and to numbers, both. Thus, I have caught formally well-educated leftists confusing “budget deficit” with “trade deficit” and the national debt with the aggregate debt that Americans have incurred on their credit cards. (1 am not making this up!) When I point out to them that their attacks on “corporations” would, if successful, undermine my own financial safety as a retiree, they act stunned or incredulous. Similarl~they have, in general, no idea that 4% unemployment is low or that a 4% national economic growth is high. Often, they combine the two forms of incompetence: I have won many bets by guessing correctly that leftists believe that military expenditures consume 20% of GOP. They understand neither GOP nor % (1 have stopped betting because they rarely pay up but, that’s another story);

4) access to esoteric sources of information that might just as well be secret because I can rarely track them down. They forget to send me the reference they promised, or the item does not say what they say it says, or the source simply does not exist.

This is only a compound of informal observations, not a religious creed. I don’t mind being corrected. Above all, I would like to find out what other readers of Liberty have to say on the same topic.

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