Category Archives: Social Policy/Social Science

Monday’s Mtg: The psychological roots of political beliefs.

[Update: This meeting must and will deal with the now total abandonment of constitutional democracy by the Republican Party. The linking idea will be: Was all that has happened contingent on events, thuggish leadership, or propaganda effects; or does the abandonment reflect a passive vulnerability of conservatives’ psychological makeup or even an affirmative distrust or active dislike of democracy? An alternative and more benign explanation is that this betrayal of our country is being led by an authoritarian minority within the GOP and that authoritarianism is quite distinct from conservatism. I have always tended to believe the latter: Authentic conservatism has been betrayed, not fulfilled. But, with 77% of Republican voters nationwide believing the election was stolen and a majority of House GOP members joining Texas’s anti-democratic lawsuit to overturn a residential election, I’m….not so sure.

We will continue to conduct ourselves in civil way. But if we are not willing to discuss what is happening in our country, there is no point to this group – no matter what we call it.]


Long before the 2016 political earthquake hit the United States, people were searching for an answer to one, basic question:  How could American liberals and conservatives see what the country needs and wants so differently?  How could the worldviews of people that live in the same country and live so similarly be so different?  How is it that Right and Left are so mutually-loathing and even mutually-incomprehending?

There have been many, many proposed answers, obviously, as Civilized Conversation has discussed often.  Most theories batted around in the news media or blogosphere emphasize external factors, rather than inherent psychological characteristics.  Indoctrination is one, say by Fox News or left-wing college professors or cynical politicians posing as leaders.  Some people see a kind of group-think at work, imposed by biased news media, social media, or family and friends in a society increasingly sorted by class, race, and education. Sudden events like 9/11, or slower-moving events like demographic and cultural change may threaten conservatives.  Rising inequality and big corporate power may anger liberals.  Right-wing racism.  Left-wing anti-religious bias.  Blah, blah, blah.

The burgeoning field of political psychology offers a different set of answers.  They focus not on events and the impact of every day, external forces, but on alleged personal psychological characteristics that pre-dispose Americans to grow up to be liberal or conservative in basic orientation.  (How orientation gets turned into passionate, one-sided ideology is more about the external factors, in my view.)  Of course, actual people’s political opinions – if they even have well-formed ones – are more complicated than just left or right.  But from what I’ve read, so far most of the recent focus in political psychology has been on trying to explain why we may be predisposed to either right/left camps – and especially on what is attracting so many Americans to right-wing movement and candidates. 

As the articles below explain, much of this research is new and maybe a bit shaky or overreaching in its conclusions.  Still, the idea that psychological worldviews develop early in life and incline us to a certain political POV is intriguing. And it makes dialogue and persuasion, or even mutual tolerance all the more difficult. 

Focus on the recommended links since all dozen or so is a lot of reading. Also, as many of our earlier meeting touched on these themes I not only listed them; I pulled out a few key articles they referenced.


Key old mtgs –

  • 2017 – Does the “paranoid style” of politics now dominate U.S. politics?
    • Key link:  Summary of paranoid style’s relation to Trump support.  Recommended.
  • 2020 – The power of cognitive bias.
    • Key link: Nine lessons from psychology that explain the Trump era.
  • 2019 – Freedom means different things to liberals and conservatives.
    • Key link: How they see liberty differently and how its changed.    
  • 2016 – Fear mongering as a political strategy.
    • Key link:  Obama’s election + 2008’s economic collapse gave many whites a sense a “racial inversion” of their place in society had occurred.
  • 2012 – Why do we vote the way we do?

NEXT WEEK (Dec 21):  Why has religion often been used to justify violence and murder?

Monday’s Mtg: Love under lockdown – finding it, keeping it, thriving during it.

On March 20, 2020, California became the first state to go on lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  Since then we have opened and closed back down a little, varying by county according to criteria the governor established.  But, basically, it’s now been seven months of lock downy fun for most of us. 

How’s your love life?  Maybe it depends a lot on how it was before.  But COVID claustrophobia seems to be straining a lot of relationships, at least according to the popular press and even some more serious science and social science experts and journals.  Advice for how to find new relationships, keep your existing one(s) thriving, and even how to best end a romance under these stressful conditions abound.  A lot of the advice is common sense stuff (“be flexible,” “schedule time alone without the kids”) and not exactly profound. 

Still, maybe there are some ways we haven’t thought of to keep love alive in a time of COVID.  Questions for us to discuss might revolve around how to:

  • Meet new people and start a new relationship;
  • Maintain our existing one(s), especially in situations that can be trying under normal conditions, like new relationships, long-distance ones, or (aye aye aye) those involving children living at home; and
  • Thrive; i.e., make lemonade by actually deepening one’s romantic relationship under lockdown.

Here are links to some nuggets of advice on this issue.  Think of love under lockdown as a break from the kinds of topics we will need to descend into as the election crawls across the finish line — and beyond.  Unfortunately, Monday’s mg cannot be totally politics-free because romance under lockdown assumes people are responsible enough to follow the basic rules that minimize the pandemic’s spread, and many Americans aren’t. Let’s get some wisdom of crowds going for this one.

By the way, this post marks the 1,000 post on this blog, which was created in September 2009. Our Meetup group just passed the 900-people mark. So, at least some relationships appear to be thriving in this mess!


NEXT WEEK (June 2):  Topic TBD shortly.

Monday’s Mtg: Civics education – How good is it and how badly do Americans need it?

A good civics education is supposed to promote understanding of how a constitutional government operates and an appreciation of the rights and responsibilities of its citizens.  It also should encourage informed and responsible participation in civic life.  Civics involves knowing a bit about our country’s history but is distinct from history as a subject.  (h/t Penny for the definitions; this topic was her idea.)

Americans are notoriously ill-informed about how their representative democracy is supposed to function, and famously lazy about participating in it.  CivCon once discussed how big a problem ignorance about public affairs and civics actually poses to our democracy.  But that was in 2015, about 300 years ago in disastrous government decisions and loud-mouthed public civic idiocy time.

Penny asks: How good is American civics education and would more or better civics increase young peoples’ respect for our political system and better appreciate their stake in it?  Could an expanded and more “modern” form of civics instruction teach kids how to deal with the blizzard of propaganda and lies they will face about politics as adults – and to be good citizens anyway?

We have some information about these things.  Contrary to myth, almost all of America’s young people receive some civics education.  But there are some problems.  Only nine states + DC require a full year of govt/civics to graduate high school.  Critics (links below) find that civics courses tend to emphasize history over civics, focus on multiple choice tests about dry facts, and fail to build useful civic skills.  In grades 4, 8 and 12 all U.S. student are tested on civics knowledge, via the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests.  But only about 25% rate as proficient in civics.  They do poorly on the AP U.S. govt exam too, Penny found.

Raising the quality of civics education is a huge priority – for academics and education specialists begging we do so.  For cash-strapped state governments and local school districts that are already under fire for mediocrity in teaching reading, writing, and STEM preparation – not so much, say the studies.

Here is a short list of questions we could ask and discuss (plus Penny’s, above), and the usual suggested pre-mtg readings.  Like I said, evaluating what’s wrong with civics classes is a growth industry.  So, if you get time to do any of the readings I would focus on the recommended ones.

To facilitate our discussion I will open with a short intro on the basic components of civics as currently taught (hopefully I can find this out).  Then I will list a few of the main limitations of civics and criticism of the way it’s done.  In discussion, I hope we can revisit whether public ignorance about public affairs has left many Americans vulnerable to the demagoguery and lying we have endured so the last 3-30 years, depending on your POV of how long respect for and use of our democracy has been slowly crumbling.


  1. Civic Ignorance: Is it a real problem? Evidence?  Which problems does it contribute the most to?
  2. Civics: Why is it taught in school – for what purposes?
  3. Content: What do they teach in k-12 civics classes?  How does it vary by state and from the way it used to be taught?
  4. College: Do states require any college civics, Govt 101 etc.?  How many, how good, etc.
  5. Effectiveness: How useful is civics education these days at achieving its objectives?  Are key content or concepts or history left out?
  6. Better civics: What are the best ways to make civics education better?  Examples –
    1. Require more courses, in H.S> or college?
    2. Help raise kids’ “media IQ” (distinguish reliable news sources from fake/biased/manipulative ones)?
    3. Encourage them get involved like vote or volunteer?
    4. Teach less history and more civics, or vice versa?
    5. Teach more (or less?) about the dry but crucial Constitution?
    6. Viewpoint: Out of fashion confident (or triumphal/exclusive) view of U.S. history versus a more balanced (or pessimistic/negative) view?


Civic ignorance – does it matter?

Civics – what is it and how good is it?

Quizzes for you – 

  1. Constitution quiz: 29 Qs.
  2. Civics quiz:  7 Qs, from Pew.
  3. U.S. citizenship quiz.  (With answers)  They ask you 10 of the 100.

NEXT WEEK (August 17):  Self-driving cars: Fears and realities.

Monday’s Mtg: What are the differences between liberals and progressives and between conservatives and right-wingers?

There is little doubt that both major political parties are undergoing profound changes, especially ideological ones.  The shift is far more advanced in the Republican Party.  Arguably, it is more right-wing than conservative.  This is true even though:

  1. It is difficult to describe the ideology of a political party that currently so strongly resembles a cult of personality focused on one, ideologically-muddled leader; and.
  2. “Conservative” and “right-wing” precise meanings are always debatable and changing.

Still, I agree with the many, many analysts that have argued for years that the GOP has shifted far to the right in recent decades in term of its policy agenda and – much more so and more alarmingly – in its willingness to disregard democratic and constitutional norms of conduct and self-restraint.  The latter are characteristics of a right-wing movement, not a conservative party.  As we have discussed many, times, Trump’s rise is both a cause and an effect of these trends.

The Democrats are also on the move, ideologically.  Progressives are beginning to replace liberals as the dominant force in the Party.  This is true even though Joe Biden’s primary victory over Warren, Sanders, et. al., show the limits of how much change has occurred so far.  Generational replacement is a major cause [added: As are changes in the relative power exercise by people of color within the Dem Party.]  So is, in my opinion, a growing sense that our festering problems require more radical actions to address.  And, of course, liberal revulsion at Trump himself, his administration, and the political party that enables him.

Agree or disagree, I think that before the flaming freight train of the November election gets any closer CivCon could benefit from a good discussion of what these common ideological labels mean.  Terms like liberal, progressive, and left-wing; and conservative, right-wing, and reactionary have some semi-fixed meanings as used by philosophers and historians.  But their exact definitions can never be found [added – in a philosophy treatise or textbook.]  They depend on real-world events and other factors that vary over time and in different historical eras.

Everybody has opinions about whether terms like progressive and conservative et. al., connote things that are bad or good.  I hope we can drill down to a more specific level:  Which aspects of human society do the different ideologies concern themselves with; e.g., equality of opportunity versus of outcomes, positive versus negative liberties, fair processes versus fair outcomes, sexuality and family relationships, national unity versus smaller in-group solidarity, and tolerance versus dominance.

I’m not sure about an intro.  I may start us off with some historical context on how the meaning of lib/prog and con/RW developed over the years.  But, many of you know that.  So, I will probably focus on identifying the major forces of change within both parties/sides of the political spectrum in the last 10-20 years.

In case you ever wondered, keeping people up to date on the gigantic but often invisible changes that have roiled our culture and politics in the last 20 years has always been my main goal for Civilized Conversation.  Many people stop learning new things about politics and public affairs after age 35 or so, and I am trying to combat that tendency.


Public opinion –

Liberal v. Progressive –

Conservative v. right-ring –

  • 2018 CivCon mtg: What does U.S. conservatism stand for now?  Key links.
  • A conservative defines what the term means. Recommended.
  • Wiki’s “Right-wing politics” entry.
  • The U.S. conservative party is now a party of radicals, and the differences have profound implications. Recommended and before Trump!
  • Are all U.S. conservatives united now? Not by ideology but by the common beliefs that “politics is a war for our side’s survival” against a “Democratic enemy that must be destroyed be any means?
  • Fascinating 2007 discussion of “conservatism versus pseudo-conservatism.” Thesis:  One is “conservatism as a set of rules whose validity is to be established by their usability in government,” while the other is “conservatism as a set of doctrines whose validity is established by polemics.”
    — A (more incendiary) 2016 update.
  • Relax: The far right-wing that put Trump in office is a minority, albeit one that will never disappear and now has a taste for power.

NEXT WEEK (July 27):  Policing:  How radical a reform/rethink is needed?  How to build public support?

Monday’s Mtg: Groupthink versus the Wisdom of Crowds.

The term groupthink is a psychological theory that was popularized in the 1960s as a way to explain a seeming paradox that arises in politics, business, and other endeavors.  Sometimes groups of people, with all of their members’ knowledge and wisdom accessible, make worse decisions than its members could have made individually.  Sometimes, there is stupidity in numbers.

You can familiarize yourself with the actual theories of groupthink (they are subtle) in the readings, below.  But basically, under some conditions group deliberation can limit choices, stifle honest debate, unwisely defer to authority, and magnify strong group members’ individual cognitive biases.  (We discussed cognitive bias in general terms a year ago.)  Groupthink has been blamed for many historically disastrous decisions, like JFK’s acquiescence to the Bay of Pigs invasion, Bush 43’s invasion of Iraq, and most of the worst global financial crises of the last 30 years.  Groupthink is probably of limited validity as an explanation for many group failures, as the readings explain.  Still, major American institutions have made so many boneheaded decisions lately that groupthink probably has been at work in some of them.

This is curious, in a way, because we also are also familiar with the “wisdom of crowds.”  Sometimes the aggregated choices made by large numbers of people have proven to be better for informing decisions and predicting the future than even the best-qualified experts.  The wisdom of crows is often said to be at work in private markets, especially in financial markets, consumer markets, and betting markets of all kinds.

But, the wisdom of crowds isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, either.  Financial markets can exhibit herd behaviors that any school of fish would envy.  As we discussed in our “abuses of pop economics” meeting, people (individuals and in the aggregate) often don’t behave like the simple models of consumer and producer behavior predict.  Large political groups often get captured by their most extreme elements and not by the “wisdom” of its majority or medium opinion, or by its best-informed or most-thoughtful members.

As Hobson has pointed out, just knowing that bad decision happen is not useful without going deeper.  Maybe we need to ask questions like:


  1. What do the theories of groupthink and collective wisdom really say, as opposed to their pop psychology versions?
  2. What are the major criticisms of these theories?
  3. Under what conditions does groupthink arise and the wisdom of crowds not apply? How can we see those conditions coming – and prevent them?
  4. Societal implications, like how could we get less groupthink and wiser crowds by, say, changing the
    1. structure of markets, consumer protections, anti-trust law, or other business law?
    2. Rules of corporate governance?
    3. Rules of politics or elections or political campaigns?
    4. Power of social media monopolies?
    5. Many other ideas.
  5. With so much more interconnectivity coming, how can we improve collective decision-making and when should we limit its reach?


NEXT WEEK (June 22):  Supreme Court term ending 6/30 – Blockbusters and long-term impact?

Monday’s Mtg (5/4/20): How will history judge our actions today?

We did this topic way back in 2011 – arguably a lifetime ago in terms of things we’ve done that future generations might be a tad upset about. OTOH, you never know with history. It depends, obviously, on how a lot of our decisions turn out; and on who gets to write future history, what their values are, and to what extent will they see the past as mainly battlefields for their own controversies and arguments. A lot of historical controversies take a long, long time to resolve. Just see our meetings on the lessons of the Vietnam War, causes of the Great Depression, and the legacy of the 1970s and 1980s.

This is another broad topic, albeit a good one, IMO. Idea: Let’s try to stay a bit more focused than some of our recent Zoom meetings on multi-faceted issues by focusing on these questions.  Also, remember that it wouldn’t be much of a Conversation without me allowing at least some room for rebuttals and back and forth amidst the queueing.



  1. Which decisions (including to have certain cultural norms) will matter in a generation (say, 30 years)? Are we at historical “hinge” points on any of the following or others?
    1. Democracy at home.
    2. Govt’s size and scope and role.
    3. Evolution of the GOP and conservative movement.
    4. Technology decisions – biotech, AI, privacy.
    5. Human/civil rights. U.S. role in the world?
    6. Others???
  2. Who is this “we” that is are making these decisions and doing/not doing these things? Americans only? All Americans or only some of us – Politicians, voters and donors, White people, liberals, Boomers, TV pundits, parents instilling values in kids, etc.?
  3. Which of the things “we” do/ignore do you think history will condemn? Praise? Ignore? Misunderstand/misuse?

“Them – History”

  1. Who will be judging us: Academics, elites, regular people, popular history books, pop culture, Skynet?
  2. Will their moral values be different from ours? Will the next 30 years of experience teach them things we don’t know and couldn’t have been expected to see?
  3. Will they use “presentism” (see readings for meaning) to judge us?  Should they?
  4. Will they also judge themselves, using lessons from our present, or will they be as easy on themselves as people looking backwards usually are?


NEXT WEEK (5/11/20): Are Americans growing more tolerant or less?

Monday’s Mtg (4/27/20): Loneliness and isolation in a wired world

I can’t find the source, but I recently read that we touch our smart phones on average over 2,000 times per day! This study counted a 40-character tweet as 40 touches, but still – damn! In these ancient times – i.e., before the COVID-19 pandemic – there was a furious debate over whether such constant smart phone and social media use was damaging us.

Young people especially, it was said, were becoming cut off from real life and failing to learn the normal in-person social skills that previous generations had to learn to thrive as adults in the workplace, in romantic relationships, etc. The kids were not all right. And this did not even account for the possible ill effects of having their entire lives dominated by the handful of companies that control the ubiquitous little devices in their pockets. Reference our meetings on the problems of corporate monopolization of social media and the news businesses.

Now that social media and internet connectivity are keeping us all sane during the pandemic lockdown, have all these concerns about rising loneliness and isolation gone away for good? Or, like our economy (hopefully), are they just on hiatus temporarily? What if we respond to the shut down by growing even more dependent on remote working, learning, and social interaction?

Here are some optional readings, both pro and con. Per usual, you all will receive the mtg password on Sunday night. Please don’t mislay it between Sunday night and the mtg.


During the pandemic –

Longer term issues of loneliness in a wired world –

NEXT WEEK May 4: How will History judge us in these times?

Monday’s Mtg: Dating and Romance in different stages of life

Linda N. has volunteered to moderate this meeting, which one suspects would take on a more personal focus than usual. As with all other human endeavors, people are out studying the science and social science behind dating and romance and aging. And with this one especially there is obviously a vast amount of personal advice to be found. Below are a few optional readings on the topic of dating and love in different stages of life that don’t have that self-help sheen about them.

Its Linda’s meeting, even though DavidG will be there in the background. We should have a lot of accumulated wisdom sitting around the table and it will be fun to hear people’s stories and insights.


NEXT WEEK: Sacramento’s activist agenda – Too much or too little?

Monday’s Mtg: Generation Z – How will post-Millennials change the country?

Won’t someone think of the children? Well, next Monday we will. Generation Z is the moniker usually applied to people born after 1995 or 1996 or even after the turn of the century, depending on who is doing the defining. Already there are more than 60 million Americans in this age cohort, which also has been labelled “iGen” since most of them grew up with smart phones and social media.

What are these young people like today, and how might Gen Z change the world when it matures? Certainly it is too soon to tell, since many of them are still, you know, 15 years old. But, this hasn’t stopped a lot of folks from speculating about Gen Z’s potential to be engines of social and political change. Since every two years something like two four million more of them become eligible to vote in this country, and their efforts and attitudes will fuel the future around the world, I thought we should take a look at these darn kids today.

Below are a few readings on Generation Z that describe who they are, what they believe, and how they might – slowly, to be sure – influence the future, including American social and political values.


NEXT WEEK, Feb. 10: Why do so many American Christians feel under siege?

Monday’s Mtg: Critical Thinking – How can it be taught and/or learned?

How can democracy function if the public lacks the ability to think critically about what it sees and hears and reads? This question, along with the fact that critical thinking skills are crucial to many of today’s well-paying jobs, has led to an explosion of interest in teaching critical thinking skills at all levels of education. Our current political crisis has led many to wonder if a lot of Americans are incapable of thinking critically and whether such abilities as they do have an be unlearned or turned against them with skilled propaganda.

Penny asks, is it realistic to believe that critical thinking is a stand-alone skill that can be taught to kids or even to adults? What about to those Americans that either grew up in environments that discouraged independent truth-seeking or as adults self-marinate in political or social propaganda that is untethered to objective truths?

American schools are all over this issue in recent years. They are said to spend a lot of time and resources emphasizing the teaching of basic critical thinking skills. (Of course, education content is highly decentralized in the USA, so generalizations are hard. On December 16th we will discuss the Common Core educational standards that were create as de facto national edu standards. They heavily emphasize teaching critical thinking and analytical skills.) How are they doing? Can successful techniques be used on adults? See the discussion questions, below, for more.

To make this meeting meaningful and relevant to our times, I believe we must be willing to discuss honestly one thing above all else: The effectiveness of the deliberate assault on citizens’ ability to judge facts and arguments of the last 20 years. Especially, of course, in the last three hundred years of the Trump presidency.

My short remarks to open our meeting will just ty to introduce and frame this vital issue. Then we can debate. As with any topic related to education, there is a TON of stuff on the internet about it and how to teach it. I link to a few, but it is hard for me to judge their quality.


  1. What does “critical thinking” really mean? Are there different definitions? How do they define it for pedagogical (teaching) purposes?
  2. How does critical thinking ability relate to (1) intelligence, (2) psychological makeup, and (3) age and experience?
  3. Teaching it: How can critical thinking be taught to young people that lack the factual or experiential context to help them? How do they measure or observe progress in learning critical thinking?
  4. Bubble dwellers: Many of us live in “epistemological closure,” closed circles where questioning revealed truth is discouraged (some religious communities, Fox News junkies, bigoted families, etc.  Liberals are not immune.) As we discussed in our mtg on cognitive bias, others find learning contrarian or conflicting information uncomfortable.
    — How can their bubbles be penetrated?
    — What will make them listen or at least be open to new facts?
  5. Propaganda: How much damage has fake news and deliberately deceptive propaganda done to our:
    — Critical thinking skills.
    — Democracy? Does a functioning democracy require a consensus on a common set of facts and trust sources of information?


Related CivCon mtgs –

  • 2019: Fighting fake news.  2016: The “Fox News effect.”
  • 2019: The power of cognitive bias. Key concepts.
    2016: What should kids be taught about U.S. history?

Critical thinking and its teaching –

NEXT WEEK: Time travel: Where/when would you like to visit and why?