Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Science of Hippie-Punching


Hi, I'm Josiah Neeley. You might remember me from such blog posts as The Libertarian and the Union Organizer Can Be Friends (Maybe) and Corporate Personhood: Why It's Awesome. But today I would like to talk to you about an important issue facing our nation: hippie-punching.*

For those not in the know, "hippie-punching" refers to when someone (usually but not always on the center-left) attacks someone farther to their left as a means of gaining credibility and support with the general populace. The term appears to date from 2007, but the practice itself is far older. Bill Clinton, for example, was an expert hippie-puncher, and the term itself seems to be an oblique reference to the 1968 Democratic convention, when anti-war protesters battled Chicago police under the control of Democratic mayor Richard Daley (the nearest right-wing equivalent to the term "hippie-punching" is "that time when William F. Buckley kicked the Birchers out of the conservative movement").

Hippie-punching is generally used in a derogatory manner, implicitly suggesting that punching hippies is somehow a bad thing. Yet scientific research suggests that hippie-punching may in fact play a positive role in our political process.

For example, last year Chris Mooney looked at the so-called "radical flank effect" whereby the existence of individuals and groups pushing for radical action on an issue makes people more willing to deal with moderates on the issue. For the flanking effect to be positive, however, it is necessary that moderates and radicals not get lumped together in public perceptions. If that happens, the radical flank effect can turn negative, inspiring a backlash and tainting even moderate action on an issue with the actions of the radical fringe:
one of the critical factors in determining whether a radical flank effect will be positive or negative is the way moderates and activists relate to one another. “How clearly are the moderates and radicals differentiating themselves?” asks Carleton College’s Devashree Gupta. This, as Gupta notes, shapes media coverage and the thinking of politicians and policymakers who may be calculating whether helping the moderates will ease the headaches the radicals create for them.
One way for moderates to differentiate themselves from radicals is to engage in a little hippie-punching now and again. And while it may not feel that way to those on the receiving end on such attacks, they are actually providing a valuable service by helping empower moderates to moving policy in their preferred direction:
The sad irony here is that the activists don’t get what they want. In the end, they merely get to help out the moderates. But that’s the nature of the positive radical flank effect.


*All references to violence in this post are purely metaphorical. No hippies were harmed during the production of this blog post. 

26 comments:

  1. Outliers skew measures of central tendency in distributions.
    It is an open question however which came first. Do political outliers move the middle, or do they reveal the middle.
    My starting guess would be that diversity comes first, and that the distribution is simply revealed.
    The flip side of this is the power of reversion to mean. It is hard for extremes to sustain dominance.

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  2. Overton window, too.

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  3. Anonymous10:51 AM

    That demotivator's caption confuses professing with professional. See ol' Mark's letter to Abner Scofield, Coal Dealer, for the difference.

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  4. The truly amusing thing in all this is that by punching the hippies, the centrists ensure that their 'radical' goals will be ignored, and then find that their own 'centrist' goals go unreached because they have no solid coalition to push for them. Hippie-punching - ensuring that 'divide and rule' works the way it ought to!

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  5. But sometimes the centrists need the hippies to support them. So, Obama has done a lot of hippie punching, but the GOP continues to give him nothing. Now he has been having to kowtow to the hippies, although it was Larry Summers who figured it out and withdrew his nomination so as to keep the hippies in Congress happy. However, so far, the Iron Economic Guard around Obama, mostly Rubinite Goldman Sachs people lacking econ degrees, have not picked up the obvious way to finalize the symbolic bow to the hippies by appointing Janet Yellen. They are still wanting to punch the hippies when they are bloody well going to damned well need the hippies backing them up when bad stuff hits the fan in the upcoming fights over the budget and debt ceiling.

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    1. Well said. Basically hippie-punching can only work when you have a large enough "moderate" contingent - enough people willing to compromise in order to get things done. However, if the Republicans essentially have no members willing to negotiate and compromise then hippie-punching cannot work, since the moderate Democrats need nearly every single Democrat on their side, including the hippies (*).

      * Unless moderate Democrats made up a majority, in which case they could punch hippies for fun and slap around Republicans for a laugh.

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  6. Anonymous2:24 PM

    This is utterly irrelevant to the article, but I think the readers of this blog(and possibly the writers too) will appreciate today's SMBC:

    http://www.smbc-comics.com/

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  7. Anonymous3:07 PM

    Interesting, but I feel like this is an incomplete partial equilibrium analysis, i.e., what is the effect of hippie-punching on the left, taking the right's Bircher-punching as exogenous.

    I'm more interested in the general equilibrium effects across hippie-punching and Bircher-punching. I find your argument convincing in that, if we assume the right is Bircher-punching at a reasonable rate, then the best response of the left is to hippie-punch in kind. In our current reality, however, there is no Bircher-punching to speak of, so I question the value of hippie-punching in that context. Just leaves us with two extreme, right-wing choices that the majority doesn't want, no?

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    1. In fact the Birchers are now in control.

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  8. Here is another thought - the "punchers" actually hold right wing views, but not extreme ones. Since there isn't a party to represent them, they have to pretend they are 'moderates' for their agenda, duping their liberal voters that they have anything in common (which is called "leadership").

    Of course most of their voters are betrayed and pretty unhappy, but they vote for them anyway, to avoid giving the vote to the extreme right.

    The hippie punching serves as destroying the real opposition to the "moderates" - the actual liberals, so that business as usual can continue.

    Being a moderate is profitable - you aren't accountable to your base, because you are just an ersatz anyway.

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  9. Hippie-punching is generally used in a derogatory manner, implicitly suggesting that punching hippies is somehow a bad thing.

    1. There is a time and a place for everything.
    2. It depends on who is doing the punching, doesn't it?

    Sure, we should all enjoy some good clean hippie-punching from time to time. However, when the ship of state is being gnawed through by right-wing know-nothing loons it's a pretty good idea to keep one's eye on the ball.

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  10. Anonymous7:43 PM

    Yes, let's turn the magnifying glass on the left - meanwhile the radical right is about to shut down the government. Why don't you take a critical look at that, Mr. Corporations are Persons, too?

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  11. Wait a second... I think Josiah Neeley is holding himself up as a right-wing punching bag in this post. Tread carefully, progressives!

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    1. 1. Not only in this post.
      2. So what?

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  12. Well, this is an entirely stupid post. But at least it's a profoundly stupid post.

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  13. Anonymous3:35 AM

    Noah?

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  14. Anonymous10:20 AM

    Thanks for the more scientific look at Hippie Punching. I always thought it went like this: Yes, the Dirty Fucking Hippies were right but for the wrong reasons.

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  15. For example, last year Chris Mooney looked at the so-called "radical flank effect" whereby the existence of individuals and groups pushing for radical action on an issue makes people more willing to deal with moderates on the issue.

    This seems pretty obvious. But I'm glad there are social scientists on the case proving things politicians have known for thousands of years.

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  16. By the way, this is also a phenomenon in the blogosphere, where it is known as "troll-punching".

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  17. Hippie punching can be very bad indeed. 19th Century abolitionists were the equivalent of modern hippies - if 'moderates' had not punched them, perhaps slavery would have been abolished earlier? Ditto for civil rights, women's rights, immigrant's rights...

    Maybe the hippies have the benefit of history?

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  18. Anonymous2:03 AM

    the problem is Hippie-punching lost its effectiveness when people perceive no danger from Hippies. for example: Obamacare, tea parties with no left equivalent advocating NHS or public option, now seeing Obamacare as worst thing happen to America. this happen on other issues like labor union or equality.

    Thus hippie-puncing only effective if a) Hippie exists and b)people fear them. when hippie-puncher weakened hippies so much that a) or b) no longer true, the benefit of hippie-punching is lost.

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  19. I am absolutely all in favor of hippy punching. I am equally willing to punch hippies or to be a hippy and be punched. I have offered either service to the progressive movement many times. But the progressive movement never calls and I have a sad.

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  20. I am absolutely all in favor of hippy punching. I am equally willing to punch hippies or to be a hippy and be punched. I have offered either service to the progressive movement many times. But the progressive movement never calls and I have a sad.

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  21. But enough about me. In the thread, hippy punching is criticized as it makes it impossible to have a broad coalition from left of center to far left. This is true if and only if the hippies get all made about their fee fees being hurt. What is needed is smarter hippies. I think the phrase "hippy punching" may have been coined by Atrios. He is a smart hippy. He makes Obama look like a moderate wimp (not the hardest task in the world I admit). He has very explicitly written that punching hippies (including him) is OK by him. He is solily allied with Obama against debt ceiling blackmail not because he has forgotten the time when Obama criticized the professional left, but because he is both a hippy and a grownup. It can be done.

    The way to be a smart hippy is really very simple. First advocate policies too far left to be politically possible (this is very easy given how far right the left wing of the possible is). Bitterly argue with the Obots and Rhambos who argue that your proposal is politically impossible and bad policy and unamerican. Ally with the Obots when they are fighting Republicans.

    It is hard to work with someone who goes out of his way to punch you. It is possible. Repeted re-reading of Neeley's post might help.

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    1. Anonymous3:52 PM

      So, I'm guessing that everybody knows jokes in which the punchline depends on feminists, communists, libertarians or whatever having no sense of humor? Often, the punchline of someone of the target persuasion shouting "that's not funny!". Being fringy does not condemn one to having no sense of humor, but it goes a long way in that direction. The idea that people who are deadly earnest about some view (like that regulating industrial dumping of mercury into a communal water supply is a shackle on simply human freedom) can also have a sense of humor about that view is not well considered. To have a sense of humor about ones self, it really helps to recognize that one's opinions may be bunk.

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  22. Anonymous3:45 PM

    I'm pretty sure this is standard political sociology from decades ago, if not longer. Non-centrists tend to move the debate in their own direction at times, but never win the debate because "center" and "winner" tend to be alternate terms for the same concept in this lingo. Non-centrists also serve as foils in the fight over the center. I haven't thought it through, but I'd bet the "foils" analysis is really part of the whole Hotelling effort. I move to the middle of the beach, but on a purely metaphoric beach, location is hard for onlookers to discern. I punch someone to my left before you can punch me for being to my own left. I occupy the spot on the beach which is between you and the guy I punched.

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