Confounding variable of Ideology in interpreting political conflicts: the truth may be generational conflict

This post is a continuation of my last post where I attempt to describe how Truth can confound our interpretation because we will attempt to fit observed data to the Truth.  I split it into two posts because it was getting too long and I felt that that cutting point was an appropriate closing statement.

In that discussion, I described how an investigation into a cause of an airplane crash inherently seeks information about faults of the pilot or of the mechanical system.  An alternative investigation would use the same evidence as a probe into a unique and potentially previously unknown weather phenomena.   The latter investigation at some level upsets our moral sensibilities by treating a tragic circumstance as mere weather probe.  However, this understanding may be more valuable in the long run than deciding what human or mechanical failures led to this particular crash.

This post is a continuation of that discussion to return to my original intention to talk about other things in the news where it seems we take observations to construct stories around some presupposed truth.   In particular, I see a link between two very different political stories that have been playing out over the past several years: the shifting fortunes of political parties in US federal government since about 2006, and the increasingly chaotic political environments in the Middle East and North Africa.   The popular news interpretations describe both cases in terms of conflicts between ideologies.

In US politics, the story is the struggle between ideological liberals including progressives and ideological conservatives including libertarians: Democrats and Republicans respectively.  The elections of 2006, 2008, and 2012 were decided largely in favor of the Democrats and the elections of 2010 and 2014 favored the Republicans.   The elections and frequent opinion polls paint a struggle between ideologies where the nation is divided nearly in half in terms of placing priorities either on domestic social programs or on restrained regulation and taxation.   Of course, the ideological differences between the two parties are broad and often overlapping, but my point is that our interpretations of the elections and polls invariably involve the population deciding which ideology earns the broader and more enthusiastic support.    The data is in the polls, but we also include int the data a Truth that explains the differences of opinion in ideological terms.

In Middle East, there is also a political struggle in many countries and communities.  These struggles have been far more violent than what is happening in US, leading to very disturbing developments in terms of oppression, large-scale murder, and almost inexplicable violence.  Here the data also includes polls and elections, but there is additional data of large scale protests, riots, destruction, warlike acts, and individual acts of violence on neighbors.   Like the US example, we attempt to interpret these data in terms of ideologies: in particular a conflict between democratic rule, tyrannical rule, or a theocratic rule.   On daily news updates, the data of recent events is in terms of how the events affect the different groups holding the various ideologies.

Although the US and Middle East political struggles vary drastically in terms of violence and domestic tranquility, they share a kind of stalemate of multiple opposing sides where neither is able to attain a decisive dominance over the others.   In both examples, every day provides new data and we apply these data into a Truth story that these struggles are ideological in nature.

I’ll note that there is also a frequent explanation of a truth involving identity politics instead of ideologies.  In Middle East, the conflicts between different tribes or families may be more significant than the conflicts between ideology.  In the US, the identity divisions involve conflicts between racial groups, wealth (or income) classes, sex (male vs. female), sexual orientation/identity, religion (or atheism), or coasts vs heartland (flyover country).   These identity conflicts receive a lot of attention but I don’t think they are as strong as the identity to a particular party.   Although Democrats and Republicans promote themselves as champions of different identity groups, most people may appear to view their self-identity as secondary to the party they prefer to support.

I don’t have the expertise to disentangle ideology from identity politics.   For this discussion, I merge the two into a general form of party ideology that may include some aspects of identity politics within it.

The polls and elections represent data and while the ideology represents a Truth we assign to the data.  We interpret the data in context to this Truth.  Truth of the ideology is not direct observed data.   Even unmistakable externally recognizable identity characteristics like sex or race do not predict how the individual identifies with the politics supposedly associated with those characteristics.   Also, there is a lot of fluidity in terms of whose side each person chooses to support.   Thus, identity and ideology are things that we assume to be Truth about how people form their opinions and we use polls and elections to measure that Truth.

The truth of ideology or identity is not directly observed.  Instead it is model-generated data, and in particular the data is the model itself, the Truth of identity or ideology.    This truth has the potential to be a confounding variable.   The differences we see in the data may involve some other Truth.    Like the investigators in the QZ8501 crash focusing on human and mechanical cases, we investigate politics with a focus on ideologies (or identities).  In both cases, this focus on a particular Truth may miss the opportunity of discovering an unrelated but more important Truth.

Again, in the political instabilities in US and Middle East seem to have become more acute at about the same about 10 years ago.   Certainly, the fact that the US was very involved in a war in the Middle East at that time and this has had an impact on both conflicts.   The impact of this truth of military involvement is another ideological Truth.  The stand in terms of supporting the war appears to depend on what party is in power to control that policy.   In any event, the impact US involvement is less obvious in the Middle East where the conflicts are far distant from from areas of direct US involvement.   For this discussion, I’m discounting this explanation and concentrating instead on the battle between ideologies instead of identity or military activities.

The emphasis on the ideological conflict as a truth driving the conflict may be obscuring a different Truth that may have much more explanatory power for the level of tensions we are observing.  The truth I think we may be missing is a generational conflict.   The instability of politics today may be explained by a youth movement to rebel against the older generations.

The ascendance of the Democratic party in taking control of government in 2006 and 2008 appears to have been a result of a demand for change by the newly eligible voters at the time (sometimes called Millennials).  For the Middle East, the conflicts appears to be worse where the young people dominate the population.

I began to think about generation conflict when I observed the correlation of median age in countries (such as the chart in this Wikipedia article) with the areas having the most conflict.   The Middle East countries that are experiencing so much strife today have very young populations.  For example, estimated median age is 21 in Iraq, Syria, and Pakistan, 24 in Egypt, and 19 in Nigeria.  In these countries, the young far outnumber the old.  Coincidentally these countries are experiencing the most instabilities.

In US and western countries, the median ages are near 40.   Certainly, western governments enjoy more stable governmental institutions.   However, there is a shift, at least in the US, where the baby-boomer generation that had a huge influence on politics for the last several decades are starting to decline in numbers and authority.  The younger generations are starting to experience more power as the baby-boom generation’s power is declining.  Due to lower birth rates and longer lifespans, we manage to have a higher median age.  With recent protests now under the label of “black lives matter“, it is not hard to imagine a more destabilizing situation if the median age of this country matched those of Syria, Iraq, or Nigeria.

It is very difficult to see this age difference in election politics because the elected officials are mostly from the older generation of baby boomers.  The Democratic party’s ascendancy in 2006-2008 may have largely benefited by the coincidence of being the opposition party at the time when the younger generations started to gain an advantage over the baby boomers.   The more recent ascendancy of the Republican party may be also from its recent years as an opposition party when even more young adults became politically active.   The earlier purge allowed the Republicans to fill new positions with younger politicians.

The dynamics of elections and polls in the US over the last decade is probably more about the shift in demographics than it is about ideology.   The younger generation is taking over from the baby-boomer generation.   Because those in power do not voluntary give it up to younger people, an effective way for the younger people to gain access to government is to support the minority party where any gains in representatives will likely be filled with new people.  The many young politicians in the Republican party probably would not have had the opportunity if the Democrats did not eject the earlier Republican incumbents in 2006 and 2008.

I realize that the elections of 2006 and 2008 were not entirely determined by demographics.  I suspect that the demographic element was more important that appears in the polls because they may have benefited from older voters voting sympathetically with the younger generation’s enthusiasm.

I am suggesting that it may be easier to understand the dynamic in US politics by paying attention to age demographics instead of ideological differences.  In contrast to the other explanations of ideology or identity that are hard to observe directly, age is objectively observable and this observation change in a predictable way.  In particular, a person gets older over time.  The young vote that was instrumental in 2006 and 2008 are now 6-9 years older.   With that age are changes in circumstances, as people age they become more established in career, family, and community.   With age, people become less anonymous and with that change they find less interest in making collective statements by being part of broader movements.  Older people are more confident to speak for themselves.   With age, people are able to make their own statements because they are becoming recognized within their desired communities.

Certainly, age groups have diverse political ideologies: there are young conservatives as there are older liberals.   What is difference is that there are conflicts within the ideology and a good part of this conflict is related to age.   The older people find authority in their own accomplishments and are inclined to use that authority either to advise or to restrain the younger people.   In contrast, the younger people have more energy and enthusiasm to find new ways of thinking about problems.   Indeed, they need to think new ideas in order to find their own futures to eventually have authority of their own.

The older people, being more set in their ways, will tend to have a stronger bond to their party than then younger people who do see an option of switching sides or to create counter-movement within the same side.   As a group, the younger group has incentives to make new openings for them to have their own place in society.  In contrast, the older group generally are happy with their established place in society and have an incentive to preserve that place instead of attempting to find a new role.

The modern conflict between age groups is exacerbated by longer lifespans, allowing for larger populations of older people who defend their positions of authority much longer.  This leaves fewer openings for younger people to find openings within the established culture.   In older times, shorter lifespans and less effective medicine produced a statistical form of term-limits or mandatory retirement.   The aging process opened up their positions for younger people to fill because the older people died, or became physically unable to continue the role.   Today, the combination of people living longer and with more vitality has greatly limited the number of vacancies for the younger population to advance.

Today we are seeing a response to entrenched business where the young people are finding success in making disruptive new business plans.  To be sure, these disruptive businesses take advantages of new opportunities made possible by new technologies.   However, such innovations could have happened within established businesses.  As implied by the word disruptive, the established businesses definitely regret not taking advantage of these opportunities for themselves.   I think this missed opportunity is a direct consequence of the established businesses failing to hire sufficient numbers of young people, and more importantly to allow younger people to displace older people in positions of authority to allow innovation to happen.

I believe a similar process is happening in politics but where the disruptive opportunity is to rally around the party that is currently out of power.  In politics the older population is refusing to step aside to accommodate the younger population that now desires their own role in government.   In the current congress, for example, the median age of representatives keeps climbing.  Although this does correspond to the aging of the population in general, the trend is a consequence of the lack of legal or natural term limits: the older people who have positions are able to defend their positions into very old age.  This blocks the opportunity for younger people to enter the ranks.   Although it is probably an accident, the recent back-and-forth shifts in political party fortunes have ejected older representatives and made opportunities for younger ones.

Taking a longer view, I wonder if many historic political or ideological movements have more to do with age demographics than with the exact details of the ideology.   It appears a common theme of the more disruptive (and even violent) political movements is that their leadership tended to be younger, especially in the middle levels where the most energy and enthusiasm was required.   The old man on top of the movement gives the impression that there is some kind of ideological wisdom behind the movement, but the effectiveness of the movement probably had more do with the empowerment provided to young people to participate in the tactical details of the movement.  Many historic movements may have been youth movements with the consequence of being stuck with the ideology that was most convenient for the youth to rally around.

Major disruptive political movements, in a sense, are caused by the older generation losing authority over the younger generation at a time when the younger generation outnumbers the older generation.   In US politics today, we are experiencing this where the baby-boom generation long accustomed to being a dominant demographic are starting to die off or at least enter irrelevance of retirement.    This is not an easy transition, unfortunately, because this process involves a back-and-forth swing in fortunes that get interpreted as ideological mandates even when that mandate happens to contradict the mandate from the previous cycle.   The country is changing, but there is no clear direction where it is heading except that it will have younger leaders.

Likewise, in the Middle East, the effectiveness of extremism is the result of enthusiasm and energy from a very young population that outnumbers the older generation.   The age distribution of people with authoritative positions in the established institutions is much older than the age distribution of the population as a whole.   When things turn violent, the younger generation has the advantage of enthusiasm, and this advantage is magnified when the younger generation outnumbers the older generation.  The older generation has no control over the events.

The point of this post is about interpreting data instead of arguing one form of politics over another.  My observation is that our interpretation of the data is confounded by a Truth.   The confounding truth is the supposed ideologies that are driving the political movements.  This is in fact reasonable because the movements use ideologies to justify their movement.  However, it is hard to have direct observations of individual identities or ideologies within a group.  Many participants in the movement do not share the same ideologies and may not even understand it.   The ideology is the confounding variable preventing us from seeing the real motivations and causes of the turmoil.

This confounding is well illustrated in US analysts trying to understand the extremists emerging from the Middle East.  Most analysis take the extremist’s word that their motivation is their interpretation of religion.  The extremist acts are consistent with their religious texts.   On the other hand, we are confused by our observation of the more peaceful practice of the same religion by older adults with established careers and homes with peaceful families.   Among this older population, the religion is proven to be peaceable.  The attempt to explain the turmoil as a result of ideological conflict has been unsuccessful in identitying an effective strategy to deal with the problem.

Because of the status of ideology in our arguments, we are mislead into arguing in terms of this being some form of religious conflict.  The root problem may instead by a inter-generational generational conflict, where young people are experiencing success in their goals of gaining power by using the justification of a certain ideology.

The core of the conflict is that it is a youth movement.   The challenge is an inter-generational conflict where the older people are becoming the minority but are not providing vacancies to accommodate the younger people.   The younger people are taking a more disruptive approach of replacing the authority structure entirely so that the new structure will have vacancies that they can fill.

This is like my analogy to the business disruption where the established business that refused to accommodate new people finds itself put of of business by a disruptive business using new technologies.  The disrupting business happens to have abundant vacancies for younger people.

In the Middle East, the younger generation is making places for themselves by disrupting the entire government and other established institutions.   The rebellion involves embracing the ideals of a previously less powerful opposition.   When the older generation is strongly invested in capitalism, the younger generation can oppose capitalism.  When the older generation supports scientific methods of inquiry, the younger generation can support dogmatism.   When the older generation has a peaceful interpretation of religion, the younger generation can embrace a more violent interpretation that is closer to the text as a historical account that accurately portrays a more violent earlier period.


2 thoughts on “Confounding variable of Ideology in interpreting political conflicts: the truth may be generational conflict

  1. Pingback: Modern era of longer lifespans exposes fatal flaw of democracy: the need to disenfranchise the old | kenneumeister

  2. Pingback: Generational divide in politics | kenneumeister

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