I applaud your incorrectness.

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The Political Incorrectness Racket

Cass R. Sunstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the author of “The World According to Star Wars” and a co-author of “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness.”
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Among Republicans, it has become politically correct to be politically incorrect. Actually that’s the most politically correct thing that you can possibly be. As soon as you announce that you’re politically incorrect, you’re guaranteed smiles and laughter, and probably thunderous applause. Proudly proclaiming your bravery, you’re pandering to the crowd.

A math-filled new paper, by economists Chia-Hui Chen at Kyoto University and Junichiro Ishida at Osaka University, helps to explain what’s going on. With a careful analysis of incentive structures, they show that if self-interested people want to show that they are independent, their best strategy is to be politically incorrect, and to proclaim loudly that’s what they are being. The trick is that this strategy has nothing at all to do with genuine independence; it’s just a matter of salesmanship, a way to get more popular. 

Focusing on the role of experts rather than politicians, Chen and Ishida note that in many circles, political correctness is “associated with a negative connotation where people who express politically correct views are perceived as manipulative or even dishonest.” For that reason, the unbiased expert has a strong strategic incentive, which is to “deviate from the norm of political correctness” to demonstrate “that he is, at least, not manipulative.” Of course, the deviation is itself a form of manipulation, strategically designed to convince people that the expert can be trusted.

Chen and Ishida’s punchline is that whenever experts care about their reputations, “we cannot regard political incorrectness naively as a sign of blunt honesty since it can easily be an attempt to signal one’s hidden characteristics rather than the true state of the world. ” With respect to Republican candidates, that’s putting it much too gently. It’s the strategic go-to line when things get tough.

Consider the Republican chorus in this light. Donald Trump complains that we have “become so politically correct as a country that we can't even walk. We can't think properly. We can't do anything.” Ted Cruz is more concise: “Political correctness is killing people.” Ben Carson insists that the biggest threat to free speech comes from what he calls the “Political Correctness police,” who have “created fear in a large portion of our population, causing them to remain silent.” Mario Rubio says the “radical left” is using a “politically correct way to advocate Israel’s destruction.”

It’s true that in some left-wing circles, especially on college campuses, political correctness is doing serious damage, because it entrenches a particular ideological orthodoxy (and dampens necessary dissent). In some places, you reject that orthodoxy at your peril. If you say that you oppose affirmative action or an increase in the minimum wage, you incur a kind of reputational tax, and the price may be too high to be worth paying.

But those who deplore political correctness tend to entrench an orthodoxy of their own. And when they do so, they get an immediate reputational subsidy, in the form of a boost in popularity. Chen and Ishida show that when experts or politicians decry political correctness, they are engaging in what economists call “signaling."

One of their signals is that they are willing to poke a finger into the eye of left-wing orthodoxies. By embracing political incorrectness, Republican candidates proclaim that they will not be cowed by, or even compromise with, their political opponents.

The other signal, and the more important one, involves authenticity. If a politician makes some outrageous statement, and follows it with a suggestion that he deplores political correctness, you might well conclude that you can trust what he says. Whatever else they are, those who make outrageous statements seem honest and real rather than programmed or scripted. That’s what a lot of voters are demanding.

But there is a sham here, and it’s ironic. The very Republicans who proclaim their rejection of political correctness have committed themselves to a host of policy judgments that are, in their circles, politically correct. Those judgments help define the prevailing orthodoxy. If you want to survive, you had better not question any of them.

Here are some examples: Gun control is a terrible idea. The Affordable Care Act is a disaster. The United States shouldn’t be doing a lot to combat climate change. Affirmative action is bad. The Barack Obama administration is a dismal failure. Ronald Reagan was great. The minimum wage should not be increased.

None of the leading Republican candidates dares to challenge even one of these statements in public. If Trump, Cruz, Rubio, or Carson supported an aggressive effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, or called for a boost in the minimum wage, you might not agree with him -- but you’d know that he really was willing to be independent and to say what he thinks.

Condemning political correctness? That’s telling people just what they want to hear. It’s the furthest thing from brave. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Cass R Sunstein at csunstein1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Christopher Flavelle at cflavelle@bloomberg.net