Should EAs be more welcoming to thoughtful and aligned Republicans?

by Linch3 min read20th Jan 202010 comments

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Epistemic status: Highly speculative. I know very little about the current state of the field or what EAs in this space think about. I also know about as much about general policy as you’d expect of a random layman who has ever once lived in DC, so everything I say could be wildly off-base.

Who should read this: If you think US politics and policy are not really important for improving the world, or if you’re extremely skeptical that EAs could have any tangible effect on either, you can stop reading this post now.

Introduction

I think it’s plausible that Effective Altruism will strongly benefit from having more thoughtful and aligned members of the Republican Party in America (GOP). I further claim that this is important and neglected, while remaining neutral on its tractability.

By “thoughtful and aligned,” I’m imagining people who agree with EA’s core premise (taking seriously the question of how to do good) and maybe some of our general ideas and methodology (eg, moral impartiality, longtermism, empiricism). By “Republican” I mean either registered members of the US Republican Party, or people considering registering, especially people who have broadly conservative values, relationships, and networks. Ideally, these are ambitious people interested or engaged in politics/policy, and have a legitimate shot at affecting change years or decades down the road.

Since these claims can be easily misunderstood, I will first say what this article does not do:

  1. I am not saying that we should do broad “outreach” to American Republicans. Similar to why it’s likely inadvisable to pursue “outreach” in China and other new countries at this current juncture, I would not recommend making irreversible moves like attempting to be massively appealing to Republicans without much more thorough consideration than this forum post.
  2. I am not claiming that EAs should become more invested in politics or policy. This has been extensively debated elsewhere, but the rest of the article should be read as conditional upon the hypothesis that working in American policy is important and tractable for at least some EAs.
  3. I am not positing a specific strategy for reaching out to Republicans. For example, I am not positing that we change current EA writings to be more ideologically palatable to American conservatives, or any other specific tactics. Details like that can probably be decided on a more contextual basis later on iff this general argument holds.

Importance

Why do I think we will benefit from having more thoughtful and aligned Republicans on board? Here are some tentative speculations, in decreasing order of importance:

  1. Republican political appointees can have a lot of influence. This claim has two components:
    1. Political appointees in general hold a lot of power in the United States. In many democratic countries, a change of leadership means that political appointees take the top spot in a department, but the career bureaucrats hold every level below them. In America, a vague rule of thumb I’ve heard before is that political appointees take up the top ~5(!) levels.
    2. You would naively expect ~50% of future administrations to be Republican. Thus, if the only American EAs active in politics and policy are Democrats and sectless bureaucrats/academics, then nuanced EA ideas will not easily reach the right channels during a Republican administration.
  2. Diversity and inclusiveness is prima facie good. This has been extensively discussed elsewhere, in and out of EA. This is not an uncontroversial claim, however defending it is outside the scope of this essay.
  3. Ideological diversity in particular seems important. People have argued for why intellectual diversity is particularly important at least since the time of Kant and Mill, I will again refrain from rehashing the arguments here.
  4. Republican primary votes matter more.
    1. Republican primary candidates are more high-variance than Democratic primary candidates. It seems like the difference between the best (by values, competence, etc) and worst Republican primary frontrunners have historically been higher than that of the best and worst Democratic frontrunners. (I don’t have a source for this, but I’ve said it a bunch of times to political aficionados and nobody really contested this claim).
    2. So assuming that the general election is a coin-flip, voting (and campaigning, etc) in the Republican primaries matters more.
    3. I suspect this is true about Congressional races as well (I have not looked into it in more detail). I’m not sure about local races, but I suspect those aren’t usually pivotal to the longterm future of humanity.

Neglectedness

While it’s hard to get exact numbers[1], my personal estimate is that <2% of current active EAs are Republicans, for various reasons including founder effects.

This is in contrast to say the UK, where I suspect somewhere between 10-20% of British EAs vote for the Conservative Party. So naively it looks like there’s a lot of room for improvement.

Tractability

I wish to remain neutral on tractability, though it seems worth exploring. EDIT: Aaron in the comments helped pointed out this post on how EAs can be more welcoming to conservatives.

Conclusion

Naively, it looks like getting some thoughtful and aligned active members of the Republican party to be on board with EA seems important and neglected. There is a decent chance that this argument does not hold due to some crucial consideration I’ve missed, so happy to be proven wrong in the comments!

Thanks to anonymous commentators for feedback on earlier versions of this draft. All mistakes are, of course, not mine.

[1] Though maybe the upcoming EA Survey analysis of political alignment by geographical distribution might help shed some light.

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Since you mentioned it in your footnote, the EA Survey 2019 post on geographic distribution of EAs is out. We don't have information on party identification, but we can see that 2.23% of EAs living in the USA are politically affiliated with the Center Right and 1.19% with the Right (12.76% with Libertarianism & 76.56% with the Left or Center Left). Keeping in mind the caveat that our data only shows where an EA currently lives so an EA reporting both living in the USA and being on the Right-hand side of the political spectrum does not necessarily mean they are a registered Republican.

https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/cvkqyxepf4W2whYSK/ea-survey-2019-series-geographic-distribution-of-eas#Political_affiliation

I think if you're in a blue state like California, it generally makes sense to register as Republican to vote in the Republican primary, because there will be fewer California Republicans voting in that primary, but California still contributes the same number of electoral college votes?

I disagree with this perspective for many of the reasons outlined in this comment (on a thread about registering with the Labour party for similar reasons). I think it's good if EA action, political or otherwise, is taken in the spirit of cooperation and honesty, and registering for a party whose positions you broadly oppose doesn't seem to follow that. 

(There are exceptions to this principle, of course, but given the relatively low impact of voting in statewide or national elections, that doesn't seem like an exception worth making.)

Maybe you could choose to only vote in a party's primary if you also precommit to voting for your chosen candidate in the general election if they win the primary.

Strongly agree that we should be cooperative in general.

On my Facebook there's extensive discussion about whether registering as Republican is cooperative or not (one big difference here is that party registration seems meaningfully different in the US and UK, eg, in the US there's no dues).

Personally I will strongly recommend against registering for a party unless you want to think of yourself as belonging to that party, potentially for years or longer.

The EA strategy of private donation would sell well to Republicans: both to minimize suffering due to poverty as well as mitigate poverty's destabilizing effects in regions critical to US interests. Some of the Republicans I've debated about poverty pointed to the role of the private citizen, churches, and NGOs to do that, not the government.

EA also lends itself to a Republican emphasis on national security, particularly nuclear strategy and short term artificial intelligence cyber warfare strategies.

The humanist/atheist, tech world, and Cali overrepresentation is probably the biggest reason EA is low on Republicans.

I didn't see a pingback on Ozy's post about being more welcoming to conservatives, which leads me to think it wasn't linked here, but many of Ozy's points seem relevant!

Wow I totally missed this! Edited the post accordingly.

What leads you to think that American and British numbers are so different? Have you heard many EA-aligned Brits express support for the Conservatives, particularly across multiple election cycles? Is this mostly a guess based on British Conservatives being (generally) less right-leaning the American Republicans?

I asked a few EA-aligned Brits what % of EAs they think voted for the Conservatives. I suspect this number is not robust across election cycles, but I'm also not confident that mean regression should be the default hypothesis given a) how young EA is and b) modern British politics seem to be in somewhat uncharted territory.