What is this world coming to?  In a recent New York Times column, David Brooks opines that politics in the hiring process is now more pervasive than racial discrimination.  How can that possibly be?

In his column, Brooks backs up his claim by referencing several sources, including political scientists Shanto Iyengar and Sean Westwood, who gave 1,000 people student resumes and asked them which students should get scholarships.  The resumes had some racial cues (membership in African-American Students Association) and some political cues (member of Young Republicans).

Race definitely influenced decisions.  Blacks favored black students 73 to 27 percent, and whites favored black students slightly.  But political cues were more powerful.  Both Democrats and Republicans favored students who agreed with them 80 percent of the time.  They favored students from their party even when other students had better credentials.

Iyengar and Westwood conducted other experiments to measure what Cass Sunstein of Harvard Law School calls “partyism.”  They gave subjects implicit association tests, which measure whether people associate different qualities with positive or negative emotions.  They had people play the trust game, which measures how much people are willing to trust different kinds of people.

In those situations, they found pervasive prejudice.  And political biases were stronger than their racial biases.

In a Bloomberg View column, Sunstein pointed to polling data that captured the same phenomenon  In 1960, roughly five percent of Republicans and Democrats said they’d be “displeased” if their child married someone from the other party.  By 2010, 49 percent of Republicans and 33 percent of Democrats said they would mind.

Politics is obviously a passionate activity, in which moral values clash.  Debates over Obamacare, charter schools or whether the United States should intervene in Syria stir serious disagreements.  But these studies are measuring something different.  People’s essential worth is being measured by a political label: whether they should be hired, married, trusted or discriminated against.

The broad social phenomenon is that as personal life is being demoralized, political life is being hyper-moralized.  People are less judgmental about different lifestyles, but they are more judgmental about policy labels.

The features of the hyper-moralized mind-set are all around.  More people are building their communal and social identities around political labels.  Your political label becomes the prerequisite for membership in your social set.

Politics becomes a marker for basic decency.  Those who are not members of the right party are deemed to lack basic compassion, or basic loyalty to country.

There are several reasons politics has become hyper-moralized in this way.  And straight moral discussion has atrophied.  There used to be public theologians and philosophers who discussed moral issues directly.  That kind of public intellectual is no longer prominent, so moral discussion is now done under the guise of policy disagreements, often by political talk-show hosts.

Back in the day when I was hiring, I desperately looked for any kind of spark, a passion or a commitment.  I didn’t care whether it was politics, religion, a hobby—anything which said to me this person has potential.

Trying to uncover that spark was not always easy, so I was happy, delighted to find it in whatever politics a candidate pursued.

If we believe David Brooks, that’s just not good enough anymore.  It has to be the “right” politics.

Ugh, that’s discouraging!  I wasn’t in favor of race being a factor in hiring and I’m no less comfortable with politics now being a source of discrimination.


Filed under Blog


  1. As one of those you recognized with “potential,” I’m feeling motivated to reply.
    I’m surprised you’re surprised.
    Seems to me – at least in government – leaders have always been surrounding themselves with those of the same stripes. It becomes a big news story when an Obama appoints a Gates or Bush allowed a democrat Mineta in as Commerce Secretary.
    Actually, it is odd that Trump has none yet since he claimed to be a dem for most of his years. I imagine it is challenging to find a general (active or retired) who is also a card carrying democrat. Trump’s criteria doesn’t include party affiliation, knowledge or experience as long as one has access to a billionaire, a general, or both.

  2. Art Schwartz

    Thepoint lot the blog is about the general business community, not the the government arena – that’s what’s surprising

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