Looking back, it’s now easy enough to see that the high point of democracy — the victory of open systems over the Soviet imperium that brought down the Berlin Wall in 1989 and set free more than 100 million Central Europeans — was quickly followed by the unleashing of economic forces that would undermine democracies. Far from ending history, liberalism triumphant engendered a reaction.Increasingly, companies have been displacing nations as the units of international competition:
They optimize globally, rather than nationally. Their aim is to maximize profits across the world — allocating cash where it is most beneficial, finding labor where it is cheapest — not to pursue some national interest.
The shift was fast-forwarded by advances in communications that rendered distance irrelevant, and by the willingness in most emerging markets to open borders to foreign investment and new technologies.
Hundreds of millions of people in these developing countries were lifted from poverty into the middle class. Conversely, in Western societies, a hollowing out of the middle class began as manufacturing migrated, technological advances eliminated jobs and wages stagnated.
The global view did not suit everyone. In what the French call the “periphery” — areas far from the wired metropolis — it began to look like a not-so-subtle sabotaging of the nation. The moneyed got to run a rigged system, in a different universe from those whose lives remained local.
As inequality grew nationally (while narrowing globally), and impunity for financial disaster accompanied it, anger mounted. Frustration translated into an increasingly xenophobic search for scapegoats.
Three decades on, nationalism, nativism and illiberalism are ascendant, from Donald Trump’s United States, to Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s Poland, to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s Myanmar. It’s an astonishing turnabout, but it has its logic.
If we live today at an inflection point, it is because it’s impossible to say how much further rightist and illiberal authoritarianism may go.
Trump is a symptom, not a cause. That is why he may be hard to dislodge. He intuited the extent of American anger better than anyone. He also intuited a kind of cultural despair that made millions of Americans impervious to his lewd vulgarity — in fact, inclined to cheer him on in sticking it in the eye of the “establishment.”An Op-Ed piece by David Brooks quotes Jonathan Haidt, who:
…listed some of the reasons centrifugal forces may now exceed centripetal: the loss of the common enemies we had in World War II and the Cold War, an increasingly fragmented media, the radicalization of the Republican Party, and a new form of identity politics, especially on campus... Haidt made the interesting point that identity politics per se is not the problem. Identity politics is just political mobilization around group characteristics. The problem is that identity politics has dropped its centripetal elements and become entirely centrifugal.
From an identity politics that emphasized our common humanity, we’ve gone to an identity politics that emphasizes having a common enemy. On campus these days, current events are often depicted as pure power struggles — oppressors acting to preserve their privilege over the virtuous oppressed.
“A funny thing happens,” Haidt said, “when you take young human beings, whose minds evolved for tribal warfare and us/them thinking, and you fill those minds full of binary dimensions. You tell them that one side in each binary is good and the other is bad. You turn on their ancient tribal circuits, preparing them for battle. Many students find it thrilling; it floods them with a sense of meaning and purpose.”
The problem is that tribal common-enemy thinking tears a diverse nation apart. This pattern is not just on campus. Look at the negative polarization that marks our politics. Parties, too, are no longer bound together by creeds but by enemies.Brooks also cites Bruckner, who argues:
…that excessive individualism paradoxically leads to in-group/out-group tribalism. Modern individualism releases each person from social obligation, but “being guided only by the lantern of his own understanding, the individual loses all assurance of a place, an order, a definition. He may have gained freedom, but he has lost security.”..We each have to write our own gospel that defines our own virtue…The easiest way to do that is to tell a tribal oppressor/oppressed story and build your own innocence on your status as victim. Just about everybody can find a personal victim story. Once you’ve identified your herd’s oppressor — the neoliberal order, the media elite, white males, whatever — your goodness is secure. You have virtue without obligation. Nothing is your fault.Finally Brooks notes that both Haidt and Bruckner:
...point to the fact that we’ve regressed from a sophisticated moral ethos to a primitive one. The crooked timber school of humanity says the line between good and evil runs through each person and we fight injustice on the basis of our common humanity. The oppressor/oppressed morality says the line runs between tribes. That makes it easy to feel good about yourself. But it makes you very hard to live with.An essay by Thomas Edsall quotes thoughts emailed to him by Steven Pinker:
The answer lies in raw tribalism: when someone is perceived as a champion of one’s coalition, all is forgiven. The same is true for opinions: a particular issue can become a sacred value, shibboleth, or affirmation of allegiance to one’s team, and its content no longer matters. This is part of a growing realization in political psychology that tribalism has been underestimated in our understanding of politics, and ideological coherence and political and scientific literacy overestimated.
…the full ingenuity of human cognition is recruited to valorize the champion and shore up the sacred beliefs. You can always dismiss criticism as being motivated by the bias of one’s enemies. Our cognitive and linguistic faculties are endlessly creative — that’s what makes our species so smart — and that creativity can be always deployed to reframe issues in congenial or invidious terms.Another quote from Pinker on tribalism is found in Galanes’ article on a conversation between Bill Gates and Pinker:
One of the biggest enemies of reason is tribalism. When people subscribe to an ideology, they suck up evidence that supports their preconceptions and filter out evidence that goes against them. Contrary to the belief of most scientists that denial of climate change is an effect of scientific illiteracy, it is not at all correlated with scientific literacy. People who believe in man-made climate change don’t know any more about climate or science than those who deny it. It’s almost perfectly correlated with left-wing versus right-wing orientation. And a move toward greater rationality would unbundle them and let evidence inform what the optimal policies ought to be.And, a quote from Don Symons:
Our species is profoundly coalitional, and in most times and places moral prescriptions apply only to one’s in-group, not to humanity in general. I don’t see any evidence that we evolved innate, universal moral rules about how to treat all humans. That’s why history, as James Joyce said, is a nightmare. Prehistory is worse. I assume that coalitional-thinking is what Trump was getting at when he claimed that he could shoot someone on 5th Avenue and his base would still love him. It’s not that they feel that killing a random stranger for no reason is morally ok; it’s that loyalty to their coalition leader is primary.Now.... This post is too long to start on ideas for correcting the trend towards tribalism. In a future MindBlog post I hope to summarize some articles suggesting ways to transcend tribalism.