Tag Archives: tribalism

Political Paranoia

Awhile back, in one of his newsletters, Paul Krugman reminded us that we’ve always had lunacy in America. He was right–before the equation of vaccinations with (ahem!) both communism and fascism, the fluoridation of water was a favorite target. And I remember when the John Birch Society assured us that Dwight Eisenhower was a “dedicated, conscious agent of the communist conspiracy.” 

As Krugman pointed out, however, the difference between then and now is that the entire GOP has embraced bizarre theories like Trump’s “Big Lie.” Conspiracies are so mainstream in the Republican Party that, as he wrote, “These days you’re excommunicated from the Republican Party if you don’t embrace the Big Lie that the election was stolen, don’t denounce modestly center-left Democrats as the second coming of Stalin and, increasingly, don’t declare that mask mandates are the equivalent of the Holocaust and vaccines are a globalist plot to achieve mind control.”

The question of our time is: What has given “political paranoia” critical mass? Krugman didn’t offer an answer, and I certainly don’t have one.

In 1964, Richard Hofstadter published his famous essay in Harper’s Magazine titled “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” This seems to be a good time to revisit it.

Hofstadter was commenting on the right-wing of his time, and its success in nominating Barry Goldwater. (In the wake of Donald Trump, Goldwater seems eminently normal, whether one agrees or not with his political positions.) Explaining his choice of language, Hofstadter wrote

I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind. In using the expression “paranoid style” I am not speaking in a clinical sense, but borrowing a clinical term for other purposes. I have neither the competence nor the desire to classify any figures of the past or present as certifiable lunatics. In fact, the idea of the paranoid style as a force in politics would have little contemporary relevance or historical value if it were applied only to men with profoundly disturbed minds. It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant.

The essay included illuminating examples reaching back to 1855.

In the history of the United States one find it, for example, in the anti-Masonic movement, the nativist and anti-Catholic movement, in certain spokesmen of abolitionism who regarded the United States as being in the grip of a slaveholders’ conspiracy, in many alarmists about the Mormons, in some Greenback and Populist writers who constructed a great conspiracy of international bankers, in the exposure of a munitions makers’ conspiracy of World War I, in the popular left-wing press, in the contemporary American right wing, and on both sides of the race controversy today, among White Citizens’ Councils and Black Muslims. I do not propose to try to trace the variations of the paranoid style that can be found in all these movements, but will confine myself to a few leading episodes in our past history in which the style emerged in full and archetypal splendor.

The examples–which he elaborates–are telling, but it’s the following paragraph that struck me. It could easily have been written this year.

The spokesmen of those earlier movements felt that they stood for causes and personal types that were still in possession of their country—that they were fending off threats to a still established way of life. But the modern right wing, as Daniel Bell has put it, feels dispossessed: America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion. The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialistic and communistic schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners as of old but major statesmen who are at the very centers of American power. Their predecessors had discovered conspiracies; the modern radical right finds conspiracy to be betrayal from on high.

At their base, American grievances always come back to tribalism, and to threats posed by “the Other” to the world within which White Christian men are comfortable.

Ironically, it’s their refusal to accept a changing reality that is by far the biggest threat we face.

 

Will It Work?

I have previously made the point that solving our social and political animosities requires an accurate diagnosis of their causes–or at the very least, recognition of the elements of contemporary life that are feeding those animosities.

If, as many sociologists and political scientists believe, the roots of much contemporary discord can be found in the economic inequality that characterizes today’s U.S.–if that inequality provides the fertile soil for the racism and tribalism that are tearing us apart–then efforts to address economic insecurity should substantially ameliorate that discord. 

In one of her daily Letters from an American, Heather Cox Richardson assumes the accuracy of that diagnosis, and notes that the Biden Administration is pursuing policies that should  mitigate some of the worst of our current economic disparities:

Trump and his loyalists feed off Americans who have been dispossessed economically since the Reagan revolution that began in 1981 started the massive redistribution of wealth upward. Those disaffected people, slipping away from the secure middle-class life their parents lived, are the natural supporters of authoritarians who assure them their problems come not from the systems leaders have put in place, but rather from Black people, people of color, and feminist women.

President Joe Biden appears to be trying to combat this dangerous dynamic not by trying to peel disaffected Americans away from Trump and his party by arguing against the former president, but by reducing the pressure on those who support him.

A study from the Niskanen Center think tank shows that the expanded Child Tax Credit, which last month began to put up to $300 per child per month into the bank accounts of most U.S. households with children, will primarily benefit rural Americans and will give a disproportionately large relative boost to their local economies. According to the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent, “the…nine states that will gain the most per capita from the expanded child allowance are all red states.”

Other elements of administration policy should also be ameliorative: the infrastructure bill will bring high-speed internet to every household in the U.S.; it will also provide $3.5 billion intended to reduce energy costs for more than 700,000 low-income households.

Richardson is a historian, and history teaches us that economic distress has often provided an impetus for the surfacing of bigotries that folks are less likely to express in more prosperous times. A number of scholars, for example, have pointed to Germany’s runaway inflation–and national humiliation–in the wake of World War I as one reason for the country’s receptivity to Nazism and willingness to express long-simmering anti-Semitism, and more recent academic literature supports the thesis that that economic scarcity promotes racial animus. 

As an article in Time Magazine reported, numerous studies have demonstrated that economic scarcity influences how people treat those outside of their own social groups. (There is also a “chicken and egg” element to the relationship between economic anxiety and racism–a column in the Washington Post reported on one study that suggested racial resentment may be driving economic anxiety, not the other way around.)

Democrats often bewail the tendency of low-income voters to cast ballots “against their own interests”–a complaint that assumes (I believe incorrectly) that those interests are economic rather than cultural. A somewhat different but related question is whether a significant improvement in the economic situation of low-income Americans will “take the edge off” and moderate the expression of their cultural fears.

The Biden Administration’s policies will go a long way toward answering that question–and America’s future is riding on the result.

 

The Age Of Misinformation

Political scientists often study the characteristics and influence of those they dub “high information voters.” Although that cohort is relatively small, it accounts for a significant amount–probably a majority–of America’s political discourse.

Research has suggested that these more informed voters, who follow politics closely, are just as likely–perhaps even more likely– to exhibit confirmation bias as are Americans less invested in the daily political news. But their ability to spread both information and misinformation is far greater than it was before the Internet and the ubiquity of social media.

As Max Fisher recently wrote in a column for the New York Times, 

There’s a decent chance you’ve had at least one of these rumors, all false, relayed to you as fact recently: that President Biden plans to force Americans to eat less meat; that Virginia is eliminating advanced math in schools to advance racial equality; and that border officials are mass-purchasing copies of Vice President Kamala Harris’s book to hand out to refugee children.

All were amplified by partisan actors. But you’re just as likely, if not more so, to have heard it relayed from someone you know. And you may have noticed that these cycles of falsehood-fueled outrage keep recurring.

Fisher attributes this phenomenon to a number of factors, but especially to an aspect of identity politics; we live in an age where political identity has become central to the self-image held by many Americans.

Fisher cites research attributing the prevalence of misinformation to three main elements of our time. Perhaps the most important of the three is a social environment in which individuals feel the need for what he terms “in-grouping,” and I would call tribalism — identification with like-minded others  as a source of strength and (especially) superiority. As he says,

In times of perceived conflict or social change, we seek security in groups. And that makes us eager to consume information, true or not, that lets us see the world as a conflict putting our righteous ingroup against a nefarious outgroup.

 American political polarization promotes the sharing of disinformation. The hostility between Red and Blue America feeds a pervasive distrust, and when people are distrustful, they become much more prone to engage in and accept rumor and falsehood. Distrust also encourages people to see the world as “us versus them”– and that’s a world in which we are much more apt to believe information that bolsters “us” and denigrates “them.” We know that  individuals with more polarized views are more likely to believe falsehoods.

And of course, the emergence of high-profile political figures who prey on these tribal instincts exacerbates the situation.

Then there is the third factor — a shift to social media, which is a powerful outlet for composers of disinformation, a pervasive vector for misinformation itself and a multiplier of the other risk factors.

“Media has changed, the environment has changed, and that has a potentially big impact on our natural behavior,” said William J. Brady, a Yale University social psychologist.

“When you post things, you’re highly aware of the feedback that you get, the social feedback in terms of likes and shares,” Dr. Brady said. So when misinformation appeals to social impulses more than the truth does, it gets more attention online, which means people feel rewarded and encouraged for spreading it.

It isn’t surprising that people who get positive feedback when they post inflammatory or false statements are more likely to do so again–and again. In one particularly troubling analysis, researchers found that when a fact-check revealed that information in a post was wrong, the response of partisans wasn’t to revise their thinking or get upset with the purveyor of the lie.

Instead, it was to attack the fact checkers.

“The problem is that when we encounter opposing views in the age and context of social media, it’s not like reading them in a newspaper while sitting alone,” the sociologist Zeynep Tufekci wrote in a much-circulated MIT Technology Review article. “It’s like hearing them from the opposing team while sitting with our fellow fans in a football stadium. Online, we’re connected with our communities, and we seek approval from our like-minded peers. We bond with our team by yelling at the fans of the other one.”

In an ecosystem where that sense of identity conflict is all-consuming, she wrote, “belonging is stronger than facts.”

We’re in a world of hurt…..

 

Need Cheering Up?

A few days ago, I began a post with an admission that I had always—naively –believed that most people are fundamentally good. Given all the evidence to the contrary coming from cellphone videos and Presidential “briefings,” that belief was beginning to seem touchingly childish–based on hope, not evidence.

But!

I came across a truly uplifting account in a recent issue of the Guardian.

It began by referencing a book that makes the opposite argument, Lord of the Flies.  Most of us have either read the book by William Golding, or seen the movie, or at least heard the conversations it triggered. Lord of the Flies centered on a shipwreck in which young boys were marooned on an island without adult supervision.By the time they are rescued, they’ve turned a lush island into a disaster zone. Three of the boys are dead.

The book’s message is about the “darkness of man’s heart.” The lesson is hard to miss: without external constraints, we’re all animals intent only on our own gratification, capable of immense cruelty.

The author of the Guardian story–a writer– wondered if there had ever been an actual incident that might test Golding’s thesis. It turned out that there was. Six boys had been marooned on a rocky islet south of Tonga, an island group in the Pacific Ocean. They were rescued by Peter, an Australian sea captain, after being stranded there for more than a year. The captain had been ready to skirt the island, which had long been uninhabited, when he saw evidence of a fire.

Then he saw a boy. Naked. Hair down to his shoulders. This wild creature leaped from the cliffside and plunged into the water. Suddenly more boys followed, screaming at the top of their lungs. It didn’t take long for the first boy to reach the boat. “My name is Stephen,” he cried in perfect English. “There are six of us and we reckon we’ve been here 15 months.”

The boys, once aboard, claimed they were students at a boarding school in Nuku‘alofa, the Tongan capital. Sick of school meals, they had decided to take a fishing boat out one day, only to get caught in a storm. Likely story, Peter thought. Using his two-way radio, he called in to Nuku‘alofa. “I’ve got six kids here,” he told the operator. “Stand by,” came the response. Twenty minutes ticked by…. Finally, a very tearful operator came on the radio, and said: “You found them! These boys have been given up for dead. Funerals have been held. If it’s them, this is a miracle!”

What the captain found was the absolute antithesis of what Golding’s book predicted.

The boys had set up a small commune with food garden, hollowed-out tree trunks to store rainwater, a gymnasium with curious weights, a badminton court, chicken pens and a permanent fire, all from handiwork, an old knife blade and much determination. While the boys in Lord of the Flies come to blows over the fire, those in this real-life version tended their flame so it never went out, for more than a year.

The kids agreed to work in teams of two, drawing up a strict roster for garden, kitchen and guard duty. Sometimes they quarrelled, but whenever that happened they solved it by imposing a time-out. Their days began and ended with song and prayer.

The moral of this true story? Humans aren’t “naturally” ignoble and greedy. We really don’t have to spend all our time and energy battling the “evil that lurks in the heart of men,” as the Shadow used to say.

This real-life experiment confirms a favorite parable, attributed to the Cherokee: an elder tells his grandson that there are two wolves in each of us, one good, one evil. The grandson asks which wolf will win. The elder responds “The one you feed.”

The challenge for all of us, but especially for those charged with implementing our social contract, is to construct governments that build on the essential goodness in the human heart–to create systems that nurture rather than divide, and value collaboration and kindness over conflict and tribalism.

We need to build a society that feeds the good wolf.

 

Labels For The Intellectually Lazy

In a class discussion the other day, a student noted that she had taken one of those “where do you stand?” tests on the Internet, and had emerged dead-center–neither Left nor Right. She wondered what was wrong with her; evidently, her fatal flaw is that she actually thinks for herself.

These Internet “tests,” of course, are bogus; the questions lack nuance, and tend to reflect the “either/or” bipolarism of contemporary American politics.

I’m old enough to remember when the most common complaint about the parties was that there wasn’t “a dime’s worth of difference between them.” I also remember a popular libertarian illustration of the political spectrum as a circle, not a straight line–the accurate message being that, at the far left and far right, the extremes meet, with their only disagreement being whose agenda government should impose on the rest of us.

I’m also old enough to remember when issues we now consider “left” were held by many on the right: lots of limited-government Republicans used to be pro-choice and pro-gay-rights, for example, asserting that–as Barry Goldwater put it–government didn’t belong in your boardroom or your bedroom.

The tendency to apply labels that allow us to dismiss, rather than engage, positions with which we disagree is hardly new; in 2003, I wrote

This mania for labeling people so that we don’t have to engage with them on the validity of their ideas has accelerated during the past few years. Perhaps it is talk radio, with its tendency to reduce everything to name-calling sound-bites. Admittedly, it is much more efficient to call a woman a “feminazi” than to take the time and effort needed to discuss why her positions are untenable. And the tactic certainly isn’t limited to Republicans; Indiana’s very own Evan Bayh has solemnly warned the Democrats against the danger posed by “leftists” like Howard Dean. (I’m not quite sure when Dean’s support for gun rights, the death penalty and a balanced budget became “far left” positions. Perhaps when they were espoused by someone the Senator isn’t supporting.)

Intellectual honesty has not improved since 2003. Far from it.

Perhaps my memory is faulty, but when I became politically active, the major differences in political philosophy involved “how” rather than “what.” In other words, there was general recognition of the problems America faced, but different approaches to solving those problems. Today, the bulk of the Republican Party disagrees about the very existence of certain problems–think climate change.

Disputing evidence, however, is neither Left nor Right. It’s delusional.

For that matter, a number of America’s current challenges simply do not lend themselves to classic Left/Right classifications. Climate change is one. Globalization is another. The likelihood that automation will displace millions of workers, and the increasingly undemocratic structure of our electoral system are still others. Proposed solutions to these challenges may or may not fall on the familiar left/right spectrum, but any genuine debate about those solutions must be grounded in acknowledgment of their existence and complexity.

Admittedly, the resurgence of white nationalism on the one hand and calls for massive economic redistribution on the other fall on the familiar left/right spectrum–but even then, partisan labeling and name-calling are no substitute for considered analysis.

Yelling “snowflake” or “fascist” at those with whom you disagree may make you feel better, but it’s not only lazy–it’s no substitute for an evidence-based explanation of why you disagree.

Name calling is also unlikely to change anyone’s opinion  –although, given the rancor of today’s political tribalism, and the unwillingness of today’s zealots even to consider contrary positions, probably nothing is.