You Say Po-tay-to and I Say Po-tah-to!

Our political divide between left and right is most often characterized by the media as an ideological battle between liberalism and conservatism. Yet the meanings of these ideological terms are too often misinterpreted and mischaracterized – mostly by the opposing point of view – in order to fit a preferred political narrative. For those on the left, liberalism implies tolerance and empathy, while conservatism connotes bigotry and selfishness. For those on the right, liberalism infers intellectual naiveté and moral degeneracy, while conservatism assumes moral rectitude and time-tested reason. A clear understanding of political ideology can be useful; false stereotypes much less so. We should unpackage these terms as they are used in the popular vernacular to understand just how unhelpful and misguided they have become.

The etymological root of liberal is liber, or free, as it pertains to individual human rights and freedoms. Merriam-Webster offers this definition: a political philosophy based on belief in progress, the essential goodness of the human race, and the autonomy (i.e., freedom) of the individual and standing for the protection of political and civil liberties. Liberalism shares the same root as liberty and it would be difficult to find an American conservative who was not attuned to the universal idea of individual liberty.

Likewise, the root of conservative is conservare, meaning to preserve. Merriam-Webster offers the following definition: a political philosophy based on tradition and social stability, stressing established institutions, and preferring gradual development to abrupt change. If one assumes the evolutionary perspective, it would be difficult to find a society, American liberal or otherwise, that did not seek to preserve certain time-worn traditions in the interests of stability and self-preservation. We should also note that conservatism shares the same word root as conservation, so nature weighs in on this meaning as well.

So where did we get the idea that these ideologies are opposed? Merriam-Webster is partly culpable by posing these ideologies as antonyms but, as we will discover, they should be mostly viewed as useful complements.

Jonathan Haidt, in his psychological studies summarized in The Righteous Mind, explains how our ideological leanings can be expressed through complex moral matrices, where differences arise in moral interpretations and priorities. Haidt cites six moral precepts: 1) care; 2) liberty; 3) fairness; 4) loyalty; 5) authority; 6) sanctity. Haidt results show how liberals privilege the first three, while conservatives employ a mix of all six, giving additional weight to loyalty, authority, and sanctity.

One should read Haidt’s book to understand the nuances of these moral matrices, but the major divergence between our conceptions of liberal and conservative seem to revolve around the moral values of care and fairness. Haidt argues that everyone cares about fairness, but there are two major kinds.: “On the left, fairness often implies equality, but on the right it means proportionality—people should be rewarded in proportion to what they contribute, even if that guarantees unequal outcomes.” Implicit in these interpretations is the idea that consequences follow actions, but some consequences are rooted in contextual factors that are outside the individual’s control, such as educational opportunity. The takeaway from Haidt’s studies is that these moral matrices are hardly set in concrete and can be easily reconciled through a fuller understanding of the different emphases. They do not really divide us into red vs. blue.

The other dichotomy posed by our definitions of liberal and conservative is the implication that conservatives are intolerant and resistant to change while liberals seek to remove institutional barriers to change. Conservatives may be guilty of saying ‘don’t fix what ain’t broke,’ while liberals may be guilty of forcing change without due regard to the uncertainty inherent in change. But there is a way of reconciling these two approaches to inevitable change.

All societies embrace change to a certain degree, what matters is the pace of change. Change that is disruptive to social traditions naturally will be resisted by those it disrupts. This does not mean change will not occur, it merely means the pace must be managed prudently. Pushing change beyond the limits of social adaptation often leads to reactionary backlashes, causing undo conflict over the inevitable. The gradual evolution of cultural mores is a good example of how change occurs within the limits of order and stability. Naturally, there will be those in society who object to the too slow or too rapid pace of change.

Finally, opinion polls and surveys suggest that fewer Americans define themselves as truly liberal or conservative, with conservatives exceeding liberals by roughly 35% to 26%, though the gap has been closing. I would also guess these poll numbers are biased by the partisan mischaracterization of both ideological labels.

If this is the case, how do we politically define or classify most American voters? Perhaps we don’t. I would suggest that average non-political Americans are neither conservative nor liberal as strictly defined by their true ideological meanings. Elsewhere I have suggested that most of us, regardless of our politics, are both tolerant and traditional. I have called this dominant ideology based on liberty and justice tolerant traditionalism, as opposed to conservative or liberal. Americans are generally willing to adapt to societal changes as best we can, embracing the good to come of it while feeling wistful for the past we know. Societies that evolve and endure by adapting to change have a proud past and an ever-brighter future.

Policies vs. Values

It’s difficult to make sense of American politics these days, though not for lack of trying! The following article published in Yahoo News presents some evidence that is more widely confirmed but also introduces some interpretations that are contradicted by that evidence (see blog comments). Most of the mainstream reporting seems to be suffering from these contradictions.

To begin, American voters are not divided so much by policy issues, as the head of the survey institute proclaims. Empirical evidence of voting patterns shows that most of the voting preferences are explained by urban vs. rural and suburban policy interests and household formation, with married voters contrasted against singles, with children or not.

The remainder (about 1/3, but growing) is probably explained by the moral values/ideological divide on which Jon Haidt has done so much research (see my The Righteous Mind review). People who lean left or right in ideology seems to have different value priorities that are reflected in how they view politics. Haidt classifies six moral values with their opposites as 1) care/harm; 2) liberty/oppression; 3) fairness/cheating; 4) loyalty/betrayal; 5) authority/subversion; 6) sanctity/degradation.

He goes on to show that liberals value the first three only and suspect the last three so that they focus on care and fairness as the foundation of a free society more than loyalty, authority and sanctity. Conservatives employ all six in designing their moral foundations. Haidt readily recognized this advantage for conservatives but suggests it is more a tactical advantage rather than a fuller understanding of a sound moral society.

Identity politics seems to have turned differences in moral value priorities into tribalism. So we have a Left tribe, referring to themselves as Progressives, and a Right tribe, calling themselves conservatives and libertarians. These tribes have developed two different cultures that appear incompatible. This cultural divide is far more distinct than race, ethnicity, or gender, despite what the media might proclaim. (MAGA is a cultural clarion call, not a racial or ethnic dog whistle.)

Of course, different cultures need not be antagonistic or adversarial, especially since they can evolve over time to share many of the same values, priorities, and mores. One error I see promoted by the liberal urban media and Democrats is the firm belief that their opponents are regressive and that progressivism must be proselytized. Voting results do not substantiate this belief and voting patterns show a majority of Americans embrace both traditionalism and tolerance for differences. Any friction is caused by the socio-economic disruption due to the rapid pace of change. It’s a mistake to push that pace of change merely for its own sake. Instead, we should manage it more judiciously without alacrity and judgment. People resist change instinctively and they need help adapting. That’s the role for politics and policy.

Unfortunately, truth and accuracy are the first victims of tribalism, and that seems to be the source of our present dysfunction.

Divided by symbols, Americans see a ‘serious threat’ across the aisle

Yahoo News,  Jon Ward, Senior Political Correspondent

An annual survey of American attitudes about politics and values released Tuesday found, to no one’s surprise, that the nation’s divisions are growing dangerously deep and wide.

American Values Survey

More than half the people in both the Republican and Democratic parties see the other side as a “serious threat to the country,” the American Values Survey by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) found. At a panel discussion at the Brookings Institution to discuss the poll findings, Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, said a “pre-Spanish Civil War mentality” was taking hold among voters.

The word “war” itself was mentioned numerous times by the panelists, in reference to the way both left and right see politics now as a zero-sum fight.

The good news — or the bad, depending on how one views it — is that the divisions are mostly not about policy, but symbolism.

“When you’re at war symbols begin to matter more,” said Robert Jones, CEO of PRRI. “Confederate monuments, flags … the [border] wall is part of that.”

But, he added, “If you talk policy, Americans are pragmatic.”

He cited a finding in the latest values survey, which PRRI has conducted for eight years in a row, that around half of Republicans support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. He contrasted that with the political rhetoric from President Trump about building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

“It’s the symbolic issues that are animating more than the actual policy issues,” Jones said. “When you turn from symbols to policy, there’s less polarization.”

There was agreement among the panelists Tuesday, including the conservative Olsen, that Trump fuels the conflict by highlighting the most inflammatory public issues.

But the deeper question is, why are Americans so focused on symbols rather than substance when it comes to choosing and following political leaders? Is it a recent phenomenon, brought on by the age of entertainment over information that has dominated the world since the advent of television? Or is it a natural human instinct?

Joy Reid, a panelist who hosts a weekend show on MSNBC, said that the election of former President Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 was a symbolic act for many black Americans, and that Trump voters — most of them white — engaged in counter-symbolism. [The problem with this interpretation is that the Rust Belt states flipped from Obama to Trump, indicating that symbolism was probably “trumped” by policy results.]

Trump is “almost a flip-side, bizarro-world Obama,” Reid said. “For a lot of hardcore Obama supporters, Obama was the point. It wasn’t specifically that he would do some specific economic thing,” Reid said. “It was the symbolism of having somebody who was not white, somebody who has international roots in his family, somebody who represented a changing America.” [We don’t see a problem here? Voting for someone because they are “not white,” does what for whites in a material sense? Of course, the non-white Obama could never have won an election without the support of a significant plurality of whites. Casting this history in terms of race is probably not helpful.]

Similarly, Reid said, “For a lot of Trump supporters Trump is the point. It isn’t his policies. It’s not what he’s going to do even for them.” [I would agree that it is less about Trump’s policies in a positive sense and more a reaction against Obama’s policies and divisiveness. This extends into the backlash against political correctness that Trump instigated.]

“Just having that man, who is white and very ethno-nationalist in his whitenesss … very proactive about putting forward his gender and racial identity and saying I represent this and I’ll attack the people who in your view are detriments to it … that’s kind of the point,” she said. [There it is again – ethno-nationalism and whitenesss – instead of patriotic sovereignty through Americanism that mischaracterizes the Trump opposition. This is not to say Trump did not take advantage of this mischaracterization.] 

Reid said that Democrats who want to “convert” Trump voters may be chasing a lost cause. “I’m not sure that can be done,” she said. “He has a power over at least a third of the country that I don’t think anything can break.”

But while the PRRI study found 15 percent of Trump supporters said there’s nothing he could do to lose their support, there were twice as many confirmed opponents of the president. PRRI asked those who disapprove of Trump if there was anything he could do to win them over, and 33 percent of them said there was not.

E.J. Dionne, a Washington Post columnist who was also on the panel, disagreed with Reid that no Trump voters could be won over. “To me, these numbers show that there are a substantial number of Trump voters or supporters who can be converted,” he said, citing Trump’s approval numbers, which are down to 39 percent in the average of all polls, while 56 percent disapprove.

“This is a substantial drop-off from where Trump stood on Election Day 2016,” Dionne said. A year ago, right after he was elected, Trump had a 44 percent approval rating, and a 50 percent disapproval rating. [Mr. Dionne is wrong as he views our politics from within the liberal media bubble, advocating that democratic politics is a zero-sum game: For Democrats to win, Trump has to lose. The country’s voters are not really in sync with this approach, which is why that urban media bubble is subjected to such criticism.]

Olsen’s explanations for the victory of symbolism over substance, and the rise of Trumpism, had more to do with a loss of what Jones called “cultural dominance” combined with economic vulnerability for some of the president’s supporters. [This makes far more sense.]

Trump’s voter base “feeds on fear,” Olsen said.

But he cautioned against dismissing them, saying that would only increase the risk of violence.

“If you’re educated and well-off, you tend to look at these reactions as being hopelessly naive, out of touch, racist, irrational and consequently worthy of being ignored,” Olsen said. “If that’s the response, you shouldn’t expect them to give up their arms. … If the answer is basically to build a wall around populism, what you simply do is build up tension, build up the partisanship. And then, if you go through some sort of economic decline that makes even more people despairing, you raise the possibility of a much more dangerous counterreaction.” [This is the danger that anti-Trump forces want to deny or disregard. They will not avoid blame for any future chaos that results.]

_____

Political Autopsy

The following is the Executive Summary of a report authored by Democratic Party activists titled “Autopsy: The Democratic Party in Crisis.” On a quick read of the summary, one is left with a mishmash strategy that seems to try to be all things to all people (except for those Republicans, that is! The stated goal is “to end Republican rule and gain lasting momentum for progressive change.”)

That would be the starting point of my critique. What we’ve learned over the past 16 years is that most voters in the US are tired of partisan posturing and could care less about which party wins elections if only their elected representatives would be accountable and serve voters’ interests. Voters are far less partisan than party activists and the media. With Trump’s election, roughly half the population across 85% of the county landscape voted a pox on both their houses. So, let’s start with that inconvenient fact.

Specific comments in red below:

Executive Summary

The Party’s Base

• Aggregated data and analysis show that policies, operations and campaign priorities of the national Democratic Party undermined support and turnout from its base in the 2016 general election. Since then, the Democratic leadership has done little to indicate that it is heeding key lessons from the 2016 disaster.

• The Democratic National Committee and the party’s congressional leadership remain bent on prioritizing the chase for elusive Republican voters over the Democratic base: especially people of color, young people and working-class voters overall. [Yes, but that’s because in a country where whites comprise 70% of the electorate, identity politics based on race and ethnicity have a ceiling of support that is insufficient to win national elections. Identity politics that is based on preferences also leads to zero-sum games over who gets what.]

• After suffering from a falloff of turnout among people of color in the 2016 general election, the party appears to be losing ground with its most reliable voting bloc, African-American women. “The Democratic Party has experienced an 11 percent drop in support from black women according to one survey, while the percentage of black women who said neither party represents them went from 13 percent in 2016 to 21 percent in 2017.”

• One of the large groups with a voter-turnout issue is young people, “who encounter a toxic combination of a depressed economic reality, GOP efforts at voter suppression, and anemic messaging on the part of Democrats.” [The problem with young voters is that they cynically perceive “politics as usual.” Sanders appeal seems to have transcended that, but the question is whether “socialist” policies can. The historical record is not promising.]

• “Emerging sectors of the electorate are compelling the Democratic Party to come to terms with adamant grassroots rejection of economic injustice, institutionalized racism, gender inequality, environmental destruction and corporate domination. Siding with the people who constitute the base isn’t truly possible when party leaders seem to be afraid of them.” [Politics against “injustice, racism, gender inequality, environment and corporate malfeasance, etc.” must be based on some unifying principles in order to filter out subjective grievances that merely favor narrow interests. The party has not made those tough distinctions.]  

• The DNC has refused to renounce, or commit to end, its undemocratic practices during the 2016 primary campaign that caused so much discord and distrust from many party activists and voters among core constituencies. [Yes, there is internal discord.]

• Working to defeat restrictions on voting rights is of enormous importance. Yet the Democratic National Committee failed to make such work a DNC staffing priority. [Empirical data and the appeal of voter ID laws discount this grievance strategy. Thus, deploying it is not likely to have positive effects. Better to advance GOTV efforts.]

Populism and Party Decline

• The Democratic Party’s claims of fighting for “working families” have been undermined by its refusal to directly challenge corporate power, enabling Trump to masquerade as a champion of the people. “Democrats will not win if they continue to bring a wonk knife to a populist gunfight. Nor can Democratic leaders and operatives be seen as real allies of the working class if they’re afraid to alienate big funders or to harm future job or consulting prospects.” [There’s a difficult choice for the party highlighted by the Perez-Sanders split: identity politics or class politics? The mishmash of this manifesto results from trying to pursue both. To do this the party advances an implicit assumption that ‘white’ voters are only virtuous if they are poor. This is blatantly hypocritical to middle class whites.]

• “Since Obama’s victory in 2008, the Democratic Party has lost control of both houses of Congress and more than 1,000 state legislative seats. The GOP now controls the governorship as well as the entire legislature in 26 states, while Democrats exercise such control in only six states…. Despite this Democratic decline, bold proposals with the national party’s imprint are scarce.” [So, trying to pursue a triangulation strategy while paying lip-service to identity racial and ethnic grievance groups for the past 8 years has led to defeat across the spectrum. Yet, this new party manifesto really refuses to make a choice. So, it’s more of the same: trying to appeal to white middle class voters while implying that the party is really for social justice that disfavors them because they are white. This is a losing contradictory strategy.]

• “After a decade and a half of nonstop warfare, research data from voting patterns suggest that the Clinton campaign’s hawkish stance was a political detriment in working-class communities hard-hit by American casualties from deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.” [Yes, but they point with pride to their sacrifices for country. Disrespecting their patriotism by implying they’re dupes is not a winning strategy.]

• “Operating from a place of defensiveness and denial will not turn the party around. Neither will status quo methodology.”

Recommendations

Party Operations and Outreach

• The Democratic National Committee must make up for lost time by accelerating its very recent gear-up of staffing to fight against the multi-front assaults on voting rights that include voter ID laws, purges of voter rolls and intimidation tactics. [As explained above, not likely to be productive.]

• The Democratic National Committee should commit itself to scrupulously adhering to its Charter, which requires the DNC to be evenhanded in the presidential nominating process.

• Because “the superdelegate system, by its very nature, undermines the vital precept of one person, one vote,” the voting power of all superdelegates to the Democratic National Convention must end.

• “Social movements cannot be understood as tools to get Democrats elected. The ebb and flow of social movements offer a rising tide in their own right that along the way can lift Democratic Party candidates — if the party is able to embrace the broad popular sentiment that the movements embody.” [Both parties have willingly dragged their constituencies into cultural conflicts that are largely unresolvable. Thus, the parties gain by making compromise untenable: Vote for us or else!]

• “This is about more than just increasing voter turnout. It is about energizing as well as expanding the base of the party. To do this we must aggressively pursue two tracks: fighting right-wing efforts to rig the political system, and giving people who can vote a truly compelling reason to do so.” [Enthusiasm based on negative opposition (i.e., anti-Trump or anti-liberal) is not very durable.]

• “The enduring point of community outreach is to build an ongoing relationship that aims for the party to become part of the fabric of everyday life. It means acknowledging the validity and power of people-driven movements as well as recognizing and supporting authentic progressive community leaders. It means focusing on how the party can best serve communities, not the other way around. Most of all, it means persisting with such engagement on an ongoing basis, not just at election time.” [Yes, but to do so successfully requires an appeal beyond the particularistic identity of the individual. How can I be part of something bigger if it’s all about who I am?]

Party Policies and Programs

• The party should avidly promote inspiring programs such as single-payer Medicare for all, free public college tuition, economic security, infrastructure and green jobs initiatives, and tackling the climate crisis. [Here we get into the problem of the viability of socialist policies – when they fail, it discredits the bigger goal.]

• While the Democratic Party fights for an agenda to benefit all Americans [Does it? What about those Trump voters?], the party must develop new policies and strategies for more substantial engagement with people of color — directly addressing realities of their lives that include disproportionately high rates of poverty and ongoing vulnerability to a racist criminal justice system. [And then there is an immediate turn back to biological identity. This is not to deny the problems of disadvantaged communities, but merely questions the best way to empower them.]

• With its policies and programs, not just its public statements, the Democratic Party must emphasize that “in the real world, the well-being of women is indivisible from their economic circumstances and security.” To truly advance gender equality, the party needs to fight for the economic rights of all women. [Better to let the economy and the demand for labor sort this out. It works.]

• The Democratic Party should end its neglect of rural voters, a process that must include aligning the party with the interests of farming families and others who live in the countryside rather than with Big Agriculture and monopolies. [Agree. But these are not people looking for pity or hand-outs or victim status. They want to be able to take care of themselves.]

• “While the short-term prospects for meaningful federal action on climate are exceedingly bleak, state-level initiatives are important and attainable. Meanwhile, it’s crucial that the Democratic Party stop confining its climate agenda to inadequate steps that are palatable to Big Oil and mega-players on Wall Street.” [The trade-offs the majority of voters are willing to make here are not clear. It’s not a choice between clean air or the death of the planet, but clean air at what price?]

• “What must now take place includes honest self-reflection and confronting a hard truth: that many view the party as often in service to a rapacious oligarchy and increasingly out of touch with people in its own base.” The Democratic Party should disentangle itself — ideologically and financially — from Wall Street, the military-industrial complex and other corporate interests that put profits ahead of public needs. [Yes, welcome to the corruption of 21st century American party politics. Why do you think Americans of all stripes voted for Trump?]

G–gle Culture

DO NO EVIL

 

These excerpts are from a recent online interview by Stefan Molyneux of the fired Google employee James Damore explaining himself:

Generally, I just really like understanding things,” he said about his reasons for compiling his argument. “And recently, through interactions with people, I have noticed how different political ideologies divide us in many ways. I wanted to understand what was behind all that.”

“I read a lot into Jonathan Haidt’s work, a lot about what exactly is the philosophy behind all of these things. And that led me to the beginning of the document,” he explained. 

He described his crystallizing moment as: “I could see that all of us are really blind to the other side, so in these environments where everyone is in these echo chambers just talking to themselves, they are totally blind to so many things.We really need both sides to be talk to each other about these things and trying to understand each other.” 

He critiques both the left and right for not working together: “The easiest way of understanding the left is: It is very open, it is looking for changes. While the right is more closed, and wants more stability. There are definitely advantages to both of those. Sometimes there are things that need to change, but you actually need a vision for what you want. There is value in tradition, but not all traditions should be how they are.”

“We create biases for ourselves. This is particularly interesting, when we talk about how it relates to reality,” he said.

“Both sides are biased in a way, they have motivated reasoning to see what they want out of a lot of things,” he continued. 

This happens a lot in social science, where it is 95% leaning to the left. And so they only study what they want, and they only see the types of things that they want, and they really aren’t as critical of their own research as much as they should. The popular conception is that the right doesn’t understand science at all, that the right is anti-science. It is true that they often deny evolution and climate science, climate change, but the left also has its own things that it denies. Biological differences between people — in this case, sex differences,” he explained. 

He described the experience of diversity training at Google, which inspired him to write: “I heard things I definitely disagreed with in some of the programs. I had some discussions with people there, but there was a lot of just shaming. ‘No you can’t say that, that’s sexist, you can’t do this.’ There is so much hypocrisy in a lot things they are saying. I decided to just create the document just to clarify my thoughts.

I have often recommended Jon Haidt’s research presented in his book, The Righteous Mind. It’s worth a read because much of what is happening in social and political discourse these days reflects a psychological pathology that should be completely unnecessary. But getting out of our own way in politics is a difficult challenge.

I find nothing particularly mendacious about Mr. Damore’s document or his intentions to clarify what is basically an empirical puzzle concerning gender differences. Of course, this was all blown way out of proportion because it challenges some unscientific political agenda.

As a scientist, I assume that all empirical phenomena should be open to skepticism and challenges. I’m not sure how we progress intellectually any other way. The attack on Mr. Damore is an attack on science and for me can only reveal an indefensible political agenda. This is sad, if not dangerous, to say the least.

My own approach in this blog has been to suggest analytical frameworks to help understand how human behavior aggregates up into social behavior that defines our civilization; past, present and future (see Common Cent$). The universe is constantly changing, and survival depends on successful adaptation. Unsuccessful adaptation leads to extinction. Thus, the problem for all species is how to successfully adapt.

It seems to me our knowledge-base in the biological and social sciences, and in the arts and humanities can help us humans out here and I can’t understand why anyone who wants to survive would ignore or discount anything we can learn from that wealth of knowledge. Yet, some would choose to ignore anything that might challenge their world-view, even when they know it is false. G–gle seems to have succumbed to that pressure. That’s a shame, but not a path any of us have to accept.

What’s G–gle’s motto again?

 

 

 

 

Trumpism. What’s Normal Now?

I reprint this article because it discusses a perspective of our current politics that goes far beyond politics. Basically, what’s not normal is the anti-humanism of postmodern culture. The problem I see is that those complaining about our current political dysfunction are the same ones who have embraced postmodernism in all its forms, even if in dismay.

I think the Romans used to call this “bread and circuses,” but the masses have turned and taken over the Republic, which I suppose is their right.

America’s First Postmodern President

By Jeet Heer

The nature of reality is an open question in the age of Donald Trump. As the president regularly decries “the Fake News Media” and journalists catalogue his many lies, the battles of our time seem not just political but philosophical, indeed epistemological: What is real? How do we reach a consensus on the truth? These questions cut deeper than mere attempts to gauge the accuracy of Trump’s own words, or those of the White House staff. Trump’s ascension to leader of the free world still feels deeply strange, hence the common refrain that “this is not normal.” Trump himself sometimes seems seems surprised by his position. “I’m president!” he declared in a May ceremony celebrating the House passage of the American Health Care Act. “Hey, I’m president! Can you believe it?”

In an attempt to make sense of Trump’s vertiginous presidency, critics have made comparisons to contemporary autocrats like Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, or pillaged the history books for analogies ranging from Mussolini to Nixon. Others have looked at imagined futures, as Trump has fostered a vogue in dystopias such as George Orwell’s 1984 and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. However illuminating these parallels might be, they ultimately fall short by failing to consider Trump in his immediate context. The president is best understood not as a figure who harkens back to the distant past, evokes other lands, or foreshadows the future, but one who is representative of this very moment in America, where media overload is destroying the sense of a shared public reality.

In examining Trump as a product of our unique epoch, one of the sharpest analytical tools available is the theory of postmodernism, developed in the 1970s and 1980s by a host of theorists—perhaps most famously by Fredric Jameson, the polymathic Duke University literary scholar. In a famous 1984 essay, later expanded into the book Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Jameson synthesized the work of scholars from many fields—philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard, economist Ernest Mandel, architect Robert Venturi, filmmaker Guy Debord, sociologist Jean Baudrillard—in arguing that the triumph of economic globalism, which he dates to the early 1970s, inaugurated a new cultural era marked by the triumph of populist images over the strenuous elite art that had characterized modernism.

For Jameson, postmodernism meant the birth of “a society of the image or the simulacrum and a transformation of the ‘real’ into so many pseudoevents.” Befitting the “postliteracy of the late capitalist world,” the culture of postmodernism would be characterized by “a new kind of flatness or depthlessness, a new kind of superficiality in the most literal sense” where “depth is replaced by surface.” Postmodernism was especially visible in the field of architecture, where it manifested itself as a “populist” revolt “against the elite (and Utopian) austerities of the great architectural modernisms: It is generally affirmed, in other words, that these newer buildings are popular works, on the one hand, and that they respect the vernacular of the American city fabric, on the other; that is to say, they no longer attempt, as did the masterworks and monuments of high modernism, to insert a different, a distinct, an elevated, a new Utopian language into the tawdry and commercial sign system of the surrounding city, but rather they seek to speak that very language, using its lexicon and syntax as that has been emblematically ‘learned from Las Vegas.’”

That final phrase is a reference to Learning From Vegas, a 1972 book by Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour that critiqued “heroic” modern architecture and instead sought to “gain insight from the commonplace,” specifically by analyzing the Las Vegas Strip. Trump, as a real estate developer, was certainly willing to “learn from Las Vegas,” as he proved with his vulgar, now-shuttered Taj Mahal casino. But there’s a deeper symmetry between Trump and the account of postmodern society found in Jameson’s work (not just Postmodernism but subsequent volumes like The Seeds of Time and A Singular Modernity) and in the work of his fellow travelers, like Baudrillard and Debord. These writers describe a world where the visual has triumphed over the literary, where fragmented sound bites have replaced linear thinking, where nostalgia (“Make America Great Again”) has replaced historical consciousness or felt experiences of the past, where simulacra is indistinguishable from reality, where an aesthetic of pastiche and kitsch (Trump Tower) replaces modernism’s striving for purity and elitism, and where a shared plebeian culture of vulgarity papers over intensifying class disparities. In virtually every detail, Trump seems like the perfect manifestation of postmodernism.

For Baudrillard, “the perfect crime” was the murder of reality, which has been covered up with decoys (“virtual reality” and “reality shows”) that are mistaken for what has been destroyed. “Our culture of meaning is collapsing beneath our excess of meaning, the culture of reality collapsing beneath the excess of reality, the information culture collapsing beneath the excess of information—the sign and reality sharing a single shroud,” Baudrillard wrote in The Perfect Crime (1995). The Trump era is rich in such unreality. The president is not only a former reality-show star, but one whose fame is based more on performance than reality—on the idea that he’s a successful businessman. Although his real estate and gambling empire suffered massive losses in the early 1990s, and Trump’s “finances went into a tailspin,” he survived thanks to the superficial value of his brand, which he propped up though media manipulation.

In Baudrillard’s terms, Trump is a simulacra businessman, a copy of a reality that has no real existence. All sorts of simulacrum and decoy realities now flourish. Consider the popularity of conspiracy theories, evidence of a culture where it’s easy for fictional and semi-fictional narratives to spread like wildfire through social media. Trump loves spreading conspiracy theories about his enemies, and his enemies love spreading conspiracy theories about him. This propagation of fictions makes it difficult to build a convincing case against him. MSNBC host Rachel Maddow revealed Thursday that a supposedly classified document containing bombshells about Russia was sent anonymously to her show’s tipline. Her team eventually determined the document was fake. “Somebody out there is shopping carefully forged documents to try to discredit news agencies reporting on the Russian attack on our election,” she said, “and specifically on the possibility that the Trump campaign coordinated with the Russians in mounting that attack.”

Another recent example shows how easy it is to fall into a farrago of absurdity when reporting on Trump. Last weekend, the president tweeted a wrestling video showing him pummeling a man who had a CNN logo superimposed on his face. A Reddit user named HanAssholeSolo, who has a history of racist and anti-Semitic posts, took credit for the clip. CNN discovered the user’s true identity, but decided not to name him, though added, “CNN reserves the right to publish his identity.” This sentence gave the false impression of blackmail, and HanAssholeSolo suddenly became a free speech martyr to the right. As often happens in political battles of the Trump era, his supporters took a few random facts at the margins of the story and constructed an alternative reality, so that the story became not about the president’s endorsement of a threatening video created by a political extremist, but about a powerful news network harassing a private citizen. The entire spectacle shows we’re living in a Baudrillardian funhouse where the firm ground of reality has slipped away.

Postmodernism brings with it the erasure of older distinctions not just between reality and fiction, but between elite and popular culture. In his 1998 book The Origins of Postmodernity, the historian Perry Anderson called attention to the theme of plebeianization first developed by Jameson: the collapse of old bourgeois norms among the rich and powerful, even as class hierarchy remained strong (if not more entrenched than ever). “More widely, in the public sphere democratization of manners and disinhibition of mores advanced together,” Anderson argued, citing the antics of Princess Diana and President Bill Clinton. “For long, sociologists had debated the embourgeoisement of the working-class in the West—never a very happy term for the processes at issue. By the nineties, however, the more striking phenomenon was a general encanaillement”—or slumming—“of the possessing classes—as it were: starlet princesses and sleazeball presidents, beds for rent in the official residence and bribes for killer ads, disneyfication of protocols and tarantinization of practices, the avid corteges of the nocturnal underpass or the gubernatorial troop. In scenes like these lies much of the social backdrop of the postmodern.” Trump, the wealthy president who brags about grabbing women by the genitals and tweets out abuse of female journalists, embodies this “encanaillement of the possessing classes” even better than Diana or Clinton.

The virtue of theories of postmodernism, as developed by Jameson and his peers, is that they link cultural changes with deeper economic transformations. The waves that carried a ridiculous TV celebrity to the presidency are being propelled by a deeper current of globalization: the triumph of the unreality industries, the move of manufacturing jobs out of the developed world, and the proliferation of technologies that saturate us with media.

This analysis suggests that Trump is the product not just of a fluke election or a racist and sexist backlash, but the culmination of late capitalism [This goes far beyond who controls the means of production. Commercialism? Trump is a commercial brander]. This has profound implications for how we see Trump—and how we oppose him. We have to focus less on Trump’s personal flaws and more on the world that has enabled him. His habitual prevarications aren’t simply the result of his defective character, but an effective tactic. In a world where commerce and media (including social media) reward performance above truth telling, it’s not surprising that a figure like Trump rises to the top. Any moralistic condemnation of Trump is incomplete without acknowledging the institutions (notably the media) that both created him and allowed him to thrive.

The danger of a sweeping theory like postmodernism is that it can produce despair. After all, fighting something so pervasive as “late capitalism” is much harder than winning elections. For the Trump resistance, seeing him as a postmodern president opens up the dilemma that the best way to fight him in the short term might be to borrow some of his tactics. (It’s no surprise that another savvy performer-politician, Senator Al Franken, has emerged as a major resistance leader.) The danger is that by imitating Trump, we’ll only create a world where future Trumps will emerge.

But there’s a different way to look at Trump as a postmodern president. Paradoxically, even as Trump exploits today’s media, his politics of nostalgia show that his own followers want to escape the postmodern world [I’d say they want to preserve, not escape]. Trump’s appeal is based on his promise to return to an earlier, simpler era, where jobs were rooted in physical activity (manufacturing, coal mining) and the economy was governed by the imperatives of nationalist solidarity (“America First”) and not globalization. There is a genuinely utopian dimension to Trumpism, suggesting a widespread desire to reverse late capitalism. So the logical response to Trumpism is to counter him with someone who can truly challenge the economic status quo, rather than being a mere avatar for such hopes. [Good luck with that, since the intellectual class is mired in an obsolete political-economic paradigm of 20th century class conflict and laborism. The solution they’ve come up with? Cheap credit fueled by the promises of a fiat money governing regime.]

Michael Ramirez / Daily Signal

Michael Ramirez / Daily Signal

Healthcare Mythologies

First, I will disclose I am no expert on the health care industry, but I am somewhat of an expert on finance theory applied to risk management and insurance pooling. The political healthcare debate is so disconcerting that it’s impossible to sit by and watch without trying to inject some reason. Sorry.

We need health care reform, we’ve needed it for about 20 years now, but it matters what kind of reform we get. Here are two excerpts from recent articles written by Stephen Moore of the Heritage Foundation and Holman Jenkins Jr. of the WSJ that illustrate some of the uncomfortable truths.

First, we need to deal with some reality concerning the Affordable Care Act, aka ObamaCare:

Almost every promise made eight years ago about ObamaCare turned out to be a falsehood. You couldn’t keep your insurance plan, doctor or provider in many cases. It didn’t save $2,500 per family (more like $2,500 more). It didn’t lead to expanded patient choice. And the tax increases badly hurt the economy and jobs market, and the insurance markets really have entered a death spiral that if left unfixed will blow-up the entire insurance market.

The fundamental lie of ObamaCare is revealed in the law’s very title: The Affordable Care Act. Democrats and Barack Obama can sing the praises of this law until the cows come home, but no one with a straight face can say that it has made healthcare more “affordable” — except the millions whom we gave coverage to for free.

So, unless one believes in the “economics of free,” we’ve got a problem here and it’s written into the faulty logic of the plan.

Second, the way out of this quagmire is not going to be led by Bernie Sanders doubling and quadrupling down on “free.” Mr. Jenkins speaks an inconvenient truth:

Down this road [of reform] lies hope that Americans will stop channeling extravagant gobs of their income to the medical-industrial complex. Down this road Medicare could be rethought, perhaps with rational Democrats lending a hand. We know these things will have to happen anyway. Otherwise the country is bankrupt.

P.S. Don’t kid yourself that Democrats have a plan other than blindly defending more and more subsidies for more and more health-care consumers. Single-payer is not a plan. It’s an invitation for the health-care industry—doctors, hospitals, the research establishment—simply to turn their full attention to serving the self-paying rich.

So, as far as I can see, the AHCA is not perfect, but it is a step in the right direction. Do I believe this because I’m partisan? No. A healthcare market can only function to deliver a high-quality, affordable product if there is an abundant supply to meet the desired need/demand. Only a functioning consumer-product market can provide that supply at an efficient price. Yes, we need a safety net for pre-existing conditions and we need to save more for future medical needs. We’ll only be able to do that if we give up the fantasy that health care is a right to be provided “free” from the government.

Lastly, in economics we learn that everything in life is a trade-off. We need to figure out what kinds of trade-offs we want to make, individually and as a society.

Listen. Time for New Thinking.

One thing I have noticed in this political environment is that people do not listen to political views that diverge from their own. They believe what they believe, and that’s the end of it. Then they project bad intentions on anyone who disagrees. It makes for useless, though necessary, conversations.

This writer makes a good case for some rational reasoning through the imperative of listening to our politics rather than shouting them. We need to chart the correct path forward and it’s not by turning to the recent or distant past. Those mostly provide warning signs for the consequences of foolish mistakes.

History tells us that populist waves can lead to disaster or to reform…So how might we tilt the odds from disaster to reform? First, listen.

It’s Time for New Economic Thinking Based on the Best Science Available, Not Ideology

A new narrative for a complex age

By Eric Beinhocker 

If 2008 was the year of the financial crash, 2016 was the year of the political crash. In that year we witnessed the collapse of the last of the four major economic-political ideologies that dominated the 20th century: nationalism; Keynesian Pragmatism; socialism; and neoliberalism. In the 1970s and 80s the center right in many countries abandoned Keynesianism and adopted neoliberalism. In the 1980s and 90s the center left followed, largely abandoning democratic socialism and adopting a softer version of neoliberalism.

For a few decades we thought the end of history had arrived and political battles in most OECD countries were between centre-right and centre-left parties arguing in a narrow political spectrum, but largely agreeing on issues such as free trade, the benefits of immigration, the need for flexible efficient markets, and the positive role of global finance. This consensus was reinforced by international institutions such as the IMF, World Bank, and OECD, and the Davos political and business elite.

In 2008 that consensus was rocked, last year it crumbled. Some will cling on to the idea that the consensus can be revived. They will say we just need to defend it more vigorously, the facts will eventually prevail, the populist wave is exaggerated, it’s really just about immigration, Brexit will be a compromise, Clinton won more votes than Trump, and so on. But this is wishful thinking. Large swathes of the electorate have lost faith in the neoliberal consensus, the political parties that backed it, and the institutions that promoted it. This has created an ideological vacuum being filled by bad old ideas, most notably a revival of nationalism in the US and a number of European countries, as well as a revival of the hard socialist left in some countries.

History tells us that populist waves can lead to disaster or to reform. Disaster is certainly a realistic scenario now with potential for an unravelling of international cooperation, geopolitical conflict, and very bad economic policy. But we can also look back in history and see how, for example, in the US at the beginning of the 20th century Teddy Roosevelt harnessed populist discontent to create a period of major reform and progress.

So how might we tilt the odds from disaster to reform? First, listen. The populist movements do contain some racists, xenophobes, genuinely crazy people, and others whom we should absolutely condemn. But they also contain many normal people who are fed up with a system that doesn’t work for them. People who have seen their living standards stagnate or decline, who live precarious lives one paycheque at a time, who think their children will do worse than they have. And their issues aren’t just economic, they are also social and psychological. They have lost dignity and respect, and crave a sense of identity and belonging.

They feel – rightly or wrongly – that they played by the rules, but others in society haven’t, and those others have been rewarded. They also feel that their political leaders and institutions are profoundly out of touch, untrustworthy, and self-serving. And finally, they feel at the mercy of big impersonal forces – globalization, technology change, rootless banks and large faceless corporations. The most effective populist slogan has been “take back control”.

After we listen we then have to give new answers. New narratives and policies about how people’s lives can be made better and more secure, how they can fairly share in their nation’s prosperity, how they can have more control over their lives, how they can live with dignity and respect, how everyone will play by the same rules and the social contract will be restored, how openness and international cooperation benefits them not just an elite, and how governments, corporations, and banks will serve their interests, and not the other way around.

This is why we need new economic thinking. This is why the NAEC initiative is so important. The OECD has been taking economic inequality and stagnation seriously for longer than most and has some of the best data and analysis of these issues around. It has done leading work on alternative metrics other than GDP to give insight into how people are really doing, on well-being. It is working hard to articulate new models of growth that are inclusive and environmentally sustainable. It has leading initiatives on education, health, cities, productivity, trade, and numerous other topics that are critical to a new narrative.

But there are gaps too. Rational economic models are of little help on these issues, and a deeper understanding of psychology, sociology, political science, anthropology, and history is required. Likewise, communications is critical – thick reports are important for government ministries, but stories, narratives, visuals, and memes are needed to shift the media and public thinking.

So what might such a new narrative look like? My hope is that even in this post-truth age it will be based on the best facts and science available. I believe it will contain four stories:

  • A new story of growth [see this post]
  • A new story of inclusion [see this post]
  • A new social contract
  • A new idealism

This last point doesn’t get discussed enough. Periods of progress are usually characterized by idealism, common projects we can all aspire to. Populism is a zero-sum mentality – the populist leader will help me get more of a fixed pie. Idealism is a positive-sum mentality – we can do great things together. Idealism is the most powerful antidote to populism.

Finally, economics has painted itself as a detached amoral science, but humans are moral creatures. We must bring morality back into the center of economics in order for people to relate to and trust it. All of the science shows that deeply ingrained, reciprocal moral behaviors are the glue that holds society together. Understanding the economy as not just an amoral machine that provides incentives and distributes resources, but rather as a human moral construct is essential, not just for creating a more just economy, but also for understanding how the economy actually creates prosperity.

In short, it is time to forge a new vision that puts people back at the center of our economy. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, it is time to create an economy that is “of the people, by the people, for the people.” We are truly at a fluid point in history. It could be a great step backward or a great step forwards. We must all push forwards together.

Based on remarks originally delivered to the OECD New Approaches to Economic Challenges workshop, December 14, 2016, Paris.

Why I Shorted Hillary Clinton

Six months before the election.

In the six odd weeks since the Nov. 8 election, the news media has presented a chaotic post-mortem of what exactly happened in this election. Mostly, they are focused on the unfathomable: how did Hillary Clinton lose? Sexism? Comey? Russian hackers? Putin?

But a number of election analysts saw the problems of a Clinton candidacy from afar. In the spring of 2015, I personally told a group of Silicon Valley liberals that Clinton was probably the weakest candidate the Democrats could choose in the current anti-establishment political climate. Democrats and Republicans alike were openly lamenting even the idea of another Bush-Clinton election.

More damning was the hard electoral evidence already out there on the Democratic agenda under Obama: the loss of the House and Senate, and more than a dozen governorships and state legislatures. How could these facts be ignored? I have discovered in our polarized politics that people don’t really listen to reason, they merely believe. And then they are faced with disbelief at the outcomes. (Scott Adams calls it cognitive dissonance.)

For most of 2015, the primary season was unclear, though most expected the party choices of Clinton vs. Rubio, Walker, Christie, or Bush would play out. Certainly very few–neither myself nor anybody I know–gave Trump even a remote chance of gaining the nomination. The GOP field of intended candidates became a parlor joke of seventeen dwarves crowding the stage. Liberals could not believe any of these could match up to Hillary on the national stage. They reverted to praising her extended political resume, as if that mattered. (Obama, for instance, probably had the shortest resume in modern presidential history.)

I maintained that Hillary had the highest negatives of any possible Democratic nominee and that after this became apparent following the DNC in August, panic would set in. I was off by a month because of someone nobody saw coming: Donald Trump.

After the first few primaries, Trump’s success gave new life to the fantasies Democrats were spinning. After all, Trump had the highest negatives of any candidate in modern history. At the time I tended to agree that a face-off between Clinton and Trump was a bit of a wild card and that by conventional politics, Clinton would seem to be favored. On the Republican side, opinion pollsters and media pundits all discounted Trump’s chances, but his primary wins rolled on. It was about March when I had the epiphany that past history was no guide to the future – this time was different. The anti-establishment wave that had been building since 2000 had finally begun to crest over “politics as usual.”

Ignoring this anomaly, liberals actually began to desire Trump to be the Republican nominee and conservatives secretly wondered if he wasn’t a Clinton shill. But still, I suspected none of what Trump did would accrue to Clinton’s benefit in this election cycle. It was in March, after observing the odd traction of Bernie Sanders, that I laid some wagers betting against a Clinton presidency (note, not FOR Trump or any other nominee, but solely against Clinton for the Democrats). Part of the reason was I felt the confidence of Clinton supporters was emotionally driven, so I got incredible odds that made the bet a no-brainer: 10 to 1, when the betting lines were closer to 4 to 1. I could have laid off this bet on the other side and enjoyed a riskless arbitrage, but I was fairly convinced, as a political scientist who had studied the data on the last 4 presidential elections, that any Clinton-Trump contest would be pretty much a toss-up and I liked the risk-return payoff.

When Trump’s support seemed to be bleeding working-class union voters from the Rust Belt, I was more convinced. But not my liberal Democrat friends. They cited endless poll numbers to support their beliefs, trusting in data from 538. I merely asked that since the polls, including those by 538, had been wrong for almost 9 months, why exactly should they be accurate now? Then they resorted to Electoral College math, but I replied that swing states with slim margins can flip rather easily. A month to two weeks before the election, with Clinton enjoying a 3-6 point lead in the polls I offered to double-down on my wagers against Clinton but got no takers. Apparently, confidence was growing a bit shaky. Trump support never seemed to go away despite the bashing he received in the media.

On Nov. 7, a friend who trusted my objectivity asked me who I thought would win. I said, although traditional measures point to a narrow Clinton win, traditional measures have failed and thus the outcome was still a 50-50 toss-up in my mind. I definitely liked my bet. On Nov. 9, we woke up to a new political reality, but the point is that we should all have seen it coming.

Here is a quote from the Economist assessing the election:

Republicans have long held the edge in America’s wide-open spaces, but never has the gap been this profound: a whopping 80% of voters who have over one square mile (2.6 square km) of land to enjoy to themselves backed Mr Trump. As the scatter plot below demonstrates, as counties become increasingly densely populated, fewer and fewer vote Republican. American politics appear to be realigning along a cleavage between inward-looking countryfolk and urban globalists.

The problem here (see italics) is that this tension in American politics is nothing new. In fact, it’s more than 200 years old. Regional differences have always existed but have become acute at certain times in our history. The urban-rural polarization is particularly sharp today because the parties have divvied up the polity with targeted policies: Democrats target identity groups that mostly live in urban areas and Republicans target everybody else (see this 2006 op-ed on the 2000/04 elections). The divide is compounded by urban media that targets political biases to its main audience: urban liberals. So urban media elites told their liberal urban audiences what they wanted to hear, rather than objective truth. I’m sure liberal reporters like E.J. Dionne, Juan Williams, Meet The Press, the NY Times op-ed page, etc., believed it themselves.

So, now the disillusioned are catching up with reality. Here’s Conan O’Brien stating the obvious:

“I really believe nobody knows anything right now,” says Conan O’Brien. “I really think the whole mantra that everyone must have, not just in this medium but in the world in general, is that no one knows anything.” Trump’s victory has landed a blow to the country’s notions of certainty. “I would say we’re not seeing the death of certainty,” O’Brien said. “But certainty has taken a holiday right now.” Plenty of certainty, now discarded, was generated in 2016. Our cozy silos of belief and customized group assumptions gave us our most brutal campaign in years. “Everyone has their own street corner,” O’Brien said.

As I stated above, partisan preferences have become less about reasoned policies and compromises and more about pure belief systems. Facts that don’t fit beliefs get tossed aside. If you believe Hillary lost because of Putin, or Comey, or sexism, or racism, or Electoral College math, you’re sinking into quicksand of your own making. Winning a majority of almost 85% of the 3141 counties across the nation is a significant statistical feat that can’t be explained by any single factor. From where I sat it had little to do with Trump, who merely road the wave. Rural and suburban America can never be dismissed by either party. Hillary Clinton was the weakest candidate in the post-war era, by far. If I could see it, so could you.*

*BTW, I’m not clairvoyant or particularly gifted with political genius. Using traditional electoral measures I bet on Romney over Obama for an easy win in 2012. But we can learn from our mistakes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How to Get Beyond Our Tribal Politics

Long-winded, but worthy enough for a reprint (from the WSJ):

Whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump wins Tuesday, understanding the psychological causes of our national rift can help us bridge it

By JONATHAN HAIDT and RAVI IYER

Nov. 4, 2016 11:05 a.m. ET

The most-watched made-for-TV movie in American history is “The Day After,” a 1983 portrayal of life in Kansas and Missouri in the days just before and after an all-out nuclear war with the Soviet Union. If you’ve had even fleeting thoughts that Tuesday’s election could bring about the end of the world or the destruction of the country, you might want to find “The Day After” on YouTube, scroll to minute 53 and watch the next six minutes. Now that’s an apocalypse.

It’s an absurd comparison, of course, but the absurdity is helpful. It reminds us that no matter how bad things seem, we have a lot to be grateful for. The Soviet Union is gone, and life in America has gotten much better since the 1980s by most objective measures. Crime is way down, prosperity and longevity are way up, and doors are open much more widely for talented people from just about any demographic group. Yes, we have new problems, and the benefits haven’t been spread evenly, but if you look at the big picture, we are making astonishing progress.

Watching “The Day After” also might help Americans to tone down the apocalyptic language that so many have used about the presidential race. On the right, some speak of this as the “Flight 93 election,” meaning that America has been hijacked by treasonous leftists who are trying to crash the plane, so electing Donald Trump to rush the cockpit is the only sane choice. On the left, some think that a Trump victory would lead to a constitutional crisis followed by a military coup, fascism and dictatorship.

Nearly half the country will therefore wake up deeply disappointed on the morning of Nov. 9, and many members of the losing side will think that America is doomed. Those on the winning side will feel relieved, but many will be shocked and disgusted that nearly half of their fellow citizens voted for the moral equivalent of the devil. The disgust expressed by both sides in this election is particularly worrisome because disgust dehumanizes its targets. That is why it is usually fostered by the perpetrators of genocide—disgust makes it easier for ordinary citizens to kill their neighbors.

Suburban neighbors in the swing state of Pennsylvania have managed to preserve their friendship and sanity throughout a long and bitter election season. WSJ’s Shelby Holliday reports. Photo: Heather Seidel for The Wall Street Journal

In short, the day after this election is likely to be darker and more foreboding than the day after just about any U.S. election since 1860. Is it possible for Americans to forgive, accept and carry on working and living together?

We think that it is. After all, civility doesn’t require consensus or the suspension of criticism. It is simply the ability to disagree productively with others while respecting their sincerity and decency. That can be hard to do when emotions run so high. But if we understand better the psychological causes of our current animosity, we can all take some simple steps to turn it down, free ourselves from hatred and make the next four years better for ourselves and the country. Three time-honored quotations can serve as guides.

“Me against my brother, my brothers and me against my cousins, then my cousins and me against strangers.” —Bedouin saying

Human nature is tribal. We form teams easily, most likely because we have evolved for violent intergroup conflict. Our minds take to it so readily that we invent myths, games and sports—including war games like paintball—that let us enjoy the pleasures of intergroup conflict without the horrors of actual war.

The tribal mind is adept at changing alliances to face shifting threats, as the Bedouin saying indicates. We see such shifts after party primaries, when those who backed a losing candidate swing around to support the nominee. And we saw it happen after the 9/11 attacks, when the country came together to support the president and the military in the invasion of Afghanistan.

But with the exception of the few months after 9/11, cross-partisan animosity has been rising steadily since the late 1990s. This year, for the first time since Pew Research began asking in 1994, majorities in both parties expressed not just “unfavorable” views of the other party but “very unfavorable” views. Those ratings were generally below 20% throughout the 1990s. And more than 40% in each party now see the policies of the other party as being “so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being.” Those numbers are up by about 10% in both parties just since 2014.

So what will happen the next time there is a major terrorist attack? Will we come together again? Or will the attack become a partisan football within hours, as happened after the various lone-wolf attacks of the past year? Something is broken in American tribalism. It is now “my brothers and me against my cousins” all the time, even when we are threatened by strangers and even when there is no threat at all.

Democracy requires trust and cooperation as well as competition. A healthy democracy features flexible and shifting coalitions. We must find a way to see citizens on the other side as cousins who are sometimes opponents but who share most of our values and interests and are never our mortal enemies.

“Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?… You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” —Jesus, in Matthew 7:3-5

Our tribal minds are equipped with a powerful tool: shameless and clueless hypocrisy. It is a general rule of psychology that “thinking is for doing”: We think with a particular purpose in mind, and often that purpose isn’t to find the truth but to defend ourselves or attack our opponents.

Psychologists call this process “motivated reasoning.” It is found whenever self-interest is in play. When the interests of a group are added to the mix, this sort of biased, god-awful reasoning becomes positively virtuous—it signals your loyalty to the team. This is why partisans find it so easy to dismiss scandalous revelations about their own candidate while focusing so intently on scandalous revelations about the other candidate.

Motivated reasoning has interacted with tribalism and new media technologies since the 1990s in unfortunate ways. Social media, hackers and Google searches now help us to find hundreds of specks in our opponents’ eyes, but no technology can force us to acknowledge the logs in our own.

“Nature has so formed us that a certain tie unites us all, but…this tie becomes stronger from proximity.” —Cicero, “On Friendship”

Humans are tribal, but tribalism can be transcended. It exists in tension with our extraordinary ability to develop bonds with other human beings. Romeo and Juliet fell in love. French, British and German soldiers came out of their trenches in World War I to exchange food, cigarettes and Christmas greetings.

The key, as Cicero observed, is proximity, and a great deal of modern research backs him up. Students are more likely to become friends with the student whose dorm room is one door away than with the student whose room is four doors away. People who have at least one friend from the other political party are less likely to hate the supporters of that party.

But tragically, Americans are losing their proximity to those on the other side and are spending more time in politically purified settings. Since the 1980s, Democrats have been packing into the cities while the rural areas and exurbs have been getting more Republican. Institutions that used to bring people together—such as churches—are now splitting apart over culture war issues such as gay marriage.

Ever more of our social life is spent online, in virtual communities or networks that are politically homogeneous. When we do rub up against the other side online, relative anonymity often leads to stunning levels of incivility, including racist and sexist slurs and threats of violence.

So are we doomed? Will the polarizing trends identified by Pew just keep going until the country splits in two? Maybe John Adams was right in 1814 when he wrote, “Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself.”

But we have lasted 240 years so far, and both sides agree that America is worth fighting for. We just have to see that the fight isn’t always against each other; it is also a struggle to adapt our democracy and our habits for polarizing times and technologies.

Some of these adaptations will require changes to laws and institutions. Some will come from improving technology as we fine-tune social media to reward productive disagreement while filtering out trolling and intimidation.

And many of the changes must come from each of us, as individuals who have friends, co-workers and cousins who voted for the other side. How will we treat them as customers, employees, students and neighbors? What will we say to them at Thanksgiving dinner?

If you would like to let go of anger on Nov. 9 without letting go of your moral and political principles, here is some advice, adapted from ancient wisdom and modern research.

First, separate your feelings about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton from your feelings about their supporters. Political scientists report that since the 1980s, Americans have increasingly voted against the other side’s candidate, rather than voting enthusiastically for their own, and that is especially true this time. So don’t assume that most people on the other side like or even agree with their candidate on any particular issue. They may be voting out of fears and frustrations that you don’t understand, but if you knew their stories, you might well empathize with them.

Second, step back and think about your goals. In the long run, would you rather change people or hate them? If you actually want to persuade or otherwise influence people, you should know that it is nearly impossible to change people’s minds by arguing with them. When there is mutual antipathy, there is mutual motivated reasoning, defensiveness and hypocrisy.

But anything that opens the heart opens the mind as well, so do what you can to cultivate personal relationships with those on the other side. Spend time together, and let the proximity recommended by Cicero strengthen ties. Familiarity does not breed contempt. Research shows that as things or people become familiar, we like them more.

Emotions often drive reasoning, so as our hearts harden, our thinking also calcifies, and we become dogmatic. We are less able to think flexibly and address the social problems that we claim to care about. As John Stuart Mill wrote in 1859, “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.” So cultivating a few cross-partisan friendships will make you smarter as well as calmer, even if polarization grows worse.

And if you do find a way to have a real conversation with someone on the other side, approach it skillfully. One powerful opener is to point to a log in your own eye—to admit right up front that you or your side were wrong about something. Doing this at the start of a conversation signals that you aren’t in combat mode. If you are open, trusting and generous, your partner is likely to reciprocate.

Another powerful depolarizing move is praise, as we saw in the second Clinton-Trump debate. After more than 90 minutes of antagonism, a member of the town-hall audience brought the evening to a close with this question: “Would either of you name one positive thing that you respect in one another?”

Mrs. Clinton began with weak praise by saying that she respects Mr. Trump’s children. But then she made it strong and generous by noting how “incredibly able” those children are and how devoted they are to their father, adding, “I think that says a lot about Donald.” Mr. Trump responded in kind: “I will say this about Hillary. She doesn’t quit, and she doesn’t give up. I respect that.”

That brief exchange was emotionally powerful—the only uplifting moment of the night for many viewers. Had it been the opening exchange, might the debate have been more elevated, more constructive?

This has been a frightening year for many Americans. Questions about the durability, legitimacy and wisdom of our democracy have been raised, both here and abroad. But the true test of our democracy—and our love of country—will come on the day after the election. Starting next Wednesday, each of us must decide what kind of person we want to be and what kind of relationship we want to have with our politically estranged cousins.

Dr. Haidt is a social psychologist at New York University’s Stern School of Business, a fellow at the Martin Prosperity Institute and the author of “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.” Dr. Iyer is a social psychologist and data scientist at the website Ranker and the executive director of CivilPolitics.org.

The Degeneration of Political Discourse

If there’s one thing I’ve learned this election season, it is the increasing degeneration of political discourse in our society. Probably everyone in America these past few months has experienced this phenomenon, and either jumped into the mudpit or turned away in disgust. Unfortunately, there is nowhere to turn.

Democracy, as an institution of social choice and self-governance through voting, relies on compromise to resolve divergent interests. This compromise, or middle ground, is often depicted as serving the interests of the “median voter” in election models. Our electoral system seeks to reward candidates or parties who can appeal to this median “center.” The idea of the centrist is one who moves away from the extremes to find common ground. The problem is that we have obliterated the center in our national politics.

How did this happen?

Some have blamed the two-party system that has divided us into red vs. blue and subsequently conquered us as we squabble over ideological trivia. Others have decried our lack of choice between the parties of Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum, sometimes using the catch-all term the Republicrats for the political class. Still others blame the systemic bias of the media in their desperate bid to remain politically and economically relevant in the digital world.

All of these factors have contributed to our political degeneration. However, I would say the problem is less about only having two parties than about how the parties abuse the system to divide us. I’ve written repeatedly about how the parties and the media benefit from our dysfunction and promote it every chance they get. It is true of Obama, as it is true of Congressional leaders of both parties. It is true of the mainstream media as it is of FOX News and Talk Radio. If we’re looking for relief, it won’t come from these sources.

It will come from us, and there’s the rub.

My own experience as a political commentator illustrates my point. A few weeks ago I wrote that I will vote Neither…Nor in this presidential election for reasons explained here.

Immediately I was accosted by partisans of both sides claiming I was really favoring the opposing candidate. So Democrat liberals accused me of essentially supporting Trump and Trump Republicans of putting Clinton into office. Obviously both can’t be true, but that seems beside the point.

What’s going on here is the desire to paint the issue in black and white and castigate one for joining the wrong side. Identity politics, the growing cancer on democracy, almost forces this dynamic. The tactic is truly the last resort of dirty, rotten scoundrels, but let me explain. What I’m referring to is a typical debating tactic of winning the debate by delegitimizing your opponent (not the argument, but the person). This tactic can take several different forms.

The most extreme way is to simply condemn your opponent’s moral character: a racist, a bigot, a crook. A related way is to impugn your opponent’s motivations: greedy, power monger, predator. Next up is to question one’s intelligence: ignorant, uneducated, low IQ. A more subtle, less aggressive method is to accuse one of being a willing victim of misinformation and propaganda. Sometimes this can be accurate in this corrupted media world, but it’s often used as a blanket dismissal of opinions, views, or facts one disagrees with: I see, you listen to FOX News or read the New York Times.

So, I call this the last redoubt of a scoundrel because it is a feint away from the issue that must be resolved or compromised, and the scoundrel merely realizes that the just compromise with the stronger rationale is not the one they favor. Hence the desire to intimidate and throw one’s opponent on the defensive in order to win an argument. It tosses  democratic compromise into the lion’s pit of do or die.

I’ve written here how this silly finite game of winning an election is overwhelming the more important infinite game of democracy founded on the principles of liberty and justice. Scoundrels do damage to justice and to liberty. Yet too many of us have succumbed to the emotional appeal of winning at all costs. Unless we stop this and start to legitimize our fellow citizens’ preferences (we’re really not debate opponents), our discourse will continue to degenerate and lead to ever increasing dysfunction with disastrous results.

The politicians won’t do this for us. Heaven help us on November 9, because this election is merely the canary in the coal mine.