Exposition (plus an example exculpating exports)
Trump won the election, and people are blaming polarization. WSJ – Trump benefited from polarization, Global Research – polarization made Trump unavoidable, Reason – Trump won because of the PC culture war, Guardian – Did fake news and polarized politics get Trump elected?, Road and Track – polarized glasses don’t work with LCD screens. That last article makes a great point. The other ones miss it.
Trump most dangerous failing is that he sees every human interaction as a zero sum game, a contest with winners and losers. Trump has made a lot of his money by exploiting others, his gains were someone else’s loss. He operates as if he can’t imagine things being any other way. And yet: our society and our economy are based on cooperation and dealings with mutual benefit. As long as spiteful deities don’t interfere, every time humans have tried cooperating with each on larger scales the results have been overwhelmingly positive.
Case in point: American trade with China is perhaps the greatest win-win game in human history by the pure number of winners. It helped lift 600 million Chinese out of poverty, reduced the risk of World War III, and saved American consumers hundreds of billions of dollars which they redirected to create American jobs in retail and in services. It also cost about 2 million American jobs in manufacturing. Bottom line: 1,000 million winners and 2 million losers. That’s a 99.8% win rate.
Smarter redistribution within the US could have made it a 100% win-win by helping those who were affected negatively, but polarized American politics prevent smart redistribution from happening. International trade can create winners and losers within a country, but it’s always a win-win for each country on aggregate. It makes no sense to talk about “beating someone” in trade, the same way you don’t “beat someone” at dating.
Of course, making sense is never high on Trump’s priority list:
We don’t win anymore. We don’t beat China in trade. […] I beat China all the time. All the time.
But this isn’t an essay about trade (so save your nitpicking about labor market theories). And this isn’t an essay about Trump (although he shall again prove unavoidable). This is an essay about cooperation versus polarization.
If Trump doesn’t start a nuclear war, the greatest damage he will do is to the norms that allow us to cooperate, globally and domestically, for the next four years. But polarization destroys these norms forever. Those who would sacrifice the norms of compromise, respect and democracy itself in order to fight Trump are doing the Devil’s work for him.
And by “Devil” I don’t mean Trump. I mean Moloch.
This essay was inspired, among many others, by the work of Jonathan Haidt, Arnold Kling, Sam Harris, Scott Alexander and Eliezer Yudkowsky. You are encouraged to read them for more detail, better writing and superior wisdom on this topic. But since you’re here, you may as well read my essay first.
Content note: politics, culture wars, and everything that is wrong with human society. If you don’t want to read about everything that is wrong with human society, please enjoy this photo of my own hedgehog looking fluffy af and come back next week.
Everything that is wrong with human society
…mostly comes in two flavors: coercion and failures of coordination. Coercion is the bad things we can’t avoid: wars, slavery, exploitation. Coordination failures are the good things we can’t achieve: win-win free trade, nuclear disarmament, climate change control, eliminating poverty, universal love.
Coercion is a bigger threat to weak societies subjugated strong adversaries: a peasant village under the thumb of a despot, a European town in the path of the Mongol horde, an African community raided by slavers. Coordination failures are a bigger threat to strong societies being devoured from the inside. That’s us.
When people appoint governments to solve their problems, the government ideally tries to solve the most coordination failures using the least coercion. For example, a basic coordination problem is having everyone in a society agree to abide by a certain set of rules regarding violence and property. Governments solve this through coercive institutions like courts, jails and the police. There is a balance to be struck – the Soviet Union had lower crime rates than the USA, but most people wouldn’t be willing to accept secret police and gulags just to have less car theft.
But the government doesn’t really decide how to solve coordination problems. More often, it just implements the solutions people already live by, and codifies the social norms that naturally evolved among its citizens. For example, public acceptance of gay unions in the United States has been shifting for decades, and The Supreme Court legalized gay marriage many years after it became the plurality opinion. Politicians have their own incentives, they will not promote honesty, kindness and tolerance beyond what people already live by. Governments are often slower to react to changing norms than even corporation are.
Point is: it is up to us to live by the norms that we want our government to have.
Social norms are themselves a coordination problem: we would all prefer to live in a society in which everyone (including us) is always honest, kind and tolerant. Yet, we often have much to gain from occasionally being dishonest, selfish and intolerant. The harm that these behaviors do to social norms is often ignored when a personal struggle is more pressing.
And yet, social norms are the only way to achieve cooperation without coercion. In most interactions it is rational to cooperate if you expect your opponent to do the same, but only then. This means that the social norms that promote cooperation are the most valuable thing we have, they are the ones that allow us to even start addressing other problems. And this means that nothing is more harmful than the norms that promote polarization and hamper cooperation.
We may imagine that polarization is at its worst today in the era of social media, outrage clickbait and demagoguery. It’s not: polarization is the result of human weakness, and humans were humans long before Facebook. My favorite quote about political polarization predates the United States itself by two decades:
In a nation distracted by faction, there are, no doubt, always a few, though commonly but a very few, who preserve their judgment untainted by the general contagion. They seldom amount to more than, here and there, a solitary individual, without any influence, excluded, by his own candour, from the confidence of either party, and who, though he may be one of the wisest, is necessarily, upon that very account, one of the most insignificant men in the society. All such people are held in contempt and derision, frequently in detestation, by the furious zealots of both parties.
Of all the corrupters of moral sentiments, therefore, faction and fanaticism have always been by far the greatest.
-Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments III.I.85, 1759
Horseshoes, bubbles and evaporation
The horsehoe theory holds that extremists on either side of a political/cultural divide share more similarities with each other than they do with centrists. It doesn’t apply to every single debate, but I noted the horseshoeness of the “gender wars” here and alluded to the similarities between the political extremes of left and right in my pre-election essay.
From the top of the horseshoe, society looks like a complex network of compromises and trade offs. On crime and terror, a compromise between liberty and security. On multiculturalism, a compromise between diversity and social cohesion. On trade, a compromise between growing the global pie and fairly dividing the domestic pie. On Nice Guys, a compromise between everyone’s personal desires to be safe, be respected and get laid.
This doesn’t mean that the horseshoe is always perfectly balanced – the moderate reasonable position on a topic depends on moderation and reason, not on its distance from the fanatics. The virtues of racial equality don’t depend on the number of white or black supremacists and their opinions.
From the ends of the horseshoe, the world looks completely different:
- A single sacred value defines the worth of every person and action, and cannot be traded off for anything.
- An eternal and eternalist conflict, in which every historical or novel issue is politicized to seem part of the same unending war.
- Zero sum game: any action that hurts the enemy is good, anything that helps the enemy is bad, regardless of other consequences.
- The outgroup is seen as a homogenous glob of menace, with no nuance or differentiation.
- The enemy is easily comprehended, seen clearly across the narrow gap. The enemy’s tactics (conformity for the in-group, condemnation for the rest) and the enemy’s worldview (same sacred value, just with a flipped polarity) are very familiar.
- The moderate centrists are utterly incomprehensible, hidden from view by the horseshoe curve of almost-sympathizers. To extremists of either end, the centrists are despised as traitors. “All such people are held in contempt and derision, frequently in detestation, by the furious zealots of both parties.”
You can see why people sliding down the horseshoe is worrying from the point of view of someone who believes in epistemic charity, the pursuit of truth, and that policy debates usually have two sides. You can see why this slide away from cooperation is the scariest thing in the world to someone who believes that we are facing massive and existential challenges that can only be solved by global cooperation.
I called the top of the horseshoe “normalizers”, I don’t mean that in the sense used commonly since the election just yet. We’ll talk about that “normalization” later. For now, it means – pulling people towards normalcy, and away from the eternal war and the soul-devouring demon. Most people try to nudge each other left and right on the horseshoe, but my goal is to pull everyone up.
Speaking of, how do smart people even find themselves slipping down towards the nasty edges of the horseshoe? The answer is bubbles and evaporation.
- Everyone has heard a million times by now that we live in echo-chamber bubbles that protect us from beliefs we disagree with. Yet people don’t appreciate that two of the most powerful forces in the universe conspire to keep us bubbled up: confirmation bias and the algorithm. The latter latches on to your slightest deviation from equanimity by feeding you content that nudges you ever so slightly further in that direction. The former keeps you blind to the fact that anything nefarious is happening at all. In combination, they make the slope very slippery.
- Bubbles keep us from hearing those we disagree with, evaporative cooling keeps them from hearing us. When a social group begins to drift towards an extreme position, the sanest people are first to leave and the fanatics remain. The crazier the position becomes, the more devoted to it the remaining members are: anyone capable of doubt has long ago departed.
Evaporative cooling of group beliefs down to extremism happens to media outlets as well, especially as they chase a shrinking pool of revenue. Slate.com is one of the very few media companies that publishes a poll of how their staffers vote in each election. In 2000, over 20% of Slatesters (their terminology) voted for Bush or Browne, the Libertarian candidate. By 2012, that number was down to 11% for Romney and Johnson. This year, as Slate’s centrist contributors evaporated along with their centrist readership – the number was 0.0%.
But I’m not picking on Slate because they disclose their voting patterns, I think this is commendable. And I’m not picking on them because they’re the worst, if you’ve noticed I already linked to a Slate article positively in this essay. I’m talking about Slate because its senior political editor, Jamelle Bouie, just wrote an article forged straight in Moloch’s furnace: There’s No Such Thing as a Good Trump Voter.
There’s no such thing as a good hate article
Let’s run through the checklist.
A single sacred value – as Jonathan Haidt explains: “The new sacred values on the left are about anti-racism and fighting discrimination”. Bouie doesn’t entertain the notion that people could have voted for Trump because they care about terror, or abortion, or taxes, or they just think that Hillary Clinton is a horrible and corrupt person. To him, all voting is single-issue voting on racism: “People voted for a racist who promised racist outcomes. They don’t deserve your empathy.”
Eternal conflict – Bouie sees everything as part of a perennial struggle against racism. Journalists who urge empathy for Trump voters in 2016 are compared to when “Between 1882 and 1964, nearly 3,500 black Americans were lynched. At the peak of this era, from 1890 to 1910, hundreds were killed in huge public spectacles of violence. And the people who watched these events, who brought their families to gawk and smile, were the very model of decent, law-abiding Americana.”
Zero sum – Can empathizing with Trump supporters actually increase tolerance and improve outcome for blacks? It doesn’t matter, any aid to the enemy is condemned as sin: “To insist Trump’s backers are good people is to treat their inner lives with more weight than the actual lives on the line under a Trump administration. At best, it’s myopic and solipsistic. At worst, it’s morally grotesque.”
Homogenous outgroup – “Trump’s 59 million votes… Meanwhile, more than 300 incidents of harassment or intimidation have been reported in the aftermath of Trump’s election, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.” To me, it sounds like 58,999,700 people voted for Trump and did not proceed to harass minorities the next day. To Bouie, all 59 million share the collective guilt.
The enemy’s tactics are familiar – Two paragraphs after condemning 59 million people for the actions of 300, Bouie writes: “[Trump’s] campaign indulged in hateful rhetoric against Hispanics and condemned Muslim Americans with the collective guilt of anyone who would commit terror.” You see, according to Bouie there’s nothing wrong per se with employing the tactic of collective condemnation. It’s only a problem if you condemn the wrong collective.
The moderates are incomprehensible – Who are these terrible racists who are compared to the people who cheered at lynchings? Who are these right-wing extremists that Bouie calls “morally grotesque”? The New York Times and the Washington Post. Reminder: these are the two media companies that Trump has personally threatened to sue while remarking of the former: “They don’t write good. They have people over there, like Maggie Haberman and others, they don’t — they don’t write good. They don’t know how to write good.”
When you decide that even your enemies’ enemies are your bitter enemies, maybe you should consider making fewer enemies.
Intermission: why does everyone hate me?
I admit that it’s somewhat self-indulgent to position myself in Smith’s quote and assume that I’m “held in contempt and derision” because I’m the honest voice of calm reason. But I have a sneaking suspicion of reversed causality here. I mentioned some of the thinkers who inspired me: Haidt, Kling, Harris, Alexander, Yudkowsky. I noticed that we have one more thing in common besides fighting polarization and promoting rationality – we’re all (ethnically) Jewish.
For all our talents, Jews’ most remarkable ability is ending up equally hated by both sides of a polarized conflict. Naturally, whenever Sunni fight Shia they accuse each other of conspiring with Jews; so do Russia and Ukraine. In American culture wars, the SJ left hates Jews because they’re the rich and powerful oppressors. The alt-right accuses Jews of sacrificing babies to Moloch, which is very confusing to the Jews who try to use Moloch as a metaphor for cooperation failure.
Personally, I couldn’t find a home at the horseshoe’s tips even if I tried. I’m the worst kind of Jew you can imagine: an Israeli cosmopolitan liberal with an MBA. According to Malcolm X, this makes me an agent of the Zionist-capitalist conspiracy. According to the alt-right, this makes me an agent of the Zionist-capitalist conspiracy. The good news is that I’m bridging the gap between extremists just by existing. The bad news is that I’m only pushing this propaganda of tolerance and cooperation to further my Zionist-capitalist plot of global peace and prosperity (peace and prosperity increase stock prices).
I’m a bit worried that what led me to the center of the horseshoe isn’t cool rationality, but the fact that I was held in contempt and derision to start with. This shall be the new motto of the centrist moderates: “Does everyone hate you? You should try using reason, you have nothing to lose!”
Climbing the horseshoe
Ok, so you want to avoid being at the bottom of the horseshoe where everyone is your enemy and you’re destroying the social norms of cooperation that humanity depends on. How do you ascend to a more judicious position on the horseshoe?
Option 1 – convert to Judaism.
Option 2 – follow this simple, four-step plan:
- Find some you disagree with, but don’t hate.
- Figure out what they know that you don’t, and vice versa.
- Figure out what goals and values they hold that you don’t, and vice versa.
- Offer a compromise.
Let’s see if it works.
“Dear Mr. Bouie,
I have read your many articles regarding Trump supporters. I disagree with their content both factually and instrumentally. I don’t think they present the entire truth about racism in the United States, nor offer an effective way to fight it. But I admire your motivation in writing them, and I want to cooperate with you in our fight against racism.
There is no question that you know more than most about racism in the United States. From your writing I learned both about the historical cycles of racial integration and backlash, and about the present experience of being black in America. I don’t know much about either the past or the present of racism, all I know are bell curves.
Your article treats “attitudes about racism” as the only variable that mattered in the election, so that will be the bell curve’s axis. I will grant your implicit assumption that every Trump voter is more racist than every Clinton voter if you’ll grant me the mathematical assumptions needed for a Gaussian transformation. I want to “normalize” the racism of Trump’s voters, if you will.
If half the country voted for Trump, the median Trump voter is at the 75th percentile of racism. That’s 0.67 standard deviations more racist than the median American, and 1.33 SDs more racist than the median Clinton voter (and people like the New York Times). On the other hand, there are 6,000 registered KKK members out of 242 million American adults, that more than 4 SDs out on the racism axis. Even if we assume 100,000 white supremacists, a very pessimistic estimate, they occupy the area on the curve beyond 3.3 SDs. That’s twice as far from the median Trump voter as the latter is from the median Clinton voter.
Your main goal in opposing Donald Trump, Mr. Bouie, is fighting racism. I actually consider other issues more important. Yes, some Trump endorsers wonder if Jews are human (we’re actually dancer), but I am still more worried about nuclear war, the erosion of governance institutions and threats to global economic freedom. I know, I’m a weirdo. But for now, let’s put all that aside and concentrate solely on your goal: fighting racism.
Trump is especially worrying in regards to racism because he’ll be the first president to include the always-present minority of white supremacists in the government coalition. To combat that, we need to build an overwhelming anti-racist coalition. We can’t risk having just 51% of people on our side, we need at least three-quarters of the country. That means we need the “orange quarter” on my chart, the 25% of Americans who voted for Trump but are less racist than the median Trump voter.
Who are they? One of them is my old Jewish colleague who voted for Trump because of tax policy. One of them is my gay black friend who voted for Trump because he worries about illegal immigrants. Millions of them are the older rural whites in Pennsylvania and Michigan who swung the election Trump’s way. The same people whose great grandparents bled for the Union to end slavery a century and a half ago.
We need to compromise with these people because we need them. We need to tell them: ‘We don’t care as much about taxes and immigration and revitalizing the rural Midwest, and you don’t care as much about white supremacists, but we’ll help you out on all of the above if you help us kick the idiots shouting “Heil Trump” far outside the Overton window (and maybe out a physical window as well). Besides, what’s more embarrassing than pasty white dudes calling themselves “Children of the sun“? Are those the friends you want?‘
These “orange voters” don’t really care what the New York Times thinks of them, let alone what Slate does. If Breitbart accused you of being politically correct, you would wear that as a badge of honor. All we’re doing by calling everyone “racist” is redefining “racist” to mean “people who disagrees with Slate on anything”, the same way “politically correct” now means “people who disagree with Breitbart on anything”.
You know that dude Carl Higbie, the one who thinks that the WWII internment camps for Japanese were a good precedent? There are many ways to describe him. He’s a Navy SEAL who was honorably discharged and then had that honorable discharge revoked for writing a book about the war in Iraq. Quite a character, huh? And yet the only way anyone in the media describes Higbie talking about the interment camps is as a “Trump supporter”.
Look, we need these orange Trump supporters in our coalition to fight racism and we are telling them that internment camps are something on their agenda. Actually, forget the supporters. Trump himself has only one agenda: “winning”. Let’s not tell him that his policy is locking Muslims up.
Now let’s get to the N-word: normalization. You’re saying that this isn’t just another normal election, that this isn’t politics as usual. Look at that orange person in the middle of the bell curve, the 270th elector. He (or she) is the normal one. To them, it was a normal election, and they voted for Trump. We don’t get to decide what’s “normal” in America, America decided what’s normal on November 8th.
This doesn’t mean that what’s “normal” isn’t wrong, just that treating normal people as if they were evil mutants isn’t the way to make them right. I believe that “normal” is wrong on many things, like altruism, welfare, and football coaching. I try to persuade people to my position with friendly arguments, not by calling them names. We don’t decide whether to normalize the orange voters or not, they are normal. We decide if we’re going to polarize and radicalize these people, or if we work with them to achieve our goals.
And yes, if a bunch of people who aren’t evil mutants voted for someone, that should give us some evidence that this person also isn’t an evil mutant. This isn’t a political point, just a Bayesian one.
You know what this is reminiscent of? Obama’s refusal to associate jihadi terrorism with Islam to avoid radicalizing Muslims. We both agree that Obama is pretty smart, so let’s make a deal. We’ll both reach out to people close to us on the political horseshoe and ask them to adopt the anti-radicalization logic. You’ll tell the New York Times not to call Trump voters racist, and I’ll tell Sam Harris not to call terrorists Islamic. He’ll listen to me, we’re both in the Zionist-capitalist club together. Let’s build our coalition at the top of the horseshoe and at the middle of the bell curve.
Because when Jews and blacks cooperate, beautiful things happen.