Vox – Donald Trump and the rise of tribal epistemology (aka the great sorting of America)

It’s a long read but David Roberts is always a good read.  The bottom line is that we’ve been sorting ourselves as a nation between left and right for a while now, while the middle that created the norms we all recognized, the glue that held us together, has eroded.  Robert’s issues this warning similar to that of Masha Gessen and Timothy Snyder for journalism:

“Journalism cannot be neutral toward a threat to the conditions that make it possible.”

With the expansion of the chasm of interests and personalities between right and left, it’s no longer a matter of party or any simple bridgeable differences, it’s how we see the world, how we experience it and where we see ourselves in it that separates us.  If people didn’t see this phenomonen before the 2016 election cycle, the baffling elevation of Trump by a seemingly alien portion of the population certainly made it as clear as going to bed with a sore thumb and waking up with a flesh eating pathogen having taken your hand.

A few years ago, Will Wilkinson looked into some research showing that the country is sorting itself by personality as well. He summarizes what he found: “liberals (low conscientiousness, high openness to experience) and conservatives (high conscientiousness, low openness) have distinctive personalities, and there’s reason to believe we’ve been sorting ourselves into communities of psychologically/ideologically similar people.”…

Democrats, like economic activity, are increasingly concentrated in cities. In a paper last year, Mark Muro and Sifan Liu at the Brookings Institution found that the fewer than 500 US counties that went for Hillary Clinton in 2016 represent “a massive 64 percent of America’s economic activity as measured by total output in 2015.”

That’s both the frustrating part of this equation for Democrats and the part that keeps them hopeful for the future:  the country is getting browner, younger and more urban. It’s only by an anachronism (the electoral college) and the concerted effort of Republicans to fight the tide against them with gerrymandering and voter suppression that they aren’t the minority rump party their numbers suggest.  More people voted for Democrats at every level of federal government: President, Senate and House.  And the 500 counties that Democrats dominate represent 64% of the country’s GNP vs. the 2500 counties that Trump won that represent the other third.  The minority tail is wagging the majority dog in America.

How are the minority motiating themselves to such rabid extents to push their way into power by any means necessary?

From Reagan forward, the US has become much more politically polarized, but the polarization has not been symmetrical — the right has become far more extreme than the left. (That story is exhaustively told in Asymmetric Politics, by political scientists David Hopkins and Matt Grossmann.)

But it doesn’t help much to think of polarization as working purely along a single left-right axis, as though the right has simply moved further right. Instead, there has been a break, a divergence of political worldviews.

On one side is what we might call the classic liberal democratic (small-l, small-d) theory of politics. In this view, politics is a kind of structured contest. Factions and parties battle over interests and policies, but the field of play on which they battle is ring-fenced by a set of common institutions and norms. Inside that fence is “normal politics” — the subject of legitimate political dispute. Outside that fence is out of bounds, in violation of shared standards.

The “game” of politics is defined by explicit rules (e.g., the Constitution), enforced by various legally empowered referees (e.g., courts and the executive branch). But it is also defined by implicit norms, unwritten rules more informally enforced by the press, academia, and civil society… That’s how democracy — indeed, any framework of cooperation among large numbers of diverse people — works. Institutions and norms provide structure and limits, the shared scaffolding of cooperation….

But there has always been a powerful strain in conservatism (think the John Birch Society) that resists seeing itself as a participant in the game at all. It sees the game itself, its rules and referees, as captured by the other side, operating for the other side’s benefit. Any claim of transpartisan authority is viewed with skepticism, as a kind of ruse or tool through which one tribe seeks to dominate another.

That’s the view Limbaugh and others in right-wing media have consistently articulated. And it has found an increasingly receptive audience. Over time, the right’s base — unlike the left’s fractious and heterogeneous coalition of interest groups — has become increasingly homogeneous (mostly white, non-urban, and Christian) and like-minded (traditionalist, zero-sum values).

They are temperamentally prone to fear change, but a great deal of demographic and economic change has found them anyway. Their anxiety leaves them wanting clear answers and strong leaders. And under a steady diet of radicalizing media and tribal epistemology, their traditionalism has hardened into tribalism. (If you haven’t already, you must read Amanda Taub’s “The rise of American authoritarianism.”)

Like I said, it’s along read, but well worth it.

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