This is Chapter 10 in a blog series. If you’re new to the series, visit the series home page for the full table of contents.
Part 5: A Dangerous Trend
“The gentle downward slope gets steeper and imperceptibly becomes an abyss.” – Tomas Tranströmer
Chapter 10: A Sick Giant
In the introduction to this series, I said:
Part of what I’ve spent three years working on is a new language we can use to think and talk about our societies and the people inside of them…full of new terms and metaphors and, of course, lots and lots of badly drawn pictures. It all amounts to a new lens. Looking through this lens out at the world, and inward at myself, things make more sense to me now. … In the early parts of the series, we’ll get familiar with the new lens, and as the series moves on, we’ll start using the lens to look at all of those topics a sane blogger isn’t supposed to write about. If I can do my job well, by the end of the journey, everything will make more sense to you too. There’s a pretty worrisome trend happening in many of our societies right now, but I’m pretty sure that if we can just see it all with clear eyes, we can fix it.
Nine chapters later, here we are. There are a few new terms and visuals still to come, but for the most part, we now have our lens.
At the heart of the lens is the notion of “seeing in 3D,” which involves two ideas:
1) Seeing in 2D. Getting to know what I see as the core human struggle: the tension between our genes’ will to survive—a primal flame that burns brightly in everyone—and the human capacity to override that flame when it makes sense to do so, with rationality, self-awareness, and wisdom. I personify this tension with two characters—the Primitive Mind and the Higher Mind—whose struggle for control is a bit like a tug-of-war. Seeing in 2D means learning to consider this tug-of-war when thinking about anything human: ourselves and others, our interactions, our communities and societies and our politics, our personal and collective histories, and our prospects for the future.
2) Seeing in 3D. Remembering to remember not only the Psych Spectrum tug-of-war but also Emergence Tower. Ants are cells in a giant colony “organism.” Polar bears are individual organisms in themselves. Humans are weird because we can be like ants sometimes and polar bears other times, making the human species kind of like a fractal. The individual human is an organism, but in many ways so is a human community, and even a whole society. The reason I see humanity like a fractal is that these different-order organisms are similar in a lot of ways. Namely, I see them as all enduring the same 2D struggle. I freely alternate between psychology and sociology in this series, because in 3D, it’s all one big multi-tiered system. Psychology is just a microcosm of sociology. And sociology is higher-emergence psychology—it’s the psychology of giants.
Putting the two ideas together, it’s as if the tug-of-war is itself a fractal that scales up and down. There’s a tug-of-war in every human’s head, as we struggle for self-control and try our best to think and behave wisely. That same tug-of-war takes place on a macro scale in large and small groups of humans. When couples, communities, and societies let control of the rope slip towards the Primitive Mind, they end up playing out an ancient pre-programmed skit, falling into what I call the Power Games—the most primitive format of human interaction, where the only rule is: “Everyone can do whatever they want, if they have the power to pull it off.” When their collective Higher Minds regain an edge, they’re able to live within a wiser and more grown-up structure made up of consciously chosen principles. Tug-of-war shifts are also contagious. The state of each person’s tug-of-war influences both the psychology of the people around them and the collective tug-of-war of groups the person is a part of. In turn, shifts in a society’s collective mindset exert a pull on the communities and individuals within it.
Which brings us to the next part of what I said in the series intro: the worrisome trend.
I’ve alluded to the trend a few times in the series so far, but I didn’t want to get fully into it until our lens had been sufficiently developed. My hope is that the lens can A) help me get my point across, and B) help us all see a baggage-laden story with fresh eyes and communicate about it with fresh words. Clarity is the name of the game—if we can see a bad trend for what it is and why it is, we can put our efforts toward reversing it. If we can’t, we’ll unwittingly perpetuate it.
Blogging about current events is a bad idea. It’s less fun than blogging about rockets or cryonics or Panic Monsters and much more likely to make people mad at you. But this is too important, with stakes too high, not to talk about. The fact that there are such strong social incentives to avoid the topic is itself a huge part of the problem and why it’s particularly important to talk about. For the rest of this series (this chapter and two more), we’ll discuss the worrisome trend I think is happening, the consequences at play, and how I think we can work toward changing our trajectory.
The tug-of-war in our heads ebbs and flows on a day-to-day and hour-to-hour basis. You wake up feeling fine until you log onto Twitter—i.e. Primitive Mind land—where exposure to all the low-rung-ness jolts your Primitive Mind awake, dragging your psyche downward. You head to work, which let’s say is a place with a generally high-minded, grown-up culture, and it elevates your psyche a bit. While at work, you pick up a call from your mom, who makes a subtle jab about the career path she wishes you weren’t on, which infuriates you and leaves you finishing the call sounding like a 16-year-old, lower on the Psych Spectrum than you were a few minutes ago. A minute later, with your Primitive Mind now all riled up, you snap at your boyfriend in a text conversation, only to apologize a few hours later, when the tug-of-war in your head has come back up to its default position.
If there were Fitbits that could track Psych Spectrum levels, we’d each see that we have our own graph.
The While We’re Here, My Recent Airplane Story Blue Box
I recently engaged in a fun, joint Psych Spectrum roller coaster with a stranger on an airplane. We were on the runway, getting ready to take off, and I was doing my typical “I know the flight attendant said to turn all phones onto airplane mode but the whole policy is really quite inane so I’m just gonna keep texting until we take off and I lose service” thing, and a woman next to me decided I was an asshole and loudly told on me to the flight attendant, who was busy and didn’t hear her. So I did the only reasonable thing—I stealthily turned my phone onto airplane mode, re-opened my texts, and very out in the open, started typing a long text. The woman—my new eternal arch-nemesis—took the bait. She saw me texting and again got the flight attendant’s attention, saying, “Excuse me but he’s still texting.” When the flight attendant asked me to turn airplane mode on, I showed her my phone and calmly explained that airplane mode has been on this whole time and I just like to get some texting out of the way during flights—texts that don’t send until I land and re-connect to the internet. The flight attendant said, “Oh then that’s totally fine—my apologies.” I replied, “that’s okay,” and did a little “it’s amazing how awful people can be right?” sigh. Satan watched the whole thing and then just sat there silently, hopefully very embarrassed. It was an unbelievably satisfying, triumphant moment.
Here’s how that interaction looks in 2D. I was hovering somewhere in the middle of the Psych Spectrum, around my default level. The woman next to me either has a particular pet peeve about people not following rules, or she was in a bad mood and low down on her Psych Spectrum and took her shit out on me. Had I remained in a Psych Spectrum middle-ground, my Higher Mind would have thought, “whoa that was aggressive…but I am kind of a cock about this kind of thing, so whatever it’s fair. Plus she’s a stranger and it would certainly be silly to take this personally.” I’d have smiled, said a little “oops, sorry about that,” and that would have been that.
But that’s not what happened, because her aggressive tattletale move immediately threw my Primitive Mind into a rage, plummeting me down the Psych Spectrum. This banished my Higher Mind to the closet of my subconscious, allowing my Primitive Mind to come up with a genius-yet-psychotic plan for revenge. Which worked, and made my Primitive Mind feel deeply satisfied in a very not-grown-up way.
Flash to two hours later. We’re in the air somewhere. The woman and I obviously haven’t spoken or made eye contact since the incident. Then she drops her glasses on the ground. I pick them up and hand them to her. She replies, “Thank you……hey by the way I’m sorry about before, that was totally wrong of me.” I immediately reply back, “Oh don’t worry about it, I totally understand!” For the rest of the flight, we’re best friends. She’s a lovely person and I just want her to be happy in life.
In 2D: Thinking (incorrectly) that she had falsely accused me of something, she feels bad, and uses the glasses interaction as a chance to make amends. My Primitive Mind, sitting smugly in the driver’s seat of my mind, had spent the flight assuming that this woman hated me and in turn, she remained my lifelong nemesis. Then she apologized. In that instant, my Primitive Mind deflated like a balloon and my Higher Mind burst out of the closet, suddenly fully empowered. My hatred of this random woman evaporated as I was reminded that she is a human, not Satan, and all of my satisfied anger transformed into regret for the sneaky trick I pulled on her.
Our little fight dragged both of our tugs-of-war downward, and then later, with a single positive interaction, we both snapped back upward. These kinds of Psych Spectrum roller coasters happen all the time.
Over the span of a week, your Psych Spectrum Fitbit might show you a graph like this:
But that’s just the micro picture. To get a sense of how your life is really going, you’d want to view the graph over a longer span, like a year (by plotting each week’s average):
Or even over a full decade (by plotting each year’s average):
Over longer periods of time, the micro oscillations melt away, and we see the broader trajectories of macro trends. In most cases, I think we grow up over time, as we get a little wiser, a little more self-aware, a little kinder and less self-obsessed. This means that as the years pass, our general Psych Spectrum equilibrium rises, like a stock chart that goes up and down week to week but over the years goes up overall. But we also go through rough times in our lives where we seem to revert to old ways we thought we were done with. When a downward macro trend gets out of hand, our lives can fall apart for a while. It’s the human roller coaster that we’re all on, whether we like it or not.
Macro trends happen because Psych Spectrum movement in one part of our lives can spread to others and generate a feedback spiral, helping upward and downward trends to beget more of the same. Maybe you start to lose some confidence at work, which then bleeds into your dating life. You end up in a relationship that doesn’t make you feel so great about yourself—one you probably wouldn’t have gotten into when you felt better about everything a year ago. You find yourself eating badly and exercising less. The quality of your work goes down, which makes you lose more confidence. Your lower confidence worsens your relationship, and maybe your family notices that you haven’t been calling as much as you used to. You start having a hard time being happy for friends when good things happen in their lives, which puts a distance between you and them. What started as a single negative development becomes a vicious cycle that infects all parts of your life. Years later, when things have turned around for you, you look back on those years and with hindsight, you can see them for what they were—a trough in the roller coaster of your life.
If the entire U.S. giant were wearing a Psych Spectrum Fitbit, I think we might see the same kind of graph.
In the U.S., election season is like a raging “Primitive Minds Gone Wild” keg party. In the months leading up to the election, the nation’s air becomes more and more saturated with toxic, contagious Primitive Mind smoke. If the two U.S. political parties are like a married couple desperately in need of couples therapy, election season is when they’re at their worst and most contemptuous. Not many of us can hold our tugs-of-war in place in that kind of environment, and on aggregate, election season causes the country to drift downward on the Psych Spectrum. The country’s giant collective Primitive Mind gets stronger and louder, pulling the national tug-of-war downward a bit on the mountain. The frozen, non-thinking spots in the collective national brain—the country’s political Echo Chambers—swell up and expand.
As we talked about in Chapter 9, politics is always a bit bottom-heavy on the Psych Spectrum—but during election season, politics is at its bottom-heaviest.
Then election season ends, a bunch of post-mortem op-eds are written, and eventually, everyone gets bored of politics and moves on, if only for a little while. Many Americans rise up a bit on the Political Ladder, leaving the low-rung giants behind and repopulating the high-rung giants. As people relax a little about politics, some communities become slightly less groupthinky, shrinking the national Echo Chambers down in size.
Putting it all together, the election cycle oscillation might look something like this. Please enjoy Wait But Why’s attempt at animation:
We would expect this kind of short-term pattern in even the healthiest democracy. Like my example with an individual, to really get a sense of how a country is doing, we’d need to zoom out and try to see the longer-term macro trends.
Over a period of many decades, the hope is that countries have an upward trajectory. If almost everyone in your country would agree that they’d rather live there today than 100 years ago, it may be a sign that the big, national giant has managed to move higher up the mountain throughout the century, not lower. But even the most stable, healthy countries can go through painful periods of reversion as well.
The history of the U.S. has certainly been a roller coaster, with plenty of upward macro trends and some eras of negative progress too. I’m not enough of a U.S. historian to take a respectable crack at what the full graph of that roller coaster might look like (though I encourage commenters to give it a try), but when I look at recent times, here’s what I see:
Over the past 30 years, the U.S. has been on a downward macro trend—a negative feedback spiral that has been accelerating in recent years. And the harder I think about what that macro trend means, about what’s causing it, and about what its consequences could be, the more worried I get.
I suspect that this trend is bigger than the U.S., because it seems to be mirrored in many parts of Europe and other parts of the world. But having focused the majority of my thinking and research on the U.S., I’ll limit my analysis to what’s been going on here (though I’d love to hear from non-U.S. readers about what macro trends they see happening in their country).
On its face, the downward trend I’m referring to looks like an increase in political polarization, both among voters and among politicians. Let’s take a look at both areas:
The Voter Polarization Story
Voter polarization is an old pastime in the U.S.—but over the past half century, things have devolved into a particularly nasty situation.
You could probably trace the roots of the trend all the way back to 1945, when Hitler died. As we’ve discussed, nothing unites a group of humans like a common enemy—and the first half of the twentieth century was dominated by giant world wars that helped Americans to feel united. The U.S. never stopped being immersed in foreign conflicts, but Hitler’s demise marked the last time Americans were totally, uncontroversially united against a common enemy. And let’s remember what happens when the common enemy goes away.
Another key moment happened in the 1960s, when a cultural schism divided the country and never really went away.
By the middle of the decade, it had been 20 years since the end of World War II, and the country was ready to start fighting with itself again.
The Soviet Union was kind of a common enemy, but the country wasn’t totally united by it. A wave of pro-Communism sentiment from parts of the Left started to annoy the shit out of the Right, who felt that the Soviet Union and the spread of Communism should be viewed as pure evil, no differently than Hitler. Barry Goldwater, the 1964 Republican candidate for president, summed up this sentiment in his nomination acceptance speech, when he said:
I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.
This was a rallying call against Communism, but it was also a rallying call to the American Right to dig their heels in with their stances, whether the Democrats were on board or not.
Meanwhile, the Left was undergoing a shift in the other direction. In his 1997 book Achieving Our Country, philosopher Richard Rorty1 describes the mid-1960s as a period during which the Left began to transition from what he calls The Reformist Left—who were patriotic and devoted to making pragmatic progressive improvements to the traditional U.S. system—to what he calls The Cultural Left. The Cultural Left, led by students who were born after World War II ended, was less patriotic than the Left of previous decades, viewing the U.S. as somewhat of a failed experiment. This shift put them in direct conflict with the super patriotic Goldwater Right. The Cultural Left was also more politically militant and less interested in pragmatic reform than the old, Reformist Left had been, falling nicely into Goldwater’s militant “extremism over moderation on matters of virtue” camp—only on the opposite side of every issue.
The renewed partisan divide was more clear-cut than it had been in decades past—and the major events of the late 1960s were viewed by both factions as binary political battlegrounds.
According to Rorty, the Cultural Left, who were often critical of Capitalism and sometimes sympathetic towards the Soviet Union, despised the Vietnam War, while most of the Right fervently supported it. Anti-war Republicans and pro-war Democrats increasingly became persona non grata in their own party and either faded away or defected to the other side.
The Cultural Left saw the fight for civil rights as not only necessary but as a symbol of the country’s moral bankruptcy. This really boiled the South’s potato—and Republicans jumped on the opportunity. Democrats had dominated the South in presidential elections for a century, and by solidifying in resistance to the Democrats’ 1965 Voting Rights Act (in what Nixon’s strategists called “the Southern Strategy”), the Republicans snatched the South away, and they’ve (mostly) held it ever since. What had previously been a hazier divide on race issues like segregation, with some conservative Southern Democrats and some more progressive Northern Republicans previously in support of or opposed to segregation, respectively, now sorted itself out more cleanly.
The cultural gap between the parties also widened. The Cultural Left, with their drugs and their hair and their music and their rampant sex, became increasingly irritating to the more traditional Republicans. The Left had a similarly one-dimensional view of the Right, seeing them as a group of sweater-wearing, warmongering, financially predatory old white racists.
It all came to a head in the 1968 election, with Richard Nixon riding into the White House on a wave of populist appeal to everyone fed up with the Cultural Left—who, in turn, saw the election result as further reason to lose hope in the country.
The tumult of the 1960s sowed many of the roots for the modern Left/Right divides on foreign, fiscal, and social issues. According to a comprehensive study, people are at their most politically and ideologically impressionable between their mid-teens and mid-20s, and all of those Baby Boomers born in the 1940s and 50s—none of whom were sentient the last time the U.S. felt like a single, united front against a common enemy, and most of whom were deeply influenced by the events of the late 60s—are, by the 80s and 90s, running the country. The Greatest Generation (who fought in World War II) are by this point mostly retired, and it’s the Baby Boomers who are the politicians, the university administrators, the CEOs, the home buyers, and the media moguls.
During the following decades, we see voter polarization steadily increasing. Pew data, collected over the past 25 years, shows us that the gap between the viewpoints of Democrats and Republicans has grown on issues across the board. [footnote2]Source[/footnote2]
Averaging out the growth of the gap in those 10 graphs yields a smooth trend—[footnote2]Source[/footnote2]
—even as gaps in viewpoints between the country’s races, religions, and other types of groups have remained unchanged:[footnote2]Source[/footnote2]
Pew helps us visualize this another way—by plotting Americans on a spectrum from consistently liberal on one end to consistently conservative on the other. So someone who holds liberal views on all 10 of the above issues is plotted on the far left, someone who answers all 10 questions conservatively is on the far right, and people who have mixed leanings are more in the middle (with those whose answers are split 5-5 in the dead center).
The U.S. Thought Pile has gone from a steep hill to a more of a flat mesa.[footnote2]Source[/footnote2]
A steep hill means most people have a mix of liberal and conservative views—something you’d expect in a country with 325 million unique independent thinkers. A steep hill flattening into a mesa happens when fewer people are mixed and more people are ideologically pure.
Up on the high rungs of our political ladder, my hunch is that you’d find people all along this spectrum—from consistently liberal to consistently conservative, to everything in between. But on the aggregate, the high rungs alone would probably form a steep hill. In the Echo Chambers, you’d be more likely to find people in lockstep, loyal to their party’s ideological checklist from top to bottom. Going from a hill to a mesa is probably a sign that on the whole, America’s Idea Labs have gotten smaller while its Echo Chambers have grown.
Separating this graph by party helps us see what’s going on behind the scenes of this trend. Play around with this for a minute.
Here are three snapshots that sum up the story pretty well:[footnote2]Snapshots taken from this interactive.[/footnote2]
Jonathan Haidt and Sam Abrams look at the same story yet another way, using data from American National Election Studies, which suggests that the degree of ideological purity within the two parties has about doubled over the past four decades:
They explain: “Before the 1980s, if you knew which party an American voted for, you couldn’t predict very well whether the person held liberal or conservative views. This chart shows the degree to which identification with a party correlates with a person’s self-placement on the liberal-conservative spectrum. If there were no relationship, the “correlation coefficient” would be zero. If there were a perfect relationship, it would be 1. In 1972, it was 0.32, but it has nearly doubled since then, to 0.62 in 2012, which is considered strong.”
2) The story shows up again when we look at presidential approval numbers. Young Americans who only know a country where half the citizens love the president and the other half hate him might be surprised to learn that it wasn’t always like this:
You can also see the story in how Americans’ feelings toward opposing voters has evolved. In stats like this—[footnote2]The statistic comes from Lynn Vavreck, a political science professor, in this article. [/footnote2]
In 1958, 33 percent of Democrats wanted their daughters to marry a Democrat, and 25 percent of Republicans wanted their daughters to marry a Republican. But by 2016, 60 percent of Democrats and 63 percent of Republicans felt that way.
—or in graphs like this:[footnote2]Source[/footnote2]
Looking at the trajectory we’re on, it’s no surprise that Americans are becoming less and less hopeful about things turning around:
As voters have polarized, a similar story has been playing out in Washington.
The Politician Polarization Story
It’s a good idea to start with some context and remind ourselves that this isn’t the first era the U.S. has descended into a polarization vortex.
In his farewell speech at the end of his presidency, George Washington warned about the dangers of political polarization:
This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy. The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism…It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions…it is a spirit not to be encouraged.
Everyone burst out laughing and the government has been polarized ever since.
The John Adams–Thomas Jefferson election of 1800 was one of the dirtiest in history. Jefferson then spent his presidency at fierce odds with Hamilton and the Federalists. Half a century later, the country descended into Civil War. A few decades after that, the 1890s were a hyper-polarized time2 that in many ways resembled today’s divides.3 In the 1930s, the parties clashed again over the New Deal.
Looking at the history seems to support the idea that a country like the U.S. goes through macro oscillations in polarization. What seems like a trajectory into hell when you only look at WWII to today looks more like just another part of a roller coaster from a more zoomed-out angle.(Though for reasons we’ll discuss later, the modern trend may be uniquely dangerous.)
Probably the most commonly-cited metric to measure polarization levels in the U.S. House and Senate is something called the DW-NOMINATE,4 which places politicians on a liberal-to-conservative scale based on data like their roll-call vote behavior. The developers of the metric use it to make interesting charts on the site voteview.com. One such chart shows how DW-NOMINATE averages in the U.S. House of Representatives have changed since 1880:[footnote2]The below three charts can be found here.[/footnote2]
Their chart for the Senate tells a similar-looking story.
In each chamber, both parties have gone more extreme, with the Republicans going even farther. The full trend really comes through when you plot out the gap between the parties in the two chambers:
Political theorists suggest a few possibilities for the causes of the most recent polarization trend among politicians:
Political science professor Frances Lee explains: “Competition fuels party conflict by raising the political stakes of every policy dispute. When control of national institutions hangs in the balance, no party wants to grant political legitimacy to its opposition by voting for the measures it champions.”
Some theories point to the increase in campaign spending:[footnote2]Source[/footnote2]
More donations means more fear of pissing off donors—which often means more candidates falling in line with their party.
Others point the finger at redistricting—the practice of re-drawing the borders of congressional districts, which can dramatically change the voter balance in an election (usually in favor of the party who controls the state legislatures). That would certainly seem like a possible culprit in House polarization, though it wouldn’t explain the trends in the Senate (which aren’t subject to district lines).
Then there’s Newt Gingrich. When Gingrich won his first election in 1978, the Democrats were starting their 25th straight year as the majority in Congress.[footnote2]Image source: fivethirtyeight.com[/footnote2]
During this long tenure, the Democrats didn’t always treat the Republicans so well, and Gingrich and other Republicans were frustrated that between the Democrats having more money and more access privileges due to their majority position, and continual assistance from what they saw as left-leaning mainstream media, the Democrat stranglehold on Congress had no seeming end in sight. So Gingrich innovated. He wanted to reframe Congressional elections to be less about the actual people running for Congress and more about a binary tribal war between the Left and the Right. Over the following 16 years, as Gingrich gained more seniority, he emphasized a culture among Republican politicians of distrust and disgust for Democratic leadership and made it taboo to say anything to legitimize them.
In 1994, when the Republicans finally won back Congress, Gingrich, now the Speaker of the House, doubled down on the effort to tribalize. He crunched the traditional five-day legislative schedule into three days. According to Haidt and Abrams, “he changed the legislative calendar so that all business was done Tuesday through Thursday, and he encouraged his incoming freshmen not to move to the District. He did not want them to develop personal friendships with Democrats. He did not want their spouses to serve on the same charitable boards.”[footnote2]Source.[/footnote2]5 He also helped to do away with the seniority system for committee chairmen, which law professor Cynthia Farina says “many now blame for enhancing extremist voices, punishing defections from the party line, and burying measures with bipartisan support.”[footnote2]Source.[/footnote2]
Whatever the cause, the shift from a standard partisan tone to a fully tribal Us-vs.-Them tone is now ubiquitous in Washington. In 2012, Chris Christie’s entire convention speech used the structure, “They believe ____; We believe ____.” In her 2015 presidential campaign announcement, Hillary Clinton made six “They [something bad]” statements in just over a minute. Just a few months ago, Kamala Harris called on voters to not “let the bad guys win.” As I write this, a visit to Donald Trump’s website is immediately met with this popup:
Voters have become more ideologically pure, and the purity in Washington is even starker. In the decades following World War II, the parties were actually pretty diverse, with lots of overlap. But in recent decades, overlap groups like the conservative “Blue Dog Democrats” and the more progressive “Rockefeller Republicans” have gone extinct. Today, the overlap has entirely vanished:[footnote2]Visuals by lobbying firm Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti, using data from National Journal[/footnote2]
So there’s the voter polarization story and the politician polarization story, which in many ways look similar. In both cases, polarization oscillates on a four-year cycle with elections, but each cycle, things are worse than they were in the last one.
And the question is: why?
As we think about that question, let’s remember not to jump to causation conclusions when we see a correlation. Washington polarization may be a symptom of voter polarization. Or vice versa. Maybe they’re stoking each other in a self-perpetuating loop. They could be independent phenomena, correlated only by coincidence. Or—and I think this is most likely—they could both be symptoms of something else.
In Part 1, we talked about how animal behavior works. It’s a dependent variable.
Humans are complicated animals with complicated motivations, but the basic idea holds up. If a reasonably stable human society starts falling into some kind of downward spiral, it’s probably because something about one or both of the independent variables has changed—usually, something about the environment.
I’ve read a whole bunch of sociological theories about why we in the U.S. have been spiraling down a polarization vortex, and there are lots of interesting ideas, with little consensus. Drawing upon what I see as the most compelling theories, here’s my hypothesis:
Due to changes in the environment over recent decades, we’ve become connected in all the wrong ways—and it’s led to a resurgence of the Power Games in the U.S.
There are two elements of the hypothesis:
1) Geographic Bubbles
Over the past generation, Americans have become more educated, which has made them more mobile. The Economist cites a study that found that “45% of young Americans with a college degree moved states within five years of graduating, whereas only 19% of those with only a high-school education did.”
And here’s the thing about mobility. If lots of people have the means to choose where they settle down, and those people tend to have even a slight preference to live near other people like them, everyone ends up totally segregated. This phenomenon is explained in a 1971 paper called Dynamic models of segregation, but it’s best explored using a brilliant interactive simulation by Nicky Case and Vi Hart.
The simulation has two kinds of characters, a blue square and a yellow triangle.
These could represent people of different religions, different races, different socioeconomic backgrounds, or anything else. For our purposes, they’ll represent U.S. Democrats and Republicans.
In the simulation, there’s one key metric, called “individual bias percentage”— a number that represents the minimum percentage of “sameness” (for us, ideological sameness) each shape finds acceptable among their direct neighbors. So for example, say the shapes like living in a politically diverse neighborhood, but they want at least 33% of their direct neighbors to be politically similar to them. That means they’ll only be unhappy enough to move if less than 33% of their neighbors are similar to them politically, and beyond that, they prefer diversity. To illustrate this, imagine these three tiny neighborhoods:
Given our 33% condition above, everyone in the middle neighborhood is happy, because they live in a politically diverse neighborhood while also each having at least 1/3 of their direct neighbors share their views. On the right, no one is happy because there’s no political diversity, but no one is unhappy enough to move. On the left, there’s an unhappy triangle, because their direct neighbors are 5/6 squares and only 1/6 triangles (the other triangle in the left neighborhood is fine because it has only two direct neighbors, and one of them (50%) is also a triangle). Make sense?
Next, Case and Hart bring out a big, diverse town with an interactive slider next to it.
The slider lets you adjust the “individual bias percentage” of the shapes in the town. Above, the slider is at 0%, which means the shapes have no “acceptable minimum” requirement for ideologically similar neighbors—so no one is unhappy with the layout, and no one would feel the need to move.
But when you move the slider up to 20%—meaning every shape now wants to move if less than 1/5 of their direct neighbors are politically like-minded—a few residents become unhappy with their locations and want to move (hard to see here, but the unhappy shapes are frowning).
By clicking the “Start Movin’” button, the simulation shifts unhappy characters around randomly until everyone’s happy. Here’s how things end up:
Things have gotten slightly more segregated, but nothing major—according to the simulation, the region has only “18% segregation.”
But what happens when you move the slider up from 20% to 33%? Our 18% segregated town no longer works, as there are now a few new unhappy residents.
Doesn’t seem like a big deal—until we hit the Start Movin’ button, and by the time no one is unhappy, we’ve ended up here:
In order for no one to be unhappy—even when everyone is politically open-minded enough to be fine with 2/3 of their neighbors being politically opposed to them—the town has to become 57% segregated. Suddenly, almost everyone is surrounded by people who agree with them politically.
And how about if we up the percentage just a bit more, to 50%—meaning the shapes are still totally fine with diversity, they just don’t want to be in the political minority in their neighborhood? We end up with a completely segregated town.
This exposes a stark fact: if easily mobile people like diversity but prefer not to be the minority where they live, it leads to complete segregated homogeneity. Or as Case and Hart put it, “small individual bias can lead to large collective bias.” The only way areas stay diverse—racially, ethnically, politically—is if people like diversity more than they dislike being in the minority.
Back to our story. The simulation suggests that if Baby Boomers were, on average, a few “individual political bias percentage” points higher than their parents, and they were a bit more capable of moving and choosing their location, then when the Boomers reached home-buying age, the country would quickly sort itself into politically segregated neighborhoods in politically segregated counties.
Which is exactly what happened.
In his book The Big Sort, Bill Bishop examines how Americans have shifted geographically in relation to political leaning—and he found that Americans are far less likely to live in politically diverse areas than they used to be. Politically, Americans have formed geographical Echo Chambers. Living in a geographical Echo Chamber means people will find themselves surrounded by agreement at dinner parties, at local churches and parks and businesses, and at school, which is where children make their lifelong friends.
The “Big Sort” shows up in poll numbers. In an election, pollsters define a “landslide county” as one in which the winning candidate beat the losing candidate by 20 percentage points or more—in other words, a very red or very blue county. In the 1976 presidential election, 27% of Americans lived in landslide counties, with the remaining 73% living in more politically balanced counties where the election margin was closer.
By 1992, the percentage of Americans living in a landslide county had moved from 27% to 39%. That number has continued to rise every election since, with the 2016 results showing that 61% of Americans now live in landslide counties.
FiveThirtyEight explains further, writing about the 2016 presidential election:
Of the nation’s 3,113 counties (or county equivalents), just 303 were decided by single-digit margins—less than 10 percent. In contrast, 1,096 counties fit that description in 1992, even though that election featured a wider national spread. During the same period, the number of extreme landslide counties—those decided by margins exceeding 50 percentage points—exploded from 93 to 1,196, or over a third of the nation’s counties. … The electorate’s move toward single-party geographic enclaves has been particularly pronounced at the extremes. Between 1992 and 2016, the share of voters living in extreme landslide counties quintupled from 4 percent to 21 percent.
They sum this all up in one graph:
Landslide counties are bad for progress. According to The Economist, “Voters in landslide districts tend to elect more extreme members of Congress. Moderates who might otherwise run for office decide not to. Debates turn into shouting matches. Bitterly partisan lawmakers cannot reach the necessary consensus to fix long-term problems such as the tottering pensions and health-care systems.”
Political writer Philip Bump illustrates the same story from a different angle, showing how the Big Sort reveals itself in an increasing urban-rural political divide.
In her book Hearing the Other Side, Diana Mutz surveyed people from 12 countries and found that Americans “engage in political discussions slightly more than average” but are the least likely of all the countries “to be exposed to political beliefs and arguments that differ from their own.”
When people are surrounded by ideologically homogenous groups, their views become more extreme. In an interesting study, scientists studied the effects of a kind of “deliberation day,” when two groups of citizens from politically homogenous areas got together to discuss hot political issues:
Groups from Boulder, a predominantly liberal city, met and discussed global warming, affirmative action, and civil unions for same-sex couples; groups from Colorado Springs, a predominately conservative city, met to discuss the same issues. The major effect of deliberation was to make group members more extreme than they were when they started to talk. Liberals became more liberal on all three issues; conservatives became more conservative. As a result, the division between the citizens of Boulder and the citizens of Colorado Springs were significantly increased as a result of intragroup deliberation. Deliberation also increased consensus, and dampened diversity, within the groups.
Writing about the same phenomenon, The Economist reminds us that “even clever, fair-minded people are not immune,” reporting on a study that found that “Republican-appointed judges vote more conservatively when sitting on a panel with other Republicans than when sitting with Democrats. Democratic judges become more liberal when on the bench with fellow Democrats.”
As worrisome as this sounds, geographic bubbles are only the tip of the worrisome iceberg here.
2) Information Bubbles
The story of politics is closely intertwined with the story of media, and several paradigm shifts in our information ecosystem have a lot to do with what’s happening politically.
As is the theme with this series, we’ll be better able to understand these transformations, and their consequences, if we can look at them through a useful lens. Here’s one that we can use to assess news-presenting media of any kind: the Media Matrix.
The Media Matrix
The Media Matrix looks like this:
Every media brand (or media personality) can be plotted somewhere in the matrix. To add a third metric, we can plot them as circles, where the size of the circle represents the size of their audience.
At the top of the Media Matrix, in the middle, is media’s North Star. Here you have media brands that are rigorous about both accuracy and objectivity, trying their best to present the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. These voices are like the media version of the Scientist on the top rung of our Thinking Ladder.
Now let’s say this box represents reality:
Media near the North Star simply do their best to figure out what’s in that box and then convey it to their audiences.
But as you move outwards a bit horizontally, bias begins to creep in. Brands here start to have an agenda beyond pure truth. They’ll tell most of the story, but they may omit certain especially-unhelpful-to-their-cause stories.
All the way out in the upper corners, you have brands with a serious agenda—careful about accuracy but not at all about objectivity. Everything they report is carefully cherry-picked.
As you move down in the Media Matrix, accuracy diminishes as a core value in favor of some other value more sacred to the brand—that value might be profit, entertainment, a political agenda, or something else. The goal of a news brand down here is to be a steadfast ally to their partisan audience and stay current with the latest fads and talking points in Political Disney World, even if that means twisting stories, pulling quotes out of context, treating rumors as facts, or any other form of lying.
To me, the distance between a brand’s location in the matrix and the North Star is a pretty good measure of its usefulness in the pursuit of truth. It’s inversely correlated—the longer the line, the less useful the brand is.
But there’s another important metric here. So far, we’ve talked about where media brands are in the matrix. But each media brand really needs two circles—one for where they are and another—a yellow circle—for where they claim to be. The length of the yellow line connecting the two circles represents the brand’s level of dishonesty. So imagine two news shows are here:
Now imagine that the host of Show A openly admits to their audience that they’re Democrats and make jokes about their own bias, their habit of pulling quotes out of context, etc. On the other hand, say Show B characterizes itself as serious and objective. Adding in the yellow circles, things would look like this:
The black and yellow lines allow us to use the Media Matrix to grade news-presenting media voices of any kind—newspapers, TV networks, TV shows, podcasts, blogs, or individual columnists, anchors, podcasters, or bloggers—on two key criteria: usefulness and harm. In other words, positive and negative value, as it relates to what news is supposed to do: inform people of the truth.
The shorter the black line, the more positive value a brand is providing. The longer the yellow line, the higher the brand’s negative value—the more harm it’s doing.
Let’s use The Onion as an example. The Onion offers lots of entertainment value, but it’s useless when it comes to informing people of the truth. The Onion is also very openly a satire brand. While it doesn’t do much to help its audience become more informed of reality, it doesn’t install a false sense of reality in them either, so it does
no little harm.
I use The Onion as a reminder that what harms society is not a brand’s Media Matrix location as much as its dishonesty about that location. News brands are rarely like The Onion—they typically claim to be squarely on the North Star. So if and when they ultimately present with bias and inaccuracy, it misleads their audience, filling them with real conviction without filling them with real knowledge.
People will always disagree on which media brands are which level of biased/accurate, but at least the matrix can help us understand each other’s viewpoints, and the gaps between them, a bit more concretely.
I can offer some of my own speculation. Looking broadly at the matrix, I’d guess that if you could take every presenter of news in the U.S. with a decent-sized audience and plot their actual location on the Media Matrix, you’d end up with many of them falling somewhere within an arch-shaped region—because bias and inaccuracy are probably often correlated.
I’d bet most of them claim to be entirely objective and accurate, leaving the North Star covered in yellow circles. I’d also bet that of the brands inside this arch, the average audience member lines up pretty well with our Thinking Ladder.
In any case, with this lens in mind, let’s look at two major recent media transformations:
Media Transformation #1: Broadcasting to Narrowcasting
In the 1980s, most Americans got their news from the Rather/Jennings/Brokaw trio on CBS, ABC, and NBC, and before them, from nationwide titans like Walter Cronkite. In those days, networks competed with each other for who could capture the largest share of American viewers. They were cautious to avoid seeming too politically biased and they knew that reporting a story incorrectly could lead to damaged credibility and a loss of viewers. So they had to be at least in the vicinity of the North Star.
Some might argue that the people who ran these networks (along with those who ran the major newspapers at the time) were reasonably objective and accurate because those were the sacred values of those organizations. Those more cynical might argue that the mission was just to maximize profit, and that they presented news with reasonable objectivity and accuracy simply because they would have been penalized with a loss of viewers for not doing so. It’s hard to know for sure, because the media market was configured at the time such that the market incentives drove selfish media brands toward the North Star.
In recent decades, new technology has caused dramatic changes to the traditional media environment.
First, there was the birth of cable television around 1980, and with it, the advent of cable news. CNN (which literally stands for Cable News Network) launched in 1980. Cable channels, burdened with fewer regulations and hazier expectations than mainstream networks, could be more experimental with the way they covered the news.
Then there was the end of the Fairness Doctrine. In 1949, the FCC (the U.S. Federal Communications Commission) enacted the Fairness Doctrine, which required anyone who held a broadcast license to present controversial issues of public importance in what they called an honest, equitable, and balanced manner. In 1987, in the face of arguments that the Fairness Doctrine was in direct conflict with the First Amendment’s freedom of the press clause, it was revoked.
Not coincidentally, the demise of the Fairness Doctrine was soon followed by a sharp rise in blatantly politically biased media. Conservative talk radio exploded onto the scene in the late 1980s, most notably with The Rush Limbaugh Show, which debuted in 1988 and made Limbaugh the country’s most syndicated radio host by 1991. In 1996, Fox News and MSNBC were born.
When I was in college, I went to see Ted Koppel (the anchor of ABC’s late-night news show Nightline) speak. I remember the host commenting that Koppel was famously secretive about his own political leanings. This was standard for a prominent anchor in the past, but by the end of the 1990s, a huge portion of Americans were getting their news from people whose political leaning was supremely out on the table.
Then the internet sprung into our lives, and with it, sites like The Drudge Report (1995), Slate (1996), The Huffington Post (2005), and Breitbart (2007), along with a trillion political blogs. The internet takes narrowcasting up into a new gear—full-fledged tribal media.
Meanwhile, Fox News and conservative radio would continue to grow in size and influence, which was countered with a new genre of news TV on the Left—political talk shows. The Daily Show became a multi-decade sensation by serving as—depending on who you ask—either the voice of reason and sanity in the face of growing right-wing madness, or a show where elitist progressives would cackle as Jon Stewart relentlessly mocked their political outgroup. After Jon Stewart left, The Daily Show spawned, giving birth to a slew of similar “look at how awful the Right is” talk shows on even bigger stages.6
Now, of course, this discussion will ruffle all kinds of feathers. People loyal to the Left will note that Fox News and conservative talk radio—which serve as the primary news outlets for a vast portion of the nation’s conservatives—are significantly more biased than their left-leaning counterparts. People loyal to the Right will argue back that what progressives think of as objective, mainstream news brands—both currently and in previous decades—are all actually quite left-leaning and the reason a brand like Fox News has to exist in the first place.
There are all kinds of charts online taking a crack at displaying major news brands along a political bias axis. The problem is, the people who create those charts might be biased themselves, which we know from Chapter 7 will skew their judgment (if they’re even trying to be accurate). The closest I could find to something that seemed intent on using an objective methodology to lay things out is this chart, from a site called AllSides (vertical position is meaningless):
The difficult thing about topics where bias is both rampant and hard to quantify is that it’s hard to feel confident in anything you read. When I ran this chart by a mix of friends, a highly conservative friend (we’ll call him Bill LeMean) responded with 🙄. When I asked him for clarification, Bill went on a tirade about how absurd it is to put brands like the AP and Reuters in the center and not further left, finishing with some angry thing about “The Precious,” which is his term for how he thinks I think of Obama. So who knows. Bill LeMean certainly has his own biases—but I also haven’t read enough AP or Reuters to judge whether he’s making a good point here or not.7
Part of the reason it’s so hard to figure out media bias levels is that it’s one of the areas where we’re all craziest. There’s a phenomenon called the “hostile media effect,” which says that people on both sides tend to see the media as biased against their camp, even when they’re looking at the exact same coverage.
But there are some interesting stats out there that can offer clues. Like this chart, from Pew:
Or this one:
These don’t tell us about the bias levels of media brands, but they do tell us how the brands are viewed by the public. Looking at these charts, I can speculate how a vicious cycle could take place. Once the conservative media brands launch, many conservatives frustrated with the mainstream media would defect to them. Without those conservatives, the mainstream media has an audience that’s now overall more left-leaning than it used to be. To cater to their audience, they’ll probably start leaning a bit more left themselves—which causes more moderate conservatives to defect to the right-leaning brands. Meanwhile, with an audience made up almost entirely of conservatives, right-leaning media can move further right with little pushback, knowing that even their more moderate viewers will stick with them over the left-leaning options.
We can also look at the people who work at the media brands. One trend that gives credence to the notion that mainstream media is moving further left is the increasing nonexistence of openly Republican journalists.[footnote2]This chart is from a 2013 study called The American Journalist in the Digital Age.[/footnote2]
Fortunately, we don’t need to have all the answers here. What’s important for our purposes is the bigger trend in play: broadcasting has given way to narrowcasting. And the narrowcasting market works differently than the broadcasting market. With more politically homogenous audiences, the market demand for truth goes down a little bit in favor of an increased demand for viewpoint confirmation. Likewise, unfair bias against politicians most of the audience dislikes is no longer penalized by the market—and is perhaps even rewarded with a more loyal audience. In a world of narrowcasting, the market incentives magnet is no longer located at the North Star.
Political Junk Food
Remember this scene from Chapter 7?
Every business knows that the easiest way to make money is to sell directly to the simple, predictable Primitive Mind.
To sell food to the Higher Mind, you have to worry about quality and nutrition, which is expensive and hard. Instead, you can sell Skittles to the Primitive Mind, which mistakes them for nutritious food.
Selling magazines to the Higher Mind is also hard. Much easier to just put a young, firm, symmetrical person on the cover with the word “SEX” written in big letters next to them and market directly to the Primitive Mind.
The Primitive Mind sees the same thing when it looks at a Skittles wrapper and a Cosmo cover—genetic survival.
In the world of U.S. politics, the junk food rack looks like this:
The luscious confirmation promised by headlines like those looks as delectable to the Primitive Mind as the sweet sustenance promised by a Skittles wrapper. When everyone got their news from CBS, ABC, and NBC, this kind of hyper-partisan clickbait wouldn’t have worked, because when the whole country is your audience, you can’t confirm everyone’s political views at once. Narrowcast brands don’t have that same restraint. That’s how you end up with actual circles of destruction. (click for a bigger view)
Seeing “DESTROYS” next to the name of a political figure you hate is kind of like seeing “SEX” next to a picture of a person you want to have sex with. An irresistible fishhook for the Primitive Mind.
Political junk food has nothing to do with learning—the headlines tell you from the get-go which side will win and which side will lose. Its purpose is to combine three of the Primitive Mind’s favorite things: viewpoint/identity confirmation, outgroup bashing, and gossip. Primitive Mind crack.
A Politics Reality Show
Broadcast TV news tried, at least a little, to be a show about reality. Narrowcast news tries to be a reality show. Big difference.
Reality is interesting sometimes. Reality shows are interesting all the time. Reality shows aren’t about reality, they’re about entertainment—so reality show producers manufacture a carefully edited, fictional version of reality that’s wildly entertaining, and super addictive. And what’s the reality TV producer’s best trick? Drama and negativity. Would anyone watch The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills if the characters got along most of the time? Of course not. That’s why every five minutes of the show includes a conflict of some kind.
As soon as you realize that news media is also entertainment media, the constant coverage of conflict and drama makes perfect sense.
In the U.S., most of us are addicted to a trashy reality show called The Real Politicians of Washington.8
There are whole teams of heroes and villains, lots of ongoing storylines, and endless conflict. It’s a perfect vehicle for a dramatic, super-addictive soap opera.
It’s not that these heavily featured politicians or the super played-up storylines are unimportant. It’s that we receive a totally skewed depiction of the full set of relevant political issues. The issues that make headlines day in and day out are usually overrepresented, while lots of other important political stories—like the bills being passed each week by the 52 House and Senate committees—are severely underreported.
The New Democrat Coalition is made up of 103 forward-thinking Democrats who are committed to pro-economic growth, pro-innovation, and fiscally responsible policies. New Democrats are a solutions oriented coalition seeking to bridge the gap between left and right by challenging outmoded partisan approaches to governing. New Democrats believe the challenges ahead are too great for Members of Congress to refuse to cooperate purely out of partisanship.
Snoooooooooze. The editors of Real Politicians waste no airtime on this kind of shit because it’s nuanced and productive and boring as fuck. Kilmer is full of measured, well-thought-out ideas for how to make the country better and I’m falling asleep just writing this sentence.
Actual politics, like actual reality, is boring to most people. So tribal media brands do what reality producers do—they manufacture a carefully edited, fictional version of politics that’s wildly entertaining.
That’s why most Americans who will tell you they’re super passionate about politics can barely name ten current members of Congress. They probably can’t name all the U.S. representatives for their state, let alone members of their state legislatures. But they can tell you about the 15 or 20 politicians chosen by the media to be the main characters on Real Politicians, along with the 5 or 10 hot-button issues being featured on the show in any given month.
Among many others, one reason this is bad is that there are lots of people in the U.S. who want to make the country better, and The Real Politicians of Washington misleads most of them on where they should be directing their efforts.
Take a look at this data:[footnote2]Source[/footnote2]
The data surprised me, as I’m sure it surprises many of you. The storyline I’ve been presented with is this:
But the actual data above looks more like this:
Which we could rearrange like this:
Very different story. Of course it’s also true that Republican politicians, especially the current president, have often been dismissive of climate change. And “taking environmental action” is not necessarily the same as “taking action to curb emissions.” But the actual reality according to the survey makes me feel very differently about what kinds of strategies climate change activists should be using in order to build the necessarily coalition to change our trajectory. Presenting an inaccurate version of reality breeds displaced anger and division and hurts our ability to move toward important goals—all in the name of editing the politics reality show to be more entertaining with crisper, juicier storylines.
The most dramatic events on Real Politicians are elections. Elections are the show’s climaxes. And the show’s editors make sure to over-dramatize the shit out of them.
This is the past century of U.S. presidential elections.
It’s a clear zig-zag pattern. Which makes sense. Citizens are typically not that happy with their lives, and it’s a natural impulse to blame the government for our problems. It’s also our impulse to naively believe that our favorite new politician will be able to fix all those problems, if only they could win the presidency. So after a single party has held down the presidency for a while, the country, still unhappy, decides that it’s time to vote for the other party.
And yet—I remember when Bush won reelection in 2004, everyone in the media was talking about how Democrats just weren’t able to win in politics anymore for a number of what-seemed-like-rock-solid sociological theories. Then the Democrats swept the midterms in 2006 and the presidency in 2008.
I remember in 2012, when Obama won reelection, hearing people say that the country had fundamentally shifted, and there were way more Hispanic immigrants than there used to be, and the Tea Party had rendered the Republican party irrelevant, and all of this other proof that times had changed and the Democrats wouldn’t ever lose a presidential election again.
Then Republicans swept all three branches of government in 2016, at which point I read all these articles about how the Left is more culturally powerful but the Right is simply more politically powerful. I also heard a bunch of stuff about how gerrymandering ensured that the Democrats would never win back the House again. Then the Democrats won the House in 2018.
Media channels are for-profit businesses in a marketplace, behaving rationally. When people care about entertainment and confirmation more than truth, you end up with skewed coverage, over-dramatized storylines, and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of fake news.
In some ways, this is the return of an old story. The broadcast news era was something of an anomaly, generated by the advent of television. Before that, super partisan newspapers were common. James Baughman writes about political media in the 19th century:[footnote2]Quote source.[/footnote2]
“Editors,” wrote one historian, “unabashedly shaped the news and their editorial comment to partisan purposes. They sought to convert the doubters, recover the wavering, and hold the committed. ‘The power of the press,’ one journalist candidly explained, ‘consists not in its logic or eloquence, but in its ability to manufacture facts, or to give coloring to facts that have occurred.’”
But in other important ways, this is a totally unprecedented media landscape.
Most notably, we have the internet. And one special kind of internet magic would be the source of a second key transformation to the media environment.
Media Transformation #2: Algorithms
Normally, I appreciate the Google search algorithm. It filters results that are most relevant to where I live and what I’m typically interested in, and it can guess remarkably well what I want to search for after I type just a few letters, saving me the trouble of typing the whole search.
I appreciate the YouTube algorithm, which knows my favorite channels and makes sure I never miss their latest videos.
I appreciate the Facebook algorithm, which spares me the knowledge of what Johnny from high school 20 years ago made for dinner last night while making sure to let me know when Johnny gets engaged, so I can go look through his most recent 87 photos to see the deal with his fiancé.
Internet algorithms are usually good things, and very helpful.
But new technology often comes along with unintended, unanticipated consequences.
When I’m watching a YouTube video and I glance at the thumbnails on the sidebar, I’m more likely to click on a video featuring someone explaining history or science than I am to click on a video featuring someone reviewing movies. YouTube has picked up on that, which is why I never see movie review videos on my YouTube sidebar, but I’m constantly being introduced to great new history or science explainer videos.
But then one night last year someone sent me a funny video a driver took with their phone. The driver taking the video had pissed off another driver, who opened his window and cursed out the driver. The angry driver got so worked up that he swung his arm at the video-taking driver angrily, and in the process, punched his own side mirror off. A delight of all delights.
Then the video ended, and YouTube offered me my choice of nine more videos in the road rage genre. I clicked on one of them and watched it. Then YouTube offered me nine more. I had a lot of work to do, so I held down the Command key and clicked on all nine, opening them in nine new tabs, and watched them all. Two9 hours later, utterly disgusted with myself, I pulled the dramatic “punishing Chrome by holding down Command-Q and closing all eight Chrome windows and all 127 of their open tabs” move. A nightmare waste of time. But at least it was over.
Except it wasn’t over. Somewhere out there, the YouTube algorithm was lining its Tim Urban fishhook with the best of the best road rage videos, which have reliably appeared in my YouTube sidebar ever since that regrettable night, damning me to an entire life wasted watching delightful road rage videos.
Internet algorithms are profit-maximizing mechanisms that want to spoon feed me whatever I’m most likely to click on. This is a win-win, symbiotic relationship—until it’s not. When an algorithm is catering to your Higher Mind, it’s your friend. When it’s luring in your Primitive Mind against your Higher Mind’s will, the relationship is parasitic.
So how does this apply to politics? What happens when your Higher Mind knows it’s important to challenge your beliefs and likes to click links representing a variety of viewpoints—but your Primitive Mind wants to click only on links that will further confirm and strengthen your existing viewpoints? Both minds will get some clicks in there—and overall, that might yield 75% clicks on confirmation links and only 25% clicks on dissent links.
It won’t take long for the algorithms to start treating political confirmation links like my YouTube treated road rage videos. Soon, your Google searches and YouTube searches will turn up only confirmation links.
The geographic and information bubbles don’t leave much room for air. As The Big Sort author Bill Bishop puts it: “We now live in a giant feedback loop, hearing our own thoughts about what’s right and wrong bounced back to us by the television shows we watch, the newspapers and books we read, the blogs we visit online, the sermons we hear and the neighbourhoods we live in.”
On social media, the effects of the two bubbles are multiplied. Most of our newsfeeds are insular networks made up of people who get their info from the same filter bubble we do. In 2017, PNAS analyzed over half a million tweets about three politically polarizing topics: gun control, same-sex marriage, and climate change. Using an algorithm that estimated the political leaning of each account, they examined the accounts that retweeted each tweet. The findings? Political tweets are almost entirely retweeted by those who agree with the tweet, to followers who also almost entirely agree with the tweet. They visualized these findings, which shows the tweets almost exclusively bouncing around a single Echo Chamber, with little chance to change anyone’s mind. A frenzy of confirmation:[footnote2]Study: PNAS: Emotion shapes the diffusion of moralized content in social networks[/footnote2]
Even when there are exceptions—well-worded dissenting tweets that end up on people’s feeds—they have a hard time spreading, because social media is saturated with peer pressure to conform ideologically and shame those who dare challenge the narrative.
On top of all that, social media provides another unfortunate filter: it dumbs down complex information. In an interactive about crowds, Nicky Case explains: “Ideas don’t pass perfectly from one person to another the way a virus does. Like a game of Telephone, the message gets mutated with each re-telling…so, over time, ideas ‘evolve’ to be more catchy, copy-able, contagious.” Since complexity and catchiness are often inversely correlated, the super connectedness offered by the internet may actually hinder the spread of complex ideas.
Putting this all together, the internet quickly becomes a downward magnet on your psyche. You may be a high-rung thinker interested in hearing a wide array of ideas and becoming more knowledgeable, but the internet is likely to push you in the opposite direction, even if it’s hard to see that it’s happening.
When most of us hear about growing political polarization, we assume it means citizens are divided in their values. That people are unable to agree about “What Should Be”:
But take another look at the 10 questions the Pew polarization graphs are based on:
Only one of them is a philosophical question of values—a What Should Be question: the question about homosexuality. And that’s the question where the country has moved most closely in the same direction, as both parties follow a general national trend.
The other nine questions above aren’t philosophical questions about values—they’re questions about What Is.
The Wall Street Journal had a great interactive feature called Blue Feed, Red Feed that let you see how the same topics are presented on social media to people on the Right and the Left (they stopped updating it earlier this year, but you can still see a sampling). Whether the topic is Trump, healthcare, guns, abortion, ISIS, the budget, or immigration, opposing political camps are not just seeing different slants on the same story—they’re being presented two entirely different realities.
The Right and the Left do disagree on some values:[footnote2]Source[/footnote2]
They just disagree way more on reality:[footnote2]Source[/footnote2]
If market incentive magnets have indeed moved from the North Star region closer to the lower corners, separate realities would be a natural consequence.
In today’s politics, if you forget that A) your perception of reality has probably been at least a little manipulated, and B) your opponents are behaving the way they are based on a perception of reality that’s different from your own—you’re bound to get things wrong.
The Time I Was a Trump Voter Blue Box
I had a funny experience doing research for this series. I came into it crystal clear on what people on the Left generally think, how they think, and why. So the first order of business was a deep dive into what people on the Right—especially Trump voters—were saying, and why. I dug into conservative news sites, conservative blogs, conservative YouTube channels, conservative Reddit forums.
And a funny thing happened. The internet noticed, and it went for the full indoctrination.
Suddenly, it didn’t matter what I was watching on YouTube—it could be a group of slippery Japanese people trying to climb stairs—and I’d glance at my sidebar and see this:
It wasn’t just YouTube. The algorithms were serving me the pro-Trump Bento Box. Reddit and Quora started sending me emails with links to pro-Trump threads. Twitter started recommending conservative accounts for me to follow. And it went beyond pro-Trump material. As far as the internet was concerned, these were now the Clintons:[footnote2]Image source[/footnote2]
It didn’t change my views on Trump very much—but it did change my thoughts about his voters. Before, I had been fed a steady diet of “Trump is a huge bigot, Trump voters know he’s a huge bigot, and they voted for him because they’re huge bigots too.” But now the internet thought I was a Trump voter, and suddenly almost nothing I was seeing about Trump made him seem like a bigot. In the new depictions, he still seemed like a bit of a blowhard, but one that was unafraid to stand up to a corrupt, elite establishment and that was determined to help a losing America start winning again. The anti-Trump crowd I knew were making the mistake of looking at the version of Trump they were seeing and assuming his voters were voting for that guy. But his voters didn’t know that Trump. They knew the version of Trump they were seeing, and that’s the guy they were voting for.
Of course, some of the most damning things that came out about Trump during the campaign were seen by everybody. Everyone in every information bubble heard Trump grab people by the pussy, criticize McCain for being captured in Vietnam, mock a disabled reporter, and stereotype illegal Mexican immigrants as rapists. But in their information bubble, they were seeing moments like these once or twice, not 20,000 times—and when compared to their bubble’s depiction of Wicked Hillary of the West, the evil treasonous criminal who threatened Bill’s sex victims and called the working class “deplorable,” I see how Trump might appear the lesser villain.
I came out of the whole thing feeling like I understood the Trump phenomenon a little better, and the Left’s chorus of “Trump voters are all white supremacists!” began to seem over-confident, under-informed, and not very productive.
If you’re thinking about politics without regularly asking yourself, “What does this look/feel like to the people I don’t know?”, you’re going to get a lot of things wrong. Which ultimately makes you less politically effective.
Losing our grip on reality is an unnerving idea in general. But there’s one particular kind of delusion that keeps me up at night.
Recently, I noticed this headline on CNN.com:
I wanted to not click on that, but the computer and I both knew that I had no choice. So here’s what happened: a homeless man came across a woman after she had run out of gas on the side of the interstate, with no money. The homeless man told her to wait safely in her car while he walked over to a nearby gas station and, spending his last $20, bought gas and brought it back to her. The woman then went home and started a GoFundMe campaign to “pay it forward” and raise money for the homeless man.
When we read a feel-good story like this, it poofs away the fog in our heads for a moment because it reminds us how many good people there are out there and how much generosity and kind-heartedness there is in the world. It makes our Primitive Minds feel safe, which calms them down, and it empowers our Higher Mind. High-mindedness is contagious,10 and the high-mindedness of the homeless man in the story traveled through the internet and infected 14,000 people, who donated a combined $400,000 to the homeless man. It was a beautiful moment.
Until the woman, the woman’s boyfriend, and the homeless man got caught. The homeless man (Bobbitt) really was homeless, but the whole story had been made up by the three of them as a get-rich-quick scheme. The article explains: “Bobbitt received $75,000, and within months McClure and D’Amico had ‘squandered’ their share to buy a car, high-end handbags and trips…they also used it at casinos.”
Quite the crew.
At the very end of the article, there was a quote from GoFundMe’s spokesman:
It’s important to understand that misuse is very rare on our platform. Campaigns with misuse make up less than one tenth of one percent of all campaigns.
In other words, this is reality:
And if we knew more about the thousands of genuinely heartwarming GoFundMe stories that happen every year, it would strengthen our trust and love networks and boost kind-heartedness and generosity. Those kinds of stories are like positive viruses that, when spread, strengthen society.
But in the reality show editing room at CNN.com, they see this:
Of all the people that saw the article’s headline, only a tiny fraction will end up reading the quote from GoFundMe at the bottom of the article. Everyone else just sees the headline, and lots of other similar headlines over the years, and they develop the intuition that things like GoFundMe are pretty “scammy”:
Trust is a society’s most precious resource, and a strong trust network does amazing things, like donating $400,000 to a homeless man. But trust takes decades to build up and is easily shattered. In the case of a scam like this, 14,000 people reached out lovingly to another member of society, and their hands were zapped by an electroshocker. Their trust was shaken and replaced by cynicism.
On its own, this scam wouldn’t do much harm to society. Unless, of course, the news plasters the scam all over their front pages. When that happens, 14,000 people have their outreached hands painfully shocked—and 10,000,000 more people watch it happen.
A scam is like a virus that converts trust into cynicism, but it’s the news, in the name of keeping things entertaining and addictive, that distributes the virus across the whole country.
We can call this phenomenon—where the news cherry-picks stories that weaken society and spreads them—“destructive cherry-picking.”
Destructive cherry-picking breeds fear, anger, and cynicism. It’s why we always think crime is getting worse even though it’s almost always getting better.[footnote2]Image source: Factfulness by Hans Rosling[/footnote2]
But to me, the most damaging form of destructive cherry-picking is the kind that spreads hate.
Nicky Case made a killer simulation about this phenomenon too. It’s fun and quick—give it a try.
Portraying a society where everyone is a GoFundMe scammer damages trust. Portraying a society where crime is rampant spreads fear.
But portraying a society where everyone hates each other is the most dangerous virus of all, because it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Geographic bubbles mean many people barely know anyone on the other political side personally, so the only information they have on what those people are like comes from information bubbles. And those bubbles have increasingly become hate-mongering machines. The right-wing information bubble floods viewers with anecdotes that make it seem like everyone on the Left positively despises them and everything they stand for. What a Republican from a small town hears from the Left is: “you’re stupid, you’re ignorant, you’re a bigot, you’re privileged, your values are wrong, your religion is bad, you’re toxic, you’re backward, you’re selfish, you’re a Nazi.” Through the left-wing information bubble, all a Mexican-American living in Los Angeles hears from the Right is: “you’re a criminal, you’re a rapist, you’re not a real American, you’re stealing our jobs, you’re inferior, you don’t belong here, and we’re coming for you.” Outrage about these messages then spreads like wildfire on social media, because as CGP Grey explains in a fun/upsetting video, nothing spreads faster than anger—especially anger in the specific format, “Just look at how awful the people we hate are.”11
Vocal Primitive Minds activate other Primitive Minds. Filtering a steady stream of “they hate you” to people jolts awake the recipients’ Primitive Minds, filling them with reciprocal hatred, clouding their humanity, and flipping on that ancient tribal switch that makes people want to band together into giants for safety. The resulting anger is, in turn, filtered back over to the other side.
This most troubling thing about this kind of vicious cycle is that it fosters what may be the most dangerous word in the English language.
Like happiness, sadness, anger, and fear, disgust is a basic emotion, hardwired into all humans. Travel to any country in the world and basic emotions will be expressed similarly. That’s why smiles, for example, never require translation.
Basic emotions are the way they are because they were helpful for survival in the ancient human world. A Google Images search for “disgust” shows a bunch of people, all making the same hideous face—squinting their eyes, curling up their noses, and exhaling (and if it gets really bad, exhaling turns to gagging and eventually vomiting). Scientists believe this is evolution’s way of getting us to close up our incoming passages and expel outward whatever we can, in order to protect ourselves when we’re in the presence of toxins or disease. We react this way when confronted with rotten food, blood, shit, maggots, and anything else our primitive software believes is potentially dangerous and disease-carrying. We’re so prone to feel disgust that you probably feel a bit of disgust right now just having read the last sentence.
The strange thing is that disgust can carry over to how we view people. There’s a reasonable amount of research that suggests that when people are exposed to something that brings out their disgust emotion, they become harsher moral judges. In one experiment, one group of Canadians were shown disturbing-but-not-disgusting images of car accidents while another was shown photos of coughing people and other disease-related visuals. Then both groups were questioned about which countries they felt Canada should dedicate resources toward attracting immigrants from. Both groups showed a preference for immigrants from familiar countries (those who have a prominent presence in Canada), but the group that had seen images of disease felt much stronger about it.[footnote2]Source[/footnote2]
In another study, participants sitting at a dirty desk were harsher in their judgments of a series of criminal acts than participants sitting at a clean desk. In another, a wafting odor of vomit made participants more likely to disapprove of homosexuality.
Scientists use the term “behavior immune system” to describe the theory that disgust is linked to concepts like xenophobia and discomfort with practices and rituals (especially sexual) that seem foreign or different to us—an ancient impulse we developed because long ago, contact with foreign people and practices often did put you at risk of disease.
You know when you watch a horror movie and by the end, your amygdala is all up-in-arms about everything and suddenly every noise in the house makes you sure you’re about to be murdered? What’s happening is that your Primitive Mind is bad at distinguishing movies from reality and the movie actually makes it feel like it’s in danger.
The behavioral immune system is the same idea. Once your Primitive Mind is triggered by the feeling of disgust, even just via images, it becomes very suspicious that life-threatening disease is afoot and wants to react accordingly. It gets all hyped up, your mind fills with smoke, and you start obeying your ancient software, even when it makes absolutely no sense. So you do the equivalent of double locking all your doors after watching a horror movie—you become super icked out by people and behavior that deviate from “your people” or their norms.
The reason I called disgust one of the scariest words in the English language is that it’s a trigger for dehumanization, and dehumanization is the gateway drug to the worst things humans do. It’s not a coincidence that two of the most horrifying events in recent human history—the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide—were made possible by disgust. Nazi propaganda constantly compared Jews to disgust-inducing animals like rats, swine, and insects. The Rwandan radio broadcasts that incited the 1994 genocide referred to Tutsis as “cockroaches” repeatedly. These are just two examples of a well-worn tradition. During World War I, the Germans depicted the British as spiders, while the U.S. did the same thing with the Kaiser. During World War II, Americans painted the Japanese as rats, while the Japanese went with spiders for the English.
In a 2012 paper, Erin Buckels and Paul Trapnell write:
Once activated, feelings of disgust reliably evoke feelings of superiority over offending targets, who by virtue of their disgustingness, are expelled from the circle of moral regard. As such, disgust guards the human–animal boundary in social cognition, playing the dual role of distancing ourselves from “lower” creatures and reaffirming our own humanity. When applied to intergroup contexts, disgust inserts a psychological boundary between us and them that humanizes us at the expense of the other. … there is evidence that feelings of disgust may weaken or block perceptions of target humanity. In two social-neuroscience investigations, Harris and Fiske (2006, 2007) found that members of certain disgust-eliciting outgroups fail to be processed as fully human, social entities.
Disgust fills our mind with a special kind of primitive fog—one that turns ordinary humans into psychopaths who can commit unthinkable harm without remorse. Scary shit.
The geographic and information bubbles are a lethal combo, ripe for disgust.
Writer Gene Knudsen Hoffman says, “An enemy is one whose story we have not heard.” It’s hard to feel dehumanizing disgust for people you know personally. Less hard when you rarely see your enemies in person. And even less hard when destructive cherry-picking teaches you only the worst of the worst about them.
There’s a term we need to start using: political bigotry.
Political bigotry is as real as any other bigotry. In a 2014 paper on political polarization in the U.S., Shanto Iyengar and Sean J. Westwood write:
Hostile feelings for the opposing party are ingrained or automatic in voters’ minds, and that affective polarization based on party is just as strong as polarization based on race. We further show that party cues exert powerful effects on non-political judgments and behaviors. Partisans discriminate against opposing partisans, and do so to a degree that exceeds discrimination based on race.
Their findings are corroborated by another 2014 paper, which produced this graph, suggesting that political intolerance beats other kinds of intolerance on both the left and right.
As political Echo Chambers have gotten larger and more extreme, political opponents have gone from seeming like wrong, stupid people to seeming like evil, disgusting monsters. Feeling disgust towards a large group of people is textbook bigotry. If you heard about a country populated by two major races or ethnicities or religions, and they talked about each other the way today’s Americans talk about the opposing political tribe, you’d be very, very concerned about that country.
But for most of us, our instinct tells us that political bigotry is not as terrible as other kinds of bigotry. Maybe because it seems like it’s disgust about ideas more than disgust about people. Or maybe because, at least in the U.S., racial and other kinds of bigotry have historically been more prominent and the cause of more strife. But the paper goes on to talk about evidence that partisanship in the U.S. has increasingly become a “primal” kind of bond, much like ethnicity or race, making political bigotry a lot more like other types of bigotry.
Bigotry is at its most harmful in moments when much of society fails to recognize it as bigotry. The best tools to combat bigotry are social norms that penalize its expression, but those norms only kick in when the bigoted attitudes and behavior become widely viewed as reprehensible. In the U.S. today, political bigotry is a rare form of bigotry that is rarely ever penalized by taboo—and it’s often rewarded. Iyengar and Westwood’s research corroborates this notion:
The most plausible explanation for the stronger affective response generated by partisan cues is the non-applicability of egalitarian norms. These norms, which are supported by large majorities, discourage the manifestation of behavior that may be construed as discriminatory. In contemporary America, the strength of these norms has made virtually any discussion of racial differences a taboo subject to the point that citizens suppress their true feelings. No such constraints apply to evaluations of partisan groups. While Americans are inclined to “hedge” expressions of overt animosity toward racial minorities, immigrants, gays, or other marginalized groups, they enthusiastically voice hostility for the out-party and its supporters.
When society is behaving badly, politicians will too. Iyengar and Westwood also studied how rising levels of disgust amongst voters is then mimicked by politicians:
Hostility for the out party among rank and file partisans sends a clear signal to elected officials; representatives who appear willing to work across party lines run the risk of being perceived as “appeasers.” For the vast majority who represent uncompetitive districts, there are strong incentives to “bash” the opposition.
If they’re right, we should be seeing lots of political disgust expressed by politicians right now. Let’s see if their research holds up.
Well then. But maybe it’s just Trump?
Political disgust has become so common we barely even register it.
Zooming Back Out
With all of this in mind, let’s return to this:
When I look at this trend, I see more than a simple story of the U.S. growing more politically polarized—I see just one manifestation of a much bigger story. The U.S. giant has fallen ill, and this visual is one of the symptoms.
We started this post looking at two well-documented trends in the U.S.: increasing polarization amongst citizens and within government. Then we looked at two major environmental changes that seem to be playing a large role in stoking and perpetuating those trends: geographic bubbles, generated by increased mobility, and information bubbles, generated by the shift from broadcast to narrowcast news and internet algorithms. These bubbles have Americans connected in all the wrong ways—no longer personally connected with people who disagree with them politically, and more connected than ever before in an online ecosystem that over-simplifies the world, encourages intellectual conformity, and spreads mistrust and hatred of the outgroup.
Here are four reasons this scares me:
1) We’re losing our ability to gain knowledge. If our perceptions of reality are increasingly informed by media with other-than-truth motivations, we’ll increasingly lose our handle on the truth. This is like the big U.S. giant becoming schizophrenic.
2) We’re losing our ability to think together. Human giants can only think when people talk and when they’re free to say what they really think. As Echo Chambers grow larger and more intimidating, people inside them are afraid to defy the sacred narrative. And the more all-encompassing political identities become, the more topics turn from kickable machines to precious infants. Meanwhile, intergroup communication suffers even more, as opposing groups become totally unable to collaborate on ideas. As the downward trend deepens, the voices of high-minded Progressivism and Conservativism—the team that navigates the U.S. up the mountain—are growing more timid and harder to hear. The U.S. giant is losing its ability to learn.
3) We’re losing our ability to cooperate. A polarized country that isn’t capable of building broad coalitions can’t take forward steps—it can only self-inflict.
4) We’re doing that thing that people do before really, really awful things happen. Disgust should scare you as much as it scares me. If our species were a person, it would have a mix of beautiful and unadmirable qualities—but its darkest quality would be the ability to dehumanize.
When I back up and look at all of these things at the same time—when I mentally zoom out as far as I can and try to see the downward macro trend all at once—it looks like one thing to me:
The Power Games.
Humans in a constitutional democracy aren’t quite at home. Part of us—our Higher Minds—are right in their natural habitat, like bullied nerds who finally graduated high school and moved to a place where they can be themselves. But our Primitive Minds are wild animals caged up in a zoo. The cage is made up of the constitution and laws, but even more so, it’s made of widely accepted, socially enforced liberal norms.
The Value Games is a remarkable human structure and when it’s working well, it can not only cage the worst instincts of the Primitive Mind but harness them into tremendous productivity. But the Value Games aren’t really our natural way, and they’re fragile. The Power Games are always pulling on us like gravity, and whenever there’s a crack in the Value Games structure, we’re at risk of falling. The Primitive Mind may be in a cage, but it never stops pushing against the bars, searching for one it can bend, trying to break out.
The geographic and information bubbles are relatively new. The internet especially is evolving and changing literally by the month. The U.S. was built to be incredibly robust, but such insanely rapid environmental change is pushing it to its limits.
When I look at the downward trend, I see a resurgence of the Power Games. We’re starting to do a lot of those things humans do when they’re at their worst. We’re tossing our principles aside and glomming onto big, mindless giants who aren’t sentient enough to know that that kind of structure doesn’t make sense anymore. As the country slides its way down the mountain, we’re behaving more and more like the output of a non-living, force-of-nature software program that only wants genes to be immortal.
This is what I mean when I say the U.S. giant has fallen ill. In the chaos of rapid environmental changes, the giant’s immune system—the thing that keeps the Power Games in check—has become weakened, and the Power Games is spreading through its body like an epidemic.
I don’t really know what’s chicken or egg here. Maybe the two bubbles caused the political polarization. Maybe the geographic bubble is enhanced by the polarization. Maybe it’s all Newt’s fault. Or maybe Newt’s tactics only worked because the giant was already sick. Maybe Trump is an inevitable symptom of the sickness, or maybe he’s an unusually harmful exacerbator of it. Ditto for social justice bullies. Maybe all of this is business as usual and I’m over-catastrophizing what’s just another trough in an overall upward-moving roller coaster. Or maybe it would be business as usual if not for the internet, which makes this a dangerous anomaly. No one seems to know for sure. But we can figure out how to get ourselves onto a better trajectory.
After the last chapter, I was accused by some readers of practicing “bothsidesism,” a suggestion that I was depicting both U.S. parties as equal and equally at fault for the state of the nation, as a kind of cop-out.
I get it. False equivalencies are infuriating. Imagine you’re eight and you’re in an argument with your sibling. It escalates and he shoves you. You shove him back. Then he slaps you incredibly hard across the face. Then your parent says, “Both of you, stop it!” You protest that what he just did was much worse than anything you did, to which your parent says, “I don’t care about the details—you’re both grounded.” It would be maddeningly unfair.
People do this kind of thing all the time with societal conflicts, whether between political parties or racial groups or any other kind of faction. The people who do it often have good intentions—they want to seem fair and they think spreading out the blame equally is the best way to diffuse things. Other times, it happens when defenders of the group who did the “face slap” want to brush over the real story. Whatever the reason, drawing a false equivalency about unequal wrongdoing is as unfair as blaming only one side when there’s equal wrongdoing.
The problem with posting what’s clearly a book one chapter at a time is that you can’t get the entirety of your point across until the last chapter is posted. Now that another chapter has come out, I hope it’s a little clearer that “I don’t care about the details—you’re both grounded” isn’t quite my angle here. I see it more like two siblings who have caught rabies. In this particular household, the siblings always have rabies to some extent (the low-rung element of both parties), but recently, their rabies have been flaring up. More rabies makes them want to bite each other more, and the way this strain of rabies works, every time a sibling gets bitten, it causes their own rabies to ramp up a bit, making them more likely to bite the other—and it becomes a vicious cycle. Diagnosing which sibling has rabies worse right now or whose rabies flared up first, while also a worthwhile endeavor, isn’t the right focus of this series. Writing a series focused on scolding a single faction of society and riling up anger toward that side is not only unlikely to help the U.S. giant get better, it’s the exact type of thing that exacerbates the illness—it would just be adding another bite to the rabies war.
What seems more pressing to me is the bigger fact that our family has an increasingly dire rabies problem—one that, in the current world of technological explosion, may have existentially scary consequences if it doesn’t get fixed quickly.
My obsession over the past three years has been trying to figure out how our national immune system works, where it draws its strength from, and how we can get it working again. I spent so long on this because I believe a resurgence of the Power Games is the limiting factor of every other societal struggle I might write a post about. Every other concern I have—AI safety, climate change, war, poverty, disease, injustice, unstable institutions—hinges on that larger concern. If the U.S., and other countries in a similar predicament, can figure out how to get their immune systems back to full strength in this rapidly changing world, allowing us to think together and work together, we’ll make forward progress in all of those areas. If our nations continue to get sicker and fall further downward into the Power Games, each and every one of those concerns will suffer. Everybody will lose.
As bleak as this may seem, one thing makes me hopeful.
Pew’s findings that polarization has sharply increased were well-publicized after the release of its report. What didn’t make much news was this line:[footnote2]Pew: Political Polarization in the American Public[/footnote2]
These sentiments are not shared by all—or even most—Americans. The majority do not have uniformly conservative or liberal views. Most do not see either party as a threat to the nation. And more believe their representatives in government should meet halfway to resolve contentious disputes rather than hold out for more of what they want.
Or this line:[footnote2]Pew: Beyond Red vs. Blue: The Political Typology[/footnote2]
But beyond the ideological wings, which make up a minority of the public, the political landscape includes a center that is large and diverse, unified by frustration with politics and little else.
In the course of my research, in addition to everything I found about increased polarization, I came across a handful of stats that told a second story. Like this chart:[footnote2]Gallup[/footnote2]
And this one:[footnote2]Pew[/footnote2]
I’ve felt like an exception in my “I used to be a staunch Democrat, but I don’t feel that way anymore” story, but the more I dug in, the more I realized that a huge portion of both parties felt the same way.
Whenever the stats went to a more granular level, everything seemed messier than the story we always hear:[footnote2]Pew[/footnote2]
Most interesting to me was a fascinating report called The Hidden Tribes of America—a year-long study that collected the views of over 8,000 Americans—which found that two-thirds of Americans fall into what they call the “Exhausted Majority.”
While the “Wings,” as Hidden Tribes refers to the more politically partisan crowd, tend to hold extreme views, the Exhausted Majority has “more complex views on contested issues than our polarizing public debates would suggest.” According to the report, the Exhausted Majority holds a wide variety of attitudes and viewpoints, but its members share four main attributes:
- They are fed up with the polarization plaguing American government and society
- They are often forgotten in the public discourse, overlooked because their voices are seldom heard
- They are flexible in their views, willing to endorse different policies according to the precise situation rather than sticking ideologically to a single set of beliefs
- They believe we can find common ground
Sounds a lot like…high-rung political thinking?
If the report is to be believed, the common perception that citizens are becoming more polarized, more ideological, and more tribal about politics is an illusion.
But where does this illusion come from? Typically, majority groups in a society are, if anything, too powerful, leaving minority groups marginalized. So why would politics work the opposite way?
Pew offers one possibility: “The rise of ideological uniformity has been much more pronounced among those who are the most politically active.” Those with the most extreme, black-and-white views are also those most vocal about politics, most active in dictating the national dialogue, and most likely to vote:
That’s definitely part of the explanation, but it’s also nothing new. Hardcore partisans have always been highly politically active. Something else is going on here.
When the Value Games are working properly, people holding the most extreme views are relegated to the fringes—retaining enough of a voice to effect change when they’re right about something but unable to do too much damage when, more often, they’re wrong. But in the Power Games, it’s often the case that small groups of more extreme people end up with outsized power over others.
Maybe instead of focusing on how politically active the most extreme people are, we should be asking ourselves why those who hold “more complex views” have become so inactive.
In the series intro, I wrote:
When I told people I was planning to write a post about society, and the way people are acting, and the way the media is acting, and the way the government is acting, and the way everyone else is acting, people kept saying the same thing to me.
Don’t do it. Don’t touch it. Write about something else. Anything else. It’s just not worth it. …
It hit me that what I really needed to write about was that—about why it’s perilous to write about society.
I ended up going with some combination of both of these things: society’s current situation and why it’s an especially bad idea for me to write about it—and how those two things are related.
This chapter focused on the first item: society’s current situation. But the second item—about how incredibly ill-advised it currently is to write about that situation—is the item we need to look hardest at.
That’s where we’ll go in the penultimate chapter of The Story of Us.
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The AI Revolution: The Road to Superintelligence. One reason we need to get our shit together soon, not later.
My transcript of the Trump / Clinton town hall debate. The kind of silliness that happens in a polarized country.
For everyone sick of politics, here’s a big mailbag post of totally unrelated topics.
I did between one and two trillion hours of research for this chapter. The specific citations are all linked and/or footnoted in the text, which seems like a more useful place for them than in a massive list down here. Instead, the below list includes some of the core sources and data, along with some articles I think will make for good reading for anyone who wants to go on the full spiral on this topic. At the bottom, I included a group of links that were the cause of procrastination spirals because you should have to waste time on them too.
Data, Studies, and Reports
A lot of the data in this chapter is courtesy of Pew. Here’s their U.S. Politics homepage. Their giant 2017 report on polarization in the U.S. is full of interesting charts. Another good one from 2018 with more specifics. And their report on how the country may not actually be as polarized as it seems.
The Hidden Tribes of America is a fascinating report that breaks out of the oversimplified Left/Right divide, finding it more accurate to categorize Americans into seven tribes (three of which make up the more extreme “Wings” and four of which make up the less partisan “Exhausted Majority.”) Worth flipping through.
Interesting Pew data about the ideological makeup of different media brand’s audiences, and how much each brand is trusted by people in different parts of the political spectrum.
Voteview is a useful database that shows you the results of every Congress and Senate vote, now or in history (or enter a zip code to see who the representatives are there—if you don’t know who your own representative is, you can find out here and no one will ever know). The three “polarization over time” charts in the post can be found here. You can also look at interesting charts that illustrate the political leanings of everyone in the House and Senate, or the history of U.S. parties and their ideologies. If you want to be pretty bored, you can read about their ideological measuring metric (DW-NOMINATE) here.
An interactive from Time letting you mouse over the states and see how campaign spending has increased since the 80s. Not sure who would want this, but here’s the raw data on campaign spending (and the cost of winning an election table from the post).
Interesting analysis of the distribution of right- vs. left-wing media during the 2016 U.S. election.
A 2014 analysis about the state of journalism—the demographics, ideologies, and attitudes of U.S. journalists today.
Here’s the big analysis of political tweets I referenced.
A meta-analysis of 51 experimental studies, involving over 18,000 participants, on partisan bias. The findings: the Left and Right show similar levels of political bias.
A summary of work from three independent labs that suggests that the U.S. Left and Right are both pretty intolerant in their own way. The “political bigotry” graph I included in the post is on page 31.
A study that explores the rise of negative partisanship (the phenomenon of people voting against a party more than for one) over the past 40 years. An interesting New York Times article about the same topic.
A summary of what we know about the “hostile media effect”—the phenomenon that all partisans tend to think the media is biased against their side.
If you want to go deeper, this collection of articles, compiled by The Monkey Cage, is a good place to start.
Norm Ornstein is a political scientist who has spent years researching political polarization in the U.S. His book, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, explains a lot of the history. Here’s an interesting interview with him where he summarizes some of the points in the book.
For some historical context on the modern era, Chapter 3 of this collection of papers (JSTOR link, and a summary of the findings), by David Brady and Hahrie Han, tells a story of political polarization throughout U.S. history. Also: an article about partisan newspapers in the 19th century.
For a nice overarching summary, this essay, by professor Cynthia Farina, is a well-written, balanced examination of how the U.S. got so polarized.
Random extra: Seems weird today, but in the 1950s, the American Political Science Association urged America’s political parties to become more distinct and divided. They probably didn’t think quite hard enough about that one.
Fun and Procrastinatey
Also unrelated, but the Parable of the Polygons interactive featured in the post was co-created by Vi Hart, whose brain Wait But Why readers will enjoy. She has a super fun YouTube channel with fascinating videos like this.
Neat New York Times interactive displaying U.S. presidential election demographic results going back to 1972.
Cool New York Times visuals about how the U.S. parties ideologically map onto the European political scene. The U.S. Left has moved enough that it now matches Europe’s leftness. The U.S. right remains further right of most of the European Right.
More cool visuals: See how your demographic info predicts what your politics are. Here’s the raw data.
Interesting visuals from the Wall Street Journal about how the parties have moved apart in other ways beyond geography—the gap grows between the Left and Right in education and wealth levels, and they increasingly work in different industries.
The CGP Grey video I referenced. He refers to social media postings as “thought germs” and explains that no type spreads faster than anger. If you haven’t gone on a spiral on his channel yet, put it on the list.
Eli Pariser on online “filter bubbles”, his term for the bubbles of confirmation internet algorithms have us all wrapped tightly in.
I was a government major in college and Achieving Our Country made a big impression on me back then. In the book, he basically predicted Trump 20 years before it happened. One passage: “At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking for a strongman to vote for—someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots.”↩
Richard Walker explains why: In the 1890s and early 1900s, the political parties polarized over whether government should facilitate the growth of the urban, industrial economy or protect the shrinking rural, agrarian economy. The parties also divided over what role the burgeoning country should play on the international stage.↩
Cynthia R. Farina sums up some of the similarities between the 1890s and today: a “resurgence in religious activity,” a “melding of moral and economic issues,” and partisan debates “laden with moral overtones”; party affiliation becoming a “social as well as ideological phenomenon”; large population shifts within the country and great disparities of wealth; close electoral competition such that small voter shifts could swing control from one party to the other; and a period of tight leadership discipline that established a “highly centralized and intensely partisan House.”↩
It stands for (Dynamic Weighted NOMINAL Three-step Estimation), but that was such a boring fact I wanted to hide it in a footnote.↩
Ross Douthat’s view: “On late-night television, it was once understood that David Letterman was beloved by coastal liberals and Jay Leno more of a Middle American taste. But neither man was prone to delivering hectoring monologues in the style of the ‘Daily Show’ alums who now dominate late night. Fallon’s apolitical shtick increasingly makes him an outlier among his peers, many of whom are less comics than propagandists—liberal ‘explanatory journalists’ with laugh lines.”↩
Worth noting that AllSides specifies a “confidence level” for each publication rating. Their AP rating has Medium confidence and their Reuters rating has Low confidence.↩
It was around minute nine of painstakingly outlining the contours of Mitch McConnell’s neck folds that the “ya know on second thought this is not a great use of my time” thought sprung up. But the sunk cost fallacy won.↩
The linked study examined “prosocial behavior” (like altruism) and found that it not only spread (causing the recipient of the behavior to “pay it forward”) but generated a ripple effect, whereby the “influence persists for multiple periods and spreads up to three degrees of separation (from person to person to person to person).” Another study found that prosocial behavior spreads in two ways: beneficiaries of prosocial behavior pay it forward, and those who observe prosocial behavior are also more likely to exhibit prosocial behavior themselves.↩