Links and Comments: Tribalism, Zero-Sum Politics, Trump, Gut Reactions, Weather Forecasting

First, Andrew Sullivan has an essay in New York magazine, America Wasn’t Built for Humans, subtitled, “Tribalism was an urge our Founding Fathers assumed we could overcome. And so it has become our greatest vulnerability.”

He wonders how American has split to severely into two warring tribes.

I mean two tribes whose mutual incomprehension and loathing can drown out their love of country, each of whom scans current events almost entirely to see if they advance not so much their country’s interests but their own. I mean two tribes where one contains most racial minorities and the other is disproportionately white; where one tribe lives on the coasts and in the cities and the other is scattered across a rural and exurban expanse; where one tribe holds on to traditional faith and the other is increasingly contemptuous of religion altogether; where one is viscerally nationalist and the other’s outlook is increasingly global; where each dominates a major political party; and, most dangerously, where both are growing in intensity as they move further apart.

And how the American project was to avoid this, through compromise and the defeat of emotion by reason. Sullivan discusses the idea of tribalism, mentioning recent books by Dominic Johnson and Sebastian Junger that I’ve seen. A key problem is the electoral structure of our democracy, where whoever gains a slight advantage (not even a majority) runs everything.

What you end up with is zero-sum politics, which drags the country either toward alternating administrations bent primarily on undoing everything their predecessors accomplished, or the kind of gridlock that has dominated national politics for the past seven years — or both. Slowly our political culture becomes one in which the two parties see themselves not as participating in a process of moving the country forward, sometimes by tilting to the right and sometimes to the left, as circumstances permit, alternating in power, compromising when in opposition, moderating when in government — but one where the goal is always the obliteration of the other party by securing a permanent majority, in an unending process of construction and demolition.

How being tribal means you don’t have to think, just know which side you’re on. Whataboutism. Sullivan points fingers at both sides, with many examples of hypocrisy in which one side criticizes the other over some policy, that that side gets into power and adopts the same policy. “No tribe was more federalist when it came to marijuana laws than liberals; and no tribe was less federalist when it came to abortion. Reverse that for conservatives. For the right-tribe, everything is genetic except homosexuality; for the left-tribe, nothing is genetic except homosexuality.” And, “As for indifference to reality, today’s Republicans cannot accept that human-produced carbon is destroying the planet, and today’s Democrats must believe that different outcomes for men and women in society are entirely a function of sexism.”

And how Evangelicals treated Obama with contempt, and yet embraced Trump. Examples of how the left uses the word “hate,” how the right, e.g., describes the left.

Ironically, Sullivan sees Trump as a potential solution (!) — because he’s *not* an idealist on any side, he’s an opportunist.

Sullivan has two ideas for changing the tribalistic culture: value individuality, and mutual forgiveness. “It doesn’t matter if you believe, as I do, that the right bears the bulk of the historical blame.”

And then in Slate, Isaac Chotiner’s All Tribes Are Not Equal, subtitled “Andrew Sullivan’s simplistic diagnosis—and unrealistic cure—for what ails us,” responds to Sullivan.

The problem here, which recurs throughout the essay, is that one tribe’s pathologies have infected our political system (and in this case endanger the planet). The other tribe’s supposed pathology is not reflected in the policies of its party. Even if your average Democrat or your average Democratic politician believed there were no genetic differences between men and women (an odd idea in its own right), it is not a public policy issue.

I.e., the right really is far worse than the left.

Which brings us to a Facebook post by David Brin, reacting to an op-ed by George F. Will in Washington Post that trots out the usual “both sides are equally bad” saw… Brin, who takes both sides to task as he sees appropriate, nevertheless sees no parity.

No. You lie. While the FAR-left CONTAINS some nasty horrors, today’s ENTIRE-Right CONSISTS of poison memes. And despite your desperate incantations, ever-more Americans are realizing the difference between FAR and ENTIRE. Between CONTAINS and CONSISTS. Between anecdotal lefty flakery and universal righty insanity.

Moreover, it’s failing. As your cult attacks every single fact-using profession … including not just scientists, teachers, journalists, civil servants, economists, etc., but now those notorious “deep state” villains in the FBI, the intelligence agencies and military officer corps… nearly all the bright people who actually know stuff are seeing through your miasma-spell of false equivalence. They are seeing that democrats actually have a pretty good record of moderation, negotiation, balance and vastly-better actual outcomes.


And then we have a Newsweek article by Charles Sykes, How the Right Lost Its Mind and Embraced Donald Trump.

By a former conservative who can’t believe how that movement has changed.

Somehow a movement based on real ideas—such as economic freedom and limited government—had devolved into a tribe that valued neither principle nor truth; luminaries such as Edmund Burke and William F. Buckley Jr. had been replaced by media clowns such as Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos. Icons such as Ronald Reagan—with his optimism and geniality—had been supplanted by the dark, erratic narcissism of Donald Trump. Gradualism, expertise and prudence—the values that once were taken for granted among conservatives—were replaced by polls and ratings spikes, as the right allowed liberal overreach in the Obama era to blind them to the crackpots and bigots in their midst.

Trumps came along, trotting birtherism. “In private, conservatives who knew better justified their return to the dark fringes on the grounds that it fired up the base and antagonized liberals. Or as Palin put it so memorably in 2016, ‘It’s fun to see the splodey heads keep sploding.’ The result was a compulsion to defend anyone attacked by the left, no matter how reckless, extreme or bizarre.”

Again, the writer was a conservative, became a liberal, until rejecting its “smugness, its stridency and dogma,” but now can’t align with conservatives either: “If the conservative movement is defined by the nativist, authoritarian, post-truth culture of Trump and Bannon, I want no part of it.”


My provisional conclusion: there are errors of idealistic presumption on the left, but the right appeals to worst, tribalistic aspects of human nature, to the point of denying long-term trends that threaten the human race, and right now they are in charge. The outlook is not good.



A study from Ohio State University on beliefs about what is and is not “truth” shows, unsurprisingly, that those who rely on their “gut” and presume facts to be dependent on their political bias are way more likely to believe in things that are straight-up false. Kelly Garrett, one of the researchers, said:

People sometimes say that it’s too hard to know what’s true anymore. That’s just not true. These results suggest that if you pay attention to evidence you’re less likely to hold beliefs that aren’t correct.

Unsurprising; file this under the many ways human intuition does not accurately perceive the world, especially about things that are out of the ordinary, or about things for which a person already has a bias (e.g. becuase of tribal loyalty) toward or against.


Slate: The Meteorologist’s Lament, subtitled, “Weather forecasting is better than ever—but the public doesn’t seem to realize that.”

An example of how people judge better or worse on the evidence immediately at hand, without perspective of, in this case, how much worse weather forecasting was a few decades ago.

A variation of the idea of how people will always be alarmed by the evening news, as long as there is a single murder or natural disaster anywhere in the world, on any given day.

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