Vox’s David Roberts writes about Donald Trump and the rise of tribal epistemology.
It’s got a long and complicated argument which I can’t really do justice to here, but the thesis seems to be that the US Right is defecting against the country’s shared institutions in favor of forming its own echo chambers.
So for example, there used to be a relatively fair media in which both liberals and conservatives got their say. But Republicans didn’t like having to deal with facts, so they formed their own alternative media – FOX and Rush Limbaugh and everyone in that sphere – where only conservatives would have a say and their fake facts would never get challenged.
Or: everyone used to trust academia as a shared and impartial arbitrator of truth. But conservatives didn’t like the stuff it found – whether about global warming or trickle-down economics or whatever – so they seceded into their own world of alternative facts where some weird physicist presents his case that global warming is a lie, or a Breitbart journalist is considered an expert on how cultural Marxism explains everything about post-WWII American history.
It concludes that “the press cannot be neutral”, although it also “cannot afford to be, or be seen as primarily instruments of the Democrats”. To its credit, it admits this is kind of contradictory:
They must figure out a way to play a dual role: to be fair and consistent referees of policy and ideological disputes within the public square — while also acting to defend the institutional integrity of the square itself from what is, at present, a highly asymmetrical threat. They must fight to keep some core principles and commitments inviolate, outside the sphere of normal political dispute, against an administration that wants to drag them in…that’s a humdinger of a problem.
Let me start by saying what this article gets right.
I think it’s right that the two parties used to have much more in common, and be able to appeal to shared gatekeeper institutions that both trusted.
I think it’s right the Republicans unilaterally seceded from those shared gatekeeper institutions, so that now we’re in the weird position of having two sets of institutions: one labeling itself “neutral” and the other labeling itself “conservative”.
I think it’s right to consider the situation asymmetrical. Yes, CNN leans liberal, but it’s not as liberal as FOX is conservative, and it’s not as open about it – it has a pretense of neutrality that FOX doesn’t, and although we can disagree about how realistic that pretense is I think few people would disagree that the pretense is there. Nor is there a liberal version of FOX that lacks that pretense of neutrality.
I think it’s right that the conservative side is worse than the neutral side. However biased and crappy you think CNN and mainstream academia are, FOX and the conservative academic bubble are working on a different level (though note that as a liberal, I would say this, and you should interpret it with the same grain of salt that you would any other “my side is better than yours” claim).
I think it’s right that this situation is horrible and toxic and destroying the country, and it’s really good that someone has pointed this out and framed it this clearly.
I think it’s wrong in exactly the way I would expect it to be wrong, which is also an example of what’s wrong with it.
Roberts devotes four sentences in his six thousand word article to the possibility that conservatives might be motivated by something deeper than a simple hatred of facts:
The right’s view that the institutions lean liberal is hyperbolic, but not without foundation. Science, academia (at least liberal arts and social sciences), and journalism do tend to draw their personnel from left-leaning demographics.
Those institutions have cosmopolitan aspirations — fair application of transpartisan standards — but there’s no doubt that in practice, those aspirations often cover for more parochial preferences.
But the right has not sought greater fairness in mainstream institutions; it has defected to create its own.
Roberts says that these neutral gatekeeper institutions “tend to draw their personnel from left-leaning demographics”, as if this was just a big fuss about 105 New Englanders for every 100 Texans. I would like to counter with a report from a friend who graduated from a top university last year:
I was at my graduation last weekend, and the commencement address was basically about twenty minutes of vitriolic insults directed at Trump. And in between burying my head in my friend’s shoulder in discomfort and laughing nervously, I was thinking about the family of this guy in my class.
He’s the first person in his family to go to college. He drove an hour every day to go to a somewhat better high school because there was an epidemic of gang violence at his local school. Against the odds, he did well, and got into college, where he has continued to get good grades and play sports and generally do things that make parents proud.
His family is not well off. They’re Mexican-American. And they’re Trump supporters.
Yeah, I’m kind of confused too. But they honestly are. (Not even reluctant Republicans supporting Trump–they voted for him in the primary. His aunt owns a Make America Great Again cap.) And all I could think about was how happy they must have been to be attending their son’s graduation from one of the best universities in the world , only to have that happiness turn to bewilderment and anger as everyone around them cheered a series of caustic attacks against them and their values. The message couldn’t have been clearer: “You don’t belong here.”
My mom thought this speech was So Courageous. When I suggested that it might have been more courageous to say something that not everyone there agreed with, she replied, “the students maybe, but a lot of the parents looked unhappy.”
Seventy percent of the parents there had family incomes over six figures. (More, probably, since low-income parents are less likely to attend graduation.) A lot of them are members of the self-perpetuating intellectual/economic elite. This probably isn’t true of the few Trump supporters among them.
So if we are going to single them out for judgment, force them to account for their support for an “infantile,” “bullying,” “proto-fascist” “charlatan”…can it not be on the day of their kids’ graduation?
And sure, if you consider me your friend, then that makes this one of those “friend of a friend” stories. But I dare you to say that any of this sounds the least bit implausible. My point is, just because a university paints “ACTUALLY, WE ARE POLITICALLY NEUTRAL” in big red letters on the college quad, doesn’t mean that anyone is required to believe it. And the ideology that invented the microaggression can’t hide behind “but we haven’t officially declared you unwelcome!”
And the same thing is happening in the media. For example, in this very piece, Roberts cites a Vox poll showing that Trump supporters are more likely to be authoritarians. Vox has pushed this same claim many more times: Authoritarianism: The Political Science That Explains Trump, The Rise Of American Authoritarianism: A Niche Group Of Political Scientists May Have Uncovered What’s Driving Donald Trump’s Ascent, The Rise Of American Authoritarianism Explained In 6 Minutes, The Best Predictor Of Trump Support Is Authoritarianism.
Okay. But Vox is working off an internal poll that it hasn’t released (or at least I can’t find it) meaning no one has any idea if the sample size and methodology are okay. And some political science professors tried the same exercise around the same time with excellent methodology and a sample size of over a thousand and found the opposite – Trump supporters were less authoritarian than Cruz supporters, and no more authoritarian than Rubio supporters. They did find that Republicans were a bit more authoritarian than Democrats, but correctly noted that the measure involved is literally called “Right-Wing Authoritarianism”, is based on a scale invented by Theodor Adorno to prove conservatives had fascist tendencies, and only asks questions about child-rearing practices (you get marked as “authoritarian” if you have a traditional religious child-rearing style). And there are other investigations of authority that try to control for this sort of thing and sometimes find find liberals and conservatives are about equal in respect for authority.
I don’t want to overdo my criticism. “Right-wing authoritarianism” is a powerful idea with a good academic reputation, and the decision to focus solely on child-rearing was a principled choice to avoid including politics itself in the construct. And failed replications should be an opportunity for reflection rather than a cause to instantly dismiss a finding.
Yet it’s still good practice to mention their existence. And I still feel like somewhere there might be a conservative who reads this sort of thing and feels like Vox is not quite the perfectly-neutral mutually-beneficial gatekeeper institution of their dreams.
And whenever I mention this sort of thing, people protest “But Fox and Breitbart are worse!” And so they are. But I feel like Vox has aspirations to be something more than just a mirror image of Fox with a left-wing slant and a voiced fricative. It’s trying to be a neutral gatekeeper institution. If some weird conservative echo chamber is biased, well, what did you expect? If a neutral gatekeeper institution is biased, now we have a problem.
Roberts writes that “the right has not sought greater fairness in mainstream institutions; it has defected to create its own”. This is a bizarre claim, given the existence of groups like Accuracy In Media, Media Research Center, Newsbusters, Heterodox Academy, et cetera which are all about the right seeking greater fairness in mainstream institutions, some of which are almost fifty years old. Really “it’s too bad conservatives never complained about liberal bias in academia or the mainstream media” seems kind of like the opposite of how I remember the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
The way I remember it, conservatives spent about thirty years alternately pleading, demanding, suing, legislating, and literally praying for greater fairness in mainstream institutions, and it was basically all just hitting their heads against a brick wall. Then they defected to create their own.
This predictably went badly.
I wrote before (1, 2) about the sort of dynamics this situation produces. A couple of years ago, Reddit decided to ban various undesirables and restrict discussion of offensive topics. A lot of users were really angry about this, and some of them set up a Reddit clone called Voat which promised that everyone was welcome regardless of their opinion.
What happened was – a small percent of average Reddit users went over, lured by curiosity or a principled commitment to free speech. And also, approximately 100% of Reddit’s offensive undesirables went there, lured by the promise of being able to be terrible and get away with it.
Even though Voat’s rules were similar to Reddit’s rules before the latter tightened its moderation policies, Voat itself was nothing like pre-tightening Reddit. I checked to see whether it had gotten any better in the last year, and I found the top three stories were:
The moral of the story is: if you’re against witch-hunts, and you promise to found your own little utopian community where witch-hunts will never happen, your new society will end up consisting of approximately three principled civil libertarians and seven zillion witches. It will be a terrible place to live even if witch-hunts are genuinely wrong.
FOX’s slogans are “Fair and Balanced”, “Real Journalism”, and “We Report, You Decide”. They were pushing the “actually unbiased media” angle hard. I don’t know if this was ever true, or if people really believed it. It doesn’t matter. By attracting only the refugees from a left-slanted system, they ensured they would end up not just with conservatives, but with the worst and most extreme conservatives.
They also ensured that the process would feed on itself. As conservatives left for their ghettos, the neutral gatekeeper institutions leaned further and further left, causing more and more conservatives to leave. Meanwhile, the increasingly obvious horribleness of the conservative ghettos made liberals feel more and more justified in their decision to be biased against conservatives. They intensified their loathing and contempt, accelerating the conservative exodus.
The equilibrium is basically what we see now. The neutral gatekeeper institutions lean very liberal, though with a minority of conservative elites who are good at keeping their heads down and too mainstream/prestigious to settle for anything less. The ghettos contain a combination of seven zillion witches and a few decent conservatives who are increasingly uncomfortable but know there’s no place for them in the mainstream.
I don’t want to give the impression that this is limited to the places people traditionally gripe about like academia and the media. The same dynamics are going on everywhere.
In the hospital where I work, there’s a RESIST TRUMP poster on the bulletin board in our break room. I don’t know who put it there, but I know that anybody who demanded that it be taken down would be tarred as a troublemaker, and anyone who tried to put a SUPPORT TRUMP poster up next to it would be lectured about how politics are inappropriate at work. This is true even though I think at least a third of my colleagues are Trump supporters.
I went to a scientific conference in a field completely unrelated to politics where one of the researchers giving a presentation started with a five minute tangentially-related anti-Trump rant. I can’t imagine someone giving the opposite rant any more than I can imagine a pro-Trump commencement speaker at my friend’s graduation.
I’m desperately trying to avoid the Nerd Culture Wars, which have somehow managed to be even worse than the Regular Culture Wars, but even I’ve heard about GamerGate and the Rabid Puppies. These were originally movements to fight a perceived liberal bias in regular gaming/sci-fi. They of course failed, and now they’re their own little separate conservative spaces practicing conservative video game commentary/sci-fi writing. I don’t want to deny that they’re often horrible. They’re horrible in exactly the same way FOX News is horrible, and for exactly the same reasons. I expect this pattern of conservatives seceding from theoretically-neutral-but-realistically-left-leading communities and forming terrible communities full of witches to repeat itself again and again, because it’s happening for systemic rather than community-specific reasons.
The overall impression is of a widespread norm, well-understood by both liberals and conservatives, that we have a category of space we call “neutral” and “depoliticized”. These sorts of spaces include institutions as diverse as colleges, newspapers, workplaces, and conferences. And within these spaces, overt liberalism is tolerated but overt conservativism is banned. In a few of these cases, conservatives grew angry enough that they started their own spaces – which began as noble attempts to avoid bias, and ended as wretched hives of offensive troglodytes who couldn’t get by anywhere else. This justifies further purges in the mainstream liberal spaces, and the cycle goes on forever.
Stanford historian Robert Conquest once declared it a law of politics that “any organization not explicitly right-wing sooner or later becomes left-wing”. I have no idea why this should be true, and yet I’ve seen it again and again. Taken to its extreme, it suggests we’ll end up with a bunch of neutral organizations that have become left-wing, plus a few explicitly right-wing organizations. Given that Conquest was writing in the 1960s, he seems to have predicted the current situation remarkably well.
David Roberts ends by noting that he doesn’t really know what to do here, and I agree. I don’t know what to do here either.
But one simple heuristic: if everything you’ve tried so far has failed, maybe you should try something different. Right now, the neutral gatekeeper institutions have tried being biased against conservatives. They’ve tried showing anti-conservative bias. They’ve tried ramping up the conservativism-related bias level. They’ve tried taking articles, and biasing them against conservative positions. I appreciate their commitment to multiple diverse strategies, but I can’t help but wonder whether there’s a possibility they’ve missed.
Look. I read Twitter. I know the sorts of complaints people have about this blog. I’m some kind of crypto-conservative, I’m a traitor to liberalism, I’m too quick to sell out under the guise of “compromise”. And I understand the sentiment. I write a lot about how we shouldn’t get our enemies fired lest they try to fire us, how we shouldn’t get our enemies’ campus speakers disinvited lest they try to disinvite ours, how we shouldn’t use deceit and hyperbole to push our policies lest our enemies try to push theirs the same way. And people very reasonably ask – hey, I notice my side kind of controls all of this stuff, the situation is actually asymmetrical, they have no way of retaliating, maybe we should just grind our enemies beneath our boots this one time.
And then when it turns out that the enemies can just leave and start their own institutions, with horrendous results for everybody, the cry goes up “Wait, that’s unfair! Nobody ever said you could do that! Come back so we can grind you beneath our boots some more!”
Conservatives aren’t stuck in here with us. We’re stuck in here with them. And so far it’s not going so well. I’m not sure if any of this can be reversed. But I think maybe we should consider to what degree we are in a hole, and if so, to what degree we want to stop digging.