This is a summary of an article by David Roberts called Donald Trump and the Rise of Tribal Epistemology. The article is on Vox.
The original article is very long. I hate to say it but it is seven million words long. It took me a couple of days to read it. But still, I think it is probably worth reading. It made me realize that the whole Trump thing is about much more than just Trump in the White House which, with a little luck, we will probably survive. The really worrisome thing may be whether America survives or not. Really.
If you don’t know David Roberts, I have to say he is a good guy to read. As he says at the head of his page on Vox, he “Writes about energy and climate change.” He recently wrote a piece called California is About to Revolutionize Climate Policy. Again, this is a long and time consuming article but pretty important if you are seriously interested in global warming, climate change and how we might fix this problem. It’s also important if you want to understand how California is actually implementing world class climate change policy right now.
And here is David Roberts main page. This is a good place to understand all the ins and outs of global warming and the fight to avoid it. It’s also a good place to realize just how complex and difficult the whole topic of climate change is.
I like David Roberts a lot, but as I re-read this article I found myself wishing he were a little more sympathetic with the tough spot that the Trump base find themselves in. In my opinion the Trump base are not the uneducated Us-versus-Them tribalists that we often assume them to be. Actually the Trump base are a large part of the American middle class that have been treated very unjustly and unfairly and unsympathetically by the upper classes in America and by those who consider themselves to be the elite. And when it comes to tribalism, the left is just as bad as the right. If human beings are going to survive, we are going to have to begin to understand each other and learn to work together to solve a problem which is most likely going to kill us all if we don’t do something about it.
And the great divide in America is not going to get fixed until the economic damage that has been done to the middle class has been fixed. Nothing is going to get fixed until the inequality that has descended on America and Europa is ended. And the only way that will happen, in my opinion, is the top .1% and the 1% and probably the 10% all come to understand that wealth in America must to some extent be shared by all. They need to understand that if our wealth is not shared, we are all doomed. This environmental / global-warming / mass extinction problem that seems to be overwhelming us, will not be solved if some of us continue wanting everything for themselves.
Anyway, let me give you Roberts point of view in his Tribal Epistemology article. It’s a good point of view and I think he is right. But I don’t quite agree with it. I’ll get to that also.
Even though Roberts is essentially an energy / warming / ecology writer, he has really branched out in his recent articles about Trump and populism and especially in this Tribal Epistemology piece.
Roberts says that in November of 2009 Rush Limbaugh devoted a segment of his radio program to what he called “Climategate.” Here, Limbaugh began talking about the conservative hacking of emails of a climate research institute. You might remember this big hullabaloo ten years of so ago. The emails got hacked and some very trivial sentences got taken totally out of context in an attempt to prove that scientists were conspiring to spread lies about climate change so they could influence the American people about their supposedly evil and false ideas about global warming. All of this ended up poisoning some of the media’s take on climate change in spite of the fact that five separate investigations completely cleared the scientists of any conspiracy or wrong doing. As usual though, once the story got out, the damage couldn’t be be stopped, no matter how completely it was disproved. The right wing had decided that scientists are evil conspirators in the corruption that they saw as existing between media, government, academia and science.
Limbaugh said, “Science has been corrupted. We know the media has been corrupted for a long time. Academia has been corrupted. None of what they do is real. It’s all lies.” He called these institutions–government, academia, science and media –the “Four Corners of Deceit.”
According to Limbaugh, the core institutions and norms of American democracy have been irredeemable corrupted by an alien enemy. In essence, Limbaugh was saying that:
“We live in two universes. One universe is a lie. One universe is an entire lie. Everything run, dominated, and controlled by the left here and around the world is a lie. The other universe is where we are, and that’s where reality reigns supreme and we deal with it. And seldom do these two universes ever overlap.”
So all in one fell swoop, Limbaugh managed to convince much of America that government, academia, science and media were all a totally corrupt conspiracy to take over America for their own evil purposes.
Basically Limbaugh was claiming, without really realizing the implications of what he was saying, that America has devolved into two tribes, “us” and “them.”
Over time, says Roberts, this has led to what he calls tribal epistemology. Here is a short translation of this phrase if you haven’t been reading much philosopohy lately.
Epistemology is a fancy word for knowledge: it’s all about how we find knowledge, how we know which knowledge is true and which is false, etc. And tribalism refits to a form of human society that existed long ago in hunter gatherer days. As the story goes, tribal peoples decided on what was truth by looked into animal entrails, consulting the Gods via sorcerers and basically just going with whatever felt right to them. Tribalism is shorthand for primitive people who always love us and hate them. Our own tribes are always Us and other tribes are always Them. Us are always perfect and great and moral. Them are always, evil, bad, and dumb. Us is always our trip, Them always belong to other tribes.
The problem with all of this is that all of us are still tribal to some degree. We all evolved in ancient history as a member of a tribe. And the our feelings about us and them are deeper ingrained in us today. We naturally and normally feel that the other is automatically bad and the us is always good. And the other tribe feels the same way about us.
Anthropologists and sociologists have invented thousands of experiments to prove this pretty conclusively. So, if we realize that we are all prejudiced into thinking our tribe is good and the other is bad, we constantly have to fight against such built in tendencies and decide on what is right and wrong, good and bad, and better or worse by trying to look at objective evidence. This is basically what science tries to do.
So, tribal epistemology is believing that truth is what your particular tribe believes without reference to any objective standards. And Roberts is saying that tribalism is getting worse and worse right now and that it is partially responsible for people’s attitudes toward climate change and energy. He is saying that tribal epistemology is more about unexamined thinking and less about a common standard of looking at evidence to make decisions.
And Roberts says, tribal epistemology has now spread to the white house. Trump is assaulting almost every American institution. Trump is trying to deconstruct the administrative state. And all of this is getting worse and worse as it spreads over the entire country.
Roberts says that for a long time a large swatch of the American public has rejected the core norms and institutions of US public life. And now, he says, it is finally time for journalism to take a stand. It has to pick sides, to fight not for any one political party but for the conditions that make real journalism possible.
America has unfortunately been sorted into Left and Right. Many have begun to call this The Big Sort. And even worse we are sorting ourselves into two different cultural bubbles which neither side can find their way out of. We seem to be not only sorting ourselves politically, but even by personality. We seem to be sorting ourselves into communities of psychologically and ideologically similar tribes.
Globalization, among other factors, seems to have spit the US into two countries: one country is more urban, economically booming, secular, and Democratic. The other country seems to be more rural, religious, economically stagnant, declining and Republican. The less than 500 counties that voted for Hillary Clinton in the last election represent 64% of America’s economic activity. But Trump won 2600 counties that represent just 36% of the nations economic output.
And so, says Roberts, America has sorted itself into two camps, left and right. And neither side is really seeing the other side very accurately. Both sides have begun to see the opposite camp as the “other.”
But, says Roberts, the sorting of America into left and right camps has not been symmetrical. From Regan onward, the polarization of the right has far more extreme than that of the left.
It seems that the left and right define politics in quite dissimilar ways.
On the left, the game of politics is defined by specific rules (the constitution), which are enforced, more or less, by neutral referees (the courts). But implicit norms also have a role. Roberts says that politics on the left “is also defined by implicit norms, unwritten rules more informally enforced by the press, academia, and civil society. These latter institutions are referees as well, but their enforcement power operates not through law but through trust. Their transpartisan authority exists solely because participants in the game agree it does.” These implicit rules are what really keep politics from turning into violence and or illiberalism. And “That’s how democracy — indeed, any framework of cooperation among large numbers of diverse people — works. Institutions and norms provide structure and limits, the shared scaffolding of cooperation.”
However the right doesn’t understand politics in the same way at all. Roberts says that “There has always been a powerful strain in conservatism (think the John Birch Society) that resists seeing itself as a participant in the game at all. It sees the game itself, its rules and referees, as captured by the other side, operating for the other side’s benefit. Any claim of transpartisan authority is viewed with skepticism, as a kind of ruse or tool through which one tribe seeks to dominate another.”
The right thinks of politics in almost exclusively these terms. There is very little diversity in the views of the right compared to the Left which consists of many different groups. Actually this diversity is one of the left’s problems. There are so many diverse sub-camps and so much different points of view that Democrats find it difficult to get together on anything, and thus find it very hard to unite against even a common enemy. As a result they don’t win many elections.
On the other hand the right’s base has very little diversity, most of the right tend to think in very similar ways with little dissent. Most of the Republican base are increasingly white, non-urban, Christian, traditional, and believe in zero-sum values. And Republicans tend to fear change, want clear answers, and strong leaders. And over time this has hardened into a preference of authoritarian leaders and what is often described as tribalism.
Robert’s says that all of this is why Trump supporters see no problem in Trump’s outrageous and previously unthinkable actions in the White House. He says, “Trump’s core supporters do not mind when he threatens the media, denigrates the courts, attacks intelligence agencies, dismisses the Congressional Budget Office, and treats the office of the presidency as a brand marketing opportunity. They have rejected the whole framework within which the two parties used to compete. They want to burn it all down.”
This is just the very beginning of the article. As I said, this is a very very long article. And this article is way to long anyway.
Let me finish by pointing out some ways that I don’t quit agree with everything Roberts says.
I think Roberts is mainly correct in this article. But I also think that maybe he doesn’t see that Trumps base is right about a lot of things. For instance, much of Trump’s base has gotten the short end of the stick in America for the last forty or fifty years. This all begins with the fact that the lower middle class has experienced a stagnating and even falling income for the last fifty years. They have gone from living successful and prosperous lives in the 1950’s to losing almost everything that is important to all of us. Many of the working class have lost the good jobs and the good salaries they once had, some have lost their homes, and many are living lives far worse than the ones they lived in America’s golden years after World War II. I don’t blame them for being angry, I would be angry if that had happened to me also. And it didn’t happen to me because I’m better than they are. Or smarter or more civilized or more educated or harder working. I was just luckier.
I think David Robert’s article is a good article. But I wish he were a little more sympathetic with the fate of the Trump base.
One thing is for sure. The working class has gotten a bad deal. And if we are to save ourselves, this bad deal is going to have to be corrected. This schism between the two halves of America is going to have to be corrected.
And only then are the two halves of America going to be able to unite in fighting the environmental problems that are plaguing us now. And in my opinion, as I’ve said before, if we cannot do this we are all going to be doomed. And frankly, this scares the hell out of me.
The picture at the top of the page is the Maine Coast