Politics & Policy

Why Our Political Debates So Often Devolve into Tribal War

Supporters of President-elect Trump face off against protesters near Trump Tower in New York City, November 20, 2016. (Mark Kauzlarich/Reuters)
It comes down to a lack of trust.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this essay appeared at ricochet.com.

On the right, we’re open in our mistrust of scientism. No matter how much data seem to speak for themselves, we know scientific research can’t be wholly isolated from the nonscientific interests of those performing, publishing, and popularizing it. Who funded these studies? Could that funding have biased the results? Even if they’re sound, is the media accurately reporting them? We’re only fools for asking these questions if we take them to paranoid extremes. Ultimately, data must matter, even though they’re collected and interpreted by biased humans. Nonetheless, we rightfully suspect that even good science can’t be divorced from its social implications once it becomes fodder for political dispute. Our skepticism explains much of what the Left dismisses as “right-wing anti-science rhetoric” on everything from climate change to social science.

Still, we value scientists who question the conventional wisdom of their professional milieu in order to follow the facts wherever they lead. These relentlessly inquisitive souls have lately attracted a catchy nickname: the “Intellectual Dark Web.” One prominent Dark Webber is neuroscientist Sam Harris, who recently took on Vox magnate Ezra Klein in a debate on race and IQ. Jacob Falkovich summarized the Harris–Klein debate quite nicely for Quillette. In essence, Harris told Klein, “Ezra, it’s dishonest of you to be so concerned with the social implications of the data that you discount what the data has to say.” To which Klein shot right back, “Sam, it’s dishonest of you to be so concerned with what the data allegedly says that you discount its social implications. Whose interests are served by treating that data as reputable, and whose are harmed?”

The Harris–Klein debate exemplifies conflicting forms of political reasoning, pitting two archetypal theories — mistake theory and conflict theory — and two archetypal approaches to data interpretation — “cognitive decoupling” and contextualizing — against each other. We’re naturally on Harris’s side in this debate — Harris is, after all, the man unafraid to face the facts. But I regret to report that Ezra Klein has a point.

*    *    *

Harris represents what Falkovich calls “cognitive decoupling”: considering facts on their merits, irrespective of their context. This approach holds that honest inquiry must be willing to set aside cultural context for the sake of argument. Klein, conversely, represents “contextualizing,” which holds that true honesty must acknowledge cultural context. These are archetypes: Nobody is all-decoupler or all-contextualizer. Instead, we alternate between approaches as we feel the need, and argue over which of the two is required in any given case. We also alternate between two models of politics, “mistake theory,” which treats political opponents as mistaken, and “conflict theory,” which treats politics as war. As Scott Alexander explains at Slate Star Codex,

Mistake theorists treat politics as science, engineering, or medicine. . . . Some of us have good ideas, others have bad ideas that wouldn’t help, or that would cause too many side effects.

Conflict theorists treat politics as war. Different blocs with different interests are forever fighting to determine whether the State exists to enrich the Elites or to help the People.

Though mistake theory is technical in mindset, it needn’t require technocratic solutions. Indeed, Hayekian arguments explaining technocracy’s failure are mistake-theory arguments! Still, mistake theory favors cognitive decoupling over contextualizing politics as conflict.

By contrast, conflict theory is tribal. Never mind who’s right, it says. Some side has to win, so it might as well be ours. Conflict theory correctly acknowledges that political cognition is cultural cognition, occurring within the context of identity and affiliation, and then turns this acknowledgement up to eleven.

The Right often mixes mistake theory with conflict theory, just as it mixes decoupling with contextualizing. When right-leaning wonks express skepticism of published data because they suspect left-wing institutional bias, they’re contextualizing, just in a decouply way. Similarly, public-choice theory is a discipline populated by mistake-theorists, but one used to detect conflicts of interest arising in governance. The labels — mistake or conflict theorist, decoupler or contextualizer — are provisional rather than innate, reflecting who’s playing what role when.

Still, it’s hard not to notice some general trends.

*    *    *

Some people justify playing politics in decoupling, mistake-theory mode whenever possible on principle. Others justify playing politics in contextualizing, conflict-theory mode whenever possible as realism. Wonkishness is a decoupling mistake-theory trait; partisanship, a contextualizing conflict-theory trait. The horse-race aspects of politics particularly gravitate toward conflict theory, and the spread of a conflict-theory worldview corresponds to rising political polarization.

Ezra Klein is wrong about plenty, but he’s right that facts alone can’t tell the whole story. Whose facts they are matters, even when we wish it didn’t.

Many conflict theorists populate the Right as well as the Left nowadays. Often, conflict theorists on the right complain that they were bullied into it: They didn’t start out as conflict theorists, but they believe the Left has given them no quarter and conflict theory is their only option. They tend to see fellow right-wingers who remain mistake theorists as wimps and dupes. Ironically, right-wingers who feel bullied into conflict theory often come across as bullies to their opponents.

Conflict theorists see their opponents as oppressors, either actual or potential, and consequently justify “taking the oppressors down a peg” not as bullying, but as retributive justice and self-defense — necessary for the good of society and the survival of their own kind. The uncharitable term for this is “crybullying.” The right sees Ezra Klein as a crybully. When Klein doesn’t like the facts, he throws a tantrum of moral indignation to manipulate their purveyors into shutting up. The Right views Harris as heroic by comparison: Behold his principled reasonableness! Bask in the radiance of his pure STEM logic! Nonetheless, the tables could easily be turned.

*    *    *

As mentioned earlier, we on the right also contextualize scientific claims that raise our hackles. Whose interest, we ask, is served by calling studies that threaten our tribe’s worldview good science? If some neuroscientists reportedly claim that there really is no difference between male and female brains, are we inclined to believe the report, or is our first hunch that something’s off? If Ezra Klein pelted us with study after study to prove us wrong, would we believe him? No. Instead, our argument with him might run as follows:

Klein: Look at all these studies! So many studies!

Us: Yeah, government studies.

Klein: What’s wrong with government studies? Do patriots believe Uncle Sam would lie to them?

Us: Yeah, we do. “Deep State,” “public choice” — whatever the name, it means lies.

Klein: Okay, then show me your data.

Us: If you insist, here are some industry studies.

Klein: ?!?!?!?

Us: Industries can’t lie much to themselves and still expect to profit. This makes them less biased than the government.

Straightaway, what began as a wonky, mistake-theory data comparison devolves into one side shouting “But Big Government!” while the other side shouts, “But Big Business!” What started coolly decoupled is now hotly contextualized and tribal. It’s now ceased to be a matter of facts and become a matter of whom to trust. The data itself is no longer driving the conflict. Instead, as Falkovich quipped on his blog, the context is conflict.

*    *    *

Whose facts do you trust? Ezra Klein is wrong about plenty, but he’s right that facts alone can’t tell the whole story. Whose facts they are matters, even when we wish it didn’t. Even when it comes to science, trust in the people involved counts. Moreover, trust is rarely complete. Instead, we grant gradations of benefit of the doubt.

The benefit of the doubt is more than charitable mental hygiene. It’s also a powerful social statement. Who gets it, and how much, matters. Harris, accustomed to mistake-theory turf where trust is high and benefit of the doubt is fairly mutual, naturally sees Klein’s objections to him as mistaken. As Scott Alexander says,

Mistake theorists naturally think conflict theorists are making a mistake. . . . . The correct response is to teach them. . . .

Conflict theorists naturally think mistake theorists are the enemy in their conflict. . . . The correct response is to crush them.

Or, if not crush them, then at minimum distrust them. To Harris, Klein’s distrust of the data he finds inconvenient displays bad faith. It withholds a benefit of the doubt which should be granted in honest argument. It’s immoral. To Klein, giving untrustworthy people the benefit of the doubt by, say, accepting their data as data rather than propaganda is likewise immoral: The benefit of the doubt is too socially powerful to bestow so lightly.

*    *    *

Falkovich observes that there is

[…] a key asymmetry between conflict theorists and mistake theorists. It takes two to tango, and it takes two to have an honest debate, which is the mistake theorist’s favored approach to disagreement. But it only takes one to declare war. When conflict theorists and mistake theorists meet, the result is more often war than an honest debate.

As my Klein-vs.-Us skit illustrated, even when opponents agree to meet on mistake-theory turf, if there’s enough distrust, their debate will devolve into war. It turns out that who gets the benefit of the doubt, and how, is the key to understanding much of our political conflict.

Midge Fusselman was a data analyst before becoming a mom. She moderates for Ricochet.com and occasionally writes for The Federalist.

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