The Great Perceptual Rift

As the perversions of contemporary governance in the United States accumulate, the perceptual divide in society deepens.

We witness daily the lies of the current administration and levels of corruption that we have not seen for many decades. As this takes place, one portion of American society recoils in disgust, lamenting assaults on the rule of law, separation of powers and fundamental human decency and the failure of those with institutional levers of power to use them to achieve accountability.

Meanwhile, another group of American citizens grows increasingly angry with what they perceive to be a coordinated effort to delegitimize an administration that simply refuses to adhere to conventional norms imposed by elites, and takes delight in this refusal.

This dynamic is not unique to the United States. In the UK, evidence mounts that Britain’s exit from the European Union will be economically damaging, that the British government is faring poorly in negotiations over the terms of exit and that the promises of the loudest champions of a British exit were entirely hollow.

Yet the roughly even divide in British society about the desirability of leaving the European Union persists.

So how do we explain these great rifts in the realm of human perception, and what are the consequences?

Social psychology yields substantial insight. The literature identifies two different types of motives undergirding attitudes. Some beliefs result from a desire to arrive at the best conclusion warranted by the evidence at hand – an accuracy motive.  However, other attitudes and beliefs are central to an individual’s sense of identity or self-worth, and therefore defense of those beliefs has psychological utility.

While the first set of beliefs may be revised in response to additional information, the latter will prove resistant to revision, and the individual’s response to contrary evidence or counteragument will be to adopt strategies that intensify their convictions.

As experimental evidence suggests, when individual attitudes follow from a quest for accuracy, individuals will make evidence-based claims, and may respond to challenges by citing additional evidence or by seeking to establish the superior value of their body of evidence. Such claims, though, will be vulnerable to contradictory evidence, and the individuals can revise their views without incurring high psychological costs.

When attitudes are central to identity, individuals will be less willing to leave their views vulnerable to falsification.  Accordingly, the likely response to evidence-based challenges is to justify the position in unfalsifiable terms. As authors Frieson, Campbell and Kay argue, “people will shift their reported reasons for a political stance to be more unfalsifiable . . . because this unfalsifiability allows them to maintain their stated stance even when the facts appear to contradict it.”

The consequences are damaging to society in two fundamental ways. First, when society is deeply divided on fundamental interpretations of political behavior, political leaders are not held accountable for their actions. Democracy itself is endangered.

Second, when there is no shared grounding in objective reality, it becomes impossible to have genuine policy debates. Debates about taxes, healthcare, education, climate change are stunted in two ways: (1) there is no shared understanding of the nature of the problem we confront; and (2) political leaders have incentives to mobilize supporters around their preferred conceptions of reality rather than around particular policy programs. To give an obvious example, the national debate about climate change focuses at least in part on alleged motives and biases of the scientific and academic community warning of the dangers of climate change rather than on the appropriate mix of government-led and market-based solutions or the most promising avenues for the application of technology.

Given the proliferation of media sources and the attendant ability of individuals to select information from outlets that confirm and reinforce their biases, we seem to have reached an equilibrium characterized by a self-perpetuating societal chasm.

Is there a way out?

I offer three potential paths. First, a dramatic break. This would entail something like an indictment of the current occupant of the White House for obstruction of justice, with an avalanche of evidence that renders it untenable for Congress to continue to enable the administration’s abuses. The challenge to world views of all but the most ardent supporters would be so fundamental that perhaps at least some would be willing to countenance an alternative version of reality.

A second path would involve the emergence of new national leadership – perhaps in the 2020 presidential election – dedicated to diminishing the societal divide. One question is whether, in a climate of deep division, such leadership can even emerge. All incentives at present are for strategies of mobilization around competing realities.

The third path requires that a critical mass of citizens engage sufficiently on a daily basis to draw the polity back toward reason in the interest of democracy, inclusion and decency. There are indicators afoot of such political activism and efforts in educational institutions, for example, to teach students to more carefully assess the validity of information sources.

But can any of these paths serve to bridge the divide?

I don’t know.

I invite readers to engage this question by commenting on this post. Do you believe there is a way out of the great societal rift? If so, what does it look like?

The Folly of Brexit Reveals the Folly of “America First”

I have written in past weeks about the ways in which the current U.S. administration is investing in societal division as a political strategy.

Aluminum and steel tariffs are a prime example, for tariffs unleash a zero-sum dynamic both within U.S. society and between the U.S. and its global partners. This stands in contrast to the sort of positive-sum process potentially generated by investment in job training and apprenticeships.  This will be the subject of next week’s post.

But first, I want to consider a prior point about deep divisions in contemporary society and the paths by which capitalist democracies can – and should not — navigate these tensions. Recent analyses of divisions in capitalist democracies emphasize the tension between those who’ve gained most and those who’ve been hurt by the advance of globalization.

There is substantial evidence for this cleavage in the U.S. as well as in the UK, where characteristics of those supporting a British exit from the European Union — who tend to be older, less educated and more opposed to immigration and multiculturalism than those who voted to remain in the EU — overlap in significant ways with supporters of the current occupant of the White House.

The “country name first” response to globalization (as in “America first” or “Britain first”), while politically expedient, is both socially divisive and ultimately damaging to national prosperity. Exit from the EU has taken the UK down such a path, and the contradictions of Brexit become more evident over time as the British government struggles to control the damage.

British Prime Minister Theresa May gave a major policy speech last week outlining Britain’s conception of its future economic relationship with the European Union. What the speech ironically revealed is that British exit – much like the implementation of tariffs in the U.S. – is a narrow political project that can only bring damage to the national economy and the country’s place in the world.

In her speech, Theresa May valiantly endeavored to reconcile a “people’s exit” with a prosperous and globally engaged future for the UK. Unfortunately, the speech revealed all too starkly that these ends are entirely irreconcilable.

 

Image result for BRexit take back control images

May began her speech with a nod to populism: the entire project is about the British people, not the “privileged few.” The implication, of course, is that European integration is an elite project whose benefits accrue to a narrow element of society.

 

There are elements of truth to this claim. The tragedy is that British policy makers, rather than tackling issues of inequality, have pursued a path of division and destruction in exit from the EU. Without doubt, the country will be considerably worse off following exit, and of course poorer, more vulnerable segments of the population will bear the costs of reduced economic opportunity and sharply reduced fiscal resources.

The same is unquestionably true in the U.S., where an “America first” policy course can only redound to the detriment of the very people those who hew this path cynically claim to defend.

 

What also became evident in Theresa May’s “Mansion House” speech is the deep contradiction between the UK’s struggle to extricate itself from the EU with minimal economic damage and the objective of a post-exit UK that is “modern, open, outward-looking, tolerant . . .”

May advances proposals that commit the UK to essentially identical regulations to the EU in order to minimize barriers between the British and EU markets – while maintaining the fiction that the UK will nonetheless be sovereign in devising its own regulatory environment.

At one point that should embarrass the politicians responsible for Brexit, the Prime Minister notes that “businesses who export to the EU tell us that it is strongly in their interest to have a single set of regulatory standards that mean they can sell into the UK and EU markets.” This statement of a reality well understood by proponents of integration unwittingly gives the lie to longstanding propaganda that “barmy Brussels bureaucrats” are responsible for excessive EU regulation imposed on UK markets.

The unfolding process of British exit from the EU illuminates the folly of a hollow strategy of “taking back control” in a globalized world more clearly each day. The folly and danger of “America First” grows equally more apparent.