Lots of people want to frame the 2020 US election as a fight between the left and the right, with the wrong side being near an extreme on that spectrum. They are deceiving you.
The U.S. is facing some extremism, but it has little connection to the extremes of the left-right spectrum . The latest dangers are extreme mainly on a very different spectrum. A spectrum on which Trump and the woke are very similar.
How to describe this spectrum? I’m unsure what the best description is, so I’ll list some that capture important components of it:
- causal reality versus social reality
- judging leaders by results versus “whose side are you on?”
- a republican form of government versus direct democracy or mob rule
- a focus on dominance hierarchies versus prestige hierarchies
- willingness to listen to those you disagree with versus an eagerness to punish people for insufficient loyalty to your faction
- “the buck stops here” versus devoting lots of effort to blaming enemies or scapegoats
I typically vote Libertarian, but that doesn’t represent the country’s most important needs at the moment.
It seems inevitable that governments will be too powerful for the foreseeable future. But for a given amount of power, there are large differences between competent governments that focus on the welfare of the world, versus corrupt governments that aren’t very competent at even helping those who perpetrate the corruption. We need to be able to agree on topics such as whether to wear masks, and whether to aim for herd immunity or for exterminating the virus. As long as politicians have significant influence on our discourse, that means we need competent, prestigious politicians in order to enable the basic safety that is a pre-requisite for a libertarian society.
This is an unusual year, in that we got some unusually rapid feedback on the competence of politicians. We’re therefore in a better than usual position to evaluate them by their track records.
The pandemic has revealed that the U.S. has competence problems in some key institutions, somewhat along the lines portrayed in Where is my Flying Car, but a bit worse than that book led me to believe.
Some salesmen and bullies get so focused on influencing their
victims customers that they become oblivious to parts of reality that don’t respond to marketing techniques, bullying, etc.
So they occasionally end up getting bitten by reality, as when defunding the police enables criminals who aren’t police to wreak more havoc, or when COVID fails to realize that Trump is too strong to get sick.
It’s pretty hard to fight a pandemic or racism if your model of the world barely acknowledges causality that operates outside of Twitter and CNN.
“Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.” – H. L. Mencken
When I was young, political candidates were selected at least in part by party bosses, who had halfway decent incentives to vet candidates for basic competence and good character. Similarly, newspaper elites exerted a moderate amount of control over who got taken seriously.
Today, we’ve reached the point where demagogues can bypass those filters entirely. Voters and university presidents can now have their attention influenced mainly by whoever makes angry tweets.
The Grumpy Economist has one of the most neutral and informative descriptions of Trump that I’ve seen. It leads me to summarize Trump’s strategy as a variation on Cunningham’s Law (“the best way to get the right answer on the internet is not to ask a question; it’s to post the wrong answer.”).
Trump has bypassed normal political decision making channels, and is implementing something resembling voters directly choosing policy (but with some voters being more equal than others, such as those with many Twitter followers or who are able to get a voice on CNN).
Direct democracy can sort of work well under some circumstances. Chess games sometimes work OK when one side consists of many people voting on each move. But that depends heavily on some selection for semi-expert voters, and/or voters listening to experts who have earned their prestige.
But the U.S. has recently been trying to do the equivalent, while reducing respect for wisdom-based prestige. Fighting pandemics and racism that way seems about as sensible as piloting an oil tanker via results of Twitter polls.
How to Allocate Blame and Praise?
Lots of people would like to punish the Republican party for supporting Trump. That would be a somewhat effective strategy if Republican party bosses had chosen Trump. But Trump clearly bypassed that process. The kind of voter who was the determining factor in the 2016 primaries doesn’t have enough of a stake in the Republican party to put much effort into choosing a more statesman-like candidate next time.
And the Democrats don’t have a clearly better track record on handling the pandemic. Democratic governors pressured nursing homes to accept patients who were recovering from COVID. It doesn’t look like anyone has investigated that carefully enough to determine whether that caused more avoidable deaths than Trump’s mistakes.
A few leaders stand out for competence: Mike DeWine shut down large gatherings in early March when many people criticized that as “radical”. Arnold Schwarzenegger created a stockpile of medical gear for a pandemic such as this (Democrats scrapped it).
With allies like these, who needs enemies?
In this battle, Marxists and Klansmen are not the enemies, they’re the bogeymen.
The woke are often actively hostile to understanding swing voters, so they’re even less likely to get their policies enacted via elections.
Both Trump and the woke are moderately effective at uniting their enemies, due to their reliance on scare tactics. Have either of those two demonstrated any competence at protecting us from the other? Do they benefit from having each other as enemies?
Part of my point here is that it’s easy to overstate how bad things currently are. Trump is neither competent enough nor far-sighted enough to create a movement that outlasts him; he’s mainly dangerous because he lowers the quality of discourse and sabotages attempts at cooperation.
The woke are at least as bad on those axes. But they don’t have a serious plan to take over the country. It’s mildly unfair to Joe McCarthy to compare the woke to him, but I’m reminded of one description of the McCarthy era (from Poul Anderson?) as “academics shouting on rooftops that they were afraid to speak in whispers”.
The woke are directing a large fraction of their anger towards would-be allies, so they’re closer to being the People’s Front of Judea than to being the next Pol Pot. My main concern with the woke is that they’ll gut universities’ ability to function as a source of wisdom before society finds a replacement for that function. But whatever the solution to that risk is, I’m pretty sure it will look different from Trump and his closest allies, who would like to join the woke in gutting universities, while being similarly oblivious to the value of institutions that might replace the valuable functions of universities.
How did we get here?
Trump and the woke are mostly symptoms of deeper problems affecting society, so it’s important to focus on more than just defeating them.
news media storyteller industry has become more competitive. In 1970 a handful of companies competed in each city, and needed to appeal to most of a city’s residents.
The nationalization of news media and politics has pitted a much larger number of companies against each other, and has created markets that are large enough for a sizable company to focus on a single tribe.
The internet has made it easy for readers to switch between news sources, creating incentives to compete on sensationalism and clickbait.
The internet has made filter bubbles easier to create. So has people migrating to regions and political parties that reaffirm their biases.
Twitter has made it too easy for quick, emotional appeals to spread like wildfire, and hasn’t done anything comparable to enable nuanced discussion.
I used to dislike Facebook’s barriers to search, griping that it provided the disadvantages of privacy, without providing the advantages. But I’ve recently decided that something along those lines is helping to keep alive a moderate amount of diversity of ideas, whereas Twitter’s rules that enable much more global visibility cause tribal hatred to triumph over thoughtful discussion.
Can U.S. style democracy survive Twitter? I don’t know. Other countries with slightly different election rules seem do be doing better.
The decline of team sports might be another modest part of the problem. Sporting events provide people with opportunities to unite with their neighbors and be hostile to an outgroup, without doing much harm. It felt to me like the absence of sports for much of this year caused the desire to hate outgroups, and show solidarity with ones’ neighbors, to be more strongly focused on politics.
See also Scott Alexander’s Neutral vs. Conservative: The Eternal Struggle.
Get your information from books, Wikipedia (with occasional glances at alternatives such as Conservapedia and Uncyclopedia as reminders that the “neutral” point of view is not the only point of view), blogs that cater to a thoughtful audience, maybe Vote Smart, and definitely not Twitter. I confess that I find it hard to prioritize Wikipedia over daily news sources, but I’ve learned from my stock market experience that most daily news impairs my understanding of reality.
Ideally you should delegate some of the candidate-vetting to institutions that function as political parties used to function, especially when voting in primaries. Alas, I don’t have specific institutions to suggest, and we’d likely need some fundamental cultural change for such institutions to gain prestige.
Clearly everyone should vote against Trump.
But Democrats didn’t do much better at handling the pandemic, and won’t do much about the woke. So vote Republican for some offices (with caveats: definitely don’t vote for candidates who support Trump more than the average Republican does, unless the Democrat is woke). Treating everyone in one major party as an enemy would add to the polarization of society, and needlessly punish a modest number of good people in the “enemy” party . See also Jonathan Rauch’s Rethinking Polarization.
Two months ago, I was all set to make a clear endorsement of Biden for president (mediocrity being clearly preferable to Trumpism).
Then the Transhumanist Party complicated my decision by nominating Liz Parrish for VP. She’s a shining example of how to make medical progress in spite of regulations that deter it, and that’s a great example of the attitude that we need for handling pandemics. (I’m fairly neutral on the Transhumanist Party’s presidential candidate. Too bad I can’t vote for Biden / Parrish). Alas, the Transhumanist Party didn’t manage enough competence to get on the ballot here in California, and that tips my preference back toward voting for Biden.
Note that anger increases susceptibility to misinformation.
My first draft of this post included many complaints about many bad things that Trump has done. But I decided they were mostly well known, were clouding my judgment, and distracting me from the (more serious, harder to understand?) underlying problems. Many of them are consistent with the hypothesis that Trump is successfully manipulating his detractors (including me) into hating him for things that won’t bother his fans.
Don’t let the trolls (Trump or the woke) manipulate you into voting while angry!
There are a few issues on which Trump seems somewhat extreme on the left-right spectrum: immigration, trade, and nationalism. It’s only recently that the first two have become strongly associated with the right, and Trump’s positions aren’t extreme by the average voter’s standards – political elites have provided better policies here than would be expected in a democracy.
 – Also, Republicans tend to behave better when there’s a Democrat in the White House. This is especially true for fiscal responsibility, and nobody knows how close the U.S. is to a debt crisis.