Wait But Why - The Story of Us

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pioneer98
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Wait But Why - The Story of Us

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https://waitbutwhy.com/2019/08/story-of-us.html

This is a sprawling series of long reads. Not sure how many "chapters" there will be, but there are 7 out right now. Most of the ideas here are not new. I'm withholding judgement on what I think of the whole thing until the end. So far at least, he has managed to caveat away my concerns. He says some of the more controversial things will be discussed in later "chapters".

Chapter 1 is about how humans have two minds - the primitive animal-like mind and the "higher mind" that can create its own morals and values.
Chapter 2 is about the concept of "emergence"
Chapter 3 is about how "stories" are the basis of civilization. It's what caused humans to start to go higher up the emergence scale, from tribes to cities and countries
Chapter 4 is about the founding fathers and the Constitution
Chapter 5 is about censorship
Chapter 6 talks about how ideas are distributed and debated in our culture, where we mostly have "free speech"
Chapter 7 talks about the conflict between the primitive mind and the "higher mind", and the different kinds of behaviors you can end up with depending on where you're at on that scale.

Chapters 5 and 6 were most interesting so far IMO. Both talk about what happens when the discourse and stories being put out don't match what people are actually thinking. In censorship, that mismatch is by design and enforced by force. In a country like ours with speech protections, it's just taboos and culture and things like that which can cause a mismatch between acceptable public speech and public opinion. What's interesting is there are 2 ways a mismatch between public opinion and public discourse can be resolved. One is that a savvy politician may read the tea leaves, and understand that the discourse doesn't match public opinion. So they embrace that idea and promote it and help it become "mainstream", so that our discourse shifts to match what people had been already thinking. He uses Obama coming around on gay marriage as an example of this. We view people that kind of thing as opportunistic or "only doing it for votes". The other way the discourse can shift is when someone is pushing an idea outside the mainstream, and it gets noticed and gains steam over time and shifts opinions and eventually discourse on its own. In gay rights example, the people at Stonewall and other LGBTQ activists would be the people that started pulling opinion in their direction.

I suspect this whole series is headed toward an analysis of how fascism arises in a culture. We'll see.
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Re: Wait But Why - The Story of Us

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Chapter 8 is out, and he's starting to lose me. It's called "Idea Labs and Echo Chambers". He spends hundreds of words on both, but his basic definition of an "idea lab" is a place that encourages diverse ideas, but also debate and skepticism so that the best ideas rise to the top, and that these places roughly follow the ideas of liberal Democracy and the scientific method. He defines "echo chambers" as basically places where everyone already agrees on something, and they want to root out anyone who disagrees. There. I just saved you a ton of reading.

He never names what he thinks these places are, so we have to kind of guess what he's talking about. There are images he has that show a gleaming light coming from America and spreading around the world. I have to assume two places he'd consider "idea labs" would be college campuses and "Startup" centers like Silicon Valley. But are these places really shining beacons of liberal Democracy and the scientific method in action? Silicon Valley has a really bad white bro culture. College campuses might be closer, but even there, there are problems...Earlier in the series he quotes Jonathan Haidt quite a bit, a guy who has spent gobs of time and even wrote a book decrying how college kids these days are "snowflakes" who are "not open to new ideas" etc. He's one of the group of "intellectuals" that includes Sam Harris, Jordan Peterson and others saying kids are too sensitive these days. I don't know. Seems like these guys might also be pretty sensitive about losing status. So I guess they welcome a diversity of ideas, except for the idea that college classrooms and campuses should be more welcome to minorities and women? I feel like what happened there is these kids did their own "idea lab", largely on the internet, where they learned and debated these new ideas, and they came to a consensus on them that Haidt & Company just don't like. But mainly, they don't like that the kids found a way around these guys as gatekeepers of ideas. To me, the internet, at least the honest and liberal pockets of it, is probably the ultimate "idea lab".

Nowhere has he mentioned Popper's Paradox yet either, which is the idea that the only kind of intolerance we should have is toward intolerance. He's danced all around it but hasn't mentioned it. Seems like a pretty important point to address.

He says the next chapter will be about "politics". I bet that's where he totally loses me.

Also, post #20,000. Yikes.
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Re: Wait But Why - The Story of Us

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Perhaps I am miscasting the series, I really can't say. I got to admit, my appetite for reading something like this, and US history in general is waning. Some of it is getting older, priorities and scope change.

Mostly, the way thing are going now, the past is depressing AF. There have always been setbacks, but generally the story of Us has been on a linear upward climb -with more understanding, despots and bad ideas in the trashbin, and mistakes learned from.

Yeah, I was sort of naive about all that, but now that progress train is off the rails.

I spent a few days this year visiting around Chattanooga area. I tend to prefer checking out the nature stuff, local vibe, views and brewpubs. But Chickamauga BF was right there. I had no desire to depress myself with Civil War stuff.

I did walk thru a confederate cemetary in town - a tomb there for an unknown civil war soldier whose body wasn't found until recent times. That was depressing enough. What did he to die early for?

Now we have a reality tv show racist loser as POTUS propped up by the plantation society mentality. What a waste.
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Re: Wait But Why - The Story of Us

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Haha the guy has not updated this since October. Right when he was getting to the crucial part. I wonder if he's having an existential crisis. Maybe he finally realized Marx was right. Or maybe he realized his own role in the rise of fascism.
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Re: Wait But Why - The Story of Us

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Finally, an update is out.

https://waitbutwhy.com/2019/12/politica ... world.html

Some good things in there, but I have problems with some of it too.
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Re: Wait But Why - The Story of Us

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Chapter 10 is out:

https://waitbutwhy.com/2020/01/sick-giant.html

There was a really good section explaining how people are "sorting" themselves by political affiliation and other things (the section about a third of the way in called "Geographic Bubbles"). I've been critical of this series but things like this are still why I read it. There is a simulation that someone came up with:
Over the past generation, Americans have become more educated, which has made them more mobile. The Economist sites a study that found that “45% of young Americans with a college degree moved states within five years of graduating, whereas only 19% of those with only a high-school education did.”

And here’s the thing about mobility. If lots of people have the means to choose where they settle down, and those people tend to have even a slight preference to live near other people like them, everyone ends up totally segregated. This phenomenon is explained in a 2010 paper called Dynamic models of segregation, but it’s best explored using a brilliant interactive simulation by Nicky Case and Vi Hart.

The simulation has two kinds of characters, a blue square and a yellow triangle.

These could represent people of different religions, different races, different socioeconomic backgrounds, or anything else. For our purposes, they’ll represent U.S. Democrats and Republicans.

In the simulation, there’s one key metric, called “individual bias percentage”— a number that represents the minimum percentage of “sameness” (for us, ideological sameness) each shape finds acceptable among their direct neighbors. So for example, say the shapes like living in a politically diverse neighborhood, but they want at least 33% of their direct neighbors to be politically similar to them. That means they’ll only be unhappy enough to move if less than 33% of their neighbors are similar to them politically, and beyond that, they prefer diversity. To illustrate this, imagine these three tiny neighborhoods:
[SHOW]
Image
Given our 33% condition above, everyone in the middle neighborhood is happy, because they live in a politically diverse neighborhood while also each having at least 1/3 of their direct neighbors share their views. On the right, no one is happy because there’s no political diversity, but no one is unhappy enough to move. On the left, there’s an unhappy triangle, because their direct neighbors are 5/6 squares and only 1/6 triangles (the other triangle in the left neighborhood is fine because it has only two direct neighbors, and one of them (50%) is also a triangle). Make sense?

Next, Case and Hart bring out a big, diverse town with an interactive slider next to it.


A Sick Giant
January 8, 2020 By Tim Urban

This is Chapter 10 in a blog series. If you’re new to the series, visit the series home page for the full table of contents.

Notes key: Type 1 - fun notes. Fun facts, extra thoughts, or further explanation. Type 2 - less fun notes. Sources and citations.

Part 5: A Dangerous Trend

“The gentle downward slope gets steeper and imperceptibly becomes an abyss.” – Tomas Tranströmer

Chapter 10: A Sick Giant

In the introduction to this series, I said:

Part of what I’ve spent three years working on is a new language we can use to think and talk about our societies and the people inside of them…full of new terms and metaphors and, of course, lots and lots of badly drawn pictures. It all amounts to a new lens. Looking through this lens out at the world, and inward at myself, things make more sense to me now. … In the early parts of the series, we’ll get familiar with the new lens, and as the series moves on, we’ll start using the lens to look at all of those topics a sane blogger isn’t supposed to write about. If I can do my job well, by the end of the journey, everything will make more sense to you too. There’s a pretty worrisome trend happening in many of our societies right now, but I’m pretty sure that if we can just see it all with clear eyes, we can fix it.

Nine chapters later, here we are. There are a few new terms and visuals still to come, but for the most part, we now have our lens.

At the heart of the lens is the notion of “seeing in 3D,” which involves two ideas:

1) Seeing in 2D. Getting to know what I see as the core human struggle: the tension between our genes’ will to survive—a primal flame that burns brightly in everyone—and the human capacity to override that flame when it makes sense to do so, with rationality, self-awareness, and wisdom. I personify this tension with two characters—the Primitive Mind and the Higher Mind—whose struggle for control is a bit like a tug-of-war. Seeing in 2D means learning to consider this tug-of-war when thinking about anything human: ourselves and others, our interactions, our communities and societies and our politics, our personal and collective histories, and our prospects for the future.

2) Seeing in 3D. Remembering to remember not only the Psych Spectrum tug-of-war but also Emergence Tower. Ants are cells in a giant colony “organism.” Polar bears are individual organisms in themselves. Humans are weird because we can be like ants sometimes and polar bears other times, making the human species kind of like a fractal. The individual human is an organism, but in many ways so is a human community, and even a whole society. The reason I see humanity like a fractal is that these different-order organisms are similar in a lot of ways. Namely, I see them as all enduring the same 2D struggle. I freely alternate between psychology and sociology in this series, because in 3D, it’s all one big multi-tiered system. Psychology is just a microcosm of sociology. And sociology is higher-emergence psychology—it’s the psychology of giants.

Putting the two ideas together, it’s as if the tug-of-war is itself a fractal that scales up and down. There’s a tug-of-war in every human’s head, as we struggle for self-control and try our best to think and behave wisely. That same tug-of-war takes place on a macro scale in large and small groups of humans. When couples, communities, and societies let control of the rope slip towards the Primitive Mind, they end up playing out an ancient pre-programmed skit, falling into what I call the Power Games—the most primitive format of human interaction, where the only rule is: “Everyone can do whatever they want, if they have the power to pull it off.” When their collective Higher Minds regain an edge, they’re able to live within a wiser and more grown-up structure made up of consciously chosen principles. Tug-of-war shifts are also contagious. The state of each person’s tug-of-war influences both the psychology of the people around them and the collective tug-of-war of groups the person is a part of. In turn, shifts in a society’s collective mindset exert a pull on the communities and individuals within it.

Which brings us to the next part of what I said in the series intro: the worrisome trend.

I’ve alluded to the trend a few times in the series so far, but I didn’t want to get fully into it until our lens had been sufficiently developed. My hope is that the lens can A) help me get my point across, and B) help us all see a baggage-laden story with fresh eyes and communicate about it with fresh words. Clarity is the name of the game—if we can see a bad trend for what it is and why it is, we can put our efforts toward reversing it. If we can’t, we’ll unwittingly perpetuate it.

Blogging about current events is a bad idea. It’s less fun than blogging about rockets or cryonics or Panic Monsters and much more likely make people mad at you. But this is too important, with stakes too high, not to talk about. The fact that there are such strong social incentives to avoid the topic is itself a huge part of the problem and why it’s particularly important to talk about. For the rest of this series (this chapter and two more), we’ll discuss the worrisome trend I think is happening, the consequences at play, and how I think we can work toward changing our trajectory.

Sliding Downward

The tug-of-war in our heads ebbs and flows on a day-to-day and hour-to-hour basis. You wake up feeling fine until you log onto Twitter—i.e. Primitive Mind land—where exposure to all the low-rung-ness jolts your Primitive Mind awake, dragging your psyche downward. You head to work, which let’s say is a place with a generally high-minded, grown-up culture, and it elevates your psyche a bit. While at work, you pick up a call from your mom, who makes a subtle jab about the career path she wishes you weren’t on, which infuriates you and leaves you finishing the call sounding like a 16-year-old, lower on the Psych Spectrum than you were a few minutes ago. A minute later, with your Primitive Mind now all riled up, you snap at your boyfriend in a text conversation, only to apologize a few hours later, when the tug-of-war in your head has come back up to its default position.

If there were Fitbits that could track Psych Spectrum levels, we’d each see that we have our own graph.

The While We’re Here, My Recent Airplane Story Blue Box

I recently engaged in a fun, joint Psych Spectrum roller coaster with a stranger on an airplane. We were on the runway, getting ready to take off, and I was doing my typical “I know the flight attendant said to turn all phones onto airplane mode but the whole policy is really quite inane so I’m just gonna keep texting until we take off and I lose service” thing, and a woman next to me decided I was an [expletive] and loudly told on me to the flight attendant, who was busy and didn’t hear her. So I did the only reasonable thing—I stealthily turned my phone onto airplane mode, re-opened my texts, and very out in the open, started typing a long text. The woman—my new eternal arch-nemesis—took the bait. She saw me texting and again got the flight attendant’s attention, saying, “Excuse me but he’s still texting.” When the flight attendant asked me to turn airplane mode on, I showed her my phone and calmly explained that airplane mode has been on this whole time and I just like to get some texting out of the way during flights—texts that don’t send until I land and re-connect to the internet. The flight attendant said, “Oh then that’s totally fine—my apologies.” I replied, “that’s okay,” and did a little “it’s amazing how awful people can be right?” sigh. Satan watched the whole thing and then just sat there silently, hopefully very embarrassed. It was an unbelievably satisfying, triumphant moment.

Here’s how that interaction looks in 2D. I was hovering somewhere in the middle of the Psych Spectrum, around my default level. The woman next to me either has a particular pet peeve about people not following rules, or she was in a bad mood and low down on her Psych Spectrum and took her [expletive] out on me. Had I remained in a Psych Spectrum middle-ground, my Higher Mind would have thought, “whoa that was aggressive…but I am kind of a [expletive] about this kind of thing, so whatever it’s fair. Plus she’s a stranger and it would certainly be silly to take this personally.” I’d have smiled, said a little “oops, sorry about that,” and that would have been that.

But that’s not what happened, because her aggressive tattletale move immediately threw my Primitive Mind into a rage, plummeting me down the Psych Spectrum. This banished my Higher Mind to the closet of my subconscious, allowing my Primitive Mind to come up with a genius-yet-psychotic plan for revenge. Which worked, and made my Primitive Mind feel deeply satisfied in a very not-grown-up way.

Flash to two hours later. We’re in the air somewhere. The woman and I obviously haven’t spoken or made eye contact since the incident. Then she drops her glasses on the ground. I pick them up and hand them to her. She replies, “Thank you……hey by the way I’m sorry about before, that was totally wrong of me.” I immediately reply back, “Oh don’t worry about it, I totally understand!” For the rest of the flight, we’re best friends. She’s a lovely person and I just want her to be happy in life.

In 2D: Thinking (incorrectly) that she had falsely accused me of something, she feels bad, and uses the glasses interaction as a chance to make amends. My Primitive Mind, sitting smugly in the driver’s seat of my mind, had spent the flight assuming that this woman hated me and in turn, she remained my lifelong nemesis. Then she apologized. In that instant, my Primitive Mind deflated like a balloon and my Higher Mind burst out of the closet, suddenly fully empowered. My hatred of this random woman evaporated as I was reminded that she is a human, not Satan, and all of my satisfied anger transformed into regret for the sneaky trick I pulled on her.

Our little fight dragged both of our tugs-of-war downward, and then later, with a single positive interaction, we both snapped back upward. These kinds of Psych Spectrum roller coasters happen all the time.

Over the span of a week, your Psych Spectrum Fitbit might show you a graph like this:

But that’s just the micro picture. To get a sense of how your life is really going, you’d want to view the graph over a longer span, like a year (by plotting each week’s average):

Or even over a full decade (by plotting each year’s average):

Over longer periods of time, the micro oscillations melt away, and we see the broader trajectories of macro trends. In most cases, I think we grow up over time, as we get a little wiser, a little more self-aware, a little kinder and less self-obsessed. This means that as the years pass, our general Psych Spectrum equilibrium rises, like a stock chart that goes up and down week to week but over the years goes up overall. But we also go through rough times in our lives where we seem to revert to old ways we thought we were done with. When a downward macro trend gets out of hand, our lives can fall apart for a while. It’s the human roller coaster that we’re all on, whether we like it or not.

Macro trends happen because Psych Spectrum movement in one part of our lives can spread to others and generate a feedback spiral, helping upward and downward trends to beget more of the same. Maybe you start to lose some confidence at work, which then bleeds into your dating life. You end up in a relationship that doesn’t make you feel so great about yourself—one you probably wouldn’t have gotten into when you felt better about everything a year ago. You find yourself eating badly and exercising less. The quality of your work goes down, which makes you lose more confidence. Your lower confidence worsens your relationship, and maybe your family notices that you haven’t been calling as much as you used to. You start having a hard time being happy for friends when good things happen in their lives, which puts a distance between you and them. What started as a single negative development becomes a vicious cycle that infects all parts of your life. Years later, when things have turned around for you, you look back on those years and with hindsight, you can see them for what they were—a trough in the roller coaster of your life.

If the entire U.S. giant were wearing a Psych Spectrum Fitbit, I think we might see the same kind of graph.

In the U.S., election season is like a raging “Primitive Minds Gone Wild” keg party. In the months leading up to the election, the nation’s air becomes more and more saturated with toxic, contagious Primitive Mind smoke. If the two U.S. political parties are like a married couple desperately in need of couples therapy, election season is when they’re at their worst and most contemptuous. Not many of us can hold our tugs-of-war in place in that kind of environment, and on aggregate, election season causes the country to drift downward on the Psych Spectrum. The country’s giant collective Primitive Mind gets stronger and louder, pulling the national tug-of-war downward a bit on the mountain. The frozen, non-thinking spots in the collective national brain—the country’s political Echo Chambers—swell up and expand.

As we talked about in Chapter 9, politics is always a bit bottom-heavy on the Psych Spectrum—but during election season, politics is at its bottom-heaviest.

Then election season ends, a bunch of post-mortem op-eds are written, and eventually, everyone gets bored of politics and moves on, if only for a little while. Many Americans rise up a bit on the Political Ladder, leaving the low-rung giants behind and repopulating the high-rung giants. As people relax a little about politics, some communities become slightly less groupthinky, shrinking the national Echo Chambers down in size.

Putting it all together, the election cycle oscillation might look something like this. Please enjoy Wait But Why’s attempt at animation:

We would expect this kind of short-term pattern in even the healthiest democracy. Like my example with an individual, to really get a sense of how a country is doing, we’d need to zoom out and try to see the longer-term macro trends.

Over a period of many decades, the hope is that countries have an upward trajectory. If almost everyone in your country would agree that they’d rather live there today than 100 years ago, it may be a sign that the big, national giant has managed to move higher up the mountain throughout the century, not lower. But even the most stable, healthy countries can go through painful periods of reversion as well.

The history of the U.S. has certainly been a roller coaster, with plenty of upward macro trends and some eras of negative progress too. I’m not enough of a U.S. historian to take a respectable crack at what the full graph of that roller coaster might look like (though I encourage commenters to give it a try), but when I look at recent times, here’s what I see:

Over the past 30 years, the U.S. has been on a downward macro trend—a negative feedback spiral that has been accelerating in recent years. And the harder I think about what that macro trend means, about what’s causing it, and about what its consequences could be, the more worried I get.

__________

I suspect that this trend is bigger than the U.S., because it seems to be mirrored in many parts of Europe and other parts of the world. But having focused the majority of my thinking and research on the U.S., I’ll limit my analysis to what’s been going on here (though I’d love to hear from non-U.S. readers about what macro trends they see happening in their country).

On its face, the downward trend I’m referring to looks like an increase in political polarization, both among voters and among politicians. Let’s take a look at both areas:

The Voter Polarization Story

Voter polarization is an old pastime in the U.S.—but over the past half century, things have devolved into a particularly nasty situation.

You could probably trace the roots of the trend all the way back to 1945, when Hitler died. As we’ve discussed, nothing unites a group of humans like a common enemy—and the first half of the twentieth century was dominated by giant world wars that helped Americans to feel united. The U.S. never stopped being immersed in foreign conflicts, but Hitler’s demise marked the last time Americans were totally, uncontroversially united against a common enemy. And let’s remember what happens when the common enemy goes away.

Another key moment happened in the 1960s, when a cultural schism divided the country and never really went away.

By the middle of the decade, it had been 20 years since the end of World War II, and the country was ready to start fighting with itself again.

The Soviet Union was kind of a common enemy, but the country wasn’t totally united by it. A wave of pro-Communism sentiment from parts of the Left started to annoy the [expletive] out of the Right, who felt that the Soviet Union and the spread of Communism should be viewed as pure evil, no differently than Hitler. Barry Goldwater, the 1964 Republican candidate for president, summed up this sentiment in his nomination acceptance speech, when he said:

I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.

This was a rallying call against Communism, but it was also a rallying call to the American Right to dig their heels in with their stances, whether the Democrats were on board or not.

Meanwhile, the Left was undergoing a shift in the other direction. In his 1997 book Achieving Our Country, philosopher Richard Rorty1 describes the mid-1960s as a period during which the Left began to transition from what he calls The Reformist Left—who were patriotic and devoted to making pragmatic progressive improvements to the traditional U.S. system—to what he calls The Cultural Left. The Cultural Left, led by students who were born after World War II ended, was less patriotic than the Left of previous decades, viewing the U.S. as somewhat of a failed experiment. This shift put them in direct conflict with the super patriotic Goldwater Right. The Cultural Left was also more politically militant and less interested in pragmatic reform than the old, Reformist Left had been, falling nicely into Goldwater’s militant “extremism over moderation on matters of virtue” camp—only on the opposite side of every issue.

The renewed partisan divide was more clear-cut than it had been in decades past—and the major events of the late 1960s were viewed by both factions as binary political battlegrounds.

According to Rorty, the Cultural Left, who were often critical of Capitalism and sometimes sympathetic towards the Soviet Union, despised the Vietnam War, while most of the Right fervently supported it. Anti-war Republicans and pro-war Democrats increasingly became persona non grata in their own party and either faded away or defected to the other side.

The Cultural Left saw the fight for civil rights as not only necessary but as a symbol of the country’s moral bankruptcy. This really boiled the South’s potato—and Republicans jumped on the opportunity. Democrats had dominated the South in presidential elections for a century, and by solidifying in resistance to the Democrats’ 1965 Voting Rights Act (in what Nixon’s strategists called “the Southern Strategy”), the Republicans snatched the South away, and they’ve (mostly) held it ever since. What had previously been a hazier divide on race issues like segregation, with some conservative Southern Democrats and some more progressive Northern Republicans previously in support of or opposed to segregation, respectively, now sorted itself out more cleanly.

The cultural gap between the parties also widened. The Cultural Left, with their drugs and their hair and their music and their rampant sex, became increasingly irritating to the more traditional Republicans. The Left had a similarly one-dimensional view of the Right, seeing them as a group of sweater-wearing, warmongering, financially predatory old white racists.

It all came to a head in the 1968 election, with Richard Nixon riding into the White House on a wave of populist appeal to everyone fed up with the Cultural Left—who, in turn, saw the election result as further reason to lose hope in the country.

The tumult of the 1960s sowed many of the roots for the modern Left/Right divides on foreign, fiscal, and social issues. According to a comprehensive study, people are at their most politically and ideologically impressionable between their mid-teens and mid-20s, and all of those Baby Boomers born in the 1940s and 50s—none of whom were sentient the last time the U.S. felt like a single, united front against a common enemy, and most of whom were deeply influenced by the events of the late 60s—are, by the 80s and 90s, running the country. The Greatest Generation (who fought in World War II) are by this point mostly retired, and it’s the Baby Boomers who are the politicians, the university administrators, the CEOs, the home buyers, and the media moguls.

During the following decades, we see voter polarization steadily increasing. Pew data, collected over the past 25 years, shows us that the gap between the viewpoints of Democrats and Republicans has grown on issues across the board. 1

Averaging out the growth of the gap in those 10 graphs yields a smooth trend—2

—even as gaps in viewpoints between the country’s races, religions, and other types of groups have remained unchanged:3

Pew helps us visualize this another way—by plotting Americans on a spectrum from consistently liberal on one end to consistently conservative on the other. So someone who holds liberal views on all 10 of the above issues is plotted on the far left, someone who answers all 10 questions conservatively is on the far right, and people who have mixed leanings are more in the middle (with those whose answers are split 5-5 in the dead center).

The U.S. Thought Pile has gone from a steep hill to a more of a flat mesa.4

A steep hill means most people have a mix of liberal and conservative views—something you’d expect in a country with 325 million unique independent thinkers. A steep hill flattening into a mesa happens when fewer people are mixed and more people are ideologically pure.

Up on the high rungs of our political ladder, my hunch is that you’d find people all along this spectrum—from consistently liberal to consistently conservative, to everything in between. But on the aggregate, the high rungs alone would probably form a steep hill. In the Echo Chambers, you’d be more likely to find people in lockstep, loyal to their party’s ideological checklist from top to bottom. Going from a hill to a mesa is probably a sign that on the whole, America’s Idea Labs have gotten smaller while its Echo Chambers have grown.

Separating this graph by party helps us see what’s going on behind the scenes of this trend. Play around with this for a minute.

Here are three snapshots that sum up the story pretty well:5

Jonathan Haidt and Sam Abrams look at the same story yet another way, using data from American National Election Studies, which suggests that the degree of ideological purity within the two parties has about doubled over the past four decades:

They explain: “Before the 1980s, if you knew which party an American voted for, you couldn’t predict very well whether the person held liberal or conservative views. This chart shows the degree to which identification with a party correlates with a person’s self-placement on the liberal-conservative spectrum. If there were no relationship, the “correlation coefficient” would be zero. If there were a perfect relationship, it would be 1. In 1972, it was 0.32, but it has nearly doubled since then, to 0.62 in 2012, which is considered strong.”

2) The story shows up again when we look at presidential approval numbers. Young Americans who only know a country where half the citizens love the president and the other half hate him might be surprised to learn that it wasn’t always like this:

You can also see the story in how Americans’ feelings toward opposing voters has evolved. In stats like this—6

In 1958, 33 percent of Democrats wanted their daughters to marry a Democrat, and 25 percent of Republicans wanted their daughters to marry a Republican. But by 2016, 60 percent of Democrats and 63 percent of Republicans felt that way.

—or in graphs like this:7

Looking at the trajectory we’re on, it’s no surprise that Americans are becoming less and less hopeful about things turning around:

As voters have polarized, a similar story has been playing out in Washington.

The Politician Polarization Story

It’s a good idea to start with some context and remind ourselves that this isn’t the first era the U.S. has descended into a polarization vortex.

In his farewell speech at the end of his presidency, George Washington warned about the dangers of political polarization:

This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy. The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism…It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions…it is a spirit not to be encouraged.

Everyone burst out laughing and the government has been polarized ever since.

The John Adams–Thomas Jefferson election of 1800 was one of the dirtiest in history. Jefferson then spent his presidency at fierce odds with Hamilton and the Federalists. Half a century later, the country descended into Civil War. A few decades after that, the 1890s were a hyper-polarized time2 that in many ways resembled today’s divides.3 In the 1930s, the parties clashed again over the New Deal.

Looking at the history seems to support the idea that a country like the U.S. goes through macro oscillations in polarization. What seems like a trajectory into hell when you only look at WWII to today looks more like just another part of a roller coaster from a more zoomed-out angle.(Though for reasons we’ll discuss later, the modern trend may be uniquely dangerous.)

Probably the most commonly-cited metric to measure polarization levels in the U.S. House and Senate is something called the DW-NOMINATE,4 which places politicians on a liberal-to-conservative scale based on data like their roll-call vote behavior. The developers of the metric use it to make interesting charts on the site voteview.com. One such chart shows how DW-NOMINATE averages in the U.S. House of Representatives have changed since 1880:8

Their chart for the Senate tells a similar-looking story.

In each chamber, both parties have gone more extreme, with the Republicans going even farther. The full trend really comes through when you plot out the gap between the parties in the two chambers:

Political theorists suggest a few possibilities for the causes of the most recent polarization trend among politicians:

One theory points to the fact that both chambers have been highly competitive over recent decades.9

Political science professor Frances Lee explains: “Competition fuels party conflict by raising the political stakes of every policy dispute. When control of national institutions hangs in the balance, no party wants to grant political legitimacy to its opposition by voting for the measures it champions.”

Some theories point to the increase in campaign spending:10

More donations means more fear of pissing off donors—which often means more candidates falling in line with their party.

Others point the finger at redistricting—the practice of re-drawing the borders of congressional districts, which can dramatically change the voter balance in an election (usually in favor of the party who controls the state legislatures). That would certainly seem like a possible culprit in House polarization, though it wouldn’t explain the trends in the Senate (which aren’t subject to district lines).

Then there’s Newt Gingrich. When Gingrich won his first election in 1978, the Democrats were starting their 25th straight year as the majority in Congress.11

During this long tenure, the Democrats didn’t always treat the Republicans so well, and Gingrich and other Republicans were frustrated that between the Democrats having more money and more access privileges due to their majority position, and continual assistance from what they saw as left-leaning mainstream media, the Democrat stranglehold on Congress had no seeming end in sight. So Gingrich innovated. He wanted to reframe Congressional elections to be less about the actual people running for Congress and more about a binary tribal war between the Left and the Right. Over the following 16 years, as Gingrich gained more seniority, he emphasized a culture among Republican politicians of distrust and disgust for Democratic leadership and made it taboo to say anything to legitimize them.

In 1994, when the Republicans finally won back Congress, Gingrich, now the Speaker of the House, doubled down on the effort to tribalize. He crunched the traditional five-day legislative schedule into three days. According to Haidt and Abrams, “he changed the legislative calendar so that all business was done Tuesday through Thursday, and he encouraged his incoming freshmen not to move to the District. He did not want them to develop personal friendships with Democrats. He did not want their spouses to serve on the same charitable boards.”125 He also helped to do away with the seniority system for committee chairmen, which law professor Cynthia Farina says “many now blame for enhancing extremist voices, punishing defections from the party line, and burying measures with bipartisan support.”13

Whatever the cause, the shift from a standard partisan tone to a fully tribal Us-vs.-Them tone is now ubiquitous in Washington. In 2012, Chris Christie’s entire convention speech used the structure, “They believe ____; We believe ____.” In her 2015 presidential campaign announcement, Hillary Clinton made six “They [something bad]” statements in just over a minute. Just a few months ago, Kamala Harris called on voters to not “let the bad guys win.” As I write this, a visit to Donald Trump’s website is immediately met with this popup:

Voters have become more ideologically pure, and the purity in Washington is even starker. In the decades following World War II, the parties were actually pretty diverse, with lots of overlap. But in recent decades, overlap groups like the conservative “Blue Dog Democrats” and the more progressive “Rockefeller Republicans” have gone extinct. Today, the overlap has entirely vanished:14

So there’s the voter polarization story and the politician polarization story, which in many ways look similar. In both cases, polarization oscillates on a four-year cycle with elections, but each cycle, things are worse than they were in the last one.

And the question is: why?

As we think about that question, let’s remember not to jump to causation conclusions when we see a correlation. Washington polarization may be a symptom of voter polarization. Or vice versa. Maybe they’re stoking each other in a self-perpetuating loop. They could be independent phenomena, correlated only by coincidence. Or—and I think this is most likely—they could both be symptoms of something else.

In Part 1, we talked about how animal behavior works. It’s a dependent variable.

Humans are complicated animals with complicated motivations, but the basic idea holds up. If a reasonably stable human society starts falling into some kind of downward spiral, it’s probably because something about one or both of the independent variables has changed—usually, something about the environment.

I’ve read a whole bunch of sociological theories about why we in the U.S. have been spiraling down a polarization vortex, and there are lots of interesting ideas, with little consensus. Drawing upon what I see as the most compelling theories, here’s my hypothesis:

Due to changes in the environment over recent decades, we’ve become connected in all the wrong ways—and it’s led to a resurgence of the Power Games in the U.S.

There are two elements of the hypothesis:

1) Geographic Bubbles

Over the past generation, Americans have become more educated, which has made them more mobile. The Economist sites a study that found that “45% of young Americans with a college degree moved states within five years of graduating, whereas only 19% of those with only a high-school education did.”

And here’s the thing about mobility. If lots of people have the means to choose where they settle down, and those people tend to have even a slight preference to live near other people like them, everyone ends up totally segregated. This phenomenon is explained in a 2010 paper called Dynamic models of segregation, but it’s best explored using a brilliant interactive simulation by Nicky Case and Vi Hart.

The simulation has two kinds of characters, a blue square and a yellow triangle.

These could represent people of different religions, different races, different socioeconomic backgrounds, or anything else. For our purposes, they’ll represent U.S. Democrats and Republicans.

In the simulation, there’s one key metric, called “individual bias percentage”— a number that represents the minimum percentage of “sameness” (for us, ideological sameness) each shape finds acceptable among their direct neighbors. So for example, say the shapes like living in a politically diverse neighborhood, but they want at least 33% of their direct neighbors to be politically similar to them. That means they’ll only be unhappy enough to move if less than 33% of their neighbors are similar to them politically, and beyond that, they prefer diversity. To illustrate this, imagine these three tiny neighborhoods:

Given our 33% condition above, everyone in the middle neighborhood is happy, because they live in a politically diverse neighborhood while also each having at least 1/3 of their direct neighbors share their views. On the right, no one is happy because there’s no political diversity, but no one is unhappy enough to move. On the left, there’s an unhappy triangle, because their direct neighbors are 5/6 squares and only 1/6 triangles (the other triangle in the left neighborhood is fine because it has only two direct neighbors, and one of them (50%) is also a triangle).

Read the whole thing but when this bias is only 20%, then the city in the simulation only ends up 18% segregated by political views. When the bias is set to 33%, it jumps to 57% segregated. When the bias is set to 50%, then you end up 100% segregated. The conclusion:
This exposes a stark fact: if easily mobile people like diversity but prefer not to be the minority where they live, it leads to complete segregated homogeneity. Or as Case and Hart put it, “small individual bias can lead to large collective bias.” The only way areas stay diverse—racially, ethnically, politically—is if people like diversity more than they dislike being in the minority.
Then it goes into a bunch of election data that shows how segregated we are by political views today.
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