Jon Haidt on Toxic Tribalism - Politico

It has always been the case that the extremes are louder. What happened between 2009 and 2012 is that American tech companies created an outrage machine. This outrage machine greatly amplified the power of the extremes. The extremes got nastier and nastier so that people in the middle — the middle make up about 80 or 90 percent — now feel so intimidated they largely keep quiet. That, again, is why I say everything changed between 2009 or 2012. The social dynamic now is really different from anything that ever existed before 2009. So all of our understanding of society and politics before 2009 must be questioned. Some previous findings are still valid, and some are not. We do not know which parts are still valid.


Great interview by Jonathan Haidt. Here is talk by Jonathan Haidt with former UK politician Nick Clegg on the UK YouTube debating channel IQ2 on the subject of Brexit. It’s ironically apt given Nick Clegg is now paid to represent Facebook:

My first point would be although I have long written about the toxicity of the effects of social media on partisan politics, I wouldn’t be too sure that the problem is confined to social media- legacy media is just as bad in its own way. However, my main point would be that although social media exacerbates existing fault lines, those fault lines already existed and were likely to get worse even without the presence of social media.

The key understanding comes from Haidt’s own work, with Moral Foundations Theory. This distinction can also be seen with the differences in ingroup by political affiliation. Simply put, Left-leaning liberals see what is essentially a cultural bias for cultural homogeneity and being principally driven by racial animus. I wouldn’t deny that this might well be the case with the very small low single digit percentages at the extremes, but for the most part it is driven by a cultural bias of preference and lacks the support to be politically important.

This Niall Ferguson talk at Google Zeitgeist is particularly salient:

I do wish he would write a book about it- because to me it is perhaps his most important observation in terms of historical patterns. It shows that these cultural biases only become a problem and give way to populism when there has been a major economic downturn, and an attitude of economic scarcity has been activated in the blue collar class. In the past, the response from more conventional politicians was to curtail the power of populist demagogues by simply strictly curtailing new inward migration, but for several reasons this would not be a good idea in the West.

We also need to acknowledge that 2008 was the key turning point- populism needed the perception of economic scarcity and a major economic disruption in order to activate.

On a surface level and as a matter of practical policy most Western countries would do well to imitate Australia’s historic Populate or Perish Policy, insofar as increasing higher value migration of migrants who possess skills or qualifications which their domestic economy is not producing in sufficient quantity, whilst severely restricting migration which competes with the economic interests of blue collar workers.

Tighter labour markets result in modestly higher wages for the blue collar class, which only compounds over time. Most importantly, both sides get what they really want- for the generally wealthier Left-leaning liberals (excepting the greater balance at the very top of the socio-economic spectrum) the communities in which they live become multicultural models of diversity, instead aligned on the basis of wealth or based around intellectual communities- meanwhile the lower socio-economic classes get to protect the cultural homogeneity of their communities. It is more Utopian for everyone, instead of cosmopolitan liberals inflicting a dystopia of psychological incompatibility with cultural heterodoxy upon those less fortunate than themselves.

But more importunately, we need greater understanding about the basic psychological differences between a mainly more affluent cosmopolitan liberal class and a blue collar class whose only sin is a decided lack of oikophobia and cultural relativism.

This was a hilarious take from Breaking Points yesterday- a montage of mainstream media clips blaming White Supremacy for the VA Greg Youngkin victory. On the ground reporting has shown that both a terribly performing Biden economy and schools which were largely shuttered were far greater concerns for ordinary voters. On the subject of CRT or the recent trans rape in a school nobody can tell just how important these factors were- because these are not concerns which most people would feel free to speak out about publicly:

It really is hilarious, and shows the very real gaping chasm at the heart of American politics. The social media landscape might exacerbate this gulf, but it would have existed regardless of its presence. The empirical data on foreign-born citizens by country shows I am right on this one. In every country which doesn’t place restrictions which protect blue collar interests, the threshold for foreign-born citizens before populism activates is around 14%. If anything the political backlash and populist reaction is more extreme in Continental Europe than the milder reaction seen in Anglosphere countries. The one exception is Australia with its market dominant approach to migration- where foreign-born citizens number 30% of the population, and any populist urges have only recently emerged. This may be because the criteria for migration to Australia might have been watered down, with more blue collar jobs making an appearance on Australia’s Priority Migration Skilled Occupation List in recent years.

Regardless of one’s opinion on the real threat to blue collar interests posed by less careful immigration policies, there can be little doubt from the rise of populism in Western countries that a combination of economic scarcity and the perceived threat to the economic interests of blue collar workers are the primary root causes of populism- not ambient racial animus. Put another way, Trump was a symptom not the disease itself, and one likely to occur in some modified form until the interests of blue collar workers are protected from perceived labour competition with immigrants. It might simply be a case of ringfencing certain highly valued blue collar jobs in the economy- transport, construction, manufacturing, trade professional etc.


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Tribalism is a real and worrying issue in British politics, not simply the “Red Tie”, “Blue Tie” of political parties but the unthinking, monocular tribalism that has polarised journalism and made civilised, nuanced debate almost impossible.

Aside from news commenting sites I stay off all social media so am insulated from much of the worst of it. But I think it fair to say that the entire public discourse and debate would be immeasurably improved if everyone deleted Twitter, Facebook, TikTok (and no doubt a hatful of other platforms that I’m too disinterested and luddite to have encountered.)

The vast majority of ugly hate stories, “cancellations” and offence archaeology that fills all media channels began life on one of these platforms.

I don’t read Twitter, I never have and never will open an account. Yet its daily tide of misery and bile is wholly familiar to me because all those journalists who spend their days denigrating it, can’t seem to help themselves from reporting on its every ebb and flow.

Perhaps if every journalist who purports to hate Twitter stopped reading it - and certainly stopped writing about it - the problem would diminish.

There was a time (it seems long ago now) when decent journalists would assess a policy on its merits, would look objectively at a party’s offering and be able to agree and disagree with separate elements of it. Now media organisations support everything “their side” does and will criticise everything the “other side” does. It isn’t journalism, it is propagandist and only serves to polarise – and cheapen - the debate.

Maybe we are too far down that road now to ever go back but I just wish media outlets - and everyone else - would stop being so completely one-eyed and only judging a policy, an action, a statement based solely on who has espoused it and what political tribe they belong to.

If I’m honest, perhaps it was always thus and I’m only (mis)remembering a time when I trusted political journalists to be objective because I was a less critical - possibly more naïve - reader and viewer.

I first became aware of it during Blair’s first term in office. It seemed that the rise of the “political message” coming from off-the-record briefings rather than statements from the despatch box was very much a Nu-Labour initiative. It was documented in Peter Oborne’s books “The Rise of Political Lying” and “The Triumph of the Political Class”. An entire generation of political journalists were co-opted by the Downing St spin machine (Mandelson & Campbell) to act as PR mouthpieces for a sitting Govt.

The BBC was a very willing publicist for all of Blair’s off-book policy announcements. …… . ‘Journalists were recruited as an essential part of the apparatus of government control’ , Oborne says of them, ‘Pienaar did not merely present the Downing Street line very faithfully – it was almost as if Tony Blair or Alastair Campbell were speaking.’

Oborne, then a determined seeker after truth, seems to have fallen into this trap himself - a severe case of Boris Derangement Syndrome has destroyed what objectivity and credibility he once had.

We are still some way behind the US in terms of their polarised political journalism but we are certainly heading that way - and accelerating towards it. Trump has been the catalyst and it is almost impossible to find measured reporting in any UK media on anything he says or does.

It is exhausting to watch such obvious skewing of the truth. The reflexive and frankly childish insistence that there could never be a good reason for Trump doing anything - good or bad, and the mental gymnastics it has taken for news outlets to cover some of the more outrageous slips and gaffes of the Biden presidency, without ever criticising them.

In the same way, there was always a good excuse found for Obama when he did something - whether good or bad. Just as an example, the targeting of Qasem Soleimani - which seemed in keeping with US foreign policy of the Bush, Obama and Trump presidencies. Had Qasem Soleimani been killed in a drone strike by Obama I think the BBC and Guardian would have found a way not merely to justify but praise such an action. Yet because it was Trump it was deemed an outrageous and idiotic action.

Imagine Trump stumbling and falling up the steps of AirForce One, imagine Trump going months on end without speaking to the press, imagine him forgetting the name of the Australian PM - with whom he’d just signed a nuclear-powered sub deal - imagine Trump doing any of those things and the media-meltdown that would have doubtless ensued. The Afghan debacle alone would have seen calls for his immediate impeachment (again)

Now imagine if Biden had repatriated so many jobs to the US, had curbed illegal immigration by strengthening the southern border, had got Israel and Saudi Arabia around the table and talking of lasting peace - or any one of Trump’s other policy successes - they’d be halfway through carving Sleepy Joe Bedtime into Mt Rushmore by now.

After the toxicity and rancour of the last few years, and now facing a virus and economic fallout that respects no party affiliation, it shouldn’t be beyond media outlets who pretend to be serious to maybe try and step back from the tribalist, polarised finger-pointing and actually offer their readership or viewers some objective reporting and measured insight.

I won’t hold my breath though.


I completely agree. I use Facebook solely for family, and mainly for the purposes of making sure a family member has arrived safely. I do use Twitter, but mainly to reference Tweets by important writers and public intellectuals- it’s also an unfortunate necessity if you attempting to build a following as a writer.

That’s why I’m heterodox. The Scottish Model of Public Health-based Policing, with its focus on youth-reform never would have come into existence if the best both the Left and the Right had to offer wasn’t fused into one cogent data-driven whole.

I think perhaps with the fall of the Berlin Wall we received a rare reprieve from partisan forces in journalism which lasted until 2008 (with a decline towards the end). In a recent podcast with Jordan Peterson and Jonathan Haidt, Steven Pinker made the point that The New York Times was just as culturally partisan and vitriolic in some of its coverage, during the Vietnam War era. This might speak to greater partisanship and hatred of the other side as a form of luxury belief, which most mere lesser mortals don’t have the time or energy to pursue.

In my opinion, this is exactly what Steve Bannon was aiming for with Trump and populism. Regardless of what one may think of him personally, he is an astute operator and master of realpolitik and would have seen the Blair Downing St spin machine as a triumph of message discipline and information warfare. It’s not the only way- although historians tend to overstate the effectiveness of FDR’s economic and administrative approach, the fact that he was able to emote sympathy and understanding for the everyday fears and concerns of ordinary people made him an almost unstoppable electoral force- with the notable exception that he was unable to push back against the political constraints of isolationism until after circumstances changed.

Mainstream media is dying, and I think the temptations of clickbait journalism will be too high. Better to search for more moderate voices in the independent media space, and look to individual writers with a track record of political fairness.

Nope, all they did was give equal access to free communication, and to more people than ever before had had that opportunity.

The rest is human nature.

Do you now understand why large density homo sapiens self-organised into hierarchical structures?

Now you do.