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Meta Politics Transcript: Polarization Updates
This week's episode is a collection of small gems that I couldn't fit into any other episode.
The salience game is among the most important in politics. Controlling which issues people are actually thinking about lead to dramatic swings in the direction of one party or another. However, extremist ideologies take this to their limits, enforcing in-group conformity and actually affecting the way people who adhere to those ideologies behave, resulting in a difference, not only in what they see as affecting their lives, but what they actually can do in those lives. These parallels range across extremist ideologies and conspiracy theories. Along with that, there are a series of ideas, conjectures, and an apology for something that I may have gotten wrong in the past, all on today's episode.
Hi, hi, welcome, welcome. This is MetaPol with me, Cactus. Demystifying politics, media and culture for all who seek a rational way out.
Today on the show, there are a series of small ideas that I couldn't find a way to fit into any other episode that may be tangentially related, maybe are building upon some of those ideas in a way that can be implemented in your daily lives. However, they are not really fitting in any of the arcs of those specific episodes.
Nonetheless, I think that many of these ideas are valuable in order to help you understand everyday life, even if they may only take up a portion of the time that I would normally dedicate. So I've gathered them all together for this episode.
The first is an incredibly interesting culture award dynamic. I think something that I've explained in the past, particularly in the earlier seasons of Metapolitics are the insular dynamics and primaries that lead to different political parties, different organizations, and even businesses being more responsive to a very unrepresentative group of internal influences, including employees, activists, or social media influencers, instead of of the broader public opinion or the broader customer base.
This of course is something that is calamitous in the long run, not having proper feedback mechanisms can lead to institutional erosion and in the case of businesses, bankruptcy. However, when there are enough resources at play, this deterioration can occur for a long time, without it being self terminating or even noticed by all but a few.
Another thing that I've often talked about, including in the episodes United stakes of conspiracy, the exponential function is coming for you, and Limbaugh's legacy are the strange and uncanny parallels between left and right wing conspiracy theories. Not only that, but they often tend to employ some of the exact same dynamics and the exact same properties or means of transmission in order to actually gain political influence.
This is no different in these types of insular dynamics. In fact, some of the exact same behaviors that those on the right wing decry insular behavior, with regards to responding to a small cohort of employees in media institutions, for example, are actually mirror images of what occurs in the Republican party because of various factors, such as partisan gerrymandering - redrawing districts, in order to create districts that are more beneficial to one party or another, or just natural geographic self-selection districts have become increasingly polarized. This means that the number of seats that are actually competitive between the democratic and Republican parties, the two major parties in the United States has dwindled from around the low three digit Mark to be between mid or high two digit Mark, depending on the election year.
What this means is that losing a seat, if you're a representative, to the opposing party is less likely than ever. The impact of that threat has decreased relative to the threat of being primaried, of being challenged by an opposition in the same party, most often for not strictly conforming to the party's values, policies or leaders has increased in risk.
This has been exacerbated by Donald Trump himself as often his endorsement and his direct influence in many of these lower level elections can directly lead to a candidate being chosen or not. Notable examples include Senator Tommy Tuberville from Alabama who won by an outsized margin against his Democratic opponent while winning by a much smaller margin in the Republican primary.
Of course, this dynamic is not exclusive to the Republican party. The Democratic party establishment has been influential, particularly in deciding its presidential nominees. However, the variance in ideology from moderate left to far left is not as subject to the same dynamics because of the way that the party is actually organized.
Because of the state of right aligned media, as well as the Republican party itself and Donald Trump, as I just previously mentioned, these insular self-reinforcing dynamics can often have an even greater effect on Republican politicians to apply whatever the party standard is. Quantifiable metrics for this can include DW nominate, which measures the voting record of representatives and senators or in various natural language processing based analysis of media coverage from partisan media on both sides. This phenomenon might sound familiar and that's because you've probably heard various right affiliated or center affiliated figures, critiquing the exact same thing occurring in various institutions, including universities and media outlets.
This is because the same insular dynamics apply. In the case of the Republican party, it was because there was a greater internal threat. The threat of primary, negative coverage from right wing media or the ire of Donald Trump is greater than the outside threat: the case of opposing parties or moderates turning against you and outnumbering you in the general election.
In the case of these institutions, the internal threat is the threat of employee revolts, harassment, and “cancel culture”, although that is a bit of an overused term. What this means in practice, however, is that, that derision, that appeal to HR and those malicious attacks, which have a real economic cost and people working in these areas is a significant threat, especially compared to the possible risks from the outside.
There is comparatively less of a threat from an institution, particularly a larger institution for individual poor performance, or even objectively getting the facts wrong. Repeated failures on the issues of COVID-19, of blatant misreportings in various political stories, or even nonpolitical stories, and even the promotion of racial conspiracy theories and anti-scientific pieces have not been an obstacle for any New York times employees, nor has it been the obstacle for other left leaning publications, at least at the time in which this is currently being recorded. This year, responsiveness to the public. And instead responsiveness to those who are willing to weaponize their internal connections in a nepotistic fashion is the parallel driver to the polarization in the Republican party.
One conjecture is that this may be actually something that is used as a release valve for Republicans who are fed up with the antagonistic or insular nature of their own party. Of course, this doesn't take away the underlying problem, which does exist in both these institution and in the Republican party. However, it's just an interesting conjecture that could be explored in the future. Whether the salient of this topic is tied to the nature of the Republican party. If the Republican party becomes less influenced by Donald Trump, less influenced by that party line correction, then do those stories still gain as much prominence within right-wing circles in the United States. That is something that we will have to wait and see.
Moving on now to a more left leaning phenomenon, although it occurs in some extremist right-wing circles as well. There's an interesting feedback loop between salient schemes, extremism and conformity. This usually starts with statements in the form of X is the greatest determiner of outcomes.
In the cultural left wing, this is often framed in terms of demographics, that this specific demographic is the major hindrance to someone's success, as opposed to other factors such as class, geography, decision-making or just random chance. This is often reinforced in the forms of extremism and political attacks on private individuals or public companies.
Of course the exact salience of these types of arguments in politics is up in the air. For example, Joe Biden is not exclusively dedicated to that narrative. While he has talked about those demographics, and in my opinion has greatly overplayed them compared to other issues such as COVID-19, he has also mentioned many of those other changes that can be made. Joe Biden of course represents the more moderate wing of the democratic party. Where these extreme ideologies are more manifest is in various activist groups and their influences in different corporations, including quote unquote diversity, equity and inclusion offices in various companies. Of course, as with almost all political issues, these can be overplayed and underplayed depending on the political interest.
However, there is a self-reinforcing dynamic here that can be extremely damaging and can help push towards a more conspiratorial ideology. Let's return to that statement of X demographic determines the outcome. When this is enforced in a conformity manner, by definition, this reduces the variables that an individual controls.
If an individual is adherent to an ideology that fixes in place some of the decisions they make, if they tow the party line, regardless of the circumstances, now this is going to the change the options that they have available to them, and then reduce not only the salients of other factors, but those other factors themselves. If you've already taken out the possibility, for example, of giving a different political position in order to possibly appeal to a different audience of viewers, then you are reducing the influence of other factors on the success of your writing. This is for the example of a media institution. This not only reduces the salience, but also reduces that effect in practice, which then in turn increases the influence of all of these other factors, this in turn makes those extremist claims more believable since the relative weight of those immutable characteristics is now higher. Of course, if everyone behaved in the exact same fashion, then there would be very few variables separating people apart and immutable characteristics would play a much greater role.
Obviously this is an extreme, but you get the pattern. Of course, just because these things are taken off the table, ideologically doesn't mean that they completely no longer exist. Individuals can always choose to buck that conformity to refuse to play by some of the restrictions. And if those are ultimately choices that actually do benefit them, then obviously they have a greater influence than those immutable characteristics.
This tracks with various lines of argument and the data collected for those lines of argument, including the “polarization of the elites”, in which those with more political influence become more polarized than the general public, as well as the shift in terms of corporate appeal. Of course, just because there was a correlation doesn't mean there's a causation and you would look to the exponential nature of this phenomenon in order to make predictions for the future and see if the information that gets collected lines up with this, or it doesn't line up with this.
It may also just be a minor factor compared to other things that the same strategy accomplishes, including confirmation bias and emotional calcification. Of course confirmation bias is the fact in which people are more believing, all arguments for things that they already agree with. Even if the evidence is equal to an argument that is against what they already believe in emotional calcification, of course, is an earlier term that I coined in order to describe the effect in which people become more emotionally attached to their political views and partially as a result of confirmation bias, more resistant to having them changed by factual evidence. One way in which this dynamic manifests is by capitalizing on major events. I've criticized the nature of reporting on individual cases many times in the past that as the population increases, anecdote approaches fiction.
If your story is only representative of one in 300 million, or alternatively one in 30 million that has less predictive value than just sheer noise on almost anyone, because these are selected by social media mechanisms and by some of the psychological flaws I just described. You get these individual stories going viral and influencing general public perception while being explicitly false for 99.999... percent of people. This also plays an important point in political strategy snd it's something that has been presented by s vast variety of figures on both the left and the right that these viral events are something to be capitalized on in order to push a political message. This creates a great amount of volatility and in the end is not beneficial for the players on either side, at least not for the individual voters.
It may be beneficial for politicians who are just trying to say, and power and raise some money. Examples of this include cases of crime and cases of terrorism on the right wing and cases of police violence or mass shootings on the left wing. While the problems and legal remedies for each of these cases do have a role to be played and do have some value, in addressing the way that they're used tactically in politics is to take very small cases that are unrepresentative of the general population and blow them up in order to induce fear in millions of Americans who will never, ever in their lives be affected by any of these events, what this volatility means is that you get a polarization based on specific events as well.
You get a greater degree of emotional manipulation driving a population that is already tuned into right-wing media, further towards the right. Depending on when these events happen and you get the exact mirror result in left-wing media of those who are already tuned into left-wing media, picking up these examples, changing the weighting and the probabilities of events in their mind because of this and shifting further towards the left.
And in both of these cases, it represents not just a moral shift towards one side or the other, but a change in judgment about the facts instead, in a way that is less accountable to reality or scientifically sound. This adds another layer to a term that is often used in political science called a captured demographic or an insular demographic often referred to colloquially as a “base” of a political party.
These are demographics that overwhelmingly vote in favor of one party or another think evangelical Christians for Republicans or university students for Democrats network effects and force these conformities. And in the age of social media, those network effects have never been more powerful. Very often these demographics are tuned into different sets of news sources, whether they just be Fox news on the right or MSNBC on the left, or whether it be something that's more specific to that demographic themselves, such as, for example, Spanish language media in the United States, although as data from the 2020 election shows, it seems that Latinos are actually becoming increasingly less polarized between parties.
What the ideas behind captured demographics say is that if enough of this network effect is saturated, the estimates usually range between 60 or 80%, although this obviously changes based on what specific demographic we're talking about, then there actually becomes a self-reinforcing cycle in which members of that demographic who are more likely to be friends, neighbors, et cetera, with other people in these types of demographics are then going to create a self-reinforcing chain in which the social pressures in order to vote one way, we'll actually just perpetuate that voting pattern and possibly expand it and further polarize it.
What the above mechanism means is that often these events can be the exact thing that forms those captured demographics, or pushes them to a phase where they're more insular and that this temporary emotional shift can actually create permanent ramifications. This effect is most supported by various public opinion polls on the specifics of certain issues like abolish the police on the left or heavy border restrictions on the right, or whether it's with more mainstream issues, such as the Corona virus.
This also ties into cultural polarization, something that people on the left and right have been pointing to for long before I came to the issue, of course, I've often described political polarization as the main issue, but it isn't just that. There's also polarization over nonpolitical behaviors, including the type of non-news media that you watch, movies, entertainment, television, et cetera, as well as the individual behaviors, such as what stores you go to. For example, I believe there was a 70 or 80% correlation between having a whole foods in a district, which is generally associated with urban or left-wing areas and voting for Joe Biden.
However, what this isolation in behaviors tends to create are easier dynamics of tribalism, where, because there are less connections across different groups, and there are less similarities that you can appeal to in order to try to build common ground. Then the same politically polarizing arguments are more effective and can often dehumanize those on the outside, creating the impetus for more extreme tactics. There is a correlation between certain behaviors as I gave before and voting patterns. However, there are so many influences that go into these patterns that there may be no causation to the correlation. In any case, though, this is something that is important to keep in mind and that many other commentators have often brought in while we're still on the topic of polarization.
I want to give an apology. I was partially wrong about value D polarization and the evidence and tread lines between various moral foundations, as described by Jonathan Haidt, and the overall voting record have actually gone up in 2020. What does that mean? Well, originally I talked about value polarization, looking at the trend lines, leading up to 2016 and also the factional nature of the democratic and Republican parties.
Essentially the thesis that I gave was that various network effects, insular communities led to people who hold morally conservative values, becoming cultural authoritarian, leftists, and those who hold left-wing ideas who grow up in Republican or conservative areas ending up becoming libertarians that these moral values actually found their place in both political parties regardless. I also made the claim that I think was supported by data up to that point that these moral values were becoming more even between both parties as would be predicted by the first claim, the alternative theses, many of which I've talked about in this episode about the theory of polarization may also do a better job at explaining this than this value deep polarization.
Of course, there is nonetheless some grain of truth. The factions that I do talk about indeed exist. There is a room for those types of moral conservatives on the left and moral liberals on the right. However, their overall impact on parties may not be as prominent as the effect of those other types or explanations of polarization that I just provided.
On a more positive note. This means that maybe there is more hope for someone like an Andrew gang or someone like a Mitt Romney who is trying to restore those moral cases to both parties in a way that connects ethics with policy. I do have that hope in the future myself, but I think there needs to be a lot of work in the way that information is exchanged in order to get to the point where those cases are viable again. That work can be done by me on this podcast. It can be done by many others who are sharing information and it can be done by you, not just by listening, but by leveraging those same network effects in order to push out something that you might see as valuable. If you're glad you listened to this episode, if you learn something new, then share to a friend or just talk about some of the ideas.
I know I say this often, but I mean it, and I'm glad to hear from members of my audience, that these ideas have helped win over more friends and generally helped deep polarized relationships and get to the bottom of what is happening to our politics. If you do that, not just on behalf of me, but on behalf of everyone that you help in that way.