The Four Forces Driving Political Conflict

Years ago, I thought I was going to die. The streets were dark and slick with rain. I was getting a ride back from a weekend encounter group where all our emotions had been laid bare, and the driver and the other passenger entered into such a screaming match over politics I thought a car crash was inevitable.

Why are political discussions so intense? Something has to generate all that political energy and cause the two sides to differ on issue after issue.

Emotions, not logic, rule politics

It is our emotions that choose which position we hold. It may not be obvious that they lie beneath arguments on subjects like immigration, guns or welfare. We may have rational reasons for our choices, but our emotions play a huge part. We are not fully conscious of their role in how we choose to live.

We hold these viewpoints because it feels right or because that’s what we were taught, and then adopt reasons that support that position; we don’t start with the reasons and become attracted to them. Even though we can name a dozen reasons for our choice, these reasons are chosen to fit our feelings. To understand this, we need to look at how emotions influence us.

Imagine you’re a microscopic organism back in the depths of time. There are things you need and gravitate toward like food and sunlight, and dangerous things you move away from like predators, acidity or extreme temperatures. These two aspects of survival – attraction & avoidance – are the two great reasons behind all individual behavior. (The sexual drive is not about survival of the individual; it is about survival of the species.) These forces are still active today, and as humans, we call them love and fear. They are the two great emotional drivers of behavior. We are drawn to that which we love, and avoid that which we fear.

Politics depends on how we see people

In stark terms, do we see people as good or bad?

The difference between Republicans and Democrats is that Republicans believe people are fundamentally bad, while Democrats see people as fundamentally good. – former Oklahoma Rep. J.C. Watts

If we think that people deep down are basically bad, selfish, untrustworthy and out for themselves, we strive for as much independence as possible. We find strength in autonomy and freedom.

All we ask is to be let alone. – Jefferson Davis

On the other hand, if we see people as good at heart, we are willing to trust them and work with them. We find shared benefits and companionship in being part of a group.

We boast of independence. There is no such thing. There is only interdependence. – Henry Ford

These are extreme positions, and few people hold either one completely. Instead, they can see the potential for both good and bad in others, but one belief usually predominates and predisposes people to be individualists or cooperators.

What we run from

Hate is a more powerful motivator than love. – Roger Stone

Fear, the other great emotional driver, is of course scary, and that is a problem because we don’t like to look at it; it is largely an invisible emotion acting like a force over our shoulder, pushing us this way and that.

It’s easy to see the fears our political opponents exhibit, but it’s much harder to see them in ourselves. Nevertheless, doing so is the only way we will reach an understanding of the political divide.

There are different fears associated with the two ends of the political spectrum.

For cooperators, individualism is scary because you are on your own; there is no support in the event of failure. In the physical world, the fear is of not being able to survive without the help of others. In the emotional world, the fears are of separation, isolation and loneliness.

For independents, the fears of joining with others are all of loss. Physically that includes property loss, being cheated and being taken advantage of. All cooperative endeavors are prone to the free rider problem, meaning that people act in their own self-interest, taking the production of the group for their own benefit. Psychologically, the fear is the loss of autonomy, boundaries, and ultimately of identity.

You may not recognize yourself in these descriptions. You may think the problems like isolation and loss of identity are extreme. You may not see how these underlie the back and forth of politics, but just because the roots are a long way down from the tree canopy doesn’t mean they aren’t connected. Which model of society appeals to you depends on whether you see people as basically good or bad. How much do you trust strangers?

The love and fear we have for the characteristics of each of the two poles make up the four forces that determine our political position.

Each preference has weaknesses

There are benefits and costs to each of the extremes.

For people who distrust others, there is a big problem. We are by nature a cooperative species because that increases efficiency. It is easier for two people to jointly carry two sofas up a flight of stairs than for each to carry one individually. In society, we work together both directly in teams and indirectly through specialization: mining iron ore, smelting it and machining it; growing wheat, milling it and baking it; spinning, weaving and making clothes; designing bridges, computers and 747s.

Economic activity is often thought of in terms of competition and market forces. Those are mechanisms which choose which cooperative endeavors are pursued, but cooperation is how the products of society are actually made. An alien peering down from his spaceship would see a vast number of people cooperating together to mine materials, refine them, blend them, shape them, assemble them and create a smartphone, a freeway or a jetliner.

If you don’t believe you need other people to survive, here is a thought exercise: leave civilization and live alone in the wilderness. Don’t take anything that is the handiwork of others: no twine, no containers, no matches. Definitely no steel, no brass, no bronze; you can make those yourself. (As a special concession, take some flint knives and the clothes you are wearing.) Your very life would be at risk.

For individualists, this need to work together presents a challenge. For a small group, people can be chosen by direct knowledge of their trustworthiness, but for larger groups, people are not known personally and must be judged on indirect characteristics such as language, gender, color, race, religion or nationality. This selection will inevitably be imprecise, including untrustworthy people within the group and excluding some reliable people, so the risk is minimized by making the group no larger than necessary. This is seen in the U.S. in states’ rights and the opposition to trans-national agreements such as the U.N. and the Paris Accord.

For a group to stay together, it needs structure. This is maintained by deference to authority and loyalty to the group, two moral foundations that Haidt finds associated with conservatives. The net result creates a group of like-minded people such as family, religion, region or country, and people outside it are regarded with suspicion, fear or hatred. This can be thought of as modern-day tribalism.

Build that wall! – Donald J. Trump

For people who trust others, cooperation has a problem with motivation. What is the incentive to work when the benefits have to be shared? This gives rise to the free rider problem where people abuse the system of sharing or are simply bad actors, period. There are costs involved in trying to control this, requiring a combination of bureaucracy (for example, ensuring that welfare is not abused or scholarships are merited) and force (for example, law enforcement and the prison system.)

So to summarize, there are four forces that influence our political position. We can recognize them in laws that pertain to each of them.

Fear of individualism creates laws that reduce the role of personal responsibility by providing a safety net in social welfare programs.

Fear of others creates boundaries and law and order. National borders, laws, police, courts and the prison system are all ways to control anti-social behavior.

Love of individualism is expressed by the Bill of Rights – the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution – which, in general, protect individuals against the power of the state. The entire concept of property rights exists to benefit the individual.

Love of community generates many laws designed to benefit everyone, for instance, public roads, public education, National Parks and socialized medicine.

The challenge is whether people are able to reconcile these four forces and reach an agreement that is widely accepted. Part II will explore the possibilities.

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Why There is a Crisis of Fake News

Call it the law of unintended consequences.

The internet is a disruptive technology comparable to the Gutenberg press. Initially it was seen as a global encyclopedia, making all human knowledge available to everyone.

Then social media arose, and I saw this as revolutionary for two reasons:

  • It allows people around the world to see each other and recognize their common humanity rather than being portrayed as faceless enemies to be feared.
  • Radio, TV and the press are one-way media that promote the interests of the rich and powerful. Peer-to-peer communication by passes these gatekeepers and allows other ideas to compete.

What I missed in this optimistic analysis was that the gatekeepers also performed the valuable task of checking facts and assembling a coherent, credible story, albeit with the possibility of bias.

With great power comes great responsibility.

The power we have is that peer-to-peer networks facilitate the dissemination of news that does not fit the ruling narrative.

The corresponding responsibility is that we must check the facts and assess the credibility.

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You Only Have Six Original Thoughts in Your Life

By an original thought, I mean putting together existing ideas and observations and coming up with a new thought or product or process that you’ve never met before.

All developments are constructed from the raw materials of our present knowledge, and new discoveries are often made independently by a number of people. There are many examples of such duplications such as the point-contact transistor, protein denaturation and calculus.

There is a huge range of creativity, from very little for some people all the way to thousands of ideas from someone like Richard Feynman; six is just a guesstimate for the average, taken from my personal experience.

It follows that nearly all of your beliefs, whether big or small, are those of other people:

  • What is consciousness?
  • Is there a God?
  • How should society be organized?
  • Does this hat look good on me?

Just because those beliefs didn’t originate with you doesn’t make your answers invalid, of course, but it does place on you an obligation to look into the basis for your beliefs.

Welcome to the New World of Perpetual War

Spontaneous street protest at start of Iraq war

It’s a New World of Perpetual War:

All this for only $2,000 each (that’s $8,000 for a family of four) or $4,500 each when you count indirect costs.

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Censorship on Conservative Sites

I have long had the experience of being censored on conservative sites, despite making a point of being meticulously respectful. On reddit, I have been blocked from the subreddits conservative, askaconservative and The_Donald, but they are famous for being hyper-sensitive. I did not anticipate censorship from a prestigious publication like the National Review.

David French wrote an article with the tongue-in-cheek title Does the Left Lose because It’s Too Civil? and most of the comments were extremely uncivil about the left, thus refuting his point. I engaged with one of the commenters and found that some of my responses were being deleted. After the first one, I did screen captures:

I found it ironic that the article complained that civil discourse with liberals wasn’t possible, yet a polite dialogue was being disrupted.

I reached out to David French and the National Review about this, but heard nothing back.

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The entire canon of Western thought, from Aristotelian logic to George Boole (he of boolean arithmetic) to the divide-and-conquer approach of science, invites us to view and categorize the world according to its differences, not its similarities. A table is a table and a chair is a chair.

Language is the tool we use for this dissection. It is the framework within which we place all experience. And yet this cannot be the only way to understand the world. Before language was invented, say 100,000 years ago, we managed to live and survive in the world; we understood the world, but in a very different way. Yet that way must still exist within us, although eclipsed by language.

To know it, we must set aside language – a very difficult task. Meditation is one way to do this. For instance, zazen involves watching and counting the breath. Whenever a thought arises, start counting from one again. This is extraordinarily difficult, yet it demonstrates that attention without thought is possible. Yet what we find there remains there. We cannot bring it back and speak about it: it is, by definition, unspeakable.

Arthur Koestler coined the word “holon” to mean something that is complete in itself, yet also part of a larger whole. A human is composed of organ systems like the respiratory and digestive systems; each is constructed of cells, and so on, down to the quarks and leptons of physics. But individuals are also part of larger groupings: a species, a phylum, and life.

This multiple existence is hard to acknowledge.

So we are indisputably these larger groups at the same time as being our individual self, in the same way that a cell is indisputably human as the same time as it lives its life as a cell.

This is the realm in which we find the greater self, and to find it we must transcend the ego, not in the sense of denying it, but of not remaining attached to it.

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Only Protest If It Is Invisible

Street protest at outbreak of Iraq war.Do you remember when BLM was protesting in the streets and people said “I support their right to protest, but not at the expense of inconveniencing other people?” So players avoided inconvenience by kneeling during the National Anthem, and that still upsets people. It seems that protest is only allowed when it is completely invisible and can be ignored.

The Financial Value of DACA

This graph* shows the net value to society of a person as they age. Initially, a child costs money for food, health and education. During the working years, they generate more value than they consume. In retirement, living and health costs reduce their value, but at death, there is, on average a small net value, and accumulated over many lives and millennia, these net values have accumulated to create the social assets we all share: roads, museums, libraries, scientific knowledge and technical skills.

The potential value of a person is greatest at the end of their education, and that is precisely what we are rejecting when we deport DREAMers. The benefits will all accrue to the other countries.

* The graph is an average across the population, and the exact shape will be different, e.g. there will be a steep drop at end of life. Nevertheless, the graph as drawn illustrates the point.

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Political Financing: A Modest Proposal

Here’s how to reduce the influence of money in elections: no politician should be allowed to accept contributions from outside their district.

This applies at all levels: city, county, state and nation. The Federal Election Campaign Act bans foreign contributions, and we need a Keep Elections Free Of Outside Money Act.

Senators would only be allowed to raise money from within their state, and Representatives from within their district. The same would apply to City and County officials.

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What Are They Thinking?

March for Science in Santa Barbara

I often check Fox News online to get the conservative slant on news. Poor as it might be, the comments are ten times worse. Here are some from their March for Science reporting.

  • These people are a joke. The problem with ignorance is that ignorant people are too ignorant to know they are ignorant. Such idiocy.
  • Getting rid of the US Dept. of Energy would pretty much make this climate change claptrap go away.
  • God creates the climate… What’s the question here?
  • It’s about time the American taxpayer stopped funding many of these pseudo science projects. Most of them are just welfare to liberal universities.

These are just from a single page of comments, and are typical of the level of attack. How is it be possible to reach a compromise with right-wing voters? This question worries me every day.