Intro. [Recording date: September 23, 2019.]
Russ Roberts: Today is September 23rd, 2019, and my guest is economist and author, Arnold Kling. This is his 16th appearance on EconTalk. He was last here in July of 2018 talking about morality, culture, and tribalism. Arnold, welcome back to EconTalk.
Arnold Kling: Thanks, Russ.
Russ Roberts: This episode is a bit unusual. We're going to talk about your book, The Three Languages of Politics, which we've already talked about on the program back in June of 2013. But there's a new edition of the book, which is available at Amazon in hardcover, paperback, on a Kindle for a mere $3.99. And, it's also available as an ebook, pdf, etc., at no charge, at libertarianism.org. We will link to all of those. .
The other reason besides this new edition--the reason we're revisiting The Three Languages--is that a lot has happened since 2013. There is plenty to talk about.
And, I finally want to say that we are recording this in front of a live audience at the Cato Institute. So, you guys can applaud now. Thank you. There's about 600 people here, I would say. I didn't know if you could tell from the applause, at home.
Russ Roberts: A quick review. What are the three languages of politics?
Arnold Kling: Okay. I'm going to back you up.
Russ Roberts: Okay.
Arnold Kling: I'm going to start back with why I wrote the book. Which was, I noticed that the expression of political opinions in the traditional media and the social media, was not constructive. The way I put it at the time is, people are not trying to express themselves in a way that would change the minds of the other side. They are not trying to open the minds of their own side. They are just trying to close the minds of their own side. And so, the big question is: How did this happen? How does this work? How did we end up talking past each other, and why?
And so, now I can go to The Three Languages, which is my explanation of how, tactically, people manage to talk past each other. Sort of dog whistle to their own side and not talk to the other side. There's a progressive language, a conservative language, and a libertarian language. Each one sets up axes of opposition.
So, the progressive, it's the oppressor versus the oppressed. The evil side is people who are on the same side of oppressors, and the good side are people who are fighting for the oppressed.
Conservatives put the axis of civilization versus barbarism. So, the people who really, conservatives really feel threatened by, they accuse of getting rid of civilization's restraints and taking us back to barbarism.
And, for libertarians, it's liberty versus coercion. They say coercion is sort of the ultimate evil, and the state is the sort of legitimate arm of coercion. So, the state is the biggest threat to increase coercion.
So, you have three bads: oppression, barbarism, and coercion. We all think they are bad, but each tribe, as it were, thinks it has kind of a monopoly on fighting one particular bad.
Russ Roberts: And, putting both, putting all of our cards on the table, I would say, and you publically say in the book--it's not a secret--that we tend to be more sympathetic to the libertarian axis--the idea that we can organize our thinking around coercion versus freedom. I sometimes tend to look at issues that way.
But, I have to say, that since I read your book, and since I've grown up--which is about the last I'd say four years or so, recently turned 65; I feel like I've finally grown up--I've started to see a lot more merit in the other sides. You could argue that that is literally, a form of maturity. A form of intellectual maturity. Would you agree with that? And, would you agree with my characterization of your views, just to get that straight?
Arnold Kling: Yeah. I think I would describe myself as sort of libertarian/conservative. I have probably the least sympathy on the progressive side. But, as you said, there are certain issues, certain things, where that voice is correct.
And I can think of historical examples where different sides got it wrong. I'd say the Civil Rights movement, circa 1963, 1964--when you have libertarians trying to defend states' rights as Barry Goldwater did, that just seems like they were on the wrong side of that one. The oppressor-oppressed axis probably was a better frame in that case.
So, yeah, I think it is more mature to be more flexible and be willing to see these various sides.
Russ Roberts: I want to add, for those of you listening and here in person: One of the drawbacks of this book is it takes a lot of the fun out of hating your political opponents. So, you might not want to read it. You read it--you should have a warning, a warning label: Caution, may lead to tolerance of people who don't think the way you do. Or: Mmay lead to charitable views toward people you disagree with.
And, I think one of the reasons--let me say two things. First of all, this is one of the most, in terms of bang for the buck, and I don't mean price; I mean in terms of effort and time you have to put in to read the book--it's really an extended essay, is how I would describe it. It's not a lengthy tome. In terms of what you get out of it, it's way up there in my list of books that have had the biggest impact on me, per word.
And the other thing I would add--you can react to both those statements--the other thing I would add is that it's hard to think of a more timely or important book, given how hostile people are and intolerant they are of people who disagree with them. I think this is a book whose time has come. It was prescient in--whenever it came out the first time--
Russ Roberts: 2013, when we talked about it. Now I feel like it's more of an imperative.
Arnold Kling: Yeah. I have sort of mixed feelings about that, in that things are changing so quickly that I almost feel like this edition is already out of date in some sense. It's more timely in the sense that a lot--I think may more people now are upset at the state of political discourse, and wondering how did this happen? You know, how are we doing this?
And the book, between the first edition and the second edition--this is now the third--really explored a lot of sort of political psychology. There is a lot of that, and we can get into that if you want. The psychology that creates this polarization. And, political psychology has just taken off in the last five years, and that's a sense in which this book was prescient, was ahead of its time.
A term that's really accelerating its usage is called 'affective polarization.' What that just means--it's distinct from 'issue polarization.' So, issue polarization would be people getting on opposite side of gun control or abortion, or what have you. Affective polarization is just pure love for your own side; and, more than that, hatred of the other side.
Recently, this psychological phenomenon I didn't even have in the book, because I just came across it recently--that, suppose you get a little frustrated with the people on your side. Let's say you're a Republican, you don't really like Trump that much. Your psychological response to that is to hate the Democrats more, because that sort of tones down the cognitive distance you feel about being a Republican who doesn't like Trump. So, your dislike of leaders on your own side causes you to hate the other side more. That's just one example of the psychology that's involved in creating this polarization and people talking past each other.
Russ Roberts: Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments says that, 'I'd like you to like what I like.' So, if I tell you this is really great movie and you go see it, I'm going to feel good if you like it. And, I'll be disappointed if you don't like it. But, if I see what I think is a really awful movie, and I tell you how awful it is and you like it, then I'm really upset. So, it's more important, Smith claims--and this seems to be an example of affective polarization--it's more important that our friends hate what we hate, rather than they like what we like.
Arnold Kling: Well, that's interesting, because it's certainly the way people write. I mean, I describe this phenomenon, demonization.
You can think of two extreme types of ways of communicating on issues. You can think of being in a persuasion mode or in a demonization mode.
Persuasion, think of a high school debate team, where you absolutely don't make any personal criticism of the other team. You focus on the substance and on the logic, and so on. You play by very careful rules.
Demonization, think of road rage. All you want to do is let the whole world know that this guy that cut you off is a horrible person. In politics, demonization means just trying to let the whole world--make sure that the whole world hates the person you hate. When I think of the examples of people whose opinions are expressed in these demonization terms, listen to a Rush Limbaugh episode any afternoon. He's trying to make sure that you hate the liberals. Or read any Paul Krugman column, and he's trying to make sure that you understand that you should hate the conservatives. So, that is again, part of this. I call this demonization. And that is what characterizes so much political commentary nowadays in regular media and social medium.
Russ Roberts: I've claimed, or made the argument, that: that demonization has come out of the expanded choice in our media landscape. That we have an opportunity--unlike, say, a world of three television stations that were all very similar--we now have the chance to tailor our choices of media that we consume, and information that we consume, to our tastes. And, we're not so interested in the truth--which, no one likes to be told that. It's an unpleasant piece of information. In fact, when I used to say things like to people, they don't just go, 'No, I'm interested.' They yell at you because it hurts their feelings. They don't like to be told that.
The idea that media exists to give me what I like in the same way that Amazon does or Zappos or a restaurant, and that this profusion of choice has allowed this to happen, is, I think extremely important, because it allows me to have a stream of information that plays to those tastes that you're talking about. On both sides: I consume what I like, and I get to hate what I don't like. My Twitter feed, my Facebook feed, my timeline, my choices of newspaper, etc., feed that tribalism.
Arnold Kling: Yeah. Well, I think there is--trying to assess what causal factors have created this sort of apparent increase in demonization is tough.
My two favorite causal things, one of them you just named, the change in the media environment. But, you can ask, to what extent is the increase in polarization causing the media environment to change? And, to what extent, the other way around?
The other favorite causal factor would be the cultural sorting that has taken place, where people with different political views, different social classes, different backgrounds, I think used to mix a lot more. And, they don't as much. And that can feed polarization, because if you're only around people who agree with you, then there's a high risk in taking the other side's point of view in public among your group. And, a very low risk in taking an extreme negative point of view about the other side within your own group. So, there's this natural tendency for groups to become more polarized as they become more sorted.
But, I think it's the whole causal--I would say that the causal model would look like a tangled ball of thread. It would be very hard to figure out which threads to pull to unravel it.
One counterargument I'll get from people that people should think about when we talk about the media environment is: Look at the 19th century media environment, where it's overtly partisan newspapers or broadsheets or propaganda sheets. People say, 'Well, politics was never clean.' I think my response to that is that: But, we can cite some examples of persuasion, not demonization. I'm sure demonization, you can show cartoons and propaganda sheets, and whatever. But, I don't think the Federalist Papers would be accused of demonization. I don't think that the Lincoln-Douglas debates were about demonization. So, there were at least some very important examples where the discussion was better.
I'm sensitive to somebody saying, 'Don't look at 1960 and the political, economic, and media environment in the United States and say that's normal.' It may feel normal to us, growing up with that, but I am sensitive to somebody coming and saying, 'Oh, that's--'
Russ Roberts: Well, there's no doubt that politics was a dirty--was a bloodsport in the 18th century, 19th century, 20th century, 21st century.
I think the difference is the role that the consumption-media play. Well, let me say it this way. This is where I would try to salvage my otherwise monocausal explanation. I think the media environment, what people consumed and the role it played in their lives, was really different. Most people in 1800, were focused on getting food on the table. Today, we have a lot of time on our hands, which is a feature and a bug.
Arnold Kling: Yeah. The way I describe it, I've always liked sort of a Marshall McLuhan type look at the media and how they kind of relate to society overall.
And, one of the distinctions I like to draw is between what I call the sub-Dunbar world--and that refers to the Dunbar numbers: you can recognize about 150 faces, 150 close friends--and the super-Dunbar world of the larger society. I think, related to what you just said, those were very separate for a long time. You knew that you lived most of your life in the sub-Dunbar world, among your family, among your work associates, among neighbors. And, they were all close to you. You saw them physically; you didn't see them on a screen.
The super-Dunbar world was some distant world, where people were organizing society, or they were running large corporations. And, that, you didn't feel intimate. So, it was a clear separation. You didn't feel as intimate with this super-Dunbar world.
That has changed with the internet, and it's just progressively changed with smartphones. So, you get to the point where your friends exist on a screen. The people that you used to be intimate with now exist on a screen. And, then the people that are on the screen appear to be intimate to you.
So, you feel a lot more sense of ownership of what's going on in public life, and you care about it a lot more.
An example of that, that I've discovered this summer, is talking to young people about the issue of free speech. I had this dialogue with a bunch of young people. It was, I don't know, maybe a dialogue of the deaf. But, I would say, 'Free speech is good.' And, they would say, 'But, there are bad people out there saying bad things.' 'But, free speech is good.' 'But, there are bad people out there saying bad things.' So, it's just kind of that back and forth.
I think the difference is that 30, 40 years ago, if there were bad people out there saying bad things, they disappeared from view pretty quickly. A classic example, the Nazis who marched in Skokie, Illinois in 1977. That was a big deal in the days leading up to the march. And, after the march, they were completely forgotten about. Today--
Russ Roberts: There were about 12 of them.
Arnold Kling: Yeah. Well, but today, you get these--
Russ Roberts: Those 12 can be really loud today.
Arnold Kling: And they persist. And they're in your face. And your friends remind you that they were there.
So, something like Charlottesville, which was another relatively small event numerically, is vivid in people's minds. And, people feel like, 'I have to do something about it.' It's like, there's no separate--that isn't part of a separate world that people could forget about most of the time. But, where the Nazi march in Skokie, people could forget about very quickly.
Russ Roberts: I think that sub-Dunbar, super Dunbar distinction would make a good chapter in edition four of your book, the fourth edition. I do think there's a--you know, there's this famous cartoon. Well, it's famous for me. It's probably not famous for most of us. But, I've probably mentioned it before. I think about it every once in a while. It shows a man at his computer terminal, and he's talking to his wife off-panel, outside the panel. And he says, 'Honey, I'll be up in a minute. Somebody said something wrong on the internet.'
And, I don't know if you have that problem. I sometimes have that problem. Some person, who doesn't understand fill-in-the-blank--economics, trade issues; it doesn't matter what it is--has said something that, "I know is wrong."
Now in the abstract, I know there are millions, maybe billions of people who don't understand that phenomenon out in the real world. Why is it that they've come into my living room, in some dimension: into my brain, into my sense of consciousness, because I read it now in my Twitter feed as a response to me on Twitter? I find that--I'll just say that I think culturally, we haven't figured out how to deal with that yet. Right?
Hayek writes a lot about the difference between the microcosm and the macrocosm, and how the norms that we have interacting a small group are different than the extended order of cooperation that we call a market economy. We're pretty good at that. We've gotten better. But, we still struggle with that. And, he talks about the urge we have in the veil of conceit. He talks about the urge we have towards socialism, to extend the socialism of the family--which is a beautiful thing--to the larger macrocosm --where it's not so beautiful; tends to lead to tyranny, he argues. And I agree.
And I think that struggle is similar to the struggle that you're highlighting here, of how I interact with the people in my intimate or casual circle versus strangers, versus--I have many friends on the internet who I've never met. Right? Who I consider my friends, or associates; or I interact with them in various ways online. The rules for how--not just the norms of how to do that politely, but how I should think about my interaction with them, and my standing and connection to them, I think we haven't quite figured out.
Arnold Kling: Yeah. Well, for instance, I wish people would use my terms of service on Facebook, which is: No politics at all. I mean, I'll share posts about my travel or dancing, or anything. Anything. I would put up a cat video before I'd write anything on politics.
Russ Roberts: A bold statement, Arnold. Frightening, shocking.
Arnold Kling: It's just not a medium for that. When somebody says something wrong or something that really upsets me on Facebook, you know, I just have this rigid rule: Don't comment, don't like, don't share. If somebody, even if they're posting things that I like, but all they are doing is posting politics on Facebook: Unfollow.
But, that's my cultural adaptation. Obviously, that's strange. Why do so many people host political things on Facebook? What do they think they're accomplishing? If you step back and ask, 'What did you accomplish by doing that?' I think the best answer they could probably give is, 'Well, I let off some steam.'
Russ Roberts: Yeah. It's a form of therapy for them, they might argue. I think maybe you'd agree that it's all looking for the dopamine. You know, 'I need--I don't have enough followers.' I want more followers. So, the way I find them is, I yell, I rant, I pose[?post?]. I wave a banner around that says I'm one of these. The people who disagree with you culturally, who I watch on Twitter retweeting and sharing on the uninformative but zealous statement of political belief--I look at them in shock. Yeah, like you, I want to say, 'What do you think you're doing?' And then I think, 'Oh, I know what you're doing. You do too, don't you?'
Arnold Kling: Well, yeah. There are a lot of things. But, again, going back to your point that we maybe have not culturally adjusted properly to the technology that's suddenly gotten into our lives, I think is the point.
Russ Roberts: Well, we'll have to see how that turns out. I see this book, in a way, as an attempt to reshape the culture and to think differently about our political disagreements. One of the problems I have with it is, I think it appeals to you and me. And most people don't want to learn that other language of their opponents. They don't want to empathize. So, you and I, saying, 'Hey, this is how the other side thinks.'
No--let me just put a footnote to that. If you have a spouse who's in the other axis, who's speaking the other language, this is good for your marriage to read this book. Because you'll realize, 'Oh, yeah. He's not a jerk.' 'She's not an idiot. She just looks at the world differently than I do.' And I think that is a clear, practical application. But, for most people, they're not so interested in what you're selling. How do you react to that?
Arnold Kling: That may be true. I think if you're trying to--if I were trying to sum up a prescription of this book, and I don't have this phrase in the book. Like, this is one of these things that I keep thinking about as I go along, and I sometimes come up with better formulations. But, I would say my phrase would be, 'Those who know better, should do better.' So, there are a lot of people who are just not going to know any better. They're just going to--
Russ Roberts: Haters are going to hate.
Arnold Kling: Well, but even just they see other people doing it. Right? They see: this seems to be the way political discourse is conducted. So, 'I'll jump in and do the same thing.' So, I think anyone who reads this book will know better. Right? But, to your point, maybe the people who are drawn to this book probably knew better anyway. So, I don't know to what extent it brings about change. But, that would be my line. It's pretty feeble. Those who know better, should do better. Anyway, I'll just leave it at that. Probably come back to some of that later.
Russ Roberts: I will say--I'm teasing you a little bit about why would anyone want to follow your insights and learn about them. But, I do think for me personally--I don't think I'm normal. But, I do think for me personally, it has softened some of my dislike for the ideas of the other side, as well as the people who hold those views. And I think that's a better life. I think it's hard to appreciate the serenity--that's a little strong--but the peace that comes from not hating other people. It's very tempting to hate other people. It's very tempting. And I would argue--Sebastian Junger was on here talking about his b ook, Tribe. I think that's a profound book. We're tribal. We are tribal. To say, 'Oh, that's a mistake. You shouldn't be tribal.' I think that's naive. We are tribal.
So, what I found your ideas do for me, is that they raise the possibility that I can admire, respect, the people in the other tribes, and even the tribes themselves. And I find myself--I like that feeling. I also like the feeling of hating the other side and looking down on them. I understand the appeal of self-righteousness. It's very deeply in us, and I think partly through that tribalism. But, when you can step away from that--and, for me it's a little bit like the agnosticism I sometimes advocate on here, on EconTalk, that it's good to say, 'I don't know'--it's also good to say, 'You might be right.' Which is really hard for us to say. So, I think your book, for those who have a taste for that or would like to explore that taste, your book opens up that part of your palate.
Russ Roberts: Do you want to say anything?
Russ Roberts: No? Okay. Just want to applaud? Okay.
Arnold Kling: That's part of the problem, is sometimes we're a little bit like twins separated at birth. We don't have good arguments.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. No, that's true. But, I would argue that the goal of EconTalk is not to have a good argument: it's to get smarter. So, for those of you out there, I hope some of you are getting smarter.
Russ Roberts: One of the things you mention in the book--I'm want to come back to this tribalism issue. One of the things you mention in the book is--I think it's just a sentence, but it's something that I think about: Religion--organized, standard, mainstream religion--has become less--people are less connected to it. Even over the last decade, rates of church attendance and other forms of religiosity have gone down.
So one thought which you put forward--I don't suggest it "is true," but it is provocative--is the idea that as we have moved away from religion as a source of tribalism, we've found other places to express that.
Arnold Kling: That's a fear that politics is kind of filling that space. I've mentioned that a lot of the political psychology that I have become aware of, has kind of emerged since the first edition came out in 2013. One of the books was by Lilliana Mason, who's I think--
Russ Roberts: Former EconTalk guest, yeah. We talked about that book.
Arnold Kling: And, she talks about the decline in--the term is 'crosscutting identities'. So, if you just feel strongly about anything--your religion, your sports team or whatever--and you find yourself associating with other people who share that point of view or share that emotion; and then it turns out that you disagree with those people on politics, that kind of attenuates your hatred of them. So, like, if a Trump supporter and a Trump hater happened to show up at a sports bar rooting for the same team in the World Series, then maybe that would just make them a little bit less inclined to see each other as inhuman and completely offbeat.
So, religion was one of those things that used to do that. People's politics wasn't perfectly correlated with religion. That used to matter. I think people's emotional commitment to their religion is so much less now, that I don't think it could even serve that function, even for people who are observant and going to church and synagogue. I mean, Ifeel like the people who go to my synagogue are much more--they are very open-minded, religiously. If you tell them, 'Is there something terribly wrong with Islam?' 'Oh, no. There are good things about Islam.' 'Is there something terribly wrong with Christianity?' 'Oh, no. There are good things about Christianity.' 'Are there good things about Republicans?' 'Oh, no.' So, yeah, they're just much more committed politically than they are religiously.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, I used to have a hope. I did go through a phase--it was very short-lived--where I thought it might be a good thing for people to do activities that their in-group doesn't normally do. This would be Republicans going to yoga classes, and Democrats going to NASCAR [National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing]. But Lilliana Mason worried that NASCAR was a dangerous place for African-Americans and I thought that was an interesting example of some of the problem we're talking about. That, even the idea of going to a non-political event where you know that people are a certain way culturally or politically, could be fraught with danger, is I think symptomatic of really, a huge cultural problem. It's part of the reason, I think, people have trouble with patriotism today. It's like, 'Whose country are you talking about, mine or theirs? I like my version of patriotism, but theirs is dangerous.' I think that's really scary.
I suggested in a recent EconTalk episode that hasn't aired yet--it'll be out in a couple weeks--with Ryan Holiday riffing on an idea of Marina Abramovic, that it would be interesting to have a physical space where people from opposite ends of the political spectrum, or different ends--in your case, there's always three; we'll get to the fourth in a minute. But, people in different spaces could just sit across from each other in silence and look into the eyes of that person, and be aware of their humanity. Yoga might do that. Cheering for NASCAR or a sports team, or going folk dancing, could do that. Maybe in response to the appeal of the virtual world, we will find more places in the physical world to do that than we have recently. Maybe that will help bring us together.
In fact, one of the great comforts to me, and it's a terrible comfort, is that when we have a horrible thing happen in the United States, whether it's a mass shooting or a physical disaster, people pull together like "they used to." Right? People rescue other human beings without thought of who they are or what they're about.
I suggested recently, we're not far from where President Reagan was shot. It was the Washington Hilton. He was rushed to the GW, George Washington University Medical Center, the Emergency Room. And Reagan makes this joke that was funny at the time. When he looked up at the--he was still somewhat conscious. He looked up at the doctor and said, 'I hope you're a Republican.' That wouldn't be funny in today's--that's where we are, I think. We're in a world where people just can't handle the political differences, and they don't even experience them. So, I do think it would be great if we found social venues and other ways to interact with people who aren't just like us.
Arnold Kling: Maybe not just interact, but actually have joint projects that they are both they are working to do, so that they realize that they are working with each other and they can. That's a real kumbaya theory.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Well, that's what the--yeah, when you rescue a person from a flood, you don't ask for their voter registration card, I hope. I don't think we do.
Arnold Kling: Although there was a story--I think I just put on my blog--of a tow truck driver who arrives at somebody who needs a tow and then finds out their politics, and drives away without towing them. It's sad.
Russ Roberts: Okay. This is great.
Russ Roberts: Let's talk about the last five years when the--I was going to say, the 'Trump phenomenon.' I don't want to call it the 'Trump phenomenon.' I'm going to call it the rise of populism and nationalism, which I think people mistakenly associate with Trump as the cause of it. I think he is more the result. We look around the world, we see a rise of these phenomena not just in the United States. And I first saw them as a seemingly fourth axis, or fourth language. What are your thoughts on that, and what do you have to say in the book? I know you write about it, as well.
Arnold Kling: Yeah. Yeah, I came up with the term, sort of the Bobo versus anti-Bobo axis. That, Bobo refers to a 20-year-old book by David Brooks, called Bobos in Paradise. And Bobo stands for Bohemian Bourgeois. So, that's all terminology. But, there clearly are--there emerged a lot of resentment of elites in both parties, on the part of a lot of people.
This is most strongly evident in, let's say, the contrast between college educated women and non-college educated men. So, college educated women now make up a huge portion of the Democratic vote. And, non-college educated men make up a large portion of the Republican vote. And, Trump, I think, pulled in a lot of non-college educated men who had voted Democratic, even for President Obama. And that was kind of his narrow margin of victory in those states. So that is yet another axis.
So, there's been a lot of change in the last several years, and the change is ongoing. If we think of polarization and people talking past each other as a disease, it's like the pathogen keeps mutating. It's very hard to even stay on top of.
Russ Roberts: So, I'm going to disagree with you a little bit, and defend the first three languages. It's ironic. When I look at Brexit or when I look at Trump, and I see the issues that I felt--maybe I'm wrong--but that felt viscerally important to their supporters, even though I would not have called Trump a conservative--because he has many policies that were not, in 2016, conservative, or at least, associated with the conservative wing of the Republican party. And, yet, I think a huge part of Trump's appeal and a huge part of the appeal of Brexit is a civilization versus barbarism.
Now, there are many different flavors of that. Some of it's directed toward outsiders, foreigners. Some of it is directed I think more toward national identity, the pride of being, say, British--to take it outside the U.S. example. And so that elite/non-elite--let's stick with England for a minute. Obviously, a lot of young people voted against Brexit. A lot of older people voted for--obviously, the opposite of that. Young people voted against Brexit, older people were in favor of Brexit. And a lot of that was, to me, a tangled set of emotional issues. Not about pocketbook, although it was often brought into the debate. But, about what it means to be English. What it means to be related Brussels. What it means to be part of the world at large. And I think that same thing is going on in America.
Arnold Kling: Well, let me push back on that particular example. Look at what Brexit has done to the British political system. It's turned it inside out. It split the Labour Party, and it split the Conservative Party. So, it's clearly done something different than traditional conservatism.
And I think Trump does the same thing. I think a lot of traditional conservatives look at Trump's behavior and conduct, and say, 'This guy is violating guardrails.'
And, guardrails are, you know, the essence of--social guardrails, social norms, traditions, respect for Party elders. He's got no respect at all for the Party elders, and vice versa. He came in with no endorsements from anybody in the Party. He came in having reportedly insulted John McCain, the previous candidate. So, he doesn't seem to acknowledge any guardrails. For a traditional conservative, that would be awful. And for this thin sliver of inside-the-Beltway conservatives, they do become never-Trumpers.
But, it seems that for the people at large, for his popular support, that's a good thing. That, it shows that he's not going to go native when he comes to Washington. He's not going to betray us when he comes to Washington. So, it becomes a good thing. And that--I don't think he fits--I think he really does create a new axis, where--for example, a lot of hatred, a lot of his supporters, is directed against Republicans. They hate Romney. They hate--and, so that there's--so I do think that we have to, that he doesn't fit neatly into the civilization/barbarism story. And, I don't think the populist movements around the world fit neatly in there, either. I mean, I'm just trying to think mentally as I go through Italy, France. I don't think the resentment of Macron is a civilization versus barbarism.
Russ Roberts: So, what--how do you think about the--without trying to stuff it into a fourth axis: How do you think about this fear of elites? I do think what has come to the front, or distrust of elites. One of the things that's come to the front is this idea that somehow, 'We've been betrayed.' That, the people we kind of counted on to "take care of everything" have somehow at best, messed up. At worst, pursued a policy for their own benefit.
And I think both of those--I think that second one is just way over-exaggerated. But, the first one's true, and has been true for a long time. But, it clearly has a salience that it didn't have in the past. What's going on?
Arnold Kling: Yeah. Well, I guess I would keep recommending Martin Gurri's work. His book is The Revolt of the Public. And, it's sort of a combination of the sort of media collision phenomenon--that the intimate is no longer separate from the larger society. And so people are much more--they treat the elites in the newspapers and in politics as, like, an immediate family that's betrayed them. So, it's just a much more visceral feeling. And, they can just be much more aware of it.
The example that I like to cite is, maybe people have forgotten this so-called Rathergate, where Dan Rather at CBS [Columbia Broadcasting System] aired this, basically, hit-piece on George Bush allegedly not having done his military service properly. And, they included a letter that was written. And, somebody on the internet figured out that the letter, which supposedly was written in, I don't know, 1960s, 1970s, used a proportional space font that was only available in Microsoft Word--you know, obviously, in the 1990s. Well, that kind of exposé wouldn't have happened before the new media, and the ability of people to rally around it.
Again, I'll go back to--could anyone, even someone like Donald Trump, have gotten along with zero endorsements from the Party? No endorsements in the media? I mean, you needed that, really, up until at least 2008, you needed some base within a party leadership. You needed something within the elite. So, the new media environment has definitely empowered people and also made them much more aware of the failings and the perceived failings of the elite. So, I think it's helped to build this kind of populist movement.
Russ Roberts: I want to focus on that perceived failings for a minute. This sounds--it's hard for me to say, because it's an argument that I would not have accepted in the past. But, is it not possible that the current media landscape, the information landscape, has made it much easier to scapegoat anybody? And, blame anybody; and relentlessly tell people a set of distorted facts or lies that are easy for people to swallow, because it feeds that like they have of their tribal identity?
When we think of mass movements that are distorted, we think about--I was thinking, take the Nazis in the 1930s. Right? Or the Communist Party during its reign. They had control of the media. They either had direct control, or they got control. And we know that's important. It seems to me that in today's world, no one has control of it. Almost by definition, at least right now in the United States. Maybe in China it's different, I hear it's different. But, that fact that no one has control of it, which usually is a wonderful thing in an economic system because it allows people to tailor their consumption to their preferences, in political space is not so healthy. And, it's allowed, what is effectively, people to believe a set of conspiracy theories about who is running the country and what that's doing to their lives, that are certainly not true. And, yet, I think large swaths of people have come to believe them.
Arnold Kling: Well, that's true. They believe sort of equal and opposite conspiracy theories.
Russ Roberts: Let's talk about--you talk about an interesting term. I've been thinking about the idea underneath it, the state of closure that people have. What do you mean by that?
Arnold Kling: People want to not have to carry in their minds a sense of ambiguity of things that, well, I'm not sure about. I think that sort of falls under the category of the psychological reasons why people use these organized things along the three axes.
So, if you're trying to--if you take something like football players, last year the African-American football players' not kneeling during the National Anthem. That's something where you could look at a lot of sides and deal with the ambiguity. But, for progressives, if they can simplify it to, 'Okay. Well, African-Americans are traditionally oppressed. They are standing up against that oppression,' then you've reached closure. You don't have to--it's much simpler to process that. If you're a conservative, you just say, 'The flag and the National Anthem, those are symbols of--'
Russ Roberts: Sacred.
Arnold Kling: Yeah, 'They're symbols of American greatness. So, trying to tear those down is barbaric.' Again, you've simplified it. Libertarians, I don't know. Maybe if ask two libertarians, you get three opinions. But, one thing that they might say is that, 'What is it with this ritual of saluting the flag and singing the National Anthem at the beginning of a football game? That sounds like state worship.' It's not just the football players who shouldn't be kneeling--who shouldn't be standing: Nobody should have to stand to do this state worship.' Anyway, that's on that.
I'd like to get a little bit more into this: The people who know better, should do better--
Russ Roberts: Yeah, go ahead.
Arnold Kling: [?] I've written[?] my lines on that. I think a couple of the places that just within the last six years have gotten worse in that dimension--som my initial read would have been that someone like Paul Krugman knows better and should do better. If Paul Krugman walked into an economic seminar, there's just no way he would speak the way he does in his op-ed. I mean, he's just a completely different voice: He completely compartmentalized his role as a scholar from his role as a public intellectual. But, for the public at large, that isn't clear at all. They just see this Nobel Prize winning economist just beating up on conservatives. So, there's a case of someone who knows better, but won't do better. And he will justify it. He will tell you that, 'Oh, no. I am making the world a better place by exposing how awful its conservatives are.' So, it's hard to--you're not going to change his mind on that.
I think that we had a norm, until this Administration, that the President of the United States was above the political fray. That, they might have run a dirty campaign, they might have been nasty; but, once they're in office, the Oval Office, they're supposed to be above the fray. Maybe they send their Vice President out to be nasty. Maybe their campaign commercials are nasty. But, it doesn't come directly--
Russ Roberts: Now, they don't want to share it with the Vice President. They keep it for themselves.
Arnold Kling: Yeah. Yeah.
Russ Roberts: Is there a Vice President? I think we have one. It's got to be the lowest profile Vice President of my lifetime.
Russ Roberts: Somebody's taking up all the oxygen, I think, probably.
Russ Roberts: Sorry. Go ahead.
Arnold Kling: I'd say the other group that I think knows better but doesn't do better, is on college campuses. In particular, college administrators--I think the most feckless people on Earth. You've got this situation where you have social justice activists who demonize people. It seems--if you had asked me in the 1960s, 'Where should we head on issues of race and gender?' it would be, 'We're treating people entirely as individuals. The whole race/gender thing is transparent. You as an individual, take your interests and your capabilities, and do the best you can with them. We'll encourage you, we'll support you. How that plays out, is how that plays out.' That's the way it looked like it was heading in the 1960s.
Where is looks like it is now, it's Team Black and Team Female, against Team White Male. And that seems to justify throwing out on campus every value that used to be sacred for intellectual integrity. So, you throw out free speech; you throw out open inquiry. And, for purposes of this discussion, you don't model the rhetoric of persuasion, of treating other people with respect, of not making ad hominem arguments, of focusing on facts and logic.
So, the rhetoric of persuasion has been replaced by the rhetoric of demonization. You allow people to demonize white people in general. You have people that demonize specific individuals and make them not allowed to speak.
And, I think that's a case where, again, there are people who know better. There are plenty of, I would say, academics of our age, 65 years and older, who came from the Left or are still on the Left, who understand that. But, I fear that's fading. And that, to me, is even more worrisome than the Trump phenomenon, because--there's a pretty good chance that one way or another, the next President will return the Oval Office to being a more dignified and as a place where people use persuasion rather than demonization. But, I think it would take a different temperament of college administrator to say to the social justice activists, 'Look, you can pursue your goals however you want. But, we on campus, operate in persuasion mode. We don't operate in demonization mode.' That statement is just not being made loudly and clearly enough, as far I can tell.
Russ Roberts: So, this is fun. I get to take the progressive viewpoint now.
Russ Roberts: So, I'm going to say: 'Well, you say that, because you're a white male and you've had a privileged life. If you understood how hard it is to be a woman or black, you would understand that there are, those norms that you value are actually oppressive.' And, so, I say that. Let me just say one more piece to that. So, that would be the argument on the other side. Well, [?] react to that. Then I've got another point about colleges I want to add.
Arnold Kling: I'd say, if you're committed to that point of view, and I don't take it personally are: I think you're probably playing a little bit devil's advocate.
Russ Roberts: I've read your book. I understand that that's a legitimate feeling. The question is: Should it be carried out in this way?
Arnold Kling: Yeah; and I think at some point, you have to say, know, that allowing the discourse to switch from persuasion to demonization is just too high a price to pay. I just think at some point, if I were the college administrator--and clearly I'm not--I could give you all my scoring for college administrators, but I won't.
Russ Roberts: We've got some [?] already. We're getting the flavor.
Arnold Kling: Yeah. But, not enough, not enough. I'll have to share some with you at lunch or something. But, if I were the college administrator, I would just say, 'Look, the intellectual integrity is what matters.' They've said for years, 'We can have diversity and inclusion, and we can still maintain our intellectual integrity. In fact, we'll be better for it.' Okay, prove that that can happen, because I think it's going in the other direction.
Russ Roberts: So, I have a different thought. It seems to me that--I wrote an essay where I stole your ideas. But, at least I mentioned you, which often doesn't happen. 'Stole' is not the right word. But, I riffed on your idea. And I said that the three languages of politics also lead to three blind spots of politics. I think one of the blind spots--and I went through each group--progressive, liberal, and conservative--progressive, conservative, and libertarian--and I suggested that each of them has trouble seeing something about the virtues of the other side.
And, in the case of, I think, the progressive axis--I'm not a progressive, so I should just mention the others first. The libertarian axis, libertarians have trouble understanding that freedom isn't good for everybody. We think it is. We think everyone should have the right, and it's going to work out great. And, economics, in particular with free markets: everybody's going to grow and prosper. That's literally not true; but we'd like to--that's our religious blind spot.
For conservatives, they think that people who are left behind that progressives see as oppressed, they think, 'Well, they just need to pick themselves up.' Without imagining how hard that is if they had grown up in that situation.
And, so, the blind spot I think progressives have is that, by seeing people as victims--which of course they often are--they often fail to understand the role of agency and the potential for escaping victimhood, and the potential for self-expression. The potential for liberation.
And for me, the attitude that colleges have today--that social-justice/identity politics--I find it unhelpful to the people they are trying to help. Maybe that's just my way of rationalizing it, but that would be my argument.
Arnold Kling: Yeah. I think in some ways, the people it hurts the most are the African-Americans and the women who can make it playing by standard rules. Because, they are now being told they're inferior, or they are being put in a fishbowl. Like, 'You're not an individual, you're on Team Black,' 'You're on Team Female,' and they're sort of denied their individuality. In some ways, I think they are the ones who are hurt the most.
Russ Roberts: The other thing I would say is that I think universities long ago lost the role that you wish they could play as a place where ideas are shared. I think--I'm going to accuse you of romance about what a college campus is. A college campus is a place where 18- to 22-year-olds live in luxurious settings, typically exploring some of the pleasures of life while occasionally going to class.
Listeners know I don't believe in surveys, particularly. But, for what it's worth, survey results do suggest that people spend much less time on their school work than they used to. I think that's probably consistent with my casual impression of my kids and their college experiences. College is just a place to explore life. It's a finishing school for mostly rich people, which it's been for a long time, just a smaller sliver. Now it's a bigger slice. So, the fact that they are cesspools of intellectual discourse relative to what they could have been, really not that important. How's that for a depressing thought?
Arnold Kling: We should close on that note. Yeah. I don't think I can answer that one.
Russ Roberts: Oh, come on, Arnold. I don't want to close on that note. I want you to fight back. Can't you say anything to make me feel a little bit better about colleges?
Arnold Kling: We owe these people a chance to ask questions.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, I suppose. My guest today has been Arnold Kling. Arnold, thanks for being a part of EconTalk.
Arnold Kling: I enjoyed it, Russ.