Author Archives: Donald Ellis
Is Trump a Madman?
Most world leaders, at one time or another, inch toward the “madman” approach to international relations. They seek to get their enemy to believe that the leader is a madman and capable of anything. Nixon tried to convince the North Vietnamese that he would bomb them back to the prehistoric era.
But nobody surpasses Donald Trump in displaying a disturbing set of behaviors designed to scare others into believing that he is capable of anything. And he just might be capable anything. Who could have imagined that he would bring home more than a dozen boxes of classified documents. What did he want with these things?
Trump probably enjoyed the thought of he and a few close friends sitting around one night sharing the documents and having a good laugh. Still, Trump is motivated by something more insidious; that is, Trump is desperate. He will say and do anything to hold on to power or to find a coping mechanism for his failures. I have only had sympathy for Trump in one area, and that’s the blooming buzzing chaos of his life. I personally could not imagine the daily barrage of legal and political attacks on my character, my businesses, my taxes, my political obligations, my family, and anything else my enemies can think of.
But Trump has the personality for all this. He is delusional on a grand scale and in addition to everything else he must maintain the details of the lies he tells about such things as stolen elections. Trump is a classic narcissist whose greatest fear is being disrespected or publicly humiliated. As a true narcissist Trump thinks of himself only and first. When it came time to leave the White House he did not leave with any grace or dignity but thought of himself first, that is, claiming he was cheated and the election was a fraud was more important to him than the orderly transition of power.
Trump is desperate and dangerous because he can’t cope with the thousand cuts that life has for him. That is why he can’t muster the grace or humility to look into the eyes of history and actually care that others are booing him.
Trump is a con man and his first con is himself. He continues to convince himself that blaming others, repeating lies, and refusing to believe anything other than his own reality is a legitimate discourse. And those deluded enough to follow him rigidly stand by their beliefs because in this age of post-truth “beliefs” are more important than evidence and a search for truth.
I don’t know: narcissism, distorted reality, persistent lying, delusions, and moral behavior. Sounds like a madman to me.
Trump and the Post-Truth Mentality
In Times of Universal Deceit, Telling the Truth Will Be a Revolutionary Act
Should I happen to fall into a conversation about Trump I now tell my conversational partner, who is supportive of Trump, that he should be “ashamed of themselves”. I can only ask the Trump supporter “What can you be thinking?” But the American people did the right thing in 2020; I presume they will do it again.
How do you describe the basic Trump supporter? What sort of cognitive shorthand could explain an attraction to Trump? Does he believe that Trump is a “tough guy” who will defend the country? Or, is he looking for economic changes that he believes are solvable by Trump?
Interestingly, Trump and the conflicts he arouses fit into our national story. Trump has something to tell us about the white working class and how race and identity have become the sore point for grievance and cultural anxieties. On the one hand, Trump talks like his constituency; that is, he can’t make the distinction between exposition and repetition and contradiction.
Researchers appear at small-town diners and barbershops looking to understand the white working-class mind that Trump nurtures. There are usually three issues: (a) racial prejudice, (b) status and economic loss, and (c) the populist tribalism that describes this group of angry white nationalists.
Trump is the personification of a post-truth consciousness. That is, making a statement is sufficient for that statement to warrant defense. And the statement takes on a truth value that must be defended. Before the election was over Trump noted that if he didn’t win it would be because the election was rigged. He established a self-sealing logic that had him winning the election regardless of what happened. It was a foregone conclusion, according to Trump, that he would win and if he didn’t it was because of cheating.
In a world (a post-truth world) where there are no facts, no need for evidentiary support, it becomes possible to say anything and expect that statement to be accepted and worthy of a place in discursive consideration. It’s a post-truth world when alternative facts replace actual facts, and feelings are more important than evidence.
There’s a quip that goes, “every lie has an audience,” the meaning of which is obvious enough. Even a blatant falsehood, or clearly substandard information, is believed by somebody. The trick is to understand why people think the way they do and how they can be moved from superficial to substantial judgments and conclusions. When they accept the tenets of a post-truth consciousness, they are already on a path littered with confusion, contradiction, and chaos.
Blah, Blah, Blah, and Claims of Media Bias
A couple of nights ago I went to a Jewish Community Center to listen to a talk by a respected scholar of Middle Eastern politics and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It was an enjoyable evening with pleasant enough talk. Actually, it was more like a prayer meeting than a community political lecture. The audience was composed of Israel supporters and there were prayers and the singing of Hatikvah.
But what struck me was the casual and confident ease with which people claim media bias. One presenter proudly and enthusiastically declared that she was going to cancel her subscription to the New York Times, as if that would do anything other than make her less informed. I know the media are an easy target and as an active specialist in these areas myself I encounter the charge of media bias regularly. Still, it is frustrating how little effect I have on people when I explain the multitude of perceptual distortions that go into their conclusions about bias, followed by an explanation of the difference between “bias” and “perspective”.
We can’t seem to explain to the public that people watch the news for a multitude of reasons, many of which have little or nothing to do with the acquisition of accurate information. We watch news for mood management, social rehearsals, and all sorts of cognitive needs. The more one watches the more they are bound to encounter bias or develop distrust.
You know that individual psychology and cognitive distortions are implicated when both sides of an issue claim bias. There are a dozen studies that show the same footage or text to two different groups, only to have that message interpreted completely differently by the two different groups depending on their entering perspective. No news story is completely free of values, and no story includes all potentially relevant information.
In one study available here the authors found that presentation variables such as agency in headlines and focal point of photographs all contributed to different (perhaps just “different” and not distorted) interpretations. And just as one would predict, according to the hostile media affect, the roomful of Israel supporters saw bias against Israel everywhere, noting the New York Times, when in fact the research cited above indicates that the New York Times is mostly pro-Israel. The hostile media affect is the tendency for highly involved individuals to see media coverage of their issue as biased against their own position. Their own ego involvement and engagement with the issues makes it impossible for them to process a new story objectively. In fact, coverage of the Israel Palestine conflict has traditionally been so supportive of Israel that the American public is uninformed about the Palestinian narrative and political position. Zelizer and colleagues in the reference cited above found that the New York Times, Washington Post, and Chicago Tribune had remarkably similar coverage of the intifada with the Times being more supportive of Israel.
But the difficulty people have with the distinction between “perspective” and “bias” is particularly disappointing. Not a single person at the lecture interpreted news stories as a perspective; they only saw bias everywhere they looked. A perspective is a defensible and explainable viewpoint from which one member of the group sees an issue; it is a point of view. The perspective can be impartial and defensible. To say it is defensible means that the holder of the perspective is fair-minded and has come to his or her opinion on the basis of acceptable reasons and evidence. This does not mean that other evidence is not available or different interpretations are not possible, just that the holder of the perspective has thoughtfully considered alternatives and sincerely tried to weigh competing evidence. Being a “liberal Democrat” or a “Zionist” is defensible and can be explained on the basis of acceptable reasons. But the same is true for being a “conservative Republican” or an “anti-Zionist.” It is the clash of these perspectives that results in reasonable disagreement. There is disagreement because the two perspectives support different positions and hold different values, but both perspectives are defensible from evidentiary, rational, and cultural standpoints.
A bias is holding an unfair and indefensible attitude or opinion. The holder of the bias is typically close minded and unwilling to consider additional evidence and alternatives because he or she pre-judges new information and alternative perspectives and refuses to engage in proper and sufficient information processing that might result in opinion change. Certainly, putting aside beliefs and working to form new conclusions is difficult. But it remains a communicative behavior that is central to problem-solving and part of the general communicative process that forms the foundation of democratic conflict resolution and the management of conflicting groups.
Posted by Donald Ellis
Since the ideas surrounding truth and post truth are circulating again given the polarization of American society, I thought I would republish this from Jan 4, 2021. More on related issues to come.
This enigmatic term – “post truth” – has been around for some time now and it is confusing for most people. Since the Oxford English Dictionary concluded that the concept of post truth was significant enough that it was identified as word of the year in 2016, we are certainly justified in trying to make more sense of it. What does it mean and how did the concept of post truth get so central to the interpretation of some important ideas in contemporary culture? It is no accident that the concept of post truth exists at the same time as ideas such as fake news. What follows is an explanation of post truth and how it informs the notion of fake news.
Briefly, post truth is the idea that objective facts are not so important in shaping opinion as opposed to emotional appeal and personal beliefs. The “anti-maskers who refused to wear a mask or quarantine during the Covid crisis because they didn’t recognize the validity of the science behind immunology or network theory are one example of a group of people who represent a post truth mentality. Some theorists have argued that political policies are no longer developed on the basis of facts and the distinction between fake and real is unimportant. Consequently, democracies become emotional political processes.
If facts become unimportant or nonexistent then they become victims of a strong social construction; that is, it becomes possible to have everyday citizens be the determinants of what gets defined as a “fact.” There is something terribly paradoxical about this. Facts are supposed to be the sine qua non of stable truth. If anything should not be subject to the whims of human emotion and variability, it is facts. How can you argue that facts are pushed to the background and unimportant? Are not facts supposed to be stubborn and true? The answer, within the post truth theoretical tradition, is “no” facts are subject to the same social influences as any other construct and hold no privileged position in political discourse. Facts can be redefined, manipulated, and reinterpreted to mean anything and the key issue is how many converts can I create.
Trump set about the business of delegitimizing the press. Of course, the press is the one institution that holds Trump’s feet to the fire. The single institution that fact checks him, exposes his lies and manipulations, and records his indiscretions. So, it makes sense that he would go after the press and he did so by making the distinction between fake news and real news. Of course, real news was only stories supportive of Trump. Anything critical was labeled fake news.
Facts are under siege. They are becoming highly politicized where people express their own facts – what they believe to be facts or want to be facts – in order to turn the concept into a rhetorical weapon. The term fake news is a good example. It is appropriated by political actors in order to attack opponents. The concept of “fake” is no longer a measurable or precise definitional question but one of political authority because the issue is who gets to control the definition in order to use it for his or her own purposes and is therefore in a position to dismiss others.
Trump’s appropriation of the term fake news is so extreme as to be laughable. A skilled manipulator of meaning will exploit certain commonalities of meaning in order to lend them some credibility. Those who accuse liberals on the left as being socialist have been effective because certain concepts and ideas that emerge from the political position termed “liberalism” do in fact have at least some similarity to positions emerging from theories of socialism. That is why those who attack liberals by deploying the word socialist have been successful. They conflate the two terms (liberal and socialist) sufficiently such that the relationship between the two terms is plausible and the narrower more aggressive and distasteful ideas associated with “socialism” are more easily transferred to “liberalism.” But Trump declared even before the election that if he did not win the process was rigged. He baldly asserted the “fact” that there were election improprieties even though no charge was ever accepted and not a single claim supported.
It is clearly possible to cite more precise meaning and fact-based issues that distinguish liberalism from socialism, but this is not my concern at the moment. Because the role of communication is so central to democracies, these democracies are saturated with disagreement over what is “real” and what is “false.”
of this essay will examine the nature of democracy and how one discourse follows another in terms of how much accepted disagreement it can tolerate. I will clarify how post truth rejects a rational political discourse that results in consensus; thus, post truth contends that maintaining a multitude of political voices, all contained in their subjective reality, is a more accurate reflection of the work of democracies and must grapple with the idea that logical and rational problem-solving is the definitive approach to managing differences, which is the goal of democratic processing.
Russia Invades Ukraine: My Take
Here’s my take on what I think will happen in Ukraine and what the Russians will do.
But first a little humble pie for a group of distinguished scholars and their earlier predictions. Go here for a report on predictions about what will happen in Ukraine and Putin’s military options. The authors are all distinguished scholars associated with high status institutes and academic programs. Take a look at a few of their conclusions. I quote exactly from the document the report was published in with some elliptical material for the sake of space.
… A close look at what the invasion would entail presented in the report and the risks and costs Putin would have to accept in ordering it leads to a forecast that he is very unlikely to launch an invasion of unoccupied Ukraine…
… Putin is more likely to send Russian troops into Belarus.
… One of the least likely things to happen is for Putin to launch a mechanized drive to see each the strategic city of Kharkiv in northeastern Ukraine…
The following scenario and assumptions seem to cohere into a foreign policy that reflects facts on the ground as well as aspirations and hopes. You can proceed logically as follows:
First, the early glory days of Ukrainians picking up arms to defend their country – a David and Goliath image if there ever was one – will not last too much longer. The Russians are well enough trained and there is more than 100,000 of them in the streets. Ukrainian Armed Forces are small and will not hold out for much longer. And if you think arming citizens is the answer, think again. It will just get them killed.
And Putin will not give up or accept some anemic peace treaty. This is his military operation and he is thoroughly committed and motivated to carry it out. He would lose face and never be taken seriously again.
Ukrainians could slip into a terrorist mode and began assassinations, ambushes, and other forms of resistance all of which worked for the Afghanis during the Afghan war with Russia. But the Afghanis are more prepared for such asymmetrical warfare, which I don’t believe is in the Ukrainian DNA.
Ukrainians are more patriotic and nationalistic in the western part of the country and that’s why Putin will not overlook them by focusing attention on the eastern part of the state where most Russians in Ukraine live. This is exactly the reason he will invade the Western part of Ukraine because he doesn’t believe in Ukrainian separate identity in the first place.
After Putin has captured enough territory including government buildings and media he will set up a puppet government. There are generally three reasons conquering militaries set up puppet governments.
A Puppet Government
A puppet government is a government with no sovereign authority over its territory, whose actions and policies are controlled by a foreign power. Putin might leave some Ukrainian officials in place for the appearance of sovereignty. Many puppet governments convey an image of sovereignty, but in reality, they cannot do anything without the consent of whichever foreign power controls them. That would be Russia. For the most part, they are set up following conquest, after a foreign power conquers the area in which they set up a puppet government. Read more about puppet governments here.
The second reason foreign powers establish puppet governments, and this applies to Putin in particular, is to try and fool both the citizens under its control and the international community into believing that the territory runs its own affairs. Although I don’t suppose we will be seeing much of the Ukrainian flag after Putin overwhelms them. In many cases, however, both the people that are the subjects of the puppet government and the international community do not recognize the puppet government’s legitimacy.
The third reason that conquering powers set up puppet governments is so that they can advance their own agendas. Puppet governments help facilitate the agenda of the controlling foreign power by using the territory and resources of the puppet state.
I don’t see Ukraine regaining its independence in the near future. We have yet to see a brutal Putin will be when he finally pulls the puppet strings to control Ukraine. Is he Hitler? Probably not but that doesn’t mean certain people won’t disappear, and we will never know it. I’m not expecting Putin to have public executions, but I am expecting a massive information manipulation and the sort of disinformation that the Russians have shown themselves to be adept.
Don’t Think for Yourself: Get Your Opinions from Someone Who is a Better Thinker
An alarming number of Americans believe some Trumped up version of reality that is so far from the truth – and so outrageous – that you have to wonder what is happening to the political communication process. Of course, examples are easy: Hillary Clinton kept children in a basement, or Obama was actually born in Kenya and is not a “real” American, or Covid vaccinations are a government plot, ad infinitum. At first blush you just figure that these people are playing with you, that they don’t “really” believe such things. But then you discover that they are serious, and their delusions are legion.
And the majority of these theories are right wing theories that seem to be most susceptible. A band of conservatives who dislike a political candidate for a parallel reason are available for the next delusion. A common refrain is to “think for yourself.” They are encouraged to find information, process the information, and come to a conclusion. Consequently, to “be your own man” is somehow associated with an individualism and is sufficiently justificatory such that simply convincing yourself that you “thought for yourself” is good enough. I have an opinion and by God I’m going to stick to that opinion simply because it is mine.
I do the opposite. I tell the holder of these inaccurate beliefs to get their opinions from someone else. Don’t think for yourself because that will just lead you down a crooked path besieged on both sides by bad information, inaccurate facts, warped conclusions, and a general bias that reflects pre-existing attitudes that work like barriers to more defensible reasoning. This is no trivial matter because the people in the news who are delusional are not only the likes of QAnon, The Proud Boys, or evangelicals selling redemption for votes. Rather, they are prominent politicians, media figures, corporate leaders and their foundations, and yes US senators and congress men and women.
Finally, we should not ignore the role of education with respect to reasoning and decision-making as well as recognizing false argument and various biases. Citizens in a democracy must learn how to make the best decisions possible and utilize the tools of reason and science as well as the humanities. Improving one’s ability to strengthen opinions takes time and experience. The education process is the best way to spend that time and gain that experience.
It is true enough that the left has some share of exaggerations about say political conspiracies, corporate plots, or climate change. But it is safe to say, and I believe this can be defended with empirical precision, that leftist and more liberal groups are not making wildly fringe arguments based on “the big lie” or Jigged-up fear about government plots in control of your body. Democrats are simply more likely to rely on science and trust the authority of experts along with an increased willingness to deliberate and subject ideas to the best forms of analysis and criticism.
I would recommend the following book as an excellent place to grapple with these issues.
Steven Nadler and Lawrence Shapiro (2021). “When Bad Thinking Happens to Good People.” Princeton University press.
The Truth about Critical Race Theory
There is a useful phrase that mostly circulates in academic discourse termed “moral panic.” Moral panic is the exaggerated sense that some cultural phenomenon poses such a threat to society that “panic” is called for. Some behavior is considered to be outside the boundaries of acceptable moral behavior and thus a threat to the culture. This is true even for culturally trivial matters. When young people in the 1960s started to wear their hair at shoulder length there was a segment of the population that considered this to be disrespectful, unpatriotic, and even dirty. It was perceived as a threat to the social order. But the threat is exaggerated. The media is fundamentally responsible for reporting on these supposedly aberrant cultural behaviors, and stirring up controversy stimulated by the binary differences between the groups. So, one of the divides in society is between long-hairs and those with conventional haircuts.
The current threat to society resulting in moral panic is “Critical Race Theory” (CRT). The definition of of CRT is not simple and I do not want to dwell on the details here. But at its core CRT is an academic concept that assumes race is a social construction and that race divides people of color against white people. Perhaps more importantly, as demonstrated by the 1619 book, race is more than an individual prejudice or bias but also something embedded structurally in the legal and political system.
So historical patterns of racial discrimination continue to find their way into social policies. In the 1930s the government literally drew lines to create neighborhoods and prevented African-Americans from living in these neighborhoods. To this day, whites continue to benefit from housing appreciation values and developed equity, where blacks have failed to benefit from these policies because of rank discrimination.
Liberals and conservatives draw sharp differences between one another on the basis of their CRT stance. Conservatives contend that when CRT is taught in the schools it undermines patriotism and warps the master American narrative. And those liberals who want to teach CRT in the schools claim that it is an accurate anecdote to the misrepresentations of American history. CRT is a prototypical basis for moral panic.
The problem with moral panic is the experience of the word “panic.” Ideologies like CRT do not warrant panic – which can be dangerous and devolve into violence. Panic ratchets up the intensity of the disagreement and increases the distortions in the positions of each side as well as the perceptual differences that result from intergroup conflict.
There should be a frame check such that what actually happens in the schools is based more on liberalism (I don’t mean progressivism) then a tenacious clinging to an ideology. As I’ve argued before, schools should “teach the conflict.” That is, CRT is a defensible response designed to correctly expose those aspects of American history and the past which are based on white supremacy and racial discrimination. Slavery is certainly a basis for American wealth and structural racist oppression has too easily slipped into the background.
The liberal response to CRT means that it should be taught in the spirit of open-ended inquiry and the rigorous challenge of opposing ideas. Those issues most associated with CRT can be taught in a defensible intellectual manner. America is certainly strong enough to expose its ugly mistakes as they bubble up from liberal foundations of inquiry.
Dealing with Extremists
One of the biggest problems facing deliberation is dealing with extremists. Below are five qualities of deliberation that benefit engagement with culturally and ideologically divergent groups. These five are followed by additional qualities of deliberation that are extended to the communication which is the engine that runs deliberation. As Ercan writes: “Deliberative democrats put communication at the heart of politics and emphasize the pursuit of reciprocal understanding between those who have different frameworks and ideologies.” The list is not meant to be exhaustive.
1.Because problems are complex and humans are limited, we have the problem of bounded rationality. Deliberation makes it possible for individuals to step beyond the boundaries of their own abilities and knowledge. Bounded rationality means we are limited to our own knowledge and abilities, but deliberation allows us to participate in the intelligence of others and step beyond those boundaries.
2.Deliberation forces a particular form of justification. At its base, deliberation is founded on “skilled disagreement.” There is much to skilled disagreement (e.g. a task focus, knowledgeable use of reasoning and evidence, perspective taking etc.). The deliberative forms of justification imply a comparative advantages orientation toward moving up from a personal opinion to a group judgment. Strong justificatory criteria help conflicting groups progress from the constrictions of selfish interest to choices made on the basis of inclusion of others.
3. Deliberation between conflicting groups increases cohesive consensus. The decision to subject communication to stricter argumentative criteria – even exceeding the boundaries of one’s own rationality – stimulates decisions that are more public, more shared by the collection of group members. The tensions between divergent groups that hold extreme opinions are such that the commitment to decisions is important if there is going to be progress implementing change. Deliberative communication is process oriented and the process must be perceived as fair and committed; the principles of deliberative communication confer substantial legitimacy since they are grounded in the individuals most affected by the outcomes. The source of legitimacy in the relationship between conflicting groups is not the will of the majority, but the outcome of the idea formation process.
4.The assembly effect the group experiences is beneficial. Errors and misinformation can be corrected, and deliberation does reduce variance, that is, groups converge after talking. Group members have more confidence in their judgments following deliberation and their confidence is high regardless of decision quality. Some cognitive convergence is necessary and communicative contact is the first necessary criterion. The assembly effect recognizes the non-summative nature of the group discussion.
5.Perspective taking is a crucial cognitive skill that allows one to morally appreciate and accommodate the position of someone with a different perspective than your own. Participants in a conflict must have the moral ability to “understand” the position of the other person or group. Thus, an Israeli must understand and respect the position of a Palestinian even if he disagrees with it. This is the core of deliberative disagreement. We can reject the charge that deliberation is too idealistic. On the contrary, deliberation will eventually be required, and authentic communication will engage the other as we expect.
For more on this kind of thinking see:
Landemore, H. (2013). Democratic reason. Princeton University Press.
Ercan, S. (2017). From polarization to pluralization: A deliberative approach to illiberal cultures, International Political Science Review. 38, 114-127.
What Is Common Ground and How Do You Find It
You will never go wrong telling the parties to a conflict to “find common ground.” Common ground is a powerful proposition that is the basis for discussion and debate. And common ground is related to “shared understanding” which can be described as a naïve and idealistic state (a sort of fantasy) that doesn’t exist because of powerful social and cultural forces that make for diverse groups and perspectives. Common ground is a remnant of the striving for consensus in solving problems.
There are two senses of common ground. One is a technical feat which involves a reliance on common ground in order to make sense of an utterance. The pronominal system of a language is a key component here. Consider the following utterance:
A: John played with his new computer game yesterday.
B: That must’ve been fun.
A common understanding of the pronominal system is necessary to understand the necessary antecedents. Speaker B assumes a common understanding of how pronouns refer to previous terms.
But a second sense of common ground looks for more general meanings. The best way to find common ground here is to (a) raise the level of abstraction, (b) define words, or (c) pay attention to moral implications by asking questions. Raising the level of abstraction means to widen the concept so it’s more inclusive. So, rather than have two conflicting parties argue about specifics of land or resources, raise the level abstraction by having them discuss peace which both of them desire and agree upon. Defining words clarifies issues such that if I described someone as “conservative” we should know what we mean by the use of that term. And asking questions, especially open-ended questions, in order to ferret out moral implications, helps move the parties toward more common understanding of concepts and ideas.
For example, if I accuse Republicans of being indifferent to the plight of the poor my argument will fail unless I find common ground. In other words, I must raise the level of abstraction by focusing on the common goals of both sides (responding legislatively to the poor) defining the concept of “Republican;” that is, who are we talking about, and asking questions about moral responsibility as well as questions that clarify confusion and differences.
Originally, group decision-making, problem-solving, and deliberative processes set “consensus” as their primary goal. Participants in any of these decision-making processes should engage in vigorous debate and contestation that results in the opening up and change of perspectives leading to overlapping conceptions and ideas about an issue. This is the stuff of common ground. But even though consensus is considered the gold standard of discussion and deliberation, the drive for consensus was considered exclusionary, inappropriate, and unfair given different pathologies and cultural practices.
When we talk to people we know, we start from shared assumptions and knowledge that we have built up over time, based on what we each know about the other and on our earlier interactions. Shared or mutual knowledge is a necessary component of communication. This shared knowledge is now generally referred to as common ground, and it plays a critical role in how we process and accumulate information in the course of communicative interactions. Common ground can be characterized by the range of shared knowledge that is involved. With communal common ground, for example, people share information at the community level, information about such topics as nationality, language, religion, or schooling. But they also share common ground with specific individuals. This personal common ground comprises information shared by two or more individuals over and above any communal common ground. It could include details of where each person grew up, their favorite writers, the time one of them takes to run a mile, the restaurant they last had a meal in together, and so on. For each individual, both communal and personal common ground accumulate over time, within the community, and in relation to particular individuals. With grounding, information known to the speaker becomes accepted and recognized by the listener.
Finally, all of these issues related to common ground are more robust if the conflicting parties are treating each other as noble adversaries rather than mortal enemies.
The New Polarization: Tribalism-Populism
It is now common enough to describe so many social dilemmas as a consequence of polarization, or a sharp division between two groups (e.g. conservative-liberal, Republican-Democrat, authoritarian-permissive).
Tribalism is characterized by a powerful cultural or ethnic identity that separates groups. It is based on strong relations of proximity and imagined kinship, as well as a relations rooted in the mutual survival of both the individual members and the group or tribe.
This tribalism and group identification leads to an authoritarianism that can, of course, be dangerous and violent. But what’s particularly interesting is the gravitational pull of some ideological groups. For example, a couple of decades ago scholars and public intellectuals alike would have described U. S. progress as expanding liberalism, and values focused on democracy, capitalism, and freedom. But if you look around today you will find increased authoritarianism – fortified by the presence of God – as well as more botched democracies.
What’s interesting is the new and expanded role of religion in these tribal and polarized times. From a statistical standpoint, religion is losing ground, and has been losing ground for some time. Church attendance is down and fewer people report membership and identification with religious groups. The actual appeal of religion is diminished.
Populism is not reliant on tribalism but still seeks to appeal to the “average” citizen who feels that his or her needs and values are ignored or disrespected. But right wing populism marries nationalism with populist ideology that places cultural blame on elites. Right wing populism also relies on charismatic leaders. Consequently, Donald Trump fails by any standard of competency and decency
But religion maintains its hold on many people and continues to be a symbol of power and psychological identity. The religion-secular divide is one of the most prominent. There are of course “holy” wars in Islam which are integrated into Islamic political life. Islamic holy wars are perhaps the most specific example of a religious-secular divide and the power of the motivating force of religion. The divide between the Islamic holy warrior and other tribal groups is the most sharp, and the least likely to be influenced by some moderating influence.
Other cultures have interestingly incorporated religious traditions into justifications consistent with modern authoritarian governments. China skillfully draws on Confucianism aligned with Marxism in order to justify its core social-secular values with religious traditions.
Given the exactitude and “correctness” associated with religion, it is often used to communicate strength and truth. So, violent and politically extreme groups incorporate religious symbols to communicate their seriousness and sense of strength. It is not uncommon to see crosses on helmets or other paraphernalia. The skull and cross bones printed across the back of a leather jacket has little or nothing to do with the ideology of a particular group but much to do with the expression of the group’s sense of itself as serious – as serious as death.