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World Order and Democratic Development

This little essay is occasioned by reading Henry Kissinger’s 2014 book, World Order (Penguin).

It’s amazing to think that until he was drafted into the army for World War II the summit of Henry Kissinger’s ambition had been to become an accountant! It’s an ill wind indeed that blows no one any good. And equally amazing to think that he published this book in the tenth decade of his life! His intellectual vigor and depth of insight are astounding.

I appreciate his clarity about the subject of the book:

World order describes the concept held by a region or civilization about the nature of just arrangements and the distribution of power thought to be applicable to the entire world. [p. 9]

And I find myself very thoroughly in sympathy with what I take to be his central points:

To strike a balance between the two aspects of order—power and legitimacy—is the essence of statesmanship. Calculations of power without a moral dimension will turn every disagreement into a test of strength; ambition will know no resting place; countries will be propelled into unsustainable tours de force of elusive calculations regarding the shifting configuration of power. Moral proscriptions without concern for equilibrium, on the other hand, tend toward either crusades or an impotent policy tempting challenges; either extreme risks endangering the coherence of the international order itself. [p. 369]

To achieve a genuine world order, its components, while maintaining their own values, need to acquire a second culture that is global, structural, and juridical—a concept of order that transcends the perspective and ideals of any one region or nation. [p. 373]

I’m not quite so consistently admiring, however, regarding some of what he says in the middle portions of the book, for even Kissinger’s erudition has its limits and often he does not know what he does not know.

Kissinger of course is the most noted diplomatist since Bismarck (though he’d rather be compared, I suspect, to his dissertation subject, Metternich). But before that he had been a political science scholar specializing in IR — international relations. Indeed, he made significant contributions to developing the field in the ferment following World War II, aided by his command of German. Like other IR specialists he sought general lessons regarding relationships between states in the study of history. In his time (and to a lesser extent still today) this meant the history of Europe since 1648, marking the end of the terrible Thirty Years War and the negotiations in two cities of the German state of Westphalia that set the terms of peace. He refers repeatedly to the “Westphalian order” which he avers was expressed in the peace agreements and has governed the nature and relations of sovereign states ever since. In particular, the Westphalian order is taken as having fixed the concept of sovereignty, which is central to IR theory. This story was for long taken as absolutely correct by IR specialists and to a large extent still is. But deeper historical research over the past half century has shown that it’s largely an a-historical fiction, conjured by 19th century historians in an effort to rationalize the then-existing order. This is laid out quite clearly, for instance, in the widely read article,

Osiander, Andreas (2001): “Sovereignty, International Relations, and the Westphalian Myth.” In International Organization 55 (2), pp. 251–287. 

As Osiander shows, the actual peace treaties address scarcely any of what are taken to be the principles of the “Westphalian order.” The concept of sovereignty, in particular, took more or less its modern form only in the mid-19th century when the Industrial Revolution — and particularly its revolutions in transportation (railroad and steamship) and communications (telegraph and mechanized, high-volume printing) — joined what had previously been relatively isolated and self-contained small regions into integrated markets coextensive with political states, leading to the emergence of nationalism and the nation-state. Only in this environment, so different from that of two centuries earlier, could a “Westphalian order” truly emerge.

The fundamental principles of this order, as Kissinger sees them are [p. 3]

  • It relies on a system of independent states.
  • Through their independent and separate pursuit of their own concerns and interests these states act to check each other’s external ambitions through a general equilibrium of power.
  • Each state is assigned the attribute of sovereign power over its territory. Each acknowledges the domestic structures and religious vocations of its fellow states as realities and refrains from challenging their existence.

In his view, this is set of “Westphalian” principles of order is purely a practical accommodation to the reality of the Europe of nearly four centuries ago, not founded on any unique moral or scientific insight. Other principles of order, he emphasizes repeatedly, are entirely possible; why should they not emerge from experiences other than that of 17th century Europe, and why should they not be equally valid?

But really the principles emerged not from the wreckage of the Thirty Years War but instead from the situation of Europe of the mid-19th century. And the European situation of that time was very strongly shaped by the forces of industrialized communications and transportation, which are now taking a deep grip across much of the non-European world. Will these forces not tend to drive the huge stretches of the world which are developing so rapidly in our time to accept some variant of the “Westphalian order” for much the same reasons that the West did a century and a half ago? That is, if national consciousness is growing more powerful in these countries and if their economic and administrative structures are becoming more tightly knitted together, why won’t they and their neighbors come to regard one another as more distinctly sovereign? And why won’t their increasing wealth and integration make them both more satisfied and formidable, decreasing propensity toward interstate conflict? In such a light it seems as if the “Westphalian order” is a good deal less particularistic and idiosyncratic than Kissinger makes it out to be.

What about the various traditional visions of international order that Kissinger sees in other societies? I don’t know all that much about political and social history and current philosophy in many of the regions he discusses. But I am pretty familiar with those of China and Japan and can see that here too there are significant gaps in his knowledge which, as I see it, lead him to some questionable generalizations. While I expect these societies to retain identifiably distinct characters for a very long time to come, at a deeper level I think that Kissinger underestimates the extent to which the Japanese already see things in a framework very similar to those of Western nations, and that to which the Chinese are moving in that direction.

This impression is strengthened by other social science research, especially that summed up in

Inglehart, Ronald; Welzel, Christian (2009): “How development leads to democracy. What we know about modernization.” In Foreign Affairs 88 (2), pp. 33–48.

The authors elaborate on the theme in

Inglehart, Ronald; Welzel, Christian (2010): “Changing Mass Priorities. The Link between Modernization and Democracy.” In Persp on Pol 8 (2), pp. 551–567.

Based on massive analysis of worldwide survey data collected from hundreds of thousands of respondents over nearly five decades, Inglehart and Welzel [2010, p. 563] conclude

Economic development tends to bring enduring changes in a society’s values that, at high levels of development, make the emergence and survival of democratic institutions increasingly likely.… [C]ertain modernization-linked mass attitudes are stable attributes of given societies and powerful predictors of effective democracy.

At the same time they caution [2009, p. 33] that

It is unrealistic to assume that democratic institutions can be set up easily, almost anywhere, at any time. Although the outlook is never hopeless, democracy is most likely to emerge and survive when certain social and cultural conditions are in place.

In essence, Inglehart and his collaborators have shown, growing up with a sense of economic and personal security tends strongly to lead to development of persistently tolerant values that are strongly conducive to democracy. And democratic government is a shared aspiration in most lands. As people feel more prosperous and secure, they become more likely to embrace and even demand democracy.

Some will scoff that the Trump Administration has stopped democracy in its tracks, right here in its American homeland. The question is addressed in

Inglehart, Ronald; Norris, Pippa (2017): “Trump and the Populist Authoritarian Parties. The Silent Revolution in Reverse.” In Perspect. polit. 15 (2), pp. 443–454.

Looking at data from both the U.S. and Europe, Inglehart and Norris pick out several strands in the currents of populist authoritarianism. One problem is that particularly in the U.S. the sense of economic security has been declining for many as economic gains have gone almost exclusively to those at the very top of the income distribution, while institutions of mass economic security, such as stable long-term employment, guaranteed pension benefits, and Social Security, have withered or come under deliberate political attack.

The problems of economic security probably have not been great enough to account for the democratic reversals by themselves, but the influxes of immigrants and refugees over the past few decades have at the same time powerfully activated xenophobic responses. As authoritarian populists in all the major democracies early discovered, xenophobia is the open road to electoral success in such circumstances. As a result, progress toward democratic development is stalled or even in retreat through much of the developed world.

This is probably not a permanent situation, however. A combination of demographic and realistic factors seem likely to blunt and even reverse the effectiveness of xenophobic scare tactics, leaving the issue of income distribution. This is powerfully affected by government action, which in most of the West is at least somewhat sensitive to the political process. Assuming that authoritarians do not in the meantime manage to wrest the levers of political control entirely from the hands of the populace it is likely that eventually there will be at least a partial reversal of policies that so markedly favor those already at the top of the income distribution, leading to at least some leveling in the distribution of economic benefits. (The issues here are complex and critical, of course, and I want to explore them at greater length, but at another time.)

Assuming a recrudescence of democratic development, impelled not by ideology but by socioeconomic fundamentals, we can reasonably expect a growth and spreading of embrace of concepts of international order among the increasingly democratic states of the developed world. While statesmanship will no doubt have ample scope in this, it will principally be an organic development, a natural product of the interaction of democratic states.

But what of the undemocratic, undeveloped world? Will democracy spread everywhere, solving the problem? Unfortunately, the prospects do not appear bright. The kinds of intensive and extensive long-term opinion survey results that underpin the analyses of Inglehart and his collaborators have been much more difficult to obtain from these areas but based on limited work in Islamic lands it appears that the socioeconomic support for democratization, while progressing, has a very long way to go in these areas. [See forthcoming Inglehart, Ronald: “Changing Values in the Islamic World and the West. Social Tolerance and the Arab Spring.” In Mansoor Moaddel, Michele J. Gelfand (Eds.): Values, political action, and change in the Middle East and the Arab Spring. New York: Oxford University Press.] This is likely to be at least equally true in most other undeveloped areas.

In these circumstances I see little near-term prospect for development of a world order that has truly universal support. While this is unfortunate, prospects do appear reasonably favorable over the next few decades for the spread of a concept of international order enjoying wide support in the states that dominate in terms of economic power and military potential.

Donald Trump’s historical doppelgänger

I’ve heard Donald J. Trump compared to Hitler, Mussolini, Nero, Ivan the Terrible, and Vlad the Impaler. He’s been likened to Satan and likened himself to George Washington, FDR, and Ronald Reagan. But he’s relatively infrequently been compared with the historical figure who in many ways is most like him, and whose story has much to teach us: Wilhelm II (1859-1941), King of Prussia and German Emperor (Kaiser).

The empire had been formed in 1870 on the initiative of Otto von Bismarck, minister-president (prime minister) of the Kingdom of Prussia. Prussia was much the largest of several German Kingdoms and Bismarck engineered her rise to preeminence in Germany between 1862 and 1870, fomenting several wars to use as stepping stones. After the defeat of France in 1870 he employed cajolery, flattery, and jingoism, liberally seasoned with bribery and threats, to persuade the 25 other German kingdoms, grand duchies, duchies, principalities, and free Hanseatic cities to agree to a treaty of union under Prussian leadership, Bismarck himself becoming imperial chancellor. The “Iron Chancellor,” as he was justly known, recognized that the new empire’s geographic position made her vulnerable to attack from three sides; he successfully sought to spin a web of alliances and agreements to enhance German security. The diplomatic roads of Europe all led to Berlin. Thus Germany was able to grow economically at high rates, untroubled by threats of war.

Wilhelm’s grandfather, the old kaiser, died early in 1888, and his father followed just a few months later. At age 29 Wilhelm was the monarch of Prussia and the German empire, with vast powers. Germans greeted their glamorous and dynamic young leader with adulation, but those who had close contact with him saw Wilhelm as remarkably impetuous and immature. He was extremely self-centered and thin-skinned, far, far beyond the norm even for brash young noblemen. He always had to be the center of attention and would throw a tantrum when he wasn’t. No one could tell him any bad news without severe consequences. So he always wound up reading it in the newspapers, prompting rages, sulks, and hasty and often counterproductive responses.

Although the empire and the Prussian kingdom both had constitutional governments, to Wilhelm they were his own personal domains, identified with him. In 1891, during an official visit to the city of Munich, he wrote in the city’s “Golden Book,” “Suprema lex regis voluntas” — “The will of the monarch is supreme law.” Appointments as ministers, officers, and officials went only to favorites; all of those at the highest levels were courtiers, obsequious toadies who took his degrading abuse and came back for more. In 1908 one of his top generals, a stout 56-year old, expired of a heart attack while prancing in a ballerina’s attire for his master’s amusement, an incident exceptional only for its fatal consequences.

Germany had become too large and complex a state to be ruled as a personal domain. There were many powerful men who had to be accommodated to one extent or another, and even the will of the people counted for a good deal. Though he despised and tried always to subvert Germany’s limited institutions of constitutional rule, Wilhelm sought relentlessly to manipulate and mobilize powerful factions and popular opinion. There was no Twitter then but he gave speeches at every opportunity and interviews with the press. Naturally he did not think it necessary to be guided by or even to seek the advice of relevant ministers or officials. He was intelligent, well educated by the standards of the day, and kept himself well informed by reading newspapers, dispatches, and intelligence reports; he felt fully confident in his own opinions.

Wilhelm was the first Prussian king in centuries not to have been raised in the army, not to have become a thoroughly competent soldier. His father, Frederich, had distinguished himself in high command in Bismarck’s wars. Although some of his ancestors had gone to war while still children, Wilhelm remained home in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, later serving briefly as a junior officer in a posh cavalry regiment. Yet no one ever put on a more ostentatiously military front. He was seldom seen out of uniform and surrounded himself with military men. Wilhelm was obsessed with military strength and always bellicose. He frequently threatened war, although when war loomed he invariably got cold feet, much to the dismay and and disgust of his more aggressive generals.

For Germany, his Germany, to depend on allies and accommodate herself to their needs was unworthy of her glory, and his, in Wilhelm’s view. Germany’s links to other nations were discarded or allowed to wither, retaining only the creaky Austro-Hungarian Empire which had nowhere else to turn. Wilhelm would steer his empire out boldly pursuing an independent and self-reliant course built on strength. Many of his actions and pronouncements alienated and alarmed others, but what of it?

Step by step Germany became diplomatically isolated, first mistrusted by all and then universally feared. Nations that had relied on Bismarck to resolve crises impartially and evenhandedly, grew mistrustful and formed alliances to defend against German aggression. As crises arose Wilhelm always played for near-term tactical advantage; nothing was ever resolved and each crisis left tensions higher than before. But Wilhelm remained supremely confident of his mastery of diplomatic dealing and ability to make settlements.

When Serbian state-sponsored terrorists assassinated the heir to the thrones of Austria and Hungary, Wilhelm encouraged Vienna to deal harshly with Serbia without thinking through the consequences and how to deal with them. As the chain of alliances, agreements, and narrowly-conceived interests dragged state after state into the abyss Wilhelm struggled with increasing desperation to find a way out. But in the Europe he had done so much to form, all exits were sealed.

Obviously there are many fundamental differences between Wilhelm von Preussen and Donald Trump, and between Wilhelm’s age and ours. Yet there are few historical figures closer in character to Trump and I believe that there is something to be learned from Wilhelm’s example. It is often contended that Wilhelm willed and caused the First World War, but it’s very difficult to make a convincing case. What he clearly did do, however, was to help greatly to set in motion the fragmentation, fear, and mutual suspicion that did so much to make war possible if not altogether inevitable. If every state had to look out for its own interests, if no one could count on the fairness and good-will of others, then who could afford to be the last to take up arms? It’s very much the Trump-Bannon spirit.

It’s also clear that Trump and Wilhelm converge in their views on power. “Suprema lex regis voluntas” is no doubt a motto that would serve Trump’s ends very well indeed. Wilhelm consistently used his power to keep the institutions of the state weak, and particularly its civil institutions, with the result that there was little check on his destructive and lawless impulses.

Germans had very few defenses for themselves and their state. We have many, but it is up to us to use them.

*    *    *

While I have read a great deal about Wilhelm for my research my overall portrait of him and his influence is drawn most from Clark, Christopher M., Kaiser Wilhelm II (London: Longman, 2000) as well as Röhl, John C. G., The Kaiser and His Court: Wilhelm II and the Government of Germany (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994) and Röhl, John C. G., Kaiser Wilhelm II, 1859-1941: A Concise Life (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014). For better and worse Bismark utterly reshaped Europe in its politics in the late 19th century; the best summary is Steinberg, Jonathan, Bismarck: A Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

Googling for “Trump and Wilhelm II” will lead to various other comparisons between the two.


Authoritarianism, Ethnocentrism, and Democracy

In many circles it is a truism that President Donald Trump is an authoritarian whose electoral appeal was largely founded in ethnocentrism. It is also contended that some of the rising right-wing leaders in Europe are authoritarians appealing to ethnocentrism, like Trump. What we are to make of these characterizations must depend at least in part on just what the terms “authoritarian” and “ethnocentrism” are to be taken to mean.

As is usually the case, understanding the history is clarifying.

The term “authoritarian” is of 19th century origin but came into currency in connection with the rise of fascist régimes in Europe in the 1920s and the simultaneous emergence of the Bolshevik régime in the Soviet Union. It was not intended as a compliment.

(Those who wanted to emphasize their hostility as much as possible called them “totalitarian,” however.)

The horrors of World War II and the discovery of the soulless atrocities committed by the fascists and especially the Nazis extinguished any vestige of sympathy there might have been for authoritarianism. Social scientists eager to understand how the monstrous blight of fascism and communism could have arisen called their subject of study “authoritarianism,” and in doing so announced their lack of sympathy for those exhibiting it. It wasn’t quite the equivalent of setting out to study the origins of utter depravity or ultimate evil, but it came pretty close.

In the late 1940s, when the search began, it seemed natural to expect to find an authoritarian personality type at the root of authoritarianism, and the evidence at that time suggested that personality was largely formed in childhood and solidified in early adulthood. The Wikipedia article on authoritarian personality gives a reasonably good short summary of the early research, up to the 1990s. It’s fair to say that these efforts left many critical issues very unclear.

More recent efforts, however, have produced insights of not only theoretical but immediately practical importance with critical implications for politics. They are most clearly and forcefully presented in two books:

Kinder, Donald R., and Cindy D. Kam. US against THEM: Ethnocentric foundations of American opinion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).

Stenner, Karen. The authoritarian dynamic (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

(Note that Stenner wrote first; Kinder & Kam make a good deal of use of her work while she was largely unaware of theirs when she wrote.)

Briefly, Stenner substantially modifies and greatly clarifies the notion of authoritarianism as a social-psychology phenomenon, while drawing out important political implications. Kinder & Kam (“K&K” for short) introduce a related but (as they show) separate quality of ethnocentrism and discuss its (and authoritarianism’s) political implications in greater depth. Together the books explore a grave challenge to liberal democracy and to American democracy in particular, and demonstrate that the remedies usually talked about are unlikely to be effective—and may even make the problem worse.

It’s not accidental or incidental that these books have arrived only recently, for they are both built very largely on one of the quite recent accomplishments of social science, the building of an extensive data base of public opinion research. Public opinion research began in the 1930s but it’s really only in the past few decades that social scientists have developed the resources to probe public attitudes and beliefs in a consistent, rigorous fashion on a broad scale. These authors depend on these accumulated data to a great extent, analyzing them statistically. Their predominant method is ordinary least squares multilinear regression (OLS/MLR) analysis. This is no longer a “cutting edge” technique, but I believe it is well suited to their purposes and the nature of the data. Readers who are not knowledgeable about statistics can relax, for Stenner as well as K&K do a competent job of statistical analysis and interpret their findings accurately in clear language.

(One caveat is that Stenner appears to forget that age and epoch are confounded in the data—if an effect seems to be due to age it might also be due to the different environments in which people of different ages were reared. I cannot see any place that she tests for this.)

The early assumption that authoritarianism must be a fixed personality trait implied that it was always active, always guiding the authoritarian’s thoughts and actions in most if not all circumstances. But as means to measure authoritarianism were developed and applied to large aggregations of people they showed authoritarianism waxing and waning in irregular cycles over time. This seemed to cast the measures themselves into question.

A Canadian professor, Bob Altemeyer, devoted a great deal of effort to refining a survey questionnaire to measure authoritarianism. By the mid-1980s his “Right-Wing Authoritarianism” (RWA) scale had become the widely-accepted standard for studies of authoritarianism. Altemeyer had thoroughly scrubbed it of the various statistical flaws that had clouded earlier scales, and it passed most statistical quality tests, but still the results varied considerably from time to time. It was also quite restrictive, depending on many specific contemporary American cultural references, and thus of limited value in studying authoritarianism elsewhere. (An abbreviated sample version of the RWA questionnaire may be found here.)

As a graduate student Karen Stenner, with the support and stimulus of her thesis advisor, Stanley Feldman, progressively recast the notion of authoritarianism in a wholly new mold. She came to see it not as a fixed, constant aspect of personality but as a latent underlying predisposition which is activated and takes effect in behavior only as it is engaged by specific stimuli. As these stimuli wax and wane, she hypothesizes, so do outward manifestations of authoritarianism. At least in principle this solves one of the greatest problems of earlier conceptualizations such as Altemeyer’s. However, she does not propose or track specific measures of activation stimuli to show that time-varying fluctuations in levels of authoritarianism follow them.

Stenner’s concept of authoritarianism has everything to do with social groups. Humans are deeply and innately social, and automatically form groups with which we identify profoundly. As very small, preverbal children we are aware of others as being in or out of our ingroup, and we take this identification as natural. As K&K say (p. 33)

Early on, children display an inclination to parse the social world into “natural kinds.” They believe that race and sex and ethnicity belong to the living world, and that differences between races or sexes or ethnicities are rooted in biology, or blood, or some such underlying essence. Such differences encompass inner qualities—temperament, intellect, character—as well as outward, physical ones. Children come to these beliefs on their own. They do not need to be taught that race and sex and ethnicity are natural kinds; they know these things themselves. Children are ready, one might say, for ethnocentrism.

As we mature we become more sophisticated and discerning about matters of group identity, yet very, very few of us ever entirely cast off our sense of belonging to and depending upon our ingroup; the group is a critical part of our sense of who we are.

Acute sensitivity to threats to the integrity, uniformity and conformity of the ingroup lies at the heart of authoritarianism, as Stenner conceives it. Intrusion of individuals who do not conform to the ingroup standards, behaviors or attitudes that deviate from strong ingroup norms, or leaders who hesitate to use strong measures against threats to group integrity or conformity are examples of what Stenner terms “normative threats,” sure to excite authoritarian responses among those so predisposed.

In such matters even the best of theories is of little value unless it can be validated through real-world data, and Stenner devoted a great deal of effort to this. Altemeyer’s RWA scale was of very limited value for her purposes. Not only was it specific to Americans of a certain era but it largely depended on asking direct questions about the kinds of attitudes she wanted to be able to predict on the basis of her concept of authoritarian predisposition. She needed an index of the predisposition itself. What she devised is breathtakingly simple and subtle. Stenner’s  scale of authoritarian predisposition derives from just four related expressions of values in childrearing. Here is the question she asks:

Although there are a number of qualities that people feel that children should have, every person thinks that some are more important than others. I am going to read you pairs of desirable qualities. Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have:

  • Independence, or Respect for elders
  • Curiosity, or Good manners
  • Obedience, or Self-reliance
  • Being considerate, or Well-behaved?

One beauty of this is that it does not depend on time or place. People have been rearing children to live in society time out of mind. You could expect to get a meaningful answer from virtually any human who has lived since the development of languages complex enough to permit the question to be expressed, anywhere in the world.

Moreover, this question (or questions very close to it) has actually been asked in a variety of social-science oriented surveys fielded over the past few decades, all over the world, so that a great deal of data is potentially available for analysis.

(And I observe that when you know someone reasonably well it is frequently possible to make a pretty good estimate of where the person’s priorities would lie, even if circumstances do not permit asking directly.)

On page 128 of her book Stenner asks, “[I]s it generally true that intolerance of difference is better explained by authoritarianism than by any other variable?” Drawing on the multiyear global data of the World Values Survey she comes to an unambiguous answer (page 133): “[A]uthoritarianism is the primary determinant of general intolerance of difference worldwide.” This is pretty sweeping, but it is consistent with the conclusions of many predecessors for decades before.

Stenner essentially is saying that ethnocentrism and racism are simply particular effects of authoritarianism. Kinder and Kam, however, disagree respectfully but strongly. Ethnocentrism, they believe, is a predisposition that is related to authoritarianism, but largely distinct from it. (pp. 225-27.)

K&K see two components to ethnocentrism. First is ingroup favoritism. This is a low bar; most of us have some feelings of comradeship and affection toward members of our ingroup. At the national level it’s expressed as moderate loyalty and patriotism. It’s also seen in attachment to sports teams, almae maters, home towns, etc.

Ethnocentrism becomes problematic when it extends to outgroup hostility. Ethnocentrism per se involves more or less evenhanded hostility toward all outgroups.

Racism, of course, is virulent hostility toward one or more particular outgroups, defined in terms of perceived racial difference. (Note that real anti-Semites regard Jews as somehow “racially” defined, and similarly with anti-Muslims. At one time the Irish were held to be “racially” different from Scots, which is a good illustration of the ultimate absurdity of racial distinctions.) In practice, K&K find (pp. 206-15), essentially all racists are ethnocentric, but the reverse does not always hold.

To test and support these theories K&K have devised a measure of ethnocentrism, or rather two families of measures. The primary measure is based on unfounded pejorative stereotyping of outgroups, such as notions that blacks are “sneaky,” Jews are “pushy,” etc. (Of course there are some stereotypes that are not inherently negative and for which there is at least some real basis, such as the idea that blacks have dark complexions or Asians have epicanthic folds, but this is not what K&K mean, even when the evidence-based stereotypes are not actually as universal as many may imagine.)

Their secondary measure is negative reported feeling tone regarding outgroups. A main attraction of both these measures is again that they can be calculated from answers to widely-used social science opinion research surveys.

A very important question regarding both authoritarianism and ethnocentrism is where do they come from. Is it the case, as lyricist Oscar Hammerstein wrote ironically in his hit South Pacific song, “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught,” that

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate

That’s more or less what social scientists assumed until relatively recently; while there was disagreement on details, ethnocentrism and authoritarianism were generally seen as learned traits. But Stenner, Kinder and Kam all argue persuasively that this isn’t so, that these predispositions are very largely genetic. If children tend to follow their parents in these matters it’s at least as much because of genetic inheritance as it is from learning. K&K rely heavily on twin studies—the gold standard for establishing genetic heritability. Stenner depends on more indirect measures but compiles enough of them to make a good case. It’s all quite consistent with a range of recent findings that stable personality-related characteristics are substantially genetic—not in any rigidly deterministic sense but as a strong tendency (see K&K 254n52). In roughly half of cases the child inherits the parents’ levels of ethnocentrism and authoritarianism or very nearly so even if separated from the family at birth. “[T]he transmission of ethnocentrism from one generation to the next would seem to have more to do with genetic inheritance than with social learning.” (K&K 63-64). And pari passu, it would seem, probably for authoritarianism as well.

Because Stenner and K&K both have good statistical measures of their subjects, K&K (writing later) are able to show that ethnocentrism and authoritarianism are not the same thing. They are related, “congenial,” and somewhat correlated, but distinct. (pp. 64, 86-87, 225-27) This has to be borne in mind when reading some of Stenner’s results; she is not separately controlling for ethnocentrism (for which she had no separate measure) and thus finds it easy to misinterpret her results as showing that it’s an aspect of authoritarianism, or largely so, just as many social scientists had long (but incorrectly) believed. The two predispositions often act in parallel (and perhaps mutually reinforcing) ways, but sometimes pull in different directions.

Both authoritarianism and ethnocentrism seem to be pretty widely viewed as distinctly conservative or right-wing traits. The title Altemeyer gave to his widely-used index, “Right-Wing Authoritarianism,” speaks for itself. Where this leaves Josef Stalin and Fidel Castro is a bit of a mystery to me and indeed I’ve known people who were generally identified as “liberals” by themselves and others who to me seemed distinctly authoritarianism. Nor is there much question that many of the laboring left have been pretty hostile to immigrants. And a liberal icon, President Woodrow Wilson, was a notable racist and segregationist.

Taking the question from the other end, Stenner argues that authoritarianism is only one of three main strands of conservativism. In addition to presenting her case at length in her book, she has published a separate article,

Stenner, Karen, “Three Kinds of ‘Conservatism’,” Psychological Inquiry 20, 2-3 (2009): 142–59.

She opens the article by stating,

When people use the terms conservative or rightwing they typically mean one (or problematically, more) of the following: an enduring inclination to favor stability and preservation of the status quo over social change (what I call “status quo conservatism”); a persistent preference for a free market and limited government intervention in the economy (“laissez-faire conservatism”); or an enduring predisposition, in all matters political and social, to favor obedience and conformity (oneness and sameness) over freedom and difference.

The last predisposition, for oneness and sameness, is of course what she calls authoritarianism (although in an aside she remarks that she would be content to call it simply “difference-ism,” if this would suffice to drop the burden of historical and ideological baggage associated with “authoritarianism”). She sees authoritarianism’s traits as “obedience to authority, moral absolutism, intolerance and punitiveness toward dissidents and deviants” (but would continue on to include the “racial and ethnic prejudice” that K&K show to be more the province of ethnocentrism).

(Interestingly, K&K find, on pp. 59-60, that “Americans who think of themselves as conservative are a bit more ethnocentric, on average, than are those who think of themselves as liberal—though the difference is tiny.”)

Stenner argues that these three kinds of “conservatism” do not form a psychological unit but rather are “packaged” together by political and media opinion elites in response to their own functional as well as psychological imperative to array political views on linear left-right scale. She sees no deeper forces joining these three: “neither aversion to social change nor rejection of market intervention implies, necessitates, or tends to produce generalized intolerance of different races, beliefs, and behaviors.”

That is to say that in Stenner’s scheme of things it is open to other opinion elites to pry apart the three (or four) components of “conservatism” to repackage them in alternative arrangements.

It’s likely, I would take it, that most liberals would much prefer not to try to reharness authoritarianism or ethnocentrism to other ends but to diminish them, persuading those affected (or afflicted) by them of the virtues of moderation and inclusiveness. Superficially Stenner offers some hope along these lines, as do Kinder and Kam (pp. 65-66), with their findings that authoritarianism and ethnocentrism are negatively associated with education: the more educated tend to be less authoritarian and ethnocentric.

But the effects of education seem quite limited at best, and may be largely illusory. There appear to be good reasons to believe that the correlation of education with lower scores on authoritarianism and ethnocentrism may have considerably more to do with the kinds of people who seek and accept education than with the effects of the educative process. Moreover, the data offer no guidance regarding what kinds of education might have the desired effect. Does engineering or medical or military or physical education serve? Or must we insist that everyone study social science? (It might be a good thing in some ways, but I cannot envision it as a practical program.)

Given these questions and the underlying genetic heritability of these predispositions, it seems to me that there can be no alternative but to accept them as latent, at least at some level, in substantial portions of our population—conceivably even in ourselves. (Kinder and Kam dampen expectations regarding “reform” of ethnocentrism on pp. 227-28.) If so the implication is clear that those who aspire to political leadership must either build the strength to meet and defeat authoritarianism and ethnocentrism in direct power contests or else find means to keep ethnocentric and authoritarian concerns within limits that our democracy can tolerate. It is important in this regard to remember that these are by no means fixed and eternally active traits but rather predispositions can remain passive and latent as long as they are not activated by perceptions of threat. As Kinder & Kam observe (p. 201), “Without a clear and demonizable adversary, ethnocentrism never becomes engaged.” (Also see K&K 96, 163-79 regarding activation.)

But what about demagogues? No matter what, some will object, a charismatic demagogue can always stride to the stage and conjure threats to activate ethnocentric and authoritarian fears. This is not a concern lightly to be dismissed, surely. But it’s hard to see how we can outlaw demagoguery without summoning even greater threats to our political order.

The founders of the American political order did an amazing job of understanding the threats, based on nothing but study of history and their own experience, and on that foundation installed mechanisms of defense that continue to serve us very well. But in our far larger and more complex polity today we need to harness the insights and tools of modern social science on a much greater and more intensive scale to understand the real nature of all the predispositions and traits that can influence political action and also to understand the various political vulnerabilities they introduce and what further means can be used to limit and constrain them when they threaten to unbalance or overwhelm our democratic institutions.

Belligerence and Altruism

In earlier posts I’ve mentioned the book,

Bowles, Samuel, and Herbert Gintis, A Cooperative Species: Human
Reciprocity and Its Evolution (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011).

Because I believe the book is so important and valuable, however, I want to devote this entire post to it. This is adapted from the text of the review I posted on

*   *   *

This is a book with a complex context, and it is best to understand something of that context in order to get a clear view of the book. Briefly, Bowles and Gintis have set themselves to resolve one of the most vexing issues in evolutionary theory, that of whether the widespread human trait of altruism toward those who are not close kin can have arisen through natural selection, and if so just how. To do so they must wage war on some views that approach dogma, and they gird and armor themselves with mathematics and factual detail. All this does not make for easy reading, but it is very worth the effort. And it is not necessary to trace all of the details to get a great deal out of it.

In the popular view, the theory of natural selection implies that nice guys always finish last, that it is the strong and ruthless who are fittest, not the cooperative and altruistic. The hyperaggressive Wall St. sociopath is seen as evolution’s ideal type. It would seem to follow that altruism cannot be the product of evolution, and thus that natural selection cannot entirely account for the nature of humankind.

Darwin understood all this quite clearly and it troubled him not a little. In a famous passage in The Descent of Man he acknowledged, “It is extremely doubtful whether the offspring of the more sympathetic and benevolent parents, or of those who were the most faithful to their comrades, would be reared in greater numbers than the children of selfish and treacherous parents belonging to the same tribe. He who was ready to sacrifice his life, as many a savage has been, rather than betray his comrades, would often leave no offspring to inherit his noble nature. The bravest men, who were always willing to come to the front in war, and who freely risked their lives for others, would on an average perish in larger numbers than other men.”

Darwin argued, however, that the contribution made by the “sympathetic and benevolent” to the survival and success of the group would outweigh the individual advantages of the “selfish and treacherous” : “Let it be borne in mind how all-important in the never-ceasing wars of savages, fidelity and courage must be…. A tribe rich in the above qualities would spread and be victorious over other tribes: but in the course of time it would, judging from all past history, be in its turn overcome by some other tribe still more highly endowed. Thus the social and moral qualities would tend slowly to advance and be diffused throughout the world.” Thus was born the concept of group selection.

(Inter alia, it is worth noting Darwin’s use of value-laden terms, such as “sympathetic,” “benevolent,” “selfish,” and “treacherous,” standing in testimony of the underlying strength of our inbred biases. Attempts to erase or reverse these polarities, such as that undertaken by the Nazis, have met with notably little success.)

But nearly four decades ago, group selection died a messy and protracted death, a victim of mathematical analysis of natural selection’s mechanisms, the then-new understanding of the molecular basis for transmission of the traits on which natural selection acts, and deeper understanding of the heredity of social insects. I’ve heard more than one biologist or mathematical biologist say flatly that “group selection is all rubbish.” (For a summary and scorecard see Mark E. Borrello, “The Rise, Fall and Resurrection of Group Selection,” Endeavour 29, No. 1 (Mar 2005): 43-47.)

In reality, however, it never was that absolute. As the great mathematical biologist John Maynard Smith put it, “The terms group selection should be confined to cases in which the group … is the unit of selection. This requires that groups be able to ‘reproduce,’ … and that groups should go extinct. … Group selection can maintain ‘altruistic’ alleles—i.e., alleles which reduce individual fitness but increase the fitness of groups carrying them. The conditions under which this can happen are stringent, so that the main debate concerns whether the process has had evolutionarily important consequences.” [“Group Selection,” Quarterly Review of Biology 51, No. 2 (Jun 1976): 277-83.]

Bowles and Gintis now return to this debate fortified both with new models and new knowledge of the biology and behaviors of our ancestors. The increased puissance of the models derives both from several decades more thought by mathematical biologists armed with the insights provided by extensive computationally-intensive simulation of a kind not feasible in the 1970s. The knowledge of human descent has been augmented by extensive archaeological discoveries, elucidated by powerful technologies for exploiting them, together with the entirely new study of human and animal genomes. The book provides a very extensive tour of all of this.

For all our gains in knowledge, there remain huge gaps in our picture of our ancestors and their lives. We still must rely a great deal on inferences that seem plausible in terms of the available evidence but could very well be wrong. It is not possible to say with certainty whether Maynard Smith’s stringent conditions were in fact met in the course of human prehistory. Nevertheless, Bowles and Gintis make out a very colorable case that they were met, and that group selection thus endowed our species with its remarkable altruistic and cooperative tendencies. (They prefer to call it multi-level selection; while this seems more precise and descriptive I am not optimistic that it will become standard.)

As an aside, I should remark that this is a field whose terms, such as “altruism” and “strong reciprocity,” have an unfortunate tendency to launch some people into hyperbolic rhetorical orbits, as we see in some of the reviews here. But this is really a book about behaviors and mechanisms, leaving us free to take our own views on values.

Bowles and Gintis, together and separately, have published many papers on the subjects treated in the book but so far as I can see the book very largely subsumes all their published work.

While I rather imagine that Bowles and Gintis have more than once felt lonely in their efforts, the question of group selection and its influence on the development of altruism has become quite a hot topic, with those taking the positive view having the wind at their back on the whole, at least for now. The evidence for this includes several other books that bear mention. Edward O. Wilson, who was one of those who argued most effectively against group selection from the biological perspective four decades ago, now has published The Social Conquest of Earth, which many of his sometime admirers see as shocking apostasy. Wilson goes briefly over the same ground as Bowles and Gintis but concentrates much of his attention on the case of social insects, his area of deepest expertise.

Wilson’s book was preceded by a widely noted and very controversial paper which he co-authored with a prominent younger mathematical biologist, Martin Nowak, who now (with a co-author) has published SuperCooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed. This is a non-mathematical exploration of the insights from the mathematical modeling, with references to correlated biology.

Finally, I should mention Christopher Boehm’s Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame. Boehm is a social anthropologist, not a biologist at all, who takes up another argument offered by Darwin, that peer pressure and reputation played a decisive role in the evolution of altruism. Boehm does not offer any of the formal game-theoretic models that Bowles and Gintis use (and that underlie Nowak’s book), and Bowles and Gintis do seek to use models to deny reputation a place in altruism’s evolution. I do not see them as having entirely undermined Boehm’s points and I suggest we will see more on the subject.

No doubt we will see much more on the whole issue of altruism’s evolution. Surely we have yet to hear the last of the anti-group selection camp, and there is ample room in any event for further discoveries and resulting arguments. But this book seems bound to have continuing importance. It certainly is true that the book is anything but light reading. It’s a deep, dense book, but it well repays the effort involved.

*   *   *

There have been times and cultures which exalted the belligerent  side of our natures; my Celtic and Nordic ancestors among them. Today, however, the majority of us likely would prefer to imagine that we embody the altruistic side without the belligerent. I believe, however, that a close examination of ourselves and others will reveal that the berserker is there, asleep perhaps, but ready to answer the bloody call.

The illegal cat: A moral dialogue

It was a sunny day in early spring when I visited Robert in his home. We are old friends but as often with friendships we had our disagreements. He kept four cats and required scarcely anything of them. I had tried to convince him that he was undermining their moral fibre by allowing them to sponge off him, but he in his amiable way simply turned aside my admonitions. I said nothing of it as he greeted me and led me to his living room, with its glass doors opening out onto an expansive lawn running down to the edge of the woods.

Then the cats filed in, one by one: little Jemima, amiable Munkstrap, placid Jennyanydots, and finally the dignified Bustopher Jones.

I saw a flash of orange at the woods’ edge. Jennyanydots sprang to unaccustomed alertness. “Look, look!,” she hissed in agitation. “There he is again!”

(I must explain here that I am condensing the narrative a bit. Lacking Robert’s fluency in Catalogue, I rely on his translation from the cat speech. And as I discovered, in reality cats are as prone to talking over one another as we.)

“Oh, the poor thing,” Jemima said.

“Disgusting!” Bustopher Jones yelped. “Something should be done.”

An orange cat emerged from the woods, looked about, and started toward us across the lawn.

Plainly alarmed, Jennyanydots yowled, “He’s heading toward us! What shall we do?”

“Now, now,” Munkstrap purred soothingly, “there’s no need to panic.”

“He just wants a little milk and some company,” Jemima said. “I feel it.”

“I know this cat,” Bustopher responded sternly. “An illegal, criminal cat probably from Caxico, or perhaps Cata Rica, or even Catzil. Someplace with awful, disgusting habits where they have no decent behavior. Look: you can see he has no idea how to lick himself properly. Disgusting!” he repeated.

The orange cat certainly did look rather ragged, and distinctly lean.

“Simply because he’s here uninvited doesn’t mean he’s a criminal,” Munkstrap remonstrated.

“He’s here to intrude and disrupt our family, and that’s criminal enough for me,” Bustopher shot back.

“I agree with Bustopher,” Jennyanydots said. “He should be put over the border into Caxico.”

“We don’t know that he’s really from Caxico,” Jemima objected.

“It’s where he belongs anyway,” was Jennyanydots’  scornful reply. “Certainly not here.”

“But look at him,” cried Jemima. “See how forlorn he is. Is he not one of Bast’s kits, just as we are? Is he not as deserving of her bounty as we?”

“Do you want him lapping from your milk dish?” the larger female shot back.

“Don’t worry about milk,” Robert put in. “I just got more and plenty of cat food and litter as well.”

Bustopher Jones snorted and Jennyanydots sniffed. “It’s our house and family,” they chorused. “Not his.”

“Oh come now,” I said. I had not meant to intervene, but felt driven to. “It’s Robert’s to decide, after all. It was his grandfather who built the house that shelters you and his mother who started the business that pays the milk bills. You are but guests here.”

Jennyanydots snarled, a shocking sound from her, and bared her teeth at me. She looked rather ridiculous, to tell the truth.

Bustopher Jones drew himself up and shot out his chest. “The milk is not the issue, nor the food. Worthy as he may be in Bast’s eyes and much as we no doubt owe to Robert and his ancestors, it really is our family and our house, just as Jennyanydots says, just as much as it’s Robert’s. Have we not remained on the alert all these many years, prowling the house constantly to patrol for intruders? Have we not stood always ready to ward off mice, rats, dogs, and even more fearsome beasts like werewolves and unicorns? Who could be more faithful? What does the orange one know of all this?”

“Oh, Bustopher,” Jemima chuckled, “You haven’t caught a mouse in years.”

“The mice aren’t the issue,” Jennyanydots snorted. “It’s the community.”

The orange one had by now reached the door and stood with his nose practically pressed against the glass, looking in at the elysian world within.

“Think what he might be able to bring,” Munkstrap entreated. “A whole new world of experiences and ideas, refreshing and reinvigorating.”

Jennyanydots was having none of it. “Disgusting and corrupting, more like.”

“You watch,” Bustopher Jones admonished, “A horde of others just like him would soon follow. There’s never just one. They will descend on us with their raucous, uncouth behavior and bizarre, filthy habits. They will want to take over the house and the patrolling of it for themselves and displace us. They know nothing of us and our community and will show us no respect.”

“He would learn our ways, surely,” Munkstrap responded.

“Let him learn our ways first,” Jennyanydots shot back.

“Can we not have some compassion?” Jemima pleaded. “We have so much and he so little.”

“And what of all the others?” Bustopher demanded. “If we somehow are obliged to open our doors to one why not to a dozen, or a score? We should be submerged!”

“I just want to keep my home,” Jennyanydots wailed. “Is that so much to ask?”

The hall clock struck the hour. I drew my watch from its pocket and found that the time had quite gotten away from me.

“Oh, dear,” I said. “I must run. I shall be late.”

I took my leave of the cats as I rose. Robert accompanied me to the door. I glanced back to see the orange cat, now on his haunches, still peering in.

“I’m very sorry to leave you at such a moment,” I told him.

“It’s very vexing, very much so.”

“What shall you do?” I asked.

“I don’t know. I cannot impose a solution. That would be wrong, and leave much ill-feeling. We must come to a common view.”

I did my best to give him encouragement, but my heart was heavy with foreboding.

The Outlook for Russia…

is not bright.

Like everyone else who values our democratic institutions I am eager for strong measures to prevent Russian intervention in our elections. (It is reported that many people, most of whom identify as Republicans, express indifference concerning Russian meddling, but I find it hard to believe that this is literally so.) And I feel Putin’s brutal aggression against neighbors and the domestic opposition to be alarming and threatening.

But the awfulness of the current régime aside, I wish only the best for Russia and her people, and I see this as no more than sensible. There truly is no essential reason for conflict between the United States and Russia and a prosperous and stable Russia is really in our interest. This article’s further confirmation that Russia is caught in an economic trap she shows no signs of getting out of is anything but good news.

None of the preceding four U.S. administrations has done well on policy toward Russia, and I feel a lot of anxiety about what this one is likely to do.

A Moral Issue Too

We are above all a cooperative species, with a unique capacity to work creatively together to meet common challenges. We can be highly altruistic, ready to extend aid to others of our species (or even other species) at a cost to ourselves.

And we can also be extremely fierce and even brutal when we feel threatened.

As shown by a brilliant analysis by Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis, these capacities are all closely linked in our evolutionary history. During the millions of years our ancestors spent living in small bands of hunter-gatherers it was groups composed of individuals with a high capacity for close and unselfish cooperation in the face of conflict with other groups (and other extreme threats) that were most likely to prevail and prosper, thus assuring the survival of their members (even though some might fall in war) and the propagation of their genes. By this means these instincts became deeply embedded in our genes. In a previous post, I described how Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel have found that a great deal of the variation in human moral values can be explained in terms of two polarities, traditional vs. secular-rational and survival vs. self-expression. When we feel under acute threat we tend to band closely together with those we feel we can most depend on to combat it with all our energy. But when we feel secure we can be expansive and generous.

In 1780, John Adams summed it up famously as

I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine. *

(Note the lack of reference to the studies of daughters, even though he was writing to his wonderful wife.)

Very closely related to the survival vs. self-expression variable is what Inglehart in earlier work identified as materialism vs. postmaterialism. People at the survival/materialism end of the scale are more concerned with ensuring that they and those close to them will have adequate resources and defending against threats to those resources, while at the other end people feel there is plenty for all those of good will. When conscious of threat we tend to look with suspicion on outsiders and prefer that matters be in the hands of those we feel we can trust in very difficult circumstances. But when we can relax our vigilance we are inclined to see value in allowing everyone to pursue his or her own vision and values and to favor democratic governance.

Perhaps the descendants of John Adams who came closest to realizing his elysian vision were those of the seventh generation, men and women of our own time, for those of us of a certain age in the United States and elsewhere in the West who passed our adolescence and adulthood in the decades following World War II knew a time of general personal and economic security only occasionally matched in human history. Sure enough, this era brought a sharp advance of self-expression (or postmaterialist) values, expressed most dramatically and colorfully by the hippies and flower children. Bliss was it to be alive, largely freed of need to struggle for survival.

(There were of course little blemishes like the Vietnam War. But the unprecedented breadth and fury of the opposition to the war only proves the point.)

But as the flowers have faded and the hippies have come due for hip replacements a chill has struck. Not only the crash of 2008 but the long stagnation or even decline in real incomes for most people not at the very pinnacle of the economic heap. Self-expression values have retreated like the glaciers before the heat of survival anxieties. The Sensual and the Dark come once more.

In an article in Perspectives on Politics 15, no. 2 (2017) , “Trump and the Xenophobic Populist Parties.” Inglehart and Pippa Norris argue that this trend lies at the root of the rise of Trumpism and xenophobic populism more generally, not only on our shores but in Europe. The polyglot, multispectral immigrants who seemed to offer excitement and rejuvenation in halcyon times now take on a dark and threatening aspect for many.

As the two authors emphasize, it is entirely possible to be in easy and secure economic circumstances oneself and nevertheless be swept up in a general tide toward more survival/materialism values. Indeed, it is perhaps those who feel they have much to lose who are more likely to vote for xenophobic populist movements.

Inglehart and Norris see the materialism vs postmaterialism polarity as separate from the traditional left-right spectrum that has dominated politics in the West since the time of the French Revolution. The traditional left-right variable is fundamentally economic: The “haves,” on the right, sought to preserve the existing distribution of wealth and political power and their favored position in it while the “have-nots” sought to overturn it so they could get more. With plenty of people but little power the left wanted to promote democracy so their potential voting strength could be brought to bear. By the same token, the right resisted democratization.

But postmodernists, although they were most often affluent, tended also to favor broadened democracy, bolstering the laboring-class left. With more resources, better education, and higher social status the affluent postmodernists became the face of the left, first in the United States and then in Europe. While they agreed with the democratizing goals of the old left, however, and largely with its redistributionist aims, they also had other objectives not so widely shared by the laboring left. The materialist white working men who formed the base of the traditional left wanted a better economic and political deal for themselves and their mates, and were at length persuaded to stand together in their demands on behalf of the entire population of white working men. But they never felt that the political power they had gained was any more than sufficient to serve their own needs and they were loath to see it expended on behalf of rights they scarcely understood for people with whom they felt little fellowship or commonality of interest. The moral foundation of the left’s  fusion of materialist labor and affluent postmaterialism existed under constant tension.

The economic circumstances of the past few decades have sharpened the tension, spreading materialism at the expense of postmaterialism. Postmaterialist values are far from dead, but also farther from universal acceptance than they’ve been in some decades. Many experience acute survival-related anxieties which lead them to heightened xenophobia. In the view of Inglehart and Norris this has led to what is effectively a split of the left, with the formation of separate xenophobic factions dominated by materialists whose moral outrage at immigration has estranged them from a traditional economic left now heavily influenced by the postmaterialism they reject.

In the United States many ardent xenophobes turned to the Republicans, voting for Donald Trump and no doubt supplying his very slender margin of victory. It’s a remarkable alliance, as the Republicans are the traditional party of the economic right and if anything have moved even more in that direction in recent years. Many xenophobic materialists have invested their hopes, however, in promises or at least intimations by Trump and some other Republicans to do well by them on economic issues. In their moral fervor regarding immigration, in fact, many chose to believe that Trump would fulfill promises that were frankly and provably impossible, or very strongly at odds with Republican views. But as news interviews and polls show, as as one would of course expect, confirmation bias is leading most of these people to retain their faith notwithstanding the evidences of incompetence and outright bad faith that have come so far. How much of this support will last until 2020 or even 2018 remains to be seen.

There are many more important implications, but I’ll leave those for another posting.


* P.S. I note that where I studied mathematics and philosophy. before turning to politics and war, my son has devoted himself to the study of poker. What John Adams would have thought of this I cannot imagine, but in our present world poker is arguably the most valuable of all these topics.

A moral issue

Two hundred years ago it seems that practically everything was a moral issue; that’s why they were able to hang poor wretches for petty crimes and then sit down to enjoy a hearty meal, content that they had done their moral duty. In most of the South, clergymen preached that slavery was God’s will, buttressing this by extensive biblical quotations. In wide swaths of the North their counterparts preached that it was an abomination in the sight of the Lord, with their own scriptural quotations. Hellfire and brimstone awaited those who contravened God’s will, whatever it was.

Around a century ago or so, something seemed to break. Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street, Babbitt, and Elmer Gantry announced an age when confident assertions of morality were liable to challenge. People had sex much as they always had, but were less secretive and ashamed. Hemlines rose like airplanes. Some got divorced and were not ostracized.

It was the First World War, it was the rise of urbanization, it was all the immoral immigrants, it was devilish machines, it was God’s testing of the American people. In any event, moralizers were as likely to be greeted with derision as with solemn respect.

To an extent, the urge to moral condemnation found other channels. Totalitarian Fascism was all but universally condemned as wholly evil, at least after the Fascists made war on us. And of course Godless Communism had always been totally immoral. But domestically, moralizers were fighting a rear-guard action.

But now moralism seems to be making a comeback. Abortion of course is the headline example, but there are plenty of other issues that many see in moral terms. If you feel uncomfortable with people of other races or ethnicities you’re a bad, evil, wicked person. Similarly if you want to deprive Americans of their sacred right to have, carry, and use guns as they see fit. Families split apart over the issue of whether the children should be immunized against communicable diseases.

(To be clear, I’m not in any way either condemning or praising people for opposing [or supporting] abortion, discrimination, gun control, or immunization; I’m only illustrating the prevalence of issues that many people take to be matters of absolute right and wrong, not subject to examination of the evidence or reasoned discussion.)

Morality is expressed in values, and for the last several decades a worldwide alliance of social scientists has been studying values across cultures, and finding some very significant things. It’s called the World Values Survey and ever since the 1980s it has been asking thousands of people around the world probing questions about their values, producing a massive database—big data about what people value. The database is available online for analysis by anyone who has the interest (and industrial-strength statistical software such as SPSS, PSPP, or R).

The WVS provided the basis for a very intensive analysis by Professors Ronald Inglehart (who founded the WVS and led it for a number of years) and Christian Welzel (who now leads it): Modernization, Cultural Change, and Democracy: The Human Development Sequence (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005). I have written a review essay, “A Scientific Examination of Modernization.”

Through intensive statistical analysis of the data from responses from tens of thousands of individuals across dozens of societies over a two-decade span, Inglehart and Welzel were able to bring together a profound and compelling picture of the forces and processes that lie at the root of democracy. I cannot begin to do it justice here and even my 6,400 word review essay no more than scratches the surface. (There is also much valuable information to be found by browsing through the WVS Web site.)

By the time the book was written more than 165,000 respondents had each answered more than 200 questions about their values. Naturally, there was huge variation in the results, But analysis of the data showed that a great deal of the variation was accounted for by two scales or axes: what Inglehart and Welzel refer to as the traditional vs. secular-rational and survival vs. self-expression axes.

Traditionalists, in Inglehart and Welzel’s definition, tend to put their faith in God, established authority, and their “tribe” much more strongly than secular-rationalists, who see the course of events as being directed by human rather than divine will and view inherited norms and values with skepticism more than reverence. Traditionalists raise their children to be obedient while secular-rationalists want theirs to be independent-minded go-getters. (Both are frequently disappointed with the results.)

Traditionalists dominate in static agrarian societies while dynamic industrial societies tend to breed secular-rationalists; there aren’t many traditionalists in the upper reaches of Silicon Valley. Most industrial societies tilt strongly toward secular-rationalism but the United States, almost uniquely, is more closely balanced between traditionalism and secular-rationalism.

A good example of the tension in action is provided by Prohibition. It was enacted when America was predominately rural but as urbanization and industrialization spread the forces against it gained strength and it was ultimately repealed in 1933. Kansas, Oklahoma, and Mississippi however remained “dry” for a decade or more beyond 1933, and the Bible Belt has a great many dry counties or counties that are dry except for some urban areas that have opted to allow alcohol sales. Sunday “blue laws” are common throughout rural areas. There’s debate about how effective prohibition is in reducing alcohol consumption, particularly local prohibition, but its supporters generally see it as a moral rather than pragmatic issue.

Today we see the traditionalist vs. secular-rationalist tension being played out again in prohibitions of marijuana, of other drugs, and of abortion, as well as in firearms rights. In all of these matters the traditionalist advocates see their positions in moral terms while their secular-rationalist adversaries view them with scorn as blinkered and irrational. It all makes for pretty uncomfortable politics.

And survival vs. self-expression? That’s material for another post.

The water torture drips on

I seem to have been right in thinking that it was not possible for President Trump to simply endure the steady drip, drip, … of stories about the Russia connection. But my concerns about the the risk of a violently destructive response have abated a little in light of recent developments. Lashing out with tweetstorms at scattered targets in hopes of regaining tempo and raging at his staff continues to be about the extent of his repertoire—so far. No doubt this has pretty much the desired effect with most Republicans, carpings from the likes of Sens. Lindsey Graham and Ben Sasse not withstanding.

But will it satisfy his inner needs? Perhaps, but I would guess not. I think he needs if not adulation then at least sullen submission from pretty much everyone, and that is going to take a great deal more fear than he has thus far been able generate. Many persist in seeing him as at least faintly ridiculous, and for a man too thin-skinned to face the ordeal of a White House Correspondents Dinner or Gridiron Club roast that has to be agonizing.

I can see no way in which the Russia issue can be resolved in a manner satisfactory to Mr. Trump. Indeed it’s not hard to imagine that the situation will grow worse from his perspective. I know some who believe that he will somehow crack under the pressure, but I question this. I can see no route for him to yield short of total disintegration of his fragile personality, followed presumably by suicide.

Possibly he will simply continue to insist on his version of reality and dismiss and ignore the doubters. But if the doubts come to consume his administration then the hermetic seal will become progressively more difficult to maintain.

Will he seek to take up arms against his foes by one means or another? As I’ve observed before, he has no squadristi or Sturmabteilungen ready to hand. But the military, police, and security services are the natural home of those with authoritarian personalities and President Trump’s combination of authoritarian tendencies of his own and much legitimate power are ideally calculated to appeal to them. Anyone who has spent much time around these organizations knows that their members get their information and views very largely from Fox News and right-wing talk radio.

But of course their leaders tend to have broader visions and greater circumspection. It’s also true that Mr. Trump, having successfully avoided any experience of combat, is much less hardened to violence and its risks than were men like Mussolini and especially Hitler. He is a practiced bully but at least in adulthood his bullying has been virtually all bluster.

In the meantime, my sense is that the water torture really is very slowly spreading doubts even among the faithful, undermining his potential strength. So perhaps he will hesitate to resort to force until he has too little left to resort to.

So can we hope. So had we better.

Promises, Promises

CNN has a poignant piece of reportage on people in Michigan who voted for Donald Trump in the foredoomed hope that he would make the good times roll again with an abundance of well-paid manufacturing jobs. They are good, decent folks who work hard (whenever they have the opportunity) and don’t knowingly harm others. They’ve arranged their lives to minimize their need for system 2 analytical thinking, just like most people do, and had no independent basis for evaluating the realism of Mr. Trump’s promises. Now they await their reward, which in due course they will get good and hard, just as most of the other Trump voters will.

Of course Mr. Trump had no clear and definite idea of how he was going to summon forth the jobs and other wonderful things he promised. He will discover that his various handlers and courtiers have no better ideas than he. How long the faith of the faithful will persist remains to be seen, but it is sure that massive and intensive searches by very smart people have failed to reveal any plausible means to bring back large numbers of $30/hr manufacturing jobs, or of creating a healthcare payments system that is at once better and cheaper than ACA, or for delivering on any of the other myriad glittering promises that helped bring Mr. Trump to office (along with darker forces).

In short Mr. Trump made a lot of promises he didn’t know how to keep. For the most part, it seems to me, he made them sincerely. Although he is by no means unintelligent his knowledge is exceptionally limited. The “genuine” quality that many ordinary people feel is strong in him reflects the fact that he, like them, avoids critical analytical thinking. Not only avoids it but despises it and those who engage in it. And simply because he knows so little, how little he knows does not trouble him; it is the natural order of things in his universe. After all he has no idea how to construct a large building and yet he has regularly called them into existence. And if some of these projects involved a lot of unforeseen trouble, surely it was no fault of his. So why shouldn’t he equally be able to bring back plentiful good jobs, create a great healthcare system, and generally make America great again?

Of course Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton (whom he despises for their wonkishness among other qualities) are very distinctly given to analytical system 2 thought. Yet they too made promises they didn’t know how to keep, promises no one knew how to keep. And while their promises were less sweeping, Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama may very possibly have made them with less sincerity than Mr. Trump did. We even heard from people who saw real merit in Mr. Trump’s greater sincerity, notwithstanding their appreciation of the hollowness of his promises.

Unfulfillable commitments have become a prominent fixture of our political discourse. (Was it always thus? I’m not sure, but it does seem to go back a long way.) It has made the public cynical about political cynicism. Many long for a sense of genuineness in their politicians, even if it means that the candidate is a simpleton. His actor’s polished ability to project a sense of sincerity was perhaps Ronald Reagan’s greatest asset—greater than anything owing to analytical system 2 thought, surely.

And perhaps it’s all the public really requires. I hear constantly from people who repine for the wonderful leadership of Reagan and refer to the terrific economic achievements of the Reagan Era, referring to golden trends entirely at variance with what the economic statistics. Perhaps Mr. Trump’s genuineness (f such it is) will be enough to divert attention from his all-but certain  failures to deliver the cornucopia of good jobs, better and cheaper health care, and other promised benefits.