David Roberts has penned perhaps the most insightful piece about the current political crisis in America I’ve read recently, “With impeachment, America’s epistemic crisis has arrived.” It follows up his 2017 piece on America’s epistemic crisis about which I wrote previously. As Roberts writes:
That crisis involves Americans’ growing inability, not just to cooperate, but even to learn and know the same things, to have a shared understanding of reality. We have sorted ourselves into polarized factions living in different worlds, not just of values, but of facts.
In his previous piece, he wondered what would happen if Mueller offered “clear, incontrovertible evidence of Trump’s guilt” but Republicans prevented their supporters from discovering this truth and thus “the truth was revealed but it had no power, no effect at all …”
Of course, while Mueller’s report was extraordinarily damning it was Bill Barr’s efforts allowed the administration to dismiss it without consequences. But with impeachment, the questions becomes “whether the right can shield itself from plain facts in plain sight.” [Sure they can because the techniques of political manipulation are so powerful and its targets so insulated.]
The difference between the Mueller report and the impeachment inquiry is that:
the story behind the impeachment case is relatively simple: Congress approved military aid for Ukraine, but Trump withheld it as part of a sustained campaign to pressure Ukraine into launching an investigation of his political rival Joe Biden’s family. There’s a record of him doing it. There are multiple credible witnesses to the phone call and larger campaign. Several Trump allies and administration officials have admitted to it on camera. Trump himself admitted to it on the White House lawn.
So its both obvious Trump is guilty and that his enablers don’t think there’s anything wrong with it.” Yet, it’s also obvious there is something wrong.
Holding US foreign policy hostage to personal political favors is straightforward abuse of power, precisely the sort of thing the Founders had in mind when they wrote impeachment into the Constitution. It’s a clearly impeachable pattern of action, documented and attested to by multiple witnesses, confessed to multiple times, in violation of longstanding political precedent and a moral consensus that was, until 2016, universal.
So the Republicans’ messaging machine is now asking itself how to respond to criminal, impeachable, traitorous action in plain sight. In essence, they want to know if
the machine successfully hold the right-wing base in an alternate reality and throw up enough fog to keep the general public at bay for long enough to get through the next election? It seems challenging, given the facts on record, but this is just the sort of challenge the machine was built for.
But how did it all come to this?
1) The rise of tribal epistemology
Roberts has written previously about “Donald Trump and the rise of tribal epistemology.” Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that concerns itself with questions about the nature and limits of knowledge, how we come to know things, whether anything can be truly known, what justifies knowledge, what counts as evidence, how confident should we be about claims, etc.
For Roberts “tribal epistemology … is when tribalism comes to systematically subordinate epistemological principles.” He explains this idea but drawing an analogy “with tribal morality, which people are more familiar with. ” For example, the moral claim that torture is immoral is meant to apply cross-culturally or across tribes. But tribal morality subsumes moral principles. It’s ok for us to torture you but it’s wrong for you to torture us because we’re the good guys and you’re the bad guys.
In tribal epistemology, the interests of the tribe subsume impartial “epistemological principles, like standards of evidence, internal coherence, and defeasibility.” What’s good for the tribe determines what is true and members of our tribe are who we trust. Needless to say, this undermines the idea of universal, objective, impartial truth.
So anyone who fails to agree with the tribe “marks themselves as an enemy of the tribe even if they had previously been members of the tribe [they are now called members of the deep state, never Trumpers, etc.] Since they have been rejected by the tribe anything they say can be discounted.
A decades-long effort on the right has resulted in a parallel set of institutions meant to encourage tribal epistemology. They mimic the form of mainstream media, think tanks, and the academy, but without the restraint of transpartisan principles. They are designed to advance the interests of the right, to tell stories and produce facts that support the tribe. That is the ultimate goal; the rhetoric and formalisms of critical thinking are retrofit around it.
How did all this come to be?
Talk radio and the birth of Fox News in the 1990s were turning points. They eventually expanded to create an entire, complete-unto-itself conservative information universe. It was capable of cranking out stories and facts (or “facts”) in support of the conservative cause 24 hours a day, steadily shaping the worldview of their white suburban audience around a forever war with The Libs, who are always just on the verge of destroying America.
As Roberts detailed in … “The caravan “invasion” and America’s epistemic crisis,”
… over time this led to a steady deterioration in fealty to norms, epistemological and otherwise, to the point that something like 30 percent of the country is now awash in a fantasia of conspiracy theories and just-so stories.
As journalist Alex Pareene wrote in a scathing 2017 piece, the propaganda machine that the right built to keep its base outraged grew out of control and swallowed the GOP. “They’re screwed,” Pareene wrote of conservatives, “because they and their predecessors engineered a perpetual misinformation machine, and then a bunch of people addicted to their product took over the government.”
At this point, anyone
with any power on the right is deep in the bubble, right up to the president himself, who spends a considerable portion of his time watching and tweeting about Fox News. There are no more moderates or responsible Republicans behind the curtain, keeping an eye on the difference between tribal tall tales and reality. Fox natives are running the show, including the federal government.
Trump himself stated tribal epistemology in its most basic form when he said, “What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.” If you’re one of us, you believe our stories.
2) Republicans need to maintain doubt and prevent consensus
And to maintain power all Republicans need to do is keep the partisan split in place, make sure that the facts of the case are unknown or misunderstood, in other words, make sure no consensus emerges. [After all, they’re all in on it and must protect each other. They act like the Catholic church protecting child molesters, or the police protecting bad cops. They can’t confess to being criminals are they might all go down.]
3) The right has hacked the cognitive biases of voters and reporters
The key here “is a strong tendency, especially among low-information, relatively disengaged voters (and political reporters), to view consensus as a signal of legitimacy. It’s an easy and appealing heuristic: If something is a good idea, it would have at least a few people from both sides supporting it.” To hack this tendency you make sure there is no consensus—not about biological evolution, climate change, anything.
Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell has been very canny in recognizing this tendency and working it ruthlessly to his advantage. He realized before Obama ever set foot in office that if he could keep Republicans unified in opposition, refusing any cooperation on anything, he could make Obama appear “polarizing.” His great insight, as ruthlessly effective as it was morally bankrupt, was that he could unilaterally deny Obama the ability to be a uniter, a leader, or a deal maker. Through nothing but sheer obstinance, he could make politics into an endless, frustrating, fruitless shitshow, diminishing both parties in voters’ eyes.
Thus Republicans want the public to see the impeachment proceedings as just more partisan bickering.
Tribal epistemology is key to this. Republicans must render partisan not only judgments of right and wrong but judgments of what is and isn’t true or real. They must render facts themselves a matter of controversy that the media reports as a food fight and the public tunes out.
And Republicans have a huge advantage because of the effectiveness of their propaganda machine.
As a massive post-election study of online media from Harvard showed, media is not symmetrical any more than broader polarization is. “Prominent media on the left are well distributed across the center, center-left, and left,” the researchers found. “On the right, prominent media are highly partisan.” … the right not only commands the highest rated cable news network and an army of supportive online media outlets, it is spending millions on Facebook, Tik-Tok, 4chan, 8chan, and God knows what other online swamps, targeting messages where their audiences are rather than futilely attempting to reach them through the Washington Post.
4) Impeachment is make or break time for America’s epistemic health
Roberts begins this section with these profound and chilling words:
As Putin and other modern autocrats have realized, in the modern media environment — a chaotic Wild West where traditional gatekeepers are in decline — it is not necessary for a repressive regime to construct its own coherent account of events. There are no broadly respected, nonpartisan referees left to hold it to account for consistency or accuracy. All it needs, to get away with whatever it wants, is for the information environment to be so polluted that no one can figure out what’s true and what isn’t, or what’s really going on.
The recipe is always the same: attack independent media outlets as partisan enemies of the regime and, by proxy, enemies of the people. At the same time, use the media under state control, along with an army of bots, trolls, and shitposters, to inject accusations, lies, and conspiracy theories into the public dialogue.
In an information fog filled with vexed uncertainty, people will either tune out, revert to their tribal affiliations, or both. They will seek a strong leader who offers simple certainties and a clear account of who is to blame for the chaos. Confusion and fear, not deception, are the ultimate goal.
That is precisely the kind of machine the US conservative movement has built: one designed to produce confusion and fear. Trump is its natural leader, the first Republican president to reflect the party’s contemporary core and character, and his impeachment is its ultimate test.
In this environment, the Democrats are tasked with defending
… clear evidence, painstakingly laid out in a Constitutionally prescribed process, communicated through mainstream news outlets. The facts are clearer than ever, but those institutions are weaker and social trust, which the right has been concertedly attacking for decades, is at a low ebb.
In opposition is a large but stable minority united by unquestioned loyalty to a tribal leader, dedicated to guerrilla information warfare unconstrained by conventional norms of accuracy or consistency, and motivated by an almost eschatological will to power.
If the latter triumphs, if it is able to muddy and distract enough to make impeachment just another Mueller, just more partisan white noise, we will cross a kind of rubicon …
Moral consensus will have become impossible. Epistemological consensus will have become impossible. It will show that no amount of evidence is capable of bridging the partisan gap. The epistemic crisis, and its attendant political crisis, will be fully upon us.
Ultimately, communication, and with it survival as a polity, depends on a shared body of facts and assumptions about the world. For decades, the right has been sawing away at the threads that still connect it to mainstream institutions, procedures, and norms of conduct, to the point that it has created a hermetically sealed and impenetrable world of its own.
And, as Roberts concludes,
The machine was primed and waiting for someone like Trump. Now, with his erratic and indefensible conduct, he is accelerating the breach, pushing the right into ever-more cult-like behavior, principles laid aside one after another in service of power.
That is what a tribalist like Trump wants: for communication and compromise across tribal lines to become impossible, so that loyalty becomes the only measure and everything is reduced to pure struggle for dominance. If he makes it through impeachment unscathed, he and the right will have learned once and for all that facts and evidence have no hold on them. Both “sides” have free rein to choose the facts and evidence that suit them. Only power matters.
If the right’s epistemic break becomes final and irreparable, as impeachment threatens, then no matter what happens in the next election, American democracy is in for a long spell of trouble.
Brief Response – As I’ve said many times on this blog, once reason and evidence no longer constrain, there is nothing left but power to adjudicate disputes. As Will Durant taught me long ago, civilization is a high achievement but rests on very thin threads. It doesn’t take much for our reptilian brains to unweave those threads and descend into madness. War and genocide are always closer than we think.
I hope I’m wrong.