Monday, January 18, 2016

Partisan hostility in society and the consequences on climate change policy


A curious vehicle carrying a mock-up of the Soviet Sputnik satellite. It was used for political propaganda in the 1950s by the Italian Communist Party (PCI). Up to the 1980s and even later, Italy was a deeply divided country where two opposed and incompatible factions squaring off against each other: the "Reds" (the communists) and the "Whites" (the Christian Democrats). Something similar seems to be taking place in the US with the Republican and the Democratic parties. 


Seen from Europe, the current Republican debate in the US looks completely incomprehensible. The presidential candidates, the debate, the press reports, everything seems to be taking place on an alien planet, somewhere in another galaxy. One would be tempted to define the situation, paraphrasing Darwin, as the "survival of the nastiest".

Yet, there seems to be some method even in this madness. A recent paper  by Iyengar and Westwood (commented in Deric Bownds's blog) generated as small satori in my mind. There is indeed a (perverse) logic in the current US debate. To explain it, I have to start from my own personal experience of when, as a child, I understood two things: 1) that Santa Claus doesn't exist and 2) that the Communists don't really eat babies.

The second discovery had more important consequences than the first on my political views. When I found out that neither of the two factions dominating the political life in Italy was engaged in evil practices such as eating babies, then I started wondering what was all the fuss about. Why was Italy so sharply divided in two separated and incompatible political halves?

I never could find an answer; it was just the way things were. On the one side, there were the Christian Democrats, the whites, the churchgoers, on the other, the Communists, the reds, the anticlericals. The sharp divide that separated these two sections of society didn't just appear at voting times; no, it pervaded society. The Communists, just as the Christian Democrats, had their own shops, restaurants, entertainment places, and entire towns. And it was very rare that a Communist boy or girl would marry into a Christian Democrat family and vice-versa.

This structure of the Italian society came back to my mind while reading the paper commented by Bownds (see below) that describes how deep is the Republican/Democrat divide is in the US. Honestly, I wasn't aware that the US society was so sharply divided into two factions, to the point that boys and girls born in Democratic families rarely marry into Republican families and vice-versa (I lived in California for a few years, but that's not the same thing as "the US"). And, yet, after some mulling over, it dawned on me: it is the way societies tend to behave. Do you remember "Romeo and Juliet"? Yes, the Montagues and the Capulets. Then, the "Blues" and the "Greens" of ancient Roman times; the Guelphs and the Ghibellines of Medieval Italy, and so on, all the way to the modern split of Sunnis and Shiites. It is the way things are.

These sharp divisions of society bring many problems, even beyond the fact that they often lead to violent conflicts. One is that all debate is ideologically filtered. No matter what's the logic of your arguments, the validity of your data, the rigor of your analysis, whatever you say will be always judged in relation to your membership in one or the other faction. This is something I can say from my personal experience in Italy. A partisan debate is not a debate; you either are with one side or with the other. And if you try to mediate; it is worse. As I came from a "White" family, I found that, politically, I was always mistrusted by Reds as an enemy and by Whites as a potential traitor (and BTW, I married a girl from a White family!). I am not sure of whether the US society reaches these levels, but, from what I read, it seems that the Republican/Democrat debate is as much ideologically driven as it was the Reds/Whites debate in Italy up to the 1990s.

In this kind of situation, changing anything in society becomes nearly impossible, because each side has its own rigid worldview and is unwilling to budge from it. This has disastrous consequences when change is absolutely necessary, as it is nowadays with the climate change issue. In the US, by now, the Republican worldview includes as fact that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by evil scientists on the US taxpayers. There seems to be little or no way to change this view. And that's bad(*).

So, as scientists we tend to think that by showing the data, by developing models, by being clear and comprehensible, then the message will pass and everyone will understand the risks associated with climate change. But it doesn't seem to work that way: if anything, the republican conspiratorial view of climate change seems to become more and more entrenched. That fits perfectly with my past experience in Italy: the more you argue for your position, the more you reinforce the perceptions of an ideologically minded opponent.

Can societies ever free themselves from the deadlock of partisan splitting? Yes, they can and they do. After all, Guelphs and Ghibellines don't exist anymore and, in more recent times, in Western Europe, in the 1980s and 1990s, the Communist parties disappeared or were marginalized in the political arena. What happened was that the entrenched worldview of the Communist parties gradually became totally incompatible with the way society had evolved. As a consequence, these parties disappeared. Not that anyone changed their minds: the old Communists remained Communists, but they became too old to engage in active politics (you can still find many of them scattered in the suburban areas of Tuscany, in Italy). At the same time, young people found that the idea of becoming the next generation of party members was most uninteresting for them. Something similar occurred for the Christian Democrats in Italy, although the story is more complex. Not that the Italian society has become less partisan than before (perhaps, actually, less). But, at least, the old "Red/White" split seems to have disappeared.

With the onrush of evidence about the negative effects of climate change, it is possible that the worldview of the Republicans in the US will gradually become so dissonant with reality that the Republican party will become an anachronism, just like the Western European Communist Parties. But how long will that take? Hard to say, but if we have to wait for the current generation of Republicans to get too old to engage in active politics, that will be too long in comparison with the urgency of acting against climate change.

So, here is the summary by Eric Bownds of the results by Iyengar and Westwood. Worth reading and meditating about.

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Our strongest prejudice - partisan hostility


Jonathan Haidt points to the fascinating work by political scientists Shanto Iyengar and Sean Westwood, titled “Fear and Loathing Across Party Lines: New Evidence on Group Polarization.”, who found - in four studies designed to reveal prejudice based on race, gender, religion, or political party or ideology - that cross-partisan prejudice was the largest. For white participants who identified with a party, the cross-partisan effect was about 50 percent larger than the cross-race effect. Haidt points out that This is extremely bad news for America because:
...rising cross-partisan hostility means that Americans increasingly see the other side not just as wrong but as evil, as a threat to the very existence of the nation, according to Pew Research. Americans can expect rising polarization, nastiness, paralysis, and governmental dysfunction for a long time to come...This is extremely bad news for science and universities because universities are usually associated with the left...we can expect increasing hostility from Republican legislators toward universities and the things they desire, including research funding and freedom from federal and state control...This is a warning for the rest of the world because some of the trends that have driven America to this point are occurring in many other countries, including: rising education and individualism (which make people more ideological), rising immigration and ethnic diversity (which reduces social capital and trust), and stagnant economic growth (which puts people into a zero-sum mindset).
The situation is made worse by the "motive attribution asymmetry" that I have referenced in a previous post. Both sides of a political divide attribute their own aggressive behavior to love, but the opposite side's to hatred. Millions of Americans believe that their side is basically benevolent while the other side is evil and out to get them.



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(*) Note by UB: Perhaps we could bypass the Republican opposition to climate change policies by pushing renewables as a good solution for energy independence, without ever mentioning climate change. The risk is that the Republican worldview may soon absorb and include also the idea that renewable energy is just another hoax perpetrated on the American People by leftists and greens. It seems that it is exactly what's happening. And that's very bad.

14 comments:

  1. If it's any consolation, Ugo, the motivated rejection of science by many Republicans and the anti-conservationist stance of many self-styled conservatives is deeply puzzling to many of us in North America as well. The way conservative tendencies generally harden with age suggests we may be stuck with some of them until death.

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    1. I don't think this has anything to do with conservatism, there is only marginally less anti-science on the "left", it's just that much of it happens to be in less important for the survival of civilization areas (which is not to say that there isn't a lot of denial in areas that concern the survival of civilization -- those who think that BAU will carry on forever, with the only difference that it will be powered by renewables, are just as delusional and ignorant as those who think it will carry on powered by unlimited fossil fuels, and there are plenty of them).

      It all boils down to the simple fact that the human species has not evolved to think rationally and to evaluate facts objectively. It has evolved to survive in whatever conditions it was faced with in its past, and we carry all sorts of cognitive deficiencies from that past. One of which is the tendency to form rigid ideologies and divide by tribal lines accordingly (and it may well be that neither of these things comes first), and then shut ourselves off from all reasonable argument to the contrary of our positions.

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    2. Very true Mr Marinov.

      Of course, we should perhaps also not forget that the irrational is itself a major force in survival: let's imagine a pre-modern human facing a huge and life-threatening environmental problem, say a terrible Ice Age storm. They have to think fast, using observations, instinct, previous experience and traditional knowledge, but the element of will is also crucial, ie, 'I will survive, because I belong to X group and WE are survivors!'

      There is the Basque proverbial saying 'Harri eta Herri': we are a people like stone, we endure.

      Turning to our democracies -as corrupt as the Greeks always knew them to be - we have to consider the fast that the systems are based on patronage, so that whereas the struggle appears to be about ideologies and irrational ancient hatreds, it is in fact about MONEY -commissions, party jobs, contracts, and back-scratching. Certainly so in Italy and Spain.

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  2. I find the insight valuable - the 'alien planet' ;-) has a lot of outreach across other regions and imports a lot of resources.

    It is probably too simplistic to say it (though it has been said) that Berlusconi was the result of the change in Italian political culture and that Trump is likely what USA will get if not now then someone like him in another four years.

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  3. While the Democrat vs. Republican divide is incredibly lame, a monotheism vs. Communist+Republican divide is actually one I wish to create as the basic propaganda system......

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  4. A very interesting way of looking at the human nature. We have not only the egoistic and the altruistic part in ourselves, but also the cooperative and the bellicose part.
    Partisan fights can be observed everywhere, even between departments of the same company, or between villages next to one another. Not to mention nations. Sad chapter.
    There must be some information processing module in the human perception-reaction machinery, that tends to see "we" and "them" and gives a strong enough incentive signal to compensate for both the investment in and loss because of the induced fighting.

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  5. Ugo, I think you are missing the point that the majority of Americans no longer identify with either party. In addition, more and more people are waking up to the fact that the US is not a democracy, and that what passes for democratic process in the US is a cruel hoax. I always maintain that the red/blue divide in the US is pure nonsense, and I hardly ever get any pushback.

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    1. The paper I cite says that the divide is still very strong in the US. It may well be, however, that the US is on the verge of a major transformation that will make the Blue/Red contrast as obsolete as the Red/White contrast was in Italy. At that point, you'll be ready for a charismatic personality - a la Berlusconi - who will transform the ideological conflict into an individual personality conflict. And do more damage in the process....

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  6. Hi Ugo,
    Long time, no post.
    Personally it isn't republicans per se that I'm worried about, but rather the wild-card authoritarianism that's emerging as a potential hurricane.
    I'll bet it's going to be it's own animal, composed of authoritarian personalities both formerly republican and democrat.
    http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/01/donald-trump-2016-authoritarian-213533

    Cheers,
    Lucas

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    1. Yes, see my answer to Dmitry Orlov. Berlusconi was a step in the direction of authoritarianism and surely he was supported by the kind of persons described in the article you cite. But he was also a very careful person, apart from his flamboyant rethoric, he never became the kind of authoritarian leader that we normally tend to associate to dictatorship. For instance, criticizing him in public remained always possible.

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  7. A thought on your post script note: The way to convince those with a "Republican" mindset to adopt solutions to depletion/climate issues is via the paranoid, anti-government distrust channel they are very much compatible with. They are already there with the growing "off the grid" and "prepping" trends. If these themes are too literal, then "Zombie Apocalypse" can be put into play.
    To illustrate: The last season of the highly popular television transmission The Livng Dead was set in a gated community that survived the ravages thanks to it being built as a semi-autonomous, PV-powered eco community.
    Cartoons are effective message transmitters and the post-apocalyptic entertainment genre is all a cartoon - and a popular one.
    -Antignano

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  8. To understand some more about a certain segment of US society, say the "red necks," I strongly recommend the book "Deer Hunting with Jesus." By Joe Bageant.

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  9. Interesting and timely contribution to a proper understand of our collective malaise with respect to the now growing number of problems and general chaos that has emerged in country after country all around the world. I have long not clearly understood why it is we have historically as well, always reverted to our core view of about all sorts of things and events whether or not that belief or understanding is correct in the face of the facts. This combined with our genetic bias to self comfort and we have a difficult set of minds to convince to evicit change. Our ability to ignore deadly peril by assuming that individually we are immune for such events and their affects. I think the Partisan Hostility holds and always has done since we began living in tribes, societies and then cities. Tribalism is our archilles heel and I would think that it is perhaps chemically coded into us.

    The above not withstanding, we are in the age of limits, simple show me any data set that does not shown a state of negative supply over time with respect to everything, except human beings. Thus, the all round situation with respect to; convertible resources, space, water, arable land and unexploited geography is one of less. The fact there is political conflict world wide in numerous countries and has been for some time tells you a very important fact: Old and workable models by which the pie could be divided have failed and hence there is conflict and deadly conflict, after all is that not what politics is about the division of resources and hence power in societies, states and city states?

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  10. Interesting and timely contribution to a proper understand of our collective malaise with respect to the now growing number of problems and general chaos that has emerged in country after country all around the world. I have long not clearly understood why it is we have historically as well, always reverted to our core view of about all sorts of things and events whether or not that belief or understanding is correct in the face of the facts. This combined with our genetic bias to self comfort and we have a difficult set of minds to convince to evicit change. Our ability to ignore deadly peril by assuming that individually we are immune for such events and their affects. I think the Partisan Hostility holds and always has done since we began living in tribes, societies and then cities. Tribalism is our archilles heel and I would think that it is perhaps chemically coded into us.

    The above not withstanding, we are in the age of limits, simple show me any data set that does not shown a state of negative supply over time with respect to everything, except human beings. Thus, the all round situation with respect to; convertible resources, space, water, arable land and unexploited geography is one of less. The fact there is political conflict world wide in numerous countries and has been for some time tells you a very important fact: Old and workable models by which the pie could be divided have failed and hence there is conflict and deadly conflict, after all is that not what politics is about the division of resources and hence power in societies, states and city states?

    ReplyDelete

Who

Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)