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America’s political crisis runs deeper than ideology


It has been barely two months since former US President Barack Obama solemnly declared to The Atlantic magazine that his country was “enter into an epistemological crisis“. “If we don’t have the ability to distinguish what is true from what is false, then by definition the market for ideas is not working,” he said. “And by definition, our democracy doesn’t work.”

How these words now seem true. America – and the rest of the world – is still reeling from the horror of the vicious political chasm exposed by the violence at the US Capitol in Washington DC last week. But with the toll of these events going on, it has become clear that this is not just an ideological struggle.

As Obama previously suggested, this is also a battle over knowledge and thought that has intensified since Donald Trump took to the presidential campaign trail in 2015. Future historians can conclude that one of Trump’s greatest legacies has been to expose and crystallize this struggle.

The national reaction to the Washington attacks is just the latest example. Democrats and those of the country’s educated elites have generally described the aggression as an abuse of the constitution, which must be countered with logic and law. “We have to use faith and reason to face this,” historian Jon Meacham told (liberal) MSNBC television station. Trump supporters think differently. They boil over the leader of symbolism launched social media platforms and the perceived arrogance of these elites.

Opinion polls are another indicator of this epistemological gap. A Snap YouGov survey published last week suggested that only a quarter of Republicans viewed the attack on Capitol Hill as a threat to democracy – and nearly half approved of the storming of the halls of Congress.

A separate survey last December by the University of Quinnipiac showed that three-quarters of Republicans believed there was widespread voter fraud in the November presidential election (while 97% of Democrats did not).

This might shock some, given that American journalists, election officials and lawyers are among those who have repeatedly said there is no evidence of voter fraud. But another investigation, that of the public relations firm Edelman, shows why this pushback is not working. He reveals that only 18% of Trump voters trust the media and only 30% trust the government, compared to 57% and 45% of Biden voters. Even more strikingly, the level of trust expressed in institutions by the “mass population” is far lower than that shown by the so-called informed public – those re-educated elites.

Indeed, the Edelman investigation suggests that many Americans today only trust people and institutions with which they are familiar, whether in their neighborhood, business, line of sight, or social group, which means that “the trust is local ”. Tribalism is widespread, in other words, both in ideological and epistemological terms.

The knee-jerk reaction of most Democrats is to blame Donald Trump. But a more nuanced – and potentially more constructive – view can be found in a recent brilliant book by evolutionary biologist and Harvard anthropologist Joseph Henrich. In The strangest people in the world, he describes what he describes as the mentality of Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic (“WEIRD”) people, compared to other non-WEIRD groups.

For Henrich, WEIRD ways of thinking are based on the ideals of individualism, moral consistency and, most importantly, the type of sequential logic used in alphabetic writing systems. Western elites tend to assume that this is the only valid way of thinking.

But in reality, Henrich notes, most societies throughout history have used different mental approaches: they see morality as based on context, assume that a person’s identity is defined by family and, therefore, crucially, promote “holistic reasoning” and not “analytical reasoning”. “Analytical thinkers see in straight lines,” writes Henrich. “Holistic thinkers focus not on the parts but on the whole… and expect time trends to be non-linear, even cyclical.”

This last point is difficult to appreciate if you have been educated for years in a WEIRD logic based system and therefore take it for granted. But the key point to understand about non-WEIRD thought patterns is that instinctive reactions to patterns in an ecosystem matter more than unidirectional, focused reasoning, and performative symbols matter more than words.

While America is primarily WEIRD, as part of Henrich there has always been a lot of non-WEIRD thinking too, although less visible. What Trump has done is invoke this mentality on an epic scale. For many educated elites, however, it is so hard to understand that they ignored or despised it.

Therein lies the epistemological split – and the futility of elites invoking “reason” to persuade Trump voters to rethink their beliefs. Words alone do not cure America. Neither the law, nor the logical analysis of the constitution. What is desperately needed is empathy and a new approach that might tap into bizarre and not bizarre ways of thinking. You can only counter Trump’s legacy if you first understand why he was so powerful to begin with.

Follow Gillian on Twitter @gilliantett and send him an email at gillian.tett@ft.com

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